This article is the first in a monthly series about the lesbian entertainment scene in various cities. This month we start off in San Francisco; come back next month for a trip to Los Angeles.
Scene 1: Queer Women of Color Film Festival
Filmmakers Tina Mabry (left) and Shari Frilot
In the cool quiet of the Brava Theater in San Francisco’s Mission District, stage lights shone brightly down on a panel of five women — three filmmakers, two moderators, all queer women of color. "I grew up in Denver, and Denver was very white at the time," said Shari Frilot, explaining how she came to be a filmmaker.
"You were either Mexican — of Mexican descent — black or white, and I’m Puerto Rican-Creole; I always slipped through the cracks." Frilot’s tight, dark brown curls were pulled back from her face with a headband. "I was always told I was not this or not that, and I just grew up defining myself as a string of nots, and it was driving me crazy after awhile."
As a student, she discovered quantum physics and learned that physicists were frustrated by trying to understand elemental particles, which had a sort of split identity. "I was like, ‘That sounds like me!’" she recalled. "And so I started making movies about science and how science related to identity. … Basically using science as a springboard to investigate sexuality."
Shortly after graduating from Harvard with her B.A., Frilot made the documentary A Cosmic Demonstration of Sexuality (1992), linking female sexuality with the atom. She is now a senior programmer at the Sundance Film Festival.
For fellow panelist Cheryl Dunye, who made The Watermelon Woman and Stranger Inside, her choice to be a filmmaker came out of a desire to see herself on-screen. "Nobody else was going to do it for me," she said bluntly.
For women of color who also happen to be queer, finding images like yourself on television or in film can be a life-changing experience. For some women, who turn out to be filmmakers or musicians or writers, that experience translates into the desire to make more of them.
At the third annual Queer Women of Color Film Festival that weekend, I was surrounded by women who looked like me, and the feeling — even in San Francisco — was at times surprisingly unfamiliar.
After the panel, at the reception upstairs in the renovated theater, the panelists and audience members — many of them young, queer, Asian, black — munched on Asian hors d’oeuvres, sipped cocktails and traded business cards. The Brava Theater, which was originally known as the Roosevelt when it housed vaudeville shows in 1926, eventually became a neighborhood movie theater, showing movies that these days would run on basic cable.
In 2000, when the building was being renovated by Brava! for Women in the Arts, a theater that specializes in premiering work by women of color and lesbians, a plaster-and-gilt mural was uncovered beneath a 50-year-old wall. The mural showed San Francisco as a port town: ships, the Golden Gate Bridge, grape growers and workers.
These days, the Mission is no longer heavily Irish, as it was when the Roosevelt was first built. It is now home to a large Latino community, but others have begun to poach on their territory: hipster artists, who throng the trendy boutiques on Valencia, and lesbians, with their vegan restaurants, dive bars and once-a-month club nights. But we all come together to buy burritos at 2 a.m. at the Taqueria Cancun.
The lesbians who gathered that Saturday afternoon to listen to queer black women talk about filmmaking were eager to share their experiences with making movies. Some were planning to launch an online distribution company to bring films about queer women of color around the world. Others offered support by suggesting that filmmakers apply for grants from various organizations.
But Frilot offered the most fairy tale-like advice: "If you follow your heart and be original, you’d be surprised how much people want to work with you."
Perhaps that’s what we all need to hear, as often as possible.
Scene 2: Girl in a Coma
Jenn Alva of Girl in a Coma
The concert was supposed to start at 9 p.m., but by 10:00 the vast, warehouse-like space of Fat City, a SoMa venue that houses rotating club nights and a variety of performances, was still largely deserted. The members of Girl in a Coma, a three-woman band from San Antonio, lingered near the only seating in the cavernous club, waiting to go onstage.
Earlier in the evening I met with them while the bartenders were stacking plastic cups in preparation for the night’s event, a monthly queer club called Cock Block. "Tonight’s event is a lesbian club," I said to them. "Have you played many of them?"
"No, actually, this is the first," said Phanie Diaz, the band’s 27-year-old drummer. With her round face and casual demeanor, she didn’t look much like her sister, 19-year-old lead singer Nina Diaz. Nina wore a shock of pink eyeshadow and thick eyeliner, her lips painted dark. She had the look of a sultry rock star in the making, but she still admitted to missing her mother while they were on the road.
Girl in a Coma, which was signed to Joan Jett’s Blackheart Records last year, was about a month into a two-month tour. After a brief break in early July, they’re scheduled to join Warped — a music tour sponsored by Vans featuring dozens of skate-punk and rock bands — for several dates.
So far, they’ve played mostly smaller bars and clubs. I asked them if they had racked up any interesting tour stories yet, and Phanie answered, "We get the usual guy groping — like some guy slapped Nina on the ass, and Jenn got to throw a drink on him."
Jenn Alva, 27, is the band’s bass player. "The classic beer splash," she put in. "I finally got to do it, so I can check that off my list."
Jenn wore her hair in a hipster cut, spiked up in parts with long, Elvis-like sideburns. She is a lesbian. "It’s something that I’m proud of, but at the same time I don’t really talk about it," she said, "’cause it’s just about music. Rock and roll, that’s it."
The band has struggled to avoid labeling themselves — they are also an all-Latina band — and their music does cross genres. Onstage they know how to rock out, but Nina’s voice sounds like it’s been influenced by New Wave singers from the early ’80s: She makes her voice yearn, even when she’s kicking around onstage, slashing against her electric guitar.
By the time they finally began playing, it was an hour and half past the time the flyer said the show would begin, and the audience was still sparsely spread over the broad dancefloor. It was clear, as Girl in a Coma kicked off their hour-long set, that the patrons had come for Cock Block, not a rock band.
As the band went through their tracks — the initially dreamy, then pop-charged "Clumsy Sky," the staccato vocals of "Say," the highway-ready "Road to Home" — young women began to arrive at the club.
They were dressed in skinny jeans and studded belts, Converse sneakers and narrow ties, billowing peasant blouses belted over miniskirts and leggings. They were more interested in each other — and their artfully arranged hairstyles that suggested the windblown fantasies of Flock of Seagulls — than the band.
Once Girl in a Coma opened for the Pogues, and when they were asked what they wanted in their concert rider, the humble threesome requested Bud Light and fruit.
"It freaked ‘em out," said Phanie. "They were like, ‘That’s it?’"
I asked them what they would ask for next time they have the option of demanding treats before a performance. "Tea," said Nina.
"Hummus," said Jenn. All three are vegetarians.
"Hummus, definitely," Nina agreed. "I’m hungry," she said. Everyone laughed.
For their last number, Nina acknowledged the crowd’s restlessness. "I know you all want to dance," she told them. The crowd cheered as the band tore through their last song, and when they left the stage, the DJ queued up the first beats.
The young, hipster crowd shifted, eyeing each other as the lights began to flash. I wondered if Girl in a Coma was going out for hummus.