The Castro Honored Heklina with Drag, Music and Cackles

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Drag king Vera! performs during a memorial for Heklina outside of the Castro Theatre in San Francisco on May 23, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Heklina first arrived in San Francisco in the early ’90s, “with no real plan,” as she put in a KQED documentary from 2015. “Immediately, I fell in love with it, and I felt right at home.”

And on Tuesday evening, San Francisco returned that love to Heklina, who helped transform drag and elevate queer nightlife in the Bay Area over the past three decades. Heklina died unexpectedly on April 3 in London, where she had traveled to star in the drag parody Mommie Queerest at the Soho Theatre alongside her close friend Peaches Christ.

Friends of Heklina organized a memorial at the Castro Theatre, its iconic marquee emblazoned with Heklina’s name. Tickets sold out weeks in advance, so organizers closed down the entire block outside the theater, from Market to 18th Street, to bring in jumbotrons that live-streamed the memorial to a crowd of hundreds of well-wishers and admirers.

Two drag artists speak with microphones to a large crowd in front of San Francisco's Castro Theater.
Sister Roma (left) and Dulce De Leche (right) speak during a memorial for Heklina outside the Castro Theatre in San Francisco on May 23, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Heklina was not just a talented and versatile performer, she also dedicated herself to making more spaces available for drag in San Francisco. In 1996, she created the long-running show Trannyshack at The Stud (which she later renamed Mother), offering a platform for funny, rebellious and experimental new performers. Heklina also co-founded the popular SoMa club and cabaret Oasis in 2015 alongside D’Arcy Drollinger. Although she sold her ownership stake in 2019, she remained a beloved fixture there. Most recently, she hosted the popular Daytime Realness party at El Rio in the Mission.

Two drag performers, dressed up in very colorful wigs and puffy dresses, smile at the camera.
Pippi Lovestocking (left) and Mutha Chucka pose for a photo outside the Castro Theatre in San Francisco on May 23, 2023, before a memorial for Heklina, who died in April. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Many remember Heklina for her firecracker personality, which she owned in her drag. “I just feel like I’m living a very, perhaps to most people, abnormal life. I make a living doing something that is … not considered normal,” Heklina said in 2015. “When you’re walking down the street in makeup and a dress and high heels and all that stuff, you do get an attitude change. You become much more bold, [because] people yell things at you and you just have to be ready to take everything on.”

During a memorial for Heklina, photos of her play onscreen outside of the Castro Theatre in San Francisco on May 23, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

At the memorial hosted by LOL McFiercen and Dulce De Leche, Heklina’s longtime friend Nancy French took the stage to lead a moment of silence, but quickly changed her mind. “A basic moment of silence is not going to work,” French said. “It’s so basic, she would have hated it.”

French asked the crowd to join her in a “community cackle,” referring to Heklina’s loud and distinct laugh. With that, Castro Street filled with hundreds of cackles.

A crowd of hundreds, of all ages, stands outside on San Francisco's Castro Street and laughs, many with smiles on their faces. In the background, there are balloons in the shape of the letters that spell out "Heklina."
Hundreds join Heklina’s friend Nancy French in a ‘community cackle’ outside the Castro Theatre in San Francisco on May 23, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Jennifer Hofmann, 53, of San Francisco, stood outside the Castro Theatre to pay her respects for Heklina. “[Heklina] helped me grow up to figure out who I was in San Francisco,” she said, noting how meaningful it was for her to see Heklina perform at Trannyshack in the ’90s.

“She made it OK that drag wasn’t perfect. She made it OK that you could make ugly drag and people would love that and throw dollars at you, too,” Hoffman said. “As long as you had something to say and were willing to get up on stage and do it, you were always welcome.”

“She welcomed everyone,” Hoffman continued. “She sassed everyone. If you got sassed by Heklina, you felt like you’ve made it.”

A drag performer holds a microphone in one hand, and with the other, holds a marker and draws a beauty mark on the face of a woman standing in the crowd outside the Castro Theater.
Co-host LOL McFiercen paints a beauty mark on Linda Lee’s face in honor of Heklina during a memorial outside of the Castro Theatre in San Francisco on May 23, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Darwin Bell, 57, moved to San Francisco in 1987, and Heklina was first drag queen he ever saw perform.  “It was very punk rock,” he said of that first show.

Heklina embraced more transgressive forms of drag, he recalled, adding that he hopes that San Francisco doesn’t lose that edge without her around. Bell and his friends went to so many shows featuring or organized by Heklina that they would joke among themselves, “At the end of the world, there’s going to be Cher, roaches and Heklina.”

“I never even thought there would be world without Heklina,” he said. “She was always kind of bitter and funny and mean, and I just never thought there would be a world without her.”

A large crowd stands on Castro Street in front of Castro Theater, and in the middle of the crowed, a young couple hugs and kisses.
Despite the strong winds, a crowd of hundreds gathers outside of the Castro Theatre to watch drag performances in honor of Heklina. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Inside, the Castro Theatre’s 1,407 seats filled up. Close friends of Heklina, including D’Arcy Drollinger and Peaches Christ, took the stage to share some of their fondest memories — infused with Heklina’s relentless humor and love for San Francisco.

Three drag artists stand on a stage. All are wearing very elaborate dresses and big wigs.
Dozens of Heklina’s closest friends and collaborators spoke and performed inside the Castro Theatre, including D’Arcy Drollinger, Sister Roma and Peaches Christ (left to right). (Gooch)
A large group of drag performers dance and sing on a stage. In the middle of them is a drag queen with a very large wig and a ribbon that reads "Fauxnique."
During her performance, Fauxnique brought out many other drag performers who collaborated with Heklina. (Gooch)

After the memorial, Margey DeCuir, a San Francisco resident who watched the livestream on Castro Street, wrote to KQED to share that for her, Heklina’s memorial not only honored her life, but represented “the strength and loyalty of the queer community, to come and gather in grief.”

“Heklina touched lives globally,” she wrote, “and her memorial was a much needed embrace within the community.”

Two people share a deep hug and smile while they stand outdoors in San Francisco's Castro Street, surrounded by a large crowd.
Alexander Tom hugs friend Margey DeCuir (left) during a memorial for Heklina outside of the Castro Theatre in San Francisco on May 23, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

This article includes reporting from KQED’s Nastia Voynovskaya.