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.)