Arizona State University
$5,000 Scholarship and Hearst Medallion
A Dress for Me
Since 1987, the drag crew at Aunt Charlie’s Lounge has entertained San Franciscans with lustrous, boasting performances set to the tune of classic hits and more recent pop songs.
Fervent support from locals and curious visitors allowed Aunt Charlie’s to withstand cultural and economic pressures that pushed many other businesses aside throughout the years. As the last remaining gay dive bar in the Tenderloin, it stands out as one of the few institutions of a bygone era when artists, musicians, immigrants, and LGBTQ individuals flocked to the Tenderloin to live and create in a non-judgmental enclave.
The decision to drag is a personal one, as each performer’s motivation is rooted in individual histories and experiences. But on any given night, the girls from Aunt Charlie’s challenge rigid gender expectations, inevitably advocating for a more inclusive and accepting society.
Today, their stories and performances serve as an act of defiance in the face of legislative assaults in many parts of the country attempting to limit sexual freedoms and gender expressions that do not fit predominant views.
Olivia, who is a senior member of the Hot Boxxx Girls crew, stops to talk with some passersby in the Castro district who recognize her from one of her shows at Aunt Charlie’s and other venues in San Francisco on Saturday afternoon, May 21, 2022. Over the years, she has become known in the community partly because of her performances and in part for her extensive fundraising work supporting the LGBTQ community.
Olivia Hart, also known as Frank, applies some light makeup on her face at her apartment in San Francisco in preparation for a charity event in the Castro district on Saturday, May 21, 2022. Frank started dressing up when he was four years old but began his career as a performer in his late 30s after coming out to his family and leaving his wife. When dressed up as Olivia, Frank adopts a female identity while acknowledging, “I am not a female illusionist, I am a drag queen, still a man in a dress.”
Carla Gay slips into a tight, glittery cocktail dress in the small crowded dressing room at Aunt Charlie’s before making her first appearance in the Saturday show as the night’s emcee in San Francisco on May 21, 2022. Carla, who is originally from Mexico and moved to California in the late 80s, is known in the drag community as a legend for both her performances and her advocacy for transgender rights. While she began her career as a drag performer in Mexico, she says the culture of “Machismo” that defines the country made it extremely hard for her to pursue this path; moving to California opened possibilities she would otherwise not have had.
Rahni NothingMore adjusts her wig in the dressing room at Aunt Charlie’s Lounge before making her way on stage in San Francisco on Friday, May 20, 2022.
Donna Personna, right, takes a break in the dressing room in between sets at Aunt Charlie’s Lounge in San Francisco on Friday, May 20, 2022. While at 75, she is one of the oldest drag in town, she began her career only in her late 50s. Today, she has performed in over a hundred venues across the country, including the prestigious Lincoln Center in New York City; she has starred in three movies and has lectured university students about the history of the transgender movement and drag. “I used to have massive stage fright,” she says as she points out the empowering feeling she gets from performing today.
Mary, right, performs her first set of the night in a dress she sewed herself at Aunt Charlie’s Lounge in San Francisco on Friday, May 20, 2022. On Fridays and Saturdays, when the Hot Boxxx Girls are set to play, the bar is often fully booked days in advance due to the crew’s popularity with both locals and visitors.
Sheena Rose makes her second appearance of the night at Aunt Charlie’s Lounge in San Francisco on Saturday, May 21, 2022. Sheena has dressed up for over 17 years, mostly at weekend shows such as those with the Hot Boxxx Girls crew. “Before drag, I was shy and guarded about what other people thought of me,” she says “today, I am much more confident and comfortable with who I am.”
Olivia Hart changes the playlist for the upcoming performer in the back of Aunt Charlie’s Lounge in San Francisco on Friday night, May 20, 2022. Each member of the drag crew prepares a separate playlist ranging from old hits to more recent pop songs.
Olivia Hart thanks a cheering audience for the round of applause at the end of the Friday show on May 20, 2022, after donning her wig to reveal her bald head and her other identity, a ritual she performs each night at Aunt Charlie’s in San Francisco.
Olivia Hart walks through the Tenderloin District in San Francisco on her way to work as some heads turn to look at her figure on Saturday, May 21, 2022. Aunt Charlie’s stands out as the last gay bar in the Tenderloin, a neighborhood that once was a cultural hub of the LGBTQ community in the city but has recently witnessed widespread gentrification driven by the flourishing of the tech industry in town.