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San Diego History Center’s newest exhibition, “Legendary Drag Queens of San Diego,” celebrates the drag community’s impact on LGBTQ movements.
The performance art of drag is in the spotlight in the San Diego History Center’s newest exhibition, “Legendary Drag Queens of San Diego.” Drag’s roots go way back to ancient Greek plays, operas and Shakespeare, but also in vaudeville and pantomimes. Logistically, this was partly because women weren’t always allowed on stages, but historical audiences also embraced the gender parody.
The newest component to SDHC’s expansive “LGBTQ+ San Diego: Stories of Struggles and Triumphs” exhibition, the drag project showcases the stories of San Diego’s drag queens, their costumes, photographs and other artifacts. It also casts a spotlight on the drag community’s role in the Stonewall rebellion, not just in the on-the-ground heroics of individuals (such as Marsha P. Johnson and Silvia Rivera, trans individuals and drag performers who resisted arrest at Stonewall) but also in the way the drag community was a driving force for the national LGBTQ+ movement, both in terms of community-building and financial resources.
“If you can imagine the ‘50s and ‘60s — and I lived through that — the gay bars were what the churches were for the African American community, a safe haven,” said Nicole Murray Ramirez, a Latino gay activist in San Diego, and the drag queen Empress Nicole the Great who currently serves as Queen Mother I of the Americas, the leader of the International Imperial Court.
“That said,” Ramirez added, “the only entertainment was the drag shows. The drag shows were becoming charity auctions.”
Ramirez’s drag performance — along with his struggle with gender identity — predates the Stonewall riots. Ramirez is one of the drag queens who donated items to be featured in the exhibition: a gown, crown and cape he described as somewhere between Victorian, Elizabethan, Romanoff and “Game of Thrones.”
Historically, drag queens were accepted as entertainers. Much of the country, however, had what are known as “masquerading ordinances,” which restricted men from dressing in drag in public.
Dr. Lillian Faderman, historian and six-time Lambda Award-winning author, curated the “Legendary Drag Queens” exhibition for the San Diego History Center. Faderman said that while many cities in the United States had ordinances dating back to the 19th century, San Diego did not enact its masquerading ordinance until 1966, at the height of the Vietnam war.
“The City Council claimed that they did it because they were afraid that men dressed as women would act as prostitutes and they would ensnare military personnel passing through San Diego as a port city,” Faderman said. “That ordinance was not repealed until 1998. So San Diego started very late with a so-called masquerading ordinance and was very late to repeal it as well.”
Drag is thought of among the community as performance and art, and generally exists independent of the performer’s unique gender identity or sexuality. Drag performance, in fact, coexists with a range of gender identities, including nonbinary and cis-gendered heterosexual individuals. “For the most part, drag queens will tell you that they’re entertainers. What they bring to the public is this over-the-top glamour, real style, very often campy wit,” said Faderman. “Very often remarkable illusion.”
Humor, in the origins of drag, came from a place of mocking or a fear of non-heteronormative traits: A male actor acting and looking feminine in a role challenged those early audiences’ sense of bias but also made them laugh.
“I think that wit is often used as a way to get people to think about the absurdity of their prejudices,” said Faderman.
Despite the way society embraces and supports drag culture, Ramirez said it still makes people uncomfortable. “They will argue, ‘Should we have drag queens and transgender people at the table?’” said Ramirez. “What do you mean ‘should we be at the table?’ we built that table.”
San Diego in particular has a rich history with drag queens. The exhibition includes a memorial to 25 local drag queens who were significant in the movement. RuPaul was born and raised here, and Julian Eltinge, a notable early 20th century silent film performer and female impersonator, lived in Alpine. Also featured in the exhibit are local stars like Chad Michaels, a winner of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” Tootie, of Lips, the wildly popular North Park drag club, and more.
“My belief is this: A community or any movement that doesn’t know where it came from doesn’t know where it’s going. This exhibit is going to be a way to let people know whose shoulders they stand on,” said Ramirez.
Ramirez will be honored at Friday’s opening reception along with eight other San Diego-based legends, and the evening will also include remarks by Katherine Faulconer, wife of San Diego’s mayor, who is the exhibition’s honorary chair. The exhibition will be on display through early September.
Correction: This post has been updated to correct a transcription error in a Nicole Murray Ramirez quote.