Celebrating the Sexual Anarchy of The Cockettes at the San Francisco Public Library

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The Cockettes in their 1970s heyday, dressed in the androgynous attire that made them notorious. (Mary Ellen Mark)

The year was 1969. Stonewall was kickstarting an LGBTQ+ revolution. Feminism’s second wave was hitting mainstream culture with a list of demands. And in San Francisco, a tight community of flamboyant hippies were out in front of it all, rejecting gender constructs altogether and trying to liberate the world. (Via free love and show tunes, among other things.)

They were The Cockettes, a group of performers for whom drag was a way of life. They embraced LSD, communal living and a hefty dose of exhibitionism. Their ranks included disco superstar Sylvester, and Miss Harlow—a groupie who, alongside her friend Cynthia Plaster Caster, helped immortalize the genitals of the biggest rock stars of the day. For a decade, The Cockettes enthralled audiences. First, with anarchic, boundary-pushing musical theater and later, with bizarre, low-budget movies. That they were friends with John Waters and Divine should come as no surprise. That their fans included Janis Joplin, John Lennon and Andy Warhol is even more noteworthy.

Starting this month, San Francisco’s main library is honoring The Cockettes with an exhibition at the Hormel LGBTQIA Center and a series of events that will run through August. The exhibition, titled The Cockettes: Acid Drag & Sexual Anarchy pulls together photos and memories from original Cockette, Fayette Hauser, along with material from other people’s personal collections.

Hanging on the Hormel’s interior and the walls immediately outside it, the collection explains who The Cockettes were and why each individual was special. Cabinets with flyers and magazine articles from the 1970s, along with one costume and a table of personal accessories are also featured. As is a Spotify playlist of music from the era that feels decidedly straight-laced for a Cockettes exhibit. (Artists featured include The Beatles, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Free.)


Those familiar with this period of San Francisco history—especially the ones who have already seen the 2002 documentary, The Cockettes—will not likely learn much from this exhibit they didn’t already know. But for newbies unfamiliar with this particular group of misfits, it’s a decent primer that piques the interest enough to prompt further research. The most valuable historical information, however, will likely come during the library’s five upcoming events in The Cockettes’ honor.

During the opening reception this Thursday, March 17, Hauser will share personal reminiscences in conversation with journalist and San Francisco historian Jim Van Buskirk. Hauser will also be back on March 31 to talk about her book, The Cockettes: Acid Drag & Sexual Anarchy. Most exciting of all, on April 28, there will be a screening of three Cockettes movies—Palace, Elevator Girls in Bondage and Tricia’s Wedding.

Those wishing to get a flavor of the group’s original stage shows might wish to attend a night of “Cockette Cabaret” featuring “Scrumbly & Co.” on June 23. Hauser will also present a spoken word performance on May 26 backed up by circus troupe, the Vau de Vire Society.

Keep in mind before attending all or any of the above that John Waters—the King of Bad Taste, himself—has been known to refer to The Cockettes as “hippie acid freak drag queens” and “complete sexual anarchy.” You have been warned.

‘The Cockettes: Acid Drag & Sexual Anarchy’ is on view March 17–Aug. 11 in the James C. Hormel LGBTQIA Center on the third floor of the San Francisco Main Library (100 Larkin Street). Details here.