Walking into the club proved to be an experience in and of itself, and opening the door to an array of lights and music resonating through the room only added to the ambiance of Ego. The first thing I saw was the dancer on stage, performing in the early drag show, which the club hosts every Thursday.
Amongst the multicolored flashing lights and the bass reverberating through the walls of the club, the show was in mid-swing. While Ego gave an individual experience in the world of drag culture, I was more curious about what happens beyond the stage. I was interested in the mechanics of such an industry, particularly in such an LGBT-friendly area. Coming from San Francisco myself, I’ve spent time in the Castro District,– an area adorned with rainbow flags and rainbow crosswalks, and I’ve seen a myriad of drag performances during the San Francisco Pride Parade too. Never before, however, have I seen a scheduled performance on its own home turf.
I went in expecting a production, but instead I was greeted with a community. As opposed to what I’d heard about, Ego wasn’t packed, but rather contained a few dozen spectators as they crowded up near the stage, enthralled in the performance. The earlier show consisted of a greater number of drag queens, each creating a persona through their performance. Music spanning genres from heavy metal to pop blasted from the speakers, with the ‘Ego Girls’, or hosts for the night, speaking to the audience between the performances.
I ended up speaking to one of these Ego Girls during a performance break. Walking up to the drag queen, dressed in a neon, multi-colored leotard and sporting a bright green wig, was nerve wracking. However, upon introducing myself to Kira Stone, she immediately gave me a way to contact her, even joking around with the bartender she had just been having a conversation with. As an interesting sidenote, she mentioned the bartender wasn’t a part of the LGBT community, which opened my eyes to just how widespread LGBT culture is, particularly the world of drag. If it was exclusive in the past, it’s now growing much more widespread and becoming an environment welcoming people from all different backgrounds, sexualities, and genders. What interested me was how other first-timers at Ego perceived it as well, and whether their experiences aligned with mine.
How was the show different from what you expected?
Matthew* (‘21): So I would say that I was expecting it to be a lot more over the top and definitely a lot more sexual. It was honestly pretty toned down but I suspect that was because it wouldn’t have been in good form to have gone super wild in the name of charity.
Kevin* (‘21): At first glance, I thought Ego was going to be a hyper-sexual environment filled with people who were shallow and who just wanted to show off their physical features. The only knowledge I had of gay clubs was that from movies I had seen in the past, so I had a negative preconceived idea of what it would be like. The experience I had with was quite different from what I originally thought. It was a lot more diverse and not predominantly white.
Do you think the media represents drag in a similar way to what you saw at Ego?
Matthew: I would say the same since [RuPaul’s Drag Race] was what I was basing my expectations off of, but a lot more toned down.
Kevin: The drag environment at Ego is different than the portrayal of Drag Queens in RuPaul’s. Ego’s drag queens are beginners at what they are doing. They lack much of the charisma and character that is brought by the personalities of RuPaul’s. Ego’s queens are the trainee’s while RuPaul’s queens are professionals at what they do. Overall, it was an enjoyable experience to watch, but based on what I know of the show, I had high expectations that weren’t met by the performances at Ego.
Do you think LGBT culture and drag are inherently intertwined? And did your opinion on that change from before to after the show?
Matthew: So I would say that I think drag is intertwined with gay culture and I don’t think my opinion changed on that.
Kevin: LGBT culture and Drag culture are two separate communities. Although both have many similarities, I believe they are two different groups of other individual support systems. I think drag culture can be branched out from the LGBT community, but it also has an environment of its own.
Do you have anything else to add about your overall first experience?
Matthew: I was really hoping for the over the top type experience that Drag Race shows so I was a little disappointed when this show didn’t really have that.
Kevin: As a member of the LGBT community, I say that there is a different aura presented at Drag shows that I won’t be able to receive anywhere else, which is why I enjoy being an observer of such a thing.
Something that interests me in particular is the intersectionality between various aspects of the LGBT community. Events such as the drag shows at Ego are a near perfect incubator for these ideas and relationships between different members of the LGBT community to form. The community seems to resemble a family much more than it resembles a mass production: everyone knows everyone– even the visitors who don’t work at the club but simply watch the shows. By the end of the night, I found myself knowing the names of numerous queens, especially as they joined the audience to watch their co-workers perform after they were finished. It seems to me from the responses in the interviews, a popular opinion that conflicted with mine was that a more performative show would have been preferred. However, the consensus on the feeling of Ego’s drag performances being smaller and more intimate leads to a confirmation of community.
There remains something intangible about visiting a group you aren’t fully a part of– a missing piece you cannot help but grasp at while it remains just out of reach. Perhaps it would take weeks, months– even years– to fully incorporate oneself into the atmosphere at Ego, but even being there as a newcomer I felt welcomed; I could see how simple it would be to fall into the comfort of the circle, whether as a part of the audience or a permanent part of the staff. From the way the students I interviewed responded, the general agreement was that what was expected to be a performative and hyper-sexual environment turned out to be more toned down and familial than expected.
* the names of the students interviewed have been changed for their anonymity
Photographs by Miranda McDermott
Edited by Kahini Mehta