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'We're Gonna Fight Back': Drag Artists, Activists Rally in SF Against Anti-LGBTQ+ Bills Nationwide

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A crowd of people hold a banner that reads "Drag Up! Fight Back!"
The 'Drag Up! Fight Back!' organizers and friends lead the march to Union Square in San Francisco on Saturday, April 8, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez/KQED)

Drag performers and activists gathered at the “Drag Up! Fight Back!” rally in San Francisco on Saturday to protest recent anti-drag and anti-trans legislation as well as increased attacks against LGBTQ+ rights across the country.

“We wanted to show the whole world that San Francisco isn’t standing still, that Oakland isn’t standing still, that the Bay Area is not standing still, period,” said LGBTQ+ rights activist and drag king Alex U. Inn. “They come after everything I am. They come after my Black books, they come after my nonbinary books, they come after me being a woman in my womb, they come after me being transidentified. And what does that leave me? So f— them.”

Four people on stage, all dressed in drag, waving and clapping to the crowd.
From left, Alex U. Inn, Juanita MORE!, Sister Roma and Honey Mahogany speak at the ‘Drag Up! Fight Back!’ rally at Union Square in San Francisco on Saturday, April 8, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez/KQED)

Activist, politician, drag performer and singer Honey Mahogany, who was one of the organizers of the rally, hailed the LGBTQ+ community’s long history of struggle and defiance that goes back to the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria riot in San Francisco, where drag queens and trans women, fed up with police harassment, fought back when an officer grabbed a trans woman’s arm. That rebellion, along with the Stonewall riots in New York three years later, set the stage for the modern-day LGBTQ+ rights movement.

“We have fought so hard for equal rights for the LGBTQ community, and we’ve made a lot of progress, but right now, we’re really facing an unprecedented level of attacks,” said Mahogany. “We have a duty to stand up for those who cannot do that for themselves, who may be less safe in doing that, across the country. We have a lot of great organizations like Southern Equality, the NCLR, the ACLU and many others who are litigating these laws when they are passed, making sure that they are not implemented. It’s really important that we join them in this fight because today it’s them, but tomorrow it could be right here in California.”

A crowd of LGBTQ+ rights supporters young and old march waving rainbow flags and holding signs.
Protesters march to Union Square at the ‘Drag Up! Fight Back!’ march in San Francisco on Saturday, April 8, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez/KQED)

State Sen. Scott Wiener referred to the “vicious attacks” on trans people, drag queens and the LGBTQ+ community in states across the country as “unacceptable” and “un-American” and said he considered it a form of “gender policing,” which, he added, has a long history in the United States.

A white man speaks into a microphone.
State Sen. Scott Wiener speaks at the ‘Drag Up! Fight Back!’ rally at Union Square in San Francisco on Saturday, April 8, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez/KQED)

“This is straight-up homophobia and transphobia,” said Wiener, in an interview with KQED prior to the rally. “They dress it up as other things and pretend it’s about the safety of children. These laws are often [drafted] in ways that go towards adults as well. They’re now trying to ban gender-affirming care for anyone under the age of 26, not just children. So this is a broader attack against all LGBTQ people. They want to take us back to the 1950s — or maybe the 1850s. It’s terrifying and we’re gonna fight it hard.”

Protesters march, some in drag, with rainbow colored flags and signs.
Protesters march to Union Square at the ‘Drag Up! Fight Back!’ march in San Francisco on Saturday, April 8, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez)

The “Drag Up! Fight Back!” rally and march was organized by a coalition of drag activists that included Mahogany, Inn, drag icon Juanita MORE!, Oasis nightclub owner D’Arcy Drollinger and Sister Roma of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The protest kicked off at San Francisco City Hall before heading to Union Square, where there were performances. It came just days after the untimely death of San Francisco drag icon Heklina.

“We’re going to pay a tribute to Heklina when we get to Union Square,” said MORE! at the start of the rally. “I’ve known Heklina since ’94 or ’95. We’ve done a lot of things together that were so much fun and so crazy, and I was part of T-Shack the whole time that she ran it. I loved her very much.”

A person in a suit and with a beard smiles at the camera surrounded by fellow ralliers.
Michael Chua (center) chats with friends at San Francisco City Hall on Saturday, April 8, 2023. Chua is the elected reigning emperor of the Imperial Council of San Francisco. (Estefany Gonzalez/KQED)

According to the ACLU, statehouses nationwide have seen a record 452 anti-LGBTQ+ bills this year alone, many of them targeting drag performances, trans people’s access to medical care and other rights. A greater threat, LGBTQ+ rights supporters point out, is the prospect that backers of these bills in state legislatures are intent on taking their efforts to the federal level. News of a Texas federal judge ordering a hold on federal approval of a widely used and effective abortion pill on Friday added to the sense of urgency Saturday.

“They’ve already introduced bills in Congress to attack LGBTQ people to replicate what they’re doing in red states,” said Wiener. “Those bills currently are not gonna go anywhere, because we control the Senate and the White House. But if the Republicans take over both the Congress and the presidency in the future, they will absolutely pass these laws into effect nationally. And so they are coming at us here in California. 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.”

Protesters hold signs as they march.
Mickey Skinner (center) holds a sign reading, ‘If it weren’t for the drag queens who raised me, I would be dead,’ at the ‘Drag Up! Fight Back!’ march in San Francisco on Saturday, April 8, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez)

“We have different states who are bringing legislation because they feel threatened against people who are in drag or people who are trans,” said rally attendee and transgender rights supporter Stanley Wong. “There needs to be more visibility and more activism to educate people that we are in this community and not a threat. Guns are more of a threat to us than people wearing attire.”

An Asian man smiles at the camera wearing a yellow fluorescent vest and a bus in the background.
Stanley Wong at San Francisco City Hall on Saturday, April 8, 2023. ‘Drag queens are not the people you should be worried about. In fact, they’re probably the people who are going to stand up,’ said Wong. ‘Look at what happened in Stonewall or before that at Compton’s Cafeteria here in San Francisco. There’s been a history of the drag community being very vocal and not taking it. So the march today also symbolizes that, that we aren’t going to just stand by and take it and be threatened by any of this.’ (Estefany Gonzalez/KQED)

“I just think that I need to be out here to support my drag sisters and my transgender brothers and sisters, and I just see what’s going on in so many states, and there’s even an anti-trans bill here in California that was introduced,” said rally attendee Brian Harradine. “People aren’t realizing how serious the attacks are. I’m hoping that this march and me participating in this march will encourage more people to wake up and take action.”

A white man holds a sign that reads 'Drag is not a crime.'
Rally attendee Brian Harradine holds a ‘Drag is not a crime’ sign at San Francisco City Hall on Saturday, April 8, 2023. ‘When I’m feeling really down, I know I can go to a drag performance and feel better,’ said Harradine. ‘When I feel the world is against me. I can go to a drag performance and just feel that I’m safe. I’m welcome.’ (Estefany Gonzalez/KQED)

“I think all of the movements are connected and the true fight is always intersectional,” said rally attendee Rose Tinani. “When you’re fighting for human rights, you’re fighting for all human rights. You are fighting for Black people, you are fighting for people of color, you’re fighting against anti-trans and anti-queer rights. You’re fighting for all of them, for our right to live as we deem appropriate, not as some white cis men deem appropriate.”

An Asian woman with a face mask, a south Asian woman and an Asian man smiles for the camera with people behind them.
From left, Celine Nghiem, Rose Tinani and Tahoe Roe gather for the ‘Drag Up! Fight Back!’ march at San Francisco City Hall on Saturday, April 8, 2023. ‘I’m here because we need queer people and queer allies to be showing up and fighting and knowing that this is a fight that will be fought at the ballot box, but it’s not going to end at the ballot box,’ said Tahoe Roe. ‘And so we all need to be here and ready to fight.’ (Estefany Gonzalez/KQED)

“What’s bringing me to this rally today? I think it’s ridiculous that people who have positions of power are utilizing it to diminish the humanity of the queer community as a whole,” said Shane Zaldivar, who identifies as both a drag queen and a trans woman. There are people out there just trying to make other people’s lives harder when it’s hard enough … It feels like lives are at stake.”

A trans person on stage performs in drag with rainbow wings.
Shane Zaldivar performs as the Pop Up Drag Queen at the ‘Drag Up! Fight Back!’ rally at Union Square in San Francisco on Saturday, April 8, 2023. ‘I’ve been performing publicly on the streets of San Francisco for maybe seven years now,’ said Zaldivar. ‘I like to just show joy. I like to engage with people … to show that drag and gender expression is not something that needs to be feared. It can be beautiful, it can be joyful, it can be silly.’ (Estefany Gonzalez/KQED)

“[This] march is to show the country and the world that the LGBTQ community is not taking this lying down and that drag queens will not be silenced and we will not go back into the closet,” said Mahogany in a previous interview with KQED. “We will not be relegated to just the back of a dark room in a club. We are here as a part of the community, we’re here to stay, and we’re gonna fight back.”

A Black trans woman with a black top hat and black dress speaks into a microphone.
Honey Mahogany speaks at the ‘Drag Up! Fight Back!’ rally at Union Square in San Francisco on Saturday, April 8, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez/KQED)

This story includes reporting by Attila Pelit, Nastia Voynovskaya and Annelise Finney of KQED with photos by Estefany Gonzalez.

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