D'Arcy Drollinger makes history as first drag laureate in the US

She will serve as an ambassador for the LGBTQ community in San Francisco.

May 24, 2023, 3:41 PM
D'Arcy Drollinger emcees during a drag show at Oasis nightclub Tuesday, May 16, 2023, in San Francisco. Drollinger will serve as San Francisco's first drag laureate, a paid position created to advocate for the LGBTQ community.
D'Arcy Drollinger emcees during a drag show at Oasis nightclub Tuesday, May 16, 2023, in San Francisco. Drollinger will serve as San Francisco's first drag laureate, a paid position created to advocate for the LGBTQ community.
Noah Berger/AP

As negative headlines about a wave of new anti-LGBTQ bills and intensifying threats of violence against the LGBTQ community dominate the news cycle, drag performers like D'Arcy Drollinger are reclaiming the spotlight.

Drollinger made history last week as the first-ever drag laureate in the nation, serving as a cultural ambassador and spokesperson for the LGBTQ community in San Francisco.

The appointment comes at a crucial moment: 2023 has already been a record-year for anti-LGBTQ legislation in the United States, with hundreds of anti-LGBTQ laws being introduced in states across the country since January, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Drollinger -- who uses feminine pronouns when in drag -- was named the inaugural titleholder last Thursday by San Francisco Mayor London Breed at the San Francisco LGBT Center.

Having called San Francisco home for most of her life, Drollinger has become a household name in the city's LGBTQ nightlife and arts space.

D'Arcy Drollinger discusses her role as San Francisco's first drag laureate, a paid position created to advocate for the LGBTQ community, on May 16, 2023, in San Francisco.
Noah Berger/AP

In 2015, she opened OASIS, an internationally acclaimed cabaret theatre and nightclub, and later founded the nonprofit Oasis Arts, which raises funds for LGBTQ artists in the Bay Area.

During the height of COVID-19, Drollinger also created programs like Meals on Heels, where drag performers delivered food and drinks while lip-syncing.

When the pandemic shuttered nightclubs across the country, she set up a drag streaming site that not only kept people at home entertained but also kept performers employed.

"During that time, it really strengthened my ties with the community," Drollinger told ABC News. "And so, when the drag laureate position was announced, it felt like the next logical step for me to apply."

As drag laureate, Drollinger will receive a $55,000 stipend in her 18-month stint to organize drag and speaking events, as well as help officials ensure the city's drag history is "shared, honored and preserved." Drollinger said she will also raise the Pride Flag at San Francisco City Hall with Breed in June to kick off Pride Month.

During her remarks at Drollinger's inauguration, Breed said the drag laureate job description starts -- but doesn't end -- with "being fabulous all the time."

"It also is an important part of representing San Francisco, representing San Francisco and our values for inclusion, making sure that people know that no matter who you are or where you come from, or who you love, you have someone who has a voice that will always represent you and speak on your behalf," Breed said.

D'Arcy Drollinger stands for a portrait outside Oasis nightclub on May 16, 2023, in San Francisco. Drollinger will serve as San Francisco's first drag laureate, a paid position created to advocate for the LGBTQ community.
Noah Berger/AP

"Making sure there's a platform and a place for the next generation of those who are part of this community is exactly why Darcy was the perfect person to serve in this capacity," she added.

While there is an "outline" for the position's goals, as the inaugural drag laureate, Drollinger said it will be her responsibility to ultimately define the role.

"The drag community for a very, very long time, hearkening back to the '60s, has always played a vital part in the city, both in politics and economics -- and also added a bunch of sparkle," Drollinger said.

"If this goes well, it could inspire other cities, other states around the country or the world to create a similar program," she added. "And I dare them to."

Since 2021, New York City councilmembers have attempted to create a similar position, but those efforts have stalled. West Hollywood is expected to appoint its own drag laureate in the coming weeks.

Drollinger said it's fitting that San Francisco be the first to launch such a position given its critical role in U.S. LGBTQ history and activism, where she said drag has been woven into the city's "tapestry."

"Some people can make fun of San Francisco drag a little bit because it is a little more avant-garde sometimes, but I love that people are willing to take chances here," she said.

"The Bay Area is rich with drag culture but also protest and a sense of creating the world we want to live in," she added.

Drollinger cited the 1966 Compton's Cafeteria riot in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, which was a response to constant and violent police harassment of drag queens and transgender people at the time.

She also noted the International Imperial Court System and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, both prominent LGBTQ organizations born in San Francisco. The latter group, a charity, protest, and street performance organization that calls itself "a leading-edge Order of queer and trans nuns," recently made news after it was disinvited from the Los Angeles Dodgers LGBTQ+ Pride Night event, following complaints from politicians and religious groups. The Dodgers later apologized and reversed course on Monday.

Drollinger's inauguration comes as attacks on the LGBTQ community have reached an alarming high in the U.S.

Since January, state legislators nationwide have introduced nearly 500 anti-LGBTQ bills, according to the ACLU, including bans on gender-affirming care, books with LGBTQ content and drag shows.

In March, Tennessee passed a law -- the first of its kind in the nation -- restricting "adult cabaret performances" in public or in the presence of children. A federal judge temporarily blocked the measure on March 31, hours before it was set to go into effect, after an LGBTQ+ theater company filed a lawsuit claiming the bill was unconstitutional. State attorneys have since argued the law is necessary to protect minors. U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Parker is expected to issue a ruling on the matter soon.

Far-right extremist groups have also targeted drag performers in cities across the U.S. in recent years, appearing at Drag Story Hour events where drag queens read books to kids, at times interrupting the events by jeering at and harassing the drag performers.

In November, a shooter opened fired at a Colorado Springs LGBTQ nightclub that hosts drag shows, fatally shooting five people and injuring 17 others. The suspected shooter was initially charged with five counts of first-degree murder and five counts of committing a bias-motivated crime causing bodily injury, according to online court records. Prosecutors later added additional charges of first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, assault of the first and second degree, and hate crimes. The case is ongoing.

While acknowledging the escalating infringements on LGBTQ rights and the threats against the community, Drollinger said drag performers have a special part to play in diffusing negativity and hatred by instead focusing on joy and "sparkle."

"Let's not forget that most of us are entertainers, and that's what we do," Drollinger said. "There's a power in that entertainment."

"If you can inspire everybody to be a little more fabulous, then there's that much less room in their heart and their heads for anger and hostility and prejudice and violence," she added. "It's like 'Get a hobby!'"

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