Night Crawler

Crown Performance

It feels like the San Francisco equivalent of a Hollywood insider party: Everyone is dressed to the nines and conversations are carried in tones too loud to be private; friendly greetings become flamboyant displays of public affection; and casual observations become well-broadcast fashion critiques or audible forms of lustful veneration. No one seems troubled that the line outside the King Street Garage still stretches around the block as the clock approaches midnight, inching forward at an inexperienced drag queen's pace. This is the fifth annual San Francisco Drag King Contest, and the line is not something to be endured, it's part of the show, a parade of gender-bending eye candy -- butch bikers, gangsters, cowboys, and leather daddies with stiletto-heeled femmes and busty tarts in tow -- that literally stops traffic. While women drivers are cheered and acknowledged, the men who lean out of their car windows to ask what's going on are pointedly, almost comedically, ignored.

"Did you see the sudden realization on that guy's face?" I overhear a lithe woman in a leopard skin miniskirt say to her sparkly companion. "Somewhere between, 'Yeah, boy! I want to get in there,' and 'Shit! They're all dykes.'"

As they say, you're either on the bus or you're off the bus.

S.F. Drag King 2000 Electro.
Erin O'Neill
S.F. Drag King 2000 Electro.

Of course, being on the bus, tonight, requires a highly refined guidebook, because nothing is quite as it seems. A glossy-lipped femme in tasseled hot pants and curly blond pigtails flounces up to the line, putting her arm around a stolid butch in a leather jacket.

"Remember me?" says the femme with a coquettish smile. "You gave me your number at a bar awhile ago." Stephanie Galetti, aka Da Gov', shifts her feet awkwardly, looking at the femme's ill-fitting white pumps.

"Um, I don't think I know you," says Galetti just as sneaking recognition lights up her face and she realizes that the coquettish femme is actually fellow swaggering butch Marya Taylor, in drag. Taylor laughs, slapping Galetti's arm with a disturbingly manicured hand.

"None of the butches have recognized me," says Taylor, still laughing. "The femmes all know immediately. It's interesting."

Taylor, who is not unaccustomed to showing her body off in a "guy way" -- tight leather pants and polyester shirts that accentuate her chest and arms -- is playing up tonight's role with exceptional aplomb, laughing when she gets her nearly bare ass grabbed by other butches (or femmes dressed as butches, as the case may be). But not everyone has it so easy. The sticky task of establishing who is and who is not in "drag," and who therefore does or does not get a discount on the price of admission, lies on the shoulders of Kountry Kays frontwoman J. Byrd Hosch, whose sweet-voiced discretion takes the form of, "You'll need to pay $15, honey. You can pay $10." It's no simple task, but not one she seems to mind, as long as everyone gets in the door. (As it is, a lot of very disappointed ladies are turned away after the club reaches capacity.)

"Look at all these women!" gasps a suited femme named Hillary Strouse as she gazes around the packed dance floor. "Where do they all come from? More importantly, where do they all go?" The music is pumping, and amusing videos from "Dragstrip" light up the back wall as Strouse disappears into the hormone-rich flurry of bodies.

Backstage, 10 contestants, six judges, two MCs, and a camera crew try to maneuver themselves through a tiny, sweltering dressing room. It's like the backstage scene of any beauty contest, but in reverse. Hair is applied rather than plucked, bellies are accentuated rather than hidden, poise is exchanged for bravado.

"I'm a pretty femme girl normally," says 21-year-old Angus Mustang, a sleazy-looking Serpico-style "detective" with brown shades, tight polyester pants, slicked-back hair, a mustache, and a shoulder holster. "It's really weird sticking hair on instead of pulling it off. My arms are grossing me out." She looks down at the curly dark hair peeking out of her rolled-up shirt sleeve and smiles. "I was inspired by the Spike Jones archetype." A cowboy, a vampire, a Southern preacher, and a car mechanic push past.

Arty Fishal, current judge and former S.F. Drag King (1998), wedges himself between a full-length mirror and a television camera to adjust the Star of David peeking out of his gold lamé suit jacket. "This evening, I'm looking for a true appreciation of camp, something often missing in the lesbian community." Fishal flashes me a gold-toothed smile, explaining the nuances of taking on a male persona. "It's important to take up a lot of space. Put your shoulders back and think entitlement. Last year, I needed a chair for my routine, and I went out into the club to find one. I was going around saying, 'Excuse me, can I borrow this chair?' -- I'm usually really femme -- and everyone said no. Then, I got into character and just grabbed a chair, saying, 'I need this.' It's funny, but it totally worked."

"[When doing male drag] the most important physical gesture is this," says judge Connie Champagne, pulling up her shirt to reveal yards of cloth bandages wrapped around her breasts. "We're all bound up under here -- sports bras, Ace bandages -- depending on how physically impaired we are." She smiles, handing me a lock of her Davey Bones wig.

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