Rexy Tapia may have the best coming out story I’ve ever heard.
It's the late aughts at Horace Mann Middle School. On stage, she's reading a poem announcing her sexual orientation to her classmates at one of the school's first-ever pride assemblies. The Lady Gaga look-alike contest is about to begin. And then a fairy drag uncle appears.
That is, a classmate’s uncle (who also happens to be a drag queen) finds Rexy backstage and in a whirlwind of activity, puts her into a wig, pooh-poohs her dress, pulls a different sparkly gown over her head and pushes the first-time drag queen through the curtain as the strains of “Born This Way” fill the room.
“It wasn’t planned, I didn’t even know it was happening until it happened,” she tells me.
She came out as gay and did drag for the first time, all in the span of one middle-school assembly? “Does anyone else have a story like that?” I ask the now-21-year-old.
“I don’t think so!” Rexy sing-songs back to me. And that wouldn't be her only coming out story either—she came out as transgender after high school.
The One and Only Rexy, as she’s known in drag circles, really is one of a kind. When she talks about herself, her life and her causes, she is unceasingly optimistic. Today she works for the GSA Network as a Northern California youth organizer, teaching future generations of LGBTQ youth and their allies how to build coalitions, fight oppression and demand their rights. She’s the drag mother of The One and Only House, ushering four drag daughters, some still in their teens, onto the scene. And she’s the co-founder of DragTivism, a mentorship program that teaches trans and queer youth about the radical power of drag.
“I think Rexy is an unapologetic queer leader. And she has been since the first day I knew her,” says Taica Hsu, a math and computer science teacher at Mission High School who also performs drag as Honda Hybrid. After Horace Mann, Rexy spent a year at Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of The Arts. But while she found the school gay-friendly, it was, she says, “not very trans-friendly.”
“I was very truant at the beginning of high school,” Rexy remembers. Part of what brought her to Mission High School at the start of her sophomore year was the school's GSA, which put on a drag show that Rexy attended while she was still at SOTA. Mission is also the spiritual home of Queens of the Castro, a group of drag performers—including Hsu—who mentor, empower and support LGBTQ youth, put on drag shows and raise money for scholarships. (Since the group started in 2011, they’ve awarded over $75,000 in $2,000 increments to queer students and young adults.)
At Mission, Rexy joined the GSA (serving as president for her junior and senior years) and the principal's advisory council, becoming a vocal advocate for not just queer and ESL students (she was born in Mexico and until recently, was undocumented), but the student population as a whole. “She really stood up for safe space and respect and brought people together in a magical and loving way,” Hsu remembers. “It made our school a better place for everyone. She taught teachers and students alike how to be allies.”
And within that hard-won safe space, Rexy was figuring out her own identity. “I first started thinking about myself as a gay boy who did drag,” Rexy says. “And it was because of drag that I found my trans identity.”
“Eventually I started dressing up to go to school. Whenever I wanted to feel really good I’d go in drag,” she says. After graduating from high school in 2015, she took a step back and looked at the role drag was playing in her life. “I was like, ‘Why am I always in drag? Why do I feel the best in drag?’ Being in my most feminine state helped me feel better about my gender and myself,” she says. “And so I came out as trans.”
Onstage as The One and Only, Rexy is still Rexy, just with the volume turned up. “She’s very unapologetic, radical, very sexually liberated, very body-positive,” Rexy says. “Very trans, but like also kind of old school. I do love old school drag pageants and big hair, glitter and beautiful gowns, high heels, corset, padding, all the shenanigans. But I also love a good old number where it’s like a piece of duct tape and a prayer.”
Her commitment to performing, no matter what the circumstances, even won her the title of Miss Royal Baby from the Grand Ducal Council of San Francisco last year. Still too young to enter the bar and perform, Rexy decided to do it anyway—just outside on the sidewalk. “People saw me through the window. And then, the bar’s kind of empty because everyone’s outside and strangers are stopping to watch,” she says.
For Rexy, drag isn’t just a form of entertainment, it’s about rebellion and visibility. This is the framework for DragTivism, co-founded with Grace Towers, one of the drag performers behind Queens of the Castro, which held a three-day event at the San Francisco LGBT Center in late June. In the workshops, the organizers use the steps of getting into drag as metaphors for building an effective activist movement.
“Drag is out there and everyone’s doing it and it can be whatever,” Rexy says, “but for me it’s very important to bring it back to why drag is so vital to the movement, thinking back to Stonewall and Compton’s Cafeteria. Those movements were started by trans women and drag queens. If it wasn’t for femininity, we wouldn’t be anywhere.”
Recent gains for the LGBTQ population, like gay marriage, Rexy says, are just little parts of a larger ongoing movement. “We’re in a space right now where we still need to be resilient.”
When asked about her goals for the future, Rexy has a two-point answer, because of course she does. “One thing that I’m really working on and I want to make happen as soon as possible is a queer Latinx-specific party that’s ongoing. Not just once in a blue moon, but like an ongoing, weekly night.”
And? “I want to have a drag youth show.” She remembers Ain’t Mama’s Drag, an all-ages, no-cover show that used to happen at the now-closed Mission club Balançoire. “I want to bring that back. And bring it back on a day that’s not like a Monday or a Tuesday, but a weekend. Where youth can go and have fun and not be pressured to sneak into a club or drink or do drugs. Where they can just go and dance and have fun and express themselves.”
It sounds like, as Rexy says about her own drag performances, “the best is yet to come.”