My first close-up encounter with drag queens took place in a Tenderloin bar when I worked as an electrician for Wonder Woman Electric in the late 1970s.
An all-female collective of electricians, we did mostly residential work. But our regular commercial accounts included some of the multitude of San Francisco gay bars. Each of the bars catered to a particular subculture in the larger gay community. Lesbians had a few bars and coffee houses. But bars for gay men proliferated. There were bars geared toward disco queens, the leather crowd, the sweater gays, uniform wearers, beach bunnies, cross dressers, fairies, bathing beauties–really more than I could even imagine.
One day in the middle of the week I was called to a hole-in-the-wall bar in the Tenderloin. When I finally found a place to park the Wonder Woman van, it was blocks away and I had to lug heavy tool bags through streets lined with junkies and drunks. This was the bad part of town.
I found the address on Turk Street, a nondescript brick front building. The door was locked, but I saw a discreet push-button near it. I pushed it and after a moment a beautiful young man, far more femme than I, greeted me. He wore matching coral pedal pushers, cardigan and mules with little heels. He did not look pleased to see me.
“I’m the electrician,” I said hopefully. “Ok,” he said, looking me over. Then his perfectly lipsticked mouth curled into a little smile. “Come with me. We’ve been waiting for you.”
A small town girl who’d only lived in San Francisco for a year or so, I had just barely come out as a lesbian and had little experience with drag queens, transsexuals or transvestites, especially not the big city kind.
Stepping from the gray Tenderloin street into that little bar was like entering the Harry Potter toy store at Christmas. Lights and colored decorations hung from the low ceiling. Glitter littered the grungy floor.
I was surprised to see a good number of patrons at the bar in the early part of the day. Some sat at the bar, some at tables, but all looked fabulous. Most were men dressed in women’s clothing. Some dressed as over-the-top made-up drag queens, but most looked more like the gals from the office across the street, dressed in low heels and conservative skirts and blouses. I thought I overheard one of them say “fish” which was pretty funny considering I was the butchest thing in the room, wearing a flannel shirt, jeans and work boots.
The bartender looked like a tough sailor just off the boat who’d thrown on a shoulder-length blonde wig and serious makeup—several shades of eye shadow and bright red lips outlined beyond their natural borders. He worked the bar in a tasteful tailored Donna Reed housedress, popped collar and pearls, and ran the joint with cutting sarcasm. I felt like I was encountering the Wizard of Oz and had to keep myself from jumping back like Dorothy did when she and her three cohorts first encountered him. A person could not help being intimidated.
“Here’s what we need,” he directed me. “I don’t want the patrons to use the bathroom without my permission. They get in there, lock the door and stay. And, honey, we all know what they do in there.” I could only speculate. Drugs? Sex? Probably both. Lesbians had been known to use the bathrooms in our bars for such purposes. Where else could a couple go? And if they were quick about it and others didn’t have to wait too long, we were usually forgiving.
The bartender continued, “I want to be able to push a button right here under the bar to unlock the bathroom door when someone wants to use it. Can you set that up?”
This drag queen was also a Control Queen! I looked around the room at the disapproving patrons. I was going to be responsible for limiting their bathroom privileges. I was already the villain and I hadn’t even done anything yet. But I was certainly capable of installing a push button and door lock. It would be all low voltage, so I’d just have to put in a transformer and run low voltage cable. I wouldn’t need to run pipe or install junction boxes. “I can do that,” I said.
I got to work, planning the job. Could I run the low voltage cable under the floor? Yes, said the bartender. There was a full basement. The beautiful young man ushered me down to the basement, a dank, spiderwebby space with a hundred years of grime on every surface. I had to figure out where to drill through the floor to run wires from the bar to the door lock. The job took me up and down the stairs and back to the van to retrieve materials. I focused on my work and I was relieved that the patrons went back to drinking and dishing.
Finally the job was finished. I emerged from the basement coated in its crud, looking more than ever like a construction worker.
“Let’s test it,” I said. I gave a nod to the bartender who pushed the button. The door buzzed open and, with a flourish, a patron entered the bathroom. It worked! Like electricians everywhere, I always got a thrill when I flipped the switch and my masterpiece (no matter how small) performed as intended. But I didn’t usually have an audience.
These patrons understood drama far better than I. The dramatic moment of the day was all mine. It was as if I were making my big entrance, walking down the runway, head held high. They had all been watching closely and when the door opened, they let out a big cheer.
I bowed to the applause.