Drag queens are the stars of a new San Diego History Center exhibit

Curator Lillian Faderman stands among the costumed mannequins featured in the "Legendary Drag Queens of San Diego" exhibit at the San Diego History Center.
Curator Lillian Faderman stands among the costumed mannequins featured in the “Legendary Drag Queens of San Diego” exhibit at the San Diego History Center.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

There will be no shortage of sequins at the San Diego History Center’s new “Legendary Drag Queens of San Diego” exhibition. There will be no lack of lashes and no disco deficit. And do not even think about fabulosity fails.

The drag queens in the History Center spotlight — Tootie, Glitz Glam, Franceska, Lala Too, Paris Sukomi Max, Chad Michaels, Norma, Babette Schwartz, Empress Nicole the Great and the world-famous RuPaul — are the epitome of the old razzle-dazzle. But that’s not all they are.

“They aim for and are very glamorous and glitzy, but they are serious people,” said Lillian Faderman, the noted LGBTQ historian and author who curated the new exhibit with the Imperial Court de San Diego. “They are very intent on doing good. Not just for the LGBTQ community, but for the larger community as well. We want people to understand that they aren’t some tiny hidden group of men dressed in women’s clothes.”

The “Legendary Drag Queens of San Diego” opens on Saturday and runs through Sept. 8. It features mannequins dressed up in costumes worn by the legendary drag queens, display panels telling the history of drag entertainment and the local drag-queen and drag-king scenes, and a memorial wall honoring the local drag entertainers who are no longer with us. Former San Diego resident and Emmy-winning drag queen RuPaul gets a panel all to himself.

The drag-queen exhibition is an addition to “LGBTQ+ San Diego: Stories of Struggles + Triumphs,” which opened at the History Center last July and runs through January 20. The drag-queen tribute was created to honor the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the six days of protests and violent clashes with the police that broke out after the June 28, 1969, raid of the Stonewall Inn, a pioneering gay club in New York City’s Greenwich Village. In the wake of the riots and the protests, a movement found its voice. And it has been making history-changing noise ever since.

“It was really the start, not of the gay-rights movement, but of the contemporary gay-rights movement,” Faderman said. “Every movement needs an iconic moment, and Stonewall was a single event you could point to that triggered a lot of other things.”

And what better way to pay tribute to this iconic moment than with a movement that was powered by icons?

In 1968, one year before Stonewall, the Show Biz Supper Club opened in Hillcrest. It was San Diego’s first drag nightclub, and in the proud, longstanding tradition of vaudeville performers like Ko Vert and the 1930s entertainers at New York’s Pansy Club, the cross-dressing men of the Show Biz Supper Club were a hit with everyone from straight tourists to the city’s movers and shakers.

“A majority of the audience was heterosexual,” said Nicole Murray Ramirez, a longtime local Latino gay activist who — as Empress Nicole the Great, Queen Mother 1 of the Americas of the International Imperial Court System — is one of the exhibit’s legendary drag queens.

“Honestly, it seems like the heterosexual community has always accepted drag for the art and performance that it is. It is a vehicle for entertainment. It is an art form that has been here since the Greeks and Shakespeare, when men dressed as women on stage.”

And with those stage performances came power. Power to organize, power to make money and power to raise money.

In 1974, the Imperial Court de San Diego was formed. It was the local chapter of the International Imperial Court System, which is one of the oldest and largest LGBT organizations in the world. And like its fellow courts, the San Diego chapter holds an annual coronation-ball gala and other events that raise money for many charities.

When the AIDS crisis hit, the local drag-queen community was quick to step up. One of San Diego’s first AIDS benefits was a drag show at BJ’s bar. Drag queens raised money for San Diego’s first Gay Pride marches. They helped provide food and medical care for members of the gay community struggling with AIDS. And when they had to, they raised money for burials. For the drag queens featured in the History Center’s exhibition, giving back comes with the glamorous territory. The list of organizations that have benefited from their financial and moral support includes Mama’s Kitchen, the Matthew Shepard Foundation, the San Diego LGBT Community Center, Stepping Stone and San Diego LGBT Pride.

So when you visit the “Legendary Drag Queens of San Diego” exhibition, please feast your eyes on the gowns and the wigs and all that sparkle. But like the queens themselves, make sure you leave room on your plate for substance.

“I have not met any queens who don’t have a heart of gold,” said Murray Ramirez, who has served as a San Diego City Commissioner and on the national boards of many LGBTQ organizations. “It is in our DNA. We realized that the fight for equality for the LGBTQ community is the last civil rights movement of the century, and we all have to be involved. In every city, there is always a Nicole somewhere saying, ‘All right girlfriend, we have to do this.’

“It’s just what we do.”