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On May 20, The Stud announced its permanent closure at 399 Ninth St. Financial strain wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic had claimed another business; San Francisco was to lose its oldest gay bar.
A month later — in the middle of Pride — the building’s colorful mural, painted in 2017 by Xara Thustra, Monica Canilao and You Go Girl, had been covered in beige. Renegade graffiti artists responded by painting a pink triangle on the former Stud’s exterior with the words, “Black lives matter. We will not be erased!”
Since 1966, The Stud has been an iconic host to leagues of LGBT artists, musicians, drag performers, activists, and innovators. As high-profile tech companies steadily encroached on the SoMa district in recent years, the preservation of The Stud and its cultural ilk became all the more imperative.
Nevertheless, rent hikes in the area continued to threaten the bar’s existence.
In 2016, original Stud owners Alex Muir and George Mason announced that closure was imminent. The panic that ensued inspired The Stud Collective, an 18-member cooperative that pooled its resources in order to revive and refresh the historic venue. This community-driven change of hands established The Stud as the first worker-owned cooperative queer bar in the United States.
“The Stud has always been on the cutting edge,” reads the collective’s statement on its Patreon page. “It was one of the first bars in the area to offer health insurance, allegedly the first queer bar in SF to play punk music, and has been the home to legendary and local legendary musical and drag performances — from Etta James to Sylvester to Ana Matronic to Juanita MORE!”
One particularly active Stud Collective member is Honey Mahogany, known for her service on the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee (SF DCCC) and her kick-ass performances on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
She is also the co-founder of Compton’s Transgender Cultural District, “the first legally recognized transgender district in the world,” located in the southeast Tenderloin neighborhood. The designation of this district underlines a commitment to supporting the lives and culture of transgender residents who have historically occupied the area.
On the eve of Pride weekend (which she would be virtually hosting), Honey discusses the importance of this preservational work, queer solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and the future of The Stud.
As a native San Franciscan, when did you initially discover The Stud?
Mahogany: I first came across the Stud as a child. I don’t know how old. All I know is that I have an image in my mind of coming off the freeway and, as soon as we exited, seeing that rainbow flag with the word “STUD” in huge black and white letters right below it on top of that dark little building.
How did The Stud Collective acquire the business? How did this collective ownership influence The Stud?
Mahogany: We are all fans and patrons. Many of us feel a deep tie and a sense of kinship to the place and, for some of us, to each other. At the time, we figured out how we could pool our resources and set ourselves up to buy the business and liquor license from the previous owner who was calling it quits after decades of holding down the fort. We spent months and countless hours working out and establishing the processes and structures that would help guide the Collective, and we also really dived into the details of what kind of place we wanted the Stud to be — how we wanted to bring forward the legacy of the Stud and how we could make it even more Studly. At the center of those conversations was making sure that the Stud would be the most inclusive space possible; that we centered women, trans folks, and people of color in our conversations around inclusion; that it would be the queerest place possible, and that we prioritize creativity and community over profit as best we could.
How did it feel to have more than 2,000 viewers tune in to the virtual Drag Funeral in honor of The Stud?
Mahogany: Honestly, I wasn’t surprised. The Stud has touched so many lives over the years. It has been in many ways the quintesential San Francisco queer bar. Funky and dated, but also hip. It has one foot firmly planted in the past with a finger on the pulse of both what is now and just ahead into the future. The Stud has inspired so many people to start doing drag, it has provided a stage for creativity and a dance floor for release. Oftentimes the two would blend together. Many people have shared stories about finding love at the Stud — for having any number of firsts — I was grateful that so many people tuned in to our funeral. Grateful, but not surprised.
You have expressed that cultural preservation work is necessary, especially among marginalized communities. How do you anticipate queer spaces will evolve in economically untenable cities, like San Francisco?
Mahogany: This is an excellent question. I think that COVID-19 has shown that virtual communities can be built and used to sustain connection. I believe we will see these virtual events, especially drag shows, continue on, perhaps into perpetuity. I do hope that this current recession will lead to the falling of commercial rents and that queer spaces will become easier to establish and keep open. I also hope that we see a movement toward more community ownership and perhaps public stewardship of queer spaces, so that they can be preserved for generations to come and continue to be a part of the cultural matrix of our city.
The alliance among LGBT activists and Black Lives Matter protesters is a powerful one, as both groups (and especially those who exist at their intersection) have been subject to discriminatory persecution by the police. The recent Black Trans Lives Matter rally in Brooklyn exemplified this intersectionality. How do you believe Pride month has been reimagined this year, in light of recent events?
Mahogany: I think that the queers of today are finally starting to get the message that Pride started as a protest. What we are seeing today isn’t so different from what was happening in the ’60s. Dr. Huey Newton, a leader of the Black Panthers, called for this type of intersectional work way back then! Fun fact, the historian Dr. Susan Stryker told me that shortly after Dr. Newton made his speech, the Black Panthers met with the Gay Liberation Front for the first time at The Stud, back when it was located on Folsom Street. That blew my mind. In regards to how Pride will be different this year? I think that we will be seeing more messages of solidarity with people of color and specifically Black people. I think we will see Black performers and leaders uplifted. My hope is that this will soon turn to real action and change that lasts beyond the protests. That translates into businesses, nonprofits, and corporations providing leadership pipelines for Black people and Black trans people; that translates into reforms in our justice system and our laws; there is so much more that needs to be done beyond protesting.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently outlawed firing employees on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. How will this ruling affect the momentum of Pride this month?
Mahogany: That is a huge deal and something we should be celebrating. But that win is somewhat tempered by the Trump administration’s announcement that they will allow health care providers and health insurance companies to discriminate against trans people. And that HUD Secretary Ben Carson has said that they will allow homeless services providers to deny shelter access to trans people. The Supreme Court decision is monumental, but we are still facing an onslaught of attacks at a time when we’re just trying to survive, during the worst pandemic we’ve seen in a hundred years, during the worst economic downturn we’ve seen since the Great Depression. It’s crazy.
As founder of Compton’s Transgender Cultural District and a member of the SF DCCC, what is your current driving focus or goal?
Mahogany: My current focus and goal is to fight to bring sanity and equity into politics. Representation matters. Time and again, I see people making decisions or doing things that I know is actively hurting my community. And I also see people in positions of power who could do something to help, but have other priorities. I got tired of waiting for other people to do things, so I just did them myself. I also recognize that I’ve been lucky in some ways and given the opportunity to have a platform. I think that this is the best way that I can use it. My bringing attention to issues of inequity and fighting to make a difference. I feel like that is my driving force.
What does The Stud Collective have in store for the future?
Mahogany: We are currently continuing to expand programming on our Drag Alive channel on twitch.tv We also have launched a Patreon account with exclusive Stud content. We, of course, also have our Stud Store with lots of really cute merchandise. But my favorite new venture is our podcast Stud Stories, which highlights the history of the Stud and the people, things, and movements that have made it so special over the years and ties it really beautifully into what is happening today in the world around us. I’ve gotten to host and co-host a few episodes, and I really love it. We are, of course, also doing all of this to help us raise funds to open at a new location one day. We want to stay in San Francisco and, specifically in SoMa, if at all possible. But it’s going to take raising at least half a million dollars before we can do that.
How can we celebrate the legacy of The Stud?
Mahogany: Be unapologetically queer and radical and creative. Be yourself. And fight to make sure that everyone else can do the same. Support queer spaces, and queer bars and artists. Also, you’d look really cute doing that in a Stud sweatshirt while watching Drag Alive on our Twitch channel and simultaneously subscribing to our Patreon so you can get an advance listen of our podcast. Just sayin’!