A San Francisco drag performer begins role as first U.S. drag laureate A nightclub owner, artist and newly elected government official is joining Pride festivities as other U.S. cities consider appointing drag laureates.

Nation's first 'drag laureate' kicks off Pride in San Francisco

Nation's first 'drag laureate' kicks off Pride in San Francisco

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1180901952/1182001436" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

D'Arcy Drollinger, the country's first drag laureate, poses with the Pride flag outside San Francisco City Hall on June 2, 2023. Chloe Veltman/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Chloe Veltman/NPR

D'Arcy Drollinger, the country's first drag laureate, poses with the Pride flag outside San Francisco City Hall on June 2, 2023.

Chloe Veltman/NPR

Getting D'Arcy Drollinger ready for her first official appearance as San Francisco drag laureate was a production.

The artist, night club owner and newly appointed government official stood in the living room of her San Francisco apartment as two helpers grappled with a set of bejeweled, custom-made artificial nails and wedged her into a pair of white patent stilettos and a tight, pink skirt suit. Finally, Drollinger stepped out of the house, and into a very busy schedule.

"I am speaking at the San Francisco Arts Commission," Drollinger said. "I'm also on the same day speaking at the Entertainment Commission. I'm also going to speak at a high school. I'll be in the parade with the mayor."

The word "laureate" is most often attached to the winner of a Nobel Prize, or a poet whose job it is to mark official occasions in verse. But a "drag laureate" is something new.

D'Arcy Drollinger applies lipstick at her apartment in preparation for her inaugural appearance as San Francisco drag laureate. Chloe Veltman/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Chloe Veltman/NPR

D'Arcy Drollinger applies lipstick at her apartment in preparation for her inaugural appearance as San Francisco drag laureate.

Chloe Veltman/NPR

The city's LGBTQ task-force proposed the creation of the drag laureate position around three years ago during the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We've been through a really hard time," said San Francisco Mayor London Breed a few days ahead of the flag-raising ceremony that's the kick-off to the city's annual Pride celebration. And so to city officials, a drag laureate seemed to be — if not a cure, at least something of a panacea, thanks to "the creativity, the joy that a drag laureate brings."

Breed said one of Drollinger's selling points as a candidate for the job, which comes with an 18-month term and $55,000 stipend, was her track record as a spreader of sparkle.

The nightclub owner pivoted during lockdown to run a food delivery service — "Meals on Heels" — out of Oasis, the drag nightclub she owns in downtown San Francisco. Performers in drag from Oasis delivered meals and cocktails to local residents, with a side order of curb-side lip-synching.

"It brought a lot of love and excitement," Breed said of Drollinger's drag performance-infused food delivery service.

YouTube

But Breed said the recent attacks against drag performers, as well as a rise in anti-drag legislation in different parts of the country, now make the appointment of a drag laureate particularly crucial.

"In some of those communities where something like this wouldn't be considered acceptable behavior, there's a kid that's thinking, 'Oh my goodness: she's like me. I can be myself without fear,'" Breed said.

LGBTQ activists around the country are working to fight a slew of anti-drag laws currently under consideration in various states.

"It's scary right now," said Kylo Freeman, CEO and founder of For Them, a trans-owned brand that makes apparel for transgender people, and the force behind "Drag is Divine," an advertising campaign that aims to raise awareness and funding to help fight anti-drag laws. "The backlash is real."

A "Drag is Divine" advertising campaign poster. For Them hide caption

toggle caption
For Them

A "Drag is Divine" advertising campaign poster.

For Them

Freeman said they're excited to see local governments highlight drag culture in such a visible way. In West Hollywood, officials plan to appoint a drag laureate later this month.

"I think it's a real step forward to have these roles in place, giving us folks that can speak on behalf of the community at a large scale," Freeman said.

But plans to create a drag laureate in New York, where Freeman is based, have stalled. And Freeman said they don't see similar positions cropping up in parts of the country that are less friendly to LGBTQ people anytime soon.

"We are so politicized right now," Freeman said. "And I think we've forgotten that this is just a human rights issue."

At the San Francisco Pride kickoff, Drollinger not only assisted the mayor in the traditional unfurling of the Pride flag outside City Hall — She also posed for photos, dispensed hugs and made her first official speech as drag laureate.

D'Arcy Drollinger delivers her inaugural speech as drag laureate flanked by California State Senator Scott Wiener, left, and San Francisco Mayor London Breed. Chloe Veltman/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Chloe Veltman/NPR

D'Arcy Drollinger delivers her inaugural speech as drag laureate flanked by California State Senator Scott Wiener, left, and San Francisco Mayor London Breed.

Chloe Veltman/NPR

"Drag is many things," said Drollinger before the crowd of assembled dignitaries and members of the local LGBTQ community. "Drag is art. Drag is activism. Drag is joy. Drag is instrumental to bringing people together. Drag is fabulous."

Afterward, Drollinger cheerfully admitted to not feeling quite prepared to meet the demands of her new job. For instance, being on one's feet at long-winded civic functions isn't super compatible with the wearing of three-inch stilettos.

"I'll have to rethink my heels," she said.

But the nation's first ever drag laureate said she's willing to improvise: "Sometimes you have to lip sync to whatever song gets turned on."

Audio and digital stories edited by Jennifer Vanasco. Audio produced by Isabella Gomez-Sarmiento.