Artists on Haight Street have found an unusual way to try to save their housing — a weekly drag show. Large crowds are fanning out in front of The Red Victorian every Saturday night, but the real drama is what’s taking place off-stage.
The Red Victorian is a historic hotel near San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. It got the name The Red Victorian in the 1970s when Sami Sunchild of the Peaceful World Foundation created a space for international travelers to have peace talks. Today, marginalized groups are fighting each other over who has the right to stay there.
Back in March, all hotels across the city were forced to halt operations due to COVID-19. The hotel went from making roughly $80,000 a month, to zero. That’s when the employees of the hotel had the idea to use the front windows to perform drag shows every Saturday night.
“I would say it’s unconventional, I hesitate to even call it drag, I would say its trans or gender nonconforming performance art, drag adjacent,” Adam Rice a former employee and organizer for the show said.
From the crowd in the street to the performers on stage, it’s a lot of people who consider themselves others.
“I love that its people you don’t typically see in drag transgender non-conforming,” Johnny Nguyen said.
Many of the performers worked at this hotel and then started living here during the pandemic, they thought they had an understanding with the nonprofit that leases the space that they could stay, but District Commons says these artists are trespassing and that it’s time for them to go.
“My stomach dropped, you know, I felt like I had been injected with ice water,” Rice said when he heard the news.
“I’ll be homeless. I’ll be homeless and a lot of the other people who live here will be homeless, as well,” Sam Hogan a performer whose stage name is “Bussy Dad” said.
Hogan along with the majority of the other performers are BIPOC transgender artists like Gia Regalado.
“I’m currently going through hormone replacement therapy so I’m transitioning from male to female and it’s just so great having a space that I can share that with like-minded people,” Regalado said, “If we were to be displaced from this fight, from the house here, I don’t know where any of us would go.”
The show started as a way to raise money to replace the lost funding from the hotel. The artists say they had an understanding that they could stay here. Their dream is to turn this into a housing collective for black, indigenous, people of color who are transitioning. The show is popular, pack-the-sidewalk-every-Saturday-night popular, but it doesn’t appear to be enough.
“We can’t afford, you know, 40, $50,000 a month,” Zarinah Agnew said.
Agnew is the co-director for District Commons, a nonprofit that helps house formerly incarcerated people and supports community events and art shows like what’s going on at the Red Vic. It leases this building from The Peaceful World Foundation, another nonprofit, and says the artists were given permission to put together a show, but not to live there.
“So they were given permission to run events there for free, with much love and excitement, you know? But they decided to stay and that’s when things got difficult,” Agnew said.
Agnew says this standoff could put the nonprofit out of business.
“We’re not the Hilton, we’re not the Salesforce tower, this is not sticking it to the man. We’re a tiny nonprofit, Peaceful World is a nonprofit and I don’t think this is, like, how we get to the utopia that we’re all seeking,” Agnew said.
For now, they’re at an impasse. It comes down to money, which has been the motivator for why artists and others have struggled to stay in the city that once masqueraded as their safe haven.
“I don’t think we should blame individuals for these things, we should blame systems… maybe the city of San Francisco can look to support some of its most marginalized people, so they don’t hurt each other,” Agnew said.
“With everything that’s going on politically — this space and spaces like it that people like us can safely exist are shrinking by the day,” Hogan said.
The artists have paid $5,000 toward utilities but they do not have a formal lease. District Commons plans to file a forcible detainer in court, which is like an eviction, but because they’re not violating a lease, it’s for trespassing.