It was a splendid, fitting farewell for the Stud, San Francisco’s iconic gay bar: a virtual 12-hour drag show that swung from festival to funeral and back again. S.F. native Honey Mahogany, wearing a black gown and a crown of black flowers, looked directly into the camera as she opened the ceremony, held on May 31. “In times like these, we queens fall back on traditions of taking to the streets,” said Mahogany, a season-five queen on RuPaul’s Drag Race. “But also of channeling our pain into performance, celebrating life even as we acknowledge the darkness surrounding us.”
Then, with whiplash speed, the party started. Out came a barrage of queens, past and present, performing songs, swapping stories, and reading each other just like they did onstage during pre-coronavirus times.
Peaches Christ, the filmmaker–slash–drag queen whose midnight-movie screenings helped put Showgirls on the cult-cinema map, talked about how she once got eighty-sixed from the bar and had to deliver a handwritten apology letter to get back in. Juanita More, famed local drag queen and DJ, talked about going to the Stud when she was in high school. Jinkx Monsoon, winner of the aforementioned season five of the reality show, sang while strumming a ukulele.
After going into the wee hours of the morning — after dozens and dozens of performances, some of them live, some prerecorded — the Stud as we knew it came to an end.
The Stud started life as a man-heavy, macho space when it opened on Folsom Street in 1966, with wall art that changed according to the zodiac calendar. George Matson, one of its first owners, described it as a “bar for people, not just pretty bodies.” When the White Night riots erupted in 1979, after Dan White received minimal sentencing for shooting and killing Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk, people came to the Stud to party. Even then-mayor Dianne Feinstein popped in during a reelection pit stop later that year to shake hands with patrons. She arrived during the club’s Monday punk night. “‘Hi Dianne, love your hair,” shouted some of the queens as the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated” blared through the speakers, according to Mark Freeman’s 1994 historical article of the space.
After moving locations to Harrison Street, just two blocks away, in 1987, the Stud turned even more experimental, with some evenings featuring Dolly Parton ditties or a klezmer-music mosh pit. Over the next few decades, it helped launch top-billing performers like Ana Matronic of Scissor Sisters, who got her start on the floorboards here in the 1990s and survived a major earthquake and two dot-com boom rental markets. But the sweat-drenched dance floor has been dry since March, when the coronavirus pandemic shut down most of the city, the Stud included. San Francisco may now be slowly coming back to life, but the owners say the bar won’t reopen its SoMa location, a planned move that was accelerated by the pandemic. While they claim that this is not the club’s demise, with real-estate prices in the neighborhood some of the highest in the city, the Stud may very well close for good.
The loss will come as another hit to the already eroding LGBTQ culture in both SoMa and San Francisco on the whole. The Lexington, the city’s only lesbian bar, closed in 2015. Esta Noche, a Latinx nightclub on 16th Street that opened in response to the discrimination against queer people of color in traditionally white gay bars, shuttered in 2014, replaced by a craft-cocktail bar. And so on. And so on. Gay bars, once found in every nook of the city, have been all but relegated to the Castro and SoMa neighborhoods.
But losing the Stud is more than losing another gay bar. The Stud was a way of life — a better way of life. This seemingly uncouth brute of a watering hole nurtured movements, gave birth to countless drag performers and artists, and did it all while welcoming all types — any types — of people into its dark wood-paneled rooms. To be there was to give a middle finger not only to the mainstream Castro clubs, but also to the increasingly capitalist-driven ideas of what it means to be queer.
“The Stud has always been an anti-consumerist haven,” says San Francisco–based writer K.M. Soehnlein, a club regular and SoMa resident. “The first crew who ran it were gay artists involved with the whole psychedelic ’60s thing — the Human Be-In, the Summer of Love. The sign they put over the door of the original location, ‘Everyone Is Welcome Here,’ remained over the door of the 9th Street location. It was inclusive before that was a buzzword.”
It used to feel like all of SoMa was saying Fuck you. Pioneering civil-rights groups like the Mattachine Society, the Society for Individual Rights, and the Daughters of Bilitis were all founded in the neighborhood, which has a reputation for activism that goes back to the blue-collar labor organizers immortalized in Jack London’s 1909 short story “South of the Slot.” But Today, SoMa is increasingly home to artisan beer and cocktail bars and mid-rise luxury housing geared toward the tech set. Other like-minded dives that used to call the leather neighborhood home, including watering holes like Chaps I, the original Hole in the Wall, Beatbox, and Slim’s, have all shuttered over the past decade.
Rising rents have long threatened the Stud, too. A diverse collective of 18 bartenders, DJs, and performers — including Mahogany — purchased the Stud in 2017, seemingly saving it from the guillotine. The gang did everything from serving booze to checking coats to fixing the plumbing to acting as security, funneling as much revenue as possible toward the $13,000 monthly rent. The collective brought in a younger crowd with drag shows like Some Thing, which offered outside-of-the-box queens and newbies — a craft table let people create their costumes on the spot — a place to perform.
Like many other performance spaces, the Stud turned to online drag performances and DJ sets in March — a series of shows viewed the world over that culminated with the marathon farewell in May. “The creativity and community that happens in spaces like the Stud and other queer bars in SoMa isn’t about the value of the land underneath or the ‘air rights’ above,” says Soehnlein. “The enemy of nightlife is real estate.”
What the Stud was
It’s hard to grasp entirely over LAN lines and 1080p resolution video what makes the Stud, noted for its dance floor that rumbles until the early A.M., uncommonly good. It’s also hard to partake in the middle-fingerness of it all — the onstage sex, the avant-garde performances, the almost unnerving friendliness of its patrons — in the comments section of a livestream performance, or feel a part of the inclusiveness when you’re stuck behind a computer screen.
Björk and Lady Gaga hung out there during midnight shows, during which the hostess, Heklina, would routinely rim one willing lad plucked from the audience. The club’s flagrant bathrooms (which, regrettably, I only ever stumbled into in order to illicitly compose myself via the bottom of a baggie after drinking well beyond my unwell body’s breaking point) doubled as a sex closet in between songs, where two to three patrons could quickly get off. There was even a spot outside, appropriately near the garbage bins, frequented by former patrons permanently booted for bad behavior, who, in varying shades of sobriety, turned this area into an alfresco auxiliary club for exile commiseration.
“It was eccentric and exciting, but in the most lowbrow sort of way, full of freaks, fashion, and eclectic music,” says More, who held a Wednesday-night party at the Stud. “For a kid who always felt like the oddball growing up, this place welcomed me with open arms. I had found a place where my difference was expected.”
The neighborhood, once considered the Castro’s beautifully damaged stepsister, was where you went to get away from the former’s more buttoned-up — and sometimes racist — atmosphere, to escape venues that catered to rich white gay men, like the short-lived, Peter Thiel-funded Yass social club. After all, SoMa is where open-air trough parties at the Eagle are de rigueur. It’s also the home of the Up Your Alley Fair, an annual bacchanalia where, among other coarse spectacles, exhibitionists performing in Victorian bay-window alcoves shoot their ejaculate onto the giddy crowd below. Debauchery with a wink was always on the menu.
“The first party I ever produced and threw at the Stud was Hoe Is Life,” says Nicki Jizz, whose weekly event put queens of color up front. “It grew into this amazing party [that was] produced by POC ... and fostered growth in the Queer and Trans People of Color community — a safe space to be a ho and dance.”
The vibe the club gives off “isn’t attached to the building,” Jizz says. The club is “part of the people who work there and own the place.”
Noting that the Stud is very much a counterculture type of bar, Mahogany says, “We are a space for everyone, and not a club for a particular type of crowd. We have always been welcoming of all types of folks.
“We want experimental drag and music alive in San Francisco,” she says. Understandably so: The Stud was also one of the first places in the city to play disco and punk rock in the 1970s.
She also notes that, except on drag competition nights, when the bar was swollen at the seams, business across the board wasn’t as brisk.
“In the mid-2010s, nightlife slowed down a bit, particularly in queer bars,” says Mahogany.
This was especially evident in SoMa, where pricey, antiseptic housing developments sprang up next door to gritty queer establishments like the Powerhouse, the Eagle, and even the Stud.
“Developers have built these huge high-end condos that the average person can’t afford,” says Jizz. “They even added a Target!”
A faint death knell for SoMa’s sex and grit came in the form of a commendation from City Hall in 2018, when it was formally designated as the Leather and LGBTQ Cultural District. To mark the occasion, the neighborhood was honored with a new plaza “designed for both active and passive recreation” (still no comment as to what exactly that means), with open, hardscape areas that can host neighborhood gatherings, events, and performances. All of which, one day, will feature the leather Pride flag flying high during the day — a feeble gesture when the establishments that made SoMa are shutting down left and right.
The Stud goes online
San Francisco witching-hour locales, whose livelihoods depend on crowds, have not fared well during quarantine. Art-house cinemas like the Roxie Theater and the Castro Theatre have had to screen virtual films while relying on the generosity of strangers. The same goes for noted venues like the American Conservatory Theater, which filmed entire productions for at-home audiences. It’s worse for indie music venues: According to a poll conducted by the National Independent Venue Association, which includes owners and concert promoters across the country, 90 percent of these spaces are expected to shutter if shutdowns continue.
For the Stud, social-distancing programming took the form of live DJ-ing and cabaret-themed shows streamed online. The club’s Friday show, called Drag Alive, moved online at the start of the pandemic with a Twitch stream featuring eight to ten performances, ranging from zany to sublime, which gained more and more viewers as the lockdown dragged on.
The nightclub has more than 9,000 subscribers to its Twitch channel, with each livecast show averaging about 550 to 600 viewers throughout the broadcast. “We ask for a $10 cover-charge donation as well as tips for the performers,” says Marke Bieschke, a local journalist and one of the club’s owners. “Compared to our 250 IRL club capacity, you can see the new possibilities.”
The shows — put together with a lot of spirit and pluck and little of the overproduced polish found at less interesting drag venues — offered not only performances, but gave viewers a peek inside the performers’ homes. Queens, local and international, would film lip-sync routines — while decked out in either full regalia or just a torn shirt and a smear of eyeliner — inside their bedrooms, living rooms, or hallways.
Most notably, performing artist Fauxnique, a.k.a. Monique Jenkinson, the first faux queen to win a major drag pageant, performed a routine to the Orb’s ambient masterpiece “Little Fluffy Clouds” on her sun-drenched rooftop.
Although viewers could tip performers (the queens’ Venmo account names were noted on the screen during performances) and send donations to the Stud too, the virtual shows weren’t enough to keep the business afloat — not during the COVID era, not with record job losses, not with a stratospheric amount of money due each month. While these Zoom-esque gatherings can convey some sense of places like the Stud to a greater number of people, it has been a valiant but likely doomed effort to stave off the inevitable.
The gaggle of owners want to raise a whopping $500,000 (at least) to move somewhere else in the neighborhood, close to the other still-standing freaky queer clubs and watering holes. After all, neighborhoods like SoMa, an area so synonymous with kink that it has two annual festivals dedicated to it, are hard to come by in San Francisco. Without people packed at the bar IRL trying to order $5 drinks, no amount of streaming views can save what is, in essence, a neighborhood bar that has lost its neighborhood.
Although the neighborhood had changed, and the Leather District received its bureaucratic recognition, the Stud remained the Stud. And although nightlife slowed down overwhelmingly at the city’s queen establishments, the Stud remained quite busy. Because there was nothing else like it. Add in Senator Scott Wiener, who’s been trying to pass a bill allowing California bars to serve hooch and stay open past the puritanical hour of 2 a.m., as well as BART’s willingness to roll into the early hours of the morning, and both the club and the neighborhood seemed poised for a late-night renaissance. The two seemingly small changes could’ve helped bolster the industry that rakes in $6 billion annually.
Then the world changed.
Although the success of the online show — and, in general, the power of the internet — shows that queer culture is more accessible, extending beyond a brick-and-mortar space, it’s hard to imagine the Stud in any other neighborhood. For many of its regulars and longtime performers, it’s impossible to imagine it dying the death of so many venues before it.
But the Stud can’t die — not yet. Not in the face of a new civil-rights era. Not as one of the country’s most expensive cities braces for an economic reckoning. In an act of defiance and a move akin to an emergency-room doctor performing a resuscitation, shortly after the Stud announced its closure, a handful of its collective members scaled the venue walls and climbed its rooftop, unfurling a big white banner reading “This is not the end!”