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Upcoming ‘Drag Up! Fight Back!’ Rally Protests a Deluge of Anti-LGBTQ+ Laws

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Honey Mahogany speaks during a rally after the Trans March in San Francisco on June 24, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

In 1966, San Francisco drag queens and trans women who frequented Compton’s Cafeteria were fed up with police harassment. In those days, it was common for cops to brutalize gender nonconforming people and arrest them for crimes like “female impersonation.” One night, when police showed up at Compton’s and grabbed a trans woman’s arm, the patrons fought back — coffee cups went flying, purses clunked officers’ heads and a newsstand went ablaze.

This rebellion, and the one at New York’s Stonewall Inn three years later in 1969, set the stage for the modern-day LGBTQ+ rights movement.

These days, in the age of rainbow corporate advertising at Pride, many (at least, in the Bay Area) have forgotten that queer visibility in mainstream spaces has not always been a given. But with 451 anti-LGBTQ+ bills — most of them targeting trans rights — in statehouses nationwide this year alone, the conditions that led to the riot at Compton’s Cafeteria no longer feel like echoes from the distant past.

Tennessee’s anti-drag law, the first of its kind in the nation, was temporarily blocked by a federal judge, and its fate will be decided in court. Using the archaic language of the Compton’s Cafeteria days, it categorizes “male or female impersonators” as inherently explicit — akin to strippers, no matter the content of their performance — and bans them from performing on public property or in places where minors could be present. LGBTQ+ advocates have called the law overly broad, raising fears that it could become a pretext for policing gender nonconforming people’s right to simply exist in public — an eerie callback to norms from over half a century ago.

“It’s a sliding slope,” says Honey Mahogany, the San Francisco Democratic Party chair and Transgender Cultural District co-founder who first rose to prominence as a drag performer before entering politics.

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Along with Alex U. Inn, Juanita MORE!, Oasis nightclub owner D’Arcy Drollinger and Sister Roma of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Mahogany is part of a coalition of drag activists organizing an upcoming march and rally called Drag Up! Fight Back! The protest kicks off this Saturday, April 8, at 11 a.m. outside San Francisco City Hall, and will move towards Union Square, where the day will finish with performances.

(From left) John Weber, Alex U. Inn, Juanita MORE! and Leandro Gonzales lead the People’s March and Rally in San Francisco on June 27, 2021. Inn and MORE! are two key organizers of Drag Up! Fight Back! (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“The LGBTQ community is not taking this lying down,” Mahogany says. “Drag queens will not be silenced and we will not go back to the closet. We will not be relegated to just the back of a dark room in a club. We are here, part of the community.”

She and other advocates don’t buy rightwing lawmakers’ guise of protecting children by restricting drag — a freedom of expression protected by the First Amendment. “It’s an art form,” she says. “And like all arts, it can be provocative, it can be explicit. And it can also be child appropriate. We’ve seen that play out through Drag Story Hour in many really wonderful ways that have been both affirming for the community and also affirming for a lot of those kids.”

Drag Up! Fight Back! anticipates thousands of attendees, and has garnered support from lawmakers like State Senator Scott Wiener. He says that while these attacks on LGBTQ+ rights are playing out mostly in red states, Californians shouldn’t be complacent. “If the Republicans take over both the Congress and the presidency in the future, they will absolutely pass these laws into effect nationally,” he says. “We’re already seeing this with abortion, that they’re trying to effectively ban abortion pills nationwide. They will do the same with respect to LGBTQ people. This is our fight and it’s our fight everywhere.”

Outside of attending Saturday’s march, Wiener says Californians can help by supporting frontline LGBTQ+ organizations in other states. He and Mahogany both pointed to the importance of electing pro-LGBTQ+ political candidates. Mahogany says the San Francisco Democratic Party recently phone-banked to turn out voters for a federal judges’ race in Wisconsin.

“That is going to have huge consequences for the people of Wisconsin because when these types of laws and bills are passed, we know that we have a judge who is going to be impartial and enforce our Constitution,” Mahogany says.

Drag Up! Fight Back! comes during a particularly difficult week for the LGBTQ+ arts community. Just days ago, on Monday, San Francisco drag icon Heklina unexpectedly died while on tour in London. Though many are mourning, Mahogany says Heklina’s defiant spirit is also a source of motivation.

“If we don’t stand up now, then Heklinas of the future won’t be able to do what she has been able to achieve,” she says. “We’re fighting for all of the people that came before us. And I think it makes us even more determined to have our voice heard.”

Drag Up! Fight Back! begins at San Francisco City Hall on April 8 at 11 a.m. The march moves to Union Square where it will continue with a rally and performances until 3 p.m. Follow Honey Mahogany on Instagram.

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