In the back of The Stud bar, bodies covered in sweat crowd the stage. Beneath a glittering disco ball, to the boom of screams and applause, Honey Mahogany appears from behind the curtain to reveal a black leather dress and boots up to her knees, her third costume change of the night.
This is no ordinary Friday night in September — it's the kickoff of Folsom Street Fair weekend, which for tonight's crowd might as well be an official San Francisco holiday. As she switches roles from lip-syncing Beyoncé hits to hostess, Mahogany reminds partygoers of the method to the proverbial madness. “I want you all to know that Black Fridays is special not just because it is a black variety show," she says, "but also because we give all the proceeds to the Transgender Cultural District!”
Talking with KQED, Mahogany says she created the monthly variety show as a space for queer and transgender people of color to perform. Since its debut in April of this year, it's brought a mix of drag artists, burlesque dancers, musicians, spoken-word artists and comedians. Though the show draws a diverse crowd of attendees, Mahogany created it as an outlet for specifically black performers to be celebrated.
“It’s a show by black people, of black people, for everybody,” Mahogany says. “It’s also about welcoming non-black people into that space and being like ‘This is what we’re about, and this is who we are. Celebrate this with us.’”
“There’s still this weird 80’s-style diversity, where if you have at least one of something other than your standard white person, then you’re diverse,” says Alotta Boutté, a performer who brings a mix of cabaret and burlesque to Black Fridays. “Something like Black Fridays normalizes the actual reality that there are many of us out here trying to perform and bring our heart to people.”
Five years ago, Mahogany -- fresh from her run as a contestant on RuPaul's Drag Race -- began hosting Drag Race viewing parties called “Mahogany Mondays.” Occasionally, she would host “Black Out” Mondays featuring all black performers, which morphed into what is now “Black Fridays,” every fourth Friday at The Stud.
The Stud is an eclectic, 51-year-old gay bar that Mahogany co-owns with 17 other people. After its rent nearly tripled, The Stud was purchased by the collective a year ago to preserve the bar and its place in the community.
“The Stud has always been a very queer space and a place for artists, a place for people who didn't necessarily identify with the more mainstream gay culture,” Mahogany says. The venue is unique in being not just a gay man’s space, but also a space for women, trans and gender nonconforming people, making it the ideal venue for Black Fridays, she adds.
“In San Francisco, we really live within this bubble of liberalism, but it's almost like because we feel like we live in this bubble we feel like we are above racism and sexism,” Mahogany says. “Whether we realize it or not, we all feed into these oppressive systems. I just wanted to put the focus on that.”
As a native San Franciscan growing up attending Catholic school, social service has long been a part of Mahogany’s life. She became involved in LGBTQ causes in college at USC and earned a Master’s in Social Work at UC Berkeley. Mahogany went to work as a social worker in the Bay Area with homeless youth and the LGBTQ community after graduating.
“My life has a lot of swinging back and forth between drag and social work, and somehow I always end up doing both,” Mahogany says. “I can never leave either one behind for very long.”
An activist in the neighborhood, Mahogany helped lead the fight to establish the Compton’s Transgender Cultural District in the Tenderloin, which is now slated to kickstart in October. Black Fridays have thus far raised roughly $3,000 for the effort.
“Honey Mahogany is an absolute treasure to have in San Francisco, she sets the bar really high,” says Qween (Travis Santell Rowland), a drag queen and spoken-word artist who has performed at several Black Fridays. “I think that she provides a very nurturing environment, both backstage and when she presents us to go onstage.”
Bouteé agrees. “A bunch of us were talking about this backstage... when you’re in such a close, intimate setting with a bunch of other white performers, you don’t fully understand how much you withhold of yourself,” she says. “I really appreciate those moments when there’s more than one of us backstage and you can be a little bit more yourself.”
With the audience hungry for more at The Stud, Mahogany draws back the curtain to announce Bouteé, her “drag daddy” and the final performer of the evening.
Dressed in a vibrant grape-colored skin tight dress, Boutté comes out gagged and wearing cuffs on her hands and feet. As the music to Ike and Tina Turner’s “I’m Yours” blares, dollars bills rain on her as an audience member releases her from the restraints and delivers a bill to Boutté’s mouth straight from between her teeth. Boutté shimmies across the stage and belts her lip-sync, exuding a magic that the audience grabs onto and eventually takes to the dance floor until the early hours of 4am.