It's Thursday night at the Stud Bar and Sister Flora Goodthyme, a drag queen with sparkly blue lips and enormous eyelashes, is hosting her weekly karaoke dance party.
A first-time singer seems nervous, but Sister Flora coaxes him onto the stage with gentle reassurance.
"You're going to nail it," she whispers into her microphone. "You don't have to sing it, you just have to own it." Sister Flora loves helping people find their inner divas. To her, that's what the Stud is all about. "It's an incubator for everyone's creativity," she says.
The Stud is one of San Francisco's oldest gay bars, founded in 1966. It has been a hot spot for generations of artists and creative types. Janis Joplin and Etta James performed at the bar's original Folsom Street location. The current space, on Harrison Street, has attracted the likes of Bjork and Lady Gaga and was the birthplace of Trannyshack, a raucously eclectic drag show that's inspired copycats around the world.
Sister Flora says the Stud is a place where you can "let your freak flag fly."
"People express themselves in ways that they don't express themselves in the South or the East Coast where you have all these fishy, very glamorous queens," she says. "But in San Francisco we definitely have that freaky, artsy, edgy aspect that the Stud definitely nurtures."
But despite its fame and longevity, the Stud's days may be numbered. This summer, bar owner Michael McElhaney received notice from his landlord that the rent will triple in September.
He and other Stud employees and patrons have launched a passionate campaign to find buyers to rescue the bar from closure. But whether they can pull it off remains uncertain. "It represents what I think a lot of people want San Francisco to represent in terms of being open and welcoming and a little freaky," says McElhaney. "I think that's why so many people have been up in arms."
The venue is also a haven for the LGBT community's eccentrics and outsiders, says historian Gerard Koskovich. He's been asking Stud patrons to help preserve the bar's multi-layered history by sending him their stories and photographs. "There have been other clubs where you have to have a gym-toned body, you have to have an expensive hair cut," adds Koskovich. "The Stud has through most of its history been a place for all the people who either can't or won't fit into the prevailing stereotype of what's attractive, appropriate."
Those who frequent the bar consider it a haven. "It's been an incredible safe space for our community," says a young bar patron who doesn't want to give his real name, but uses the moniker Raj at "Frolic," the Stud's popular, monthly party for members of the "furry" subculture -- people who like to dress up as animals. Raj likes to dress up as a colorful lion. "It's a rite of self-expression," Raj says. "That's what originally drew me to that world. The Stud is just a perfect place to find a community center for that. Losing it would be crushing."
Check out KQED Arts' video about LGBT artists reflecting on safe spaces in the Bay Area.