Hey, I’m Honey Mahogany

Honey Mahogany made a name for herself, appearing on the fifth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, representing the drag culture of her hometown of San Francisco. Parodied by editors of the show for her choice in wearing caftans and for not fitting into a certain mold expected of Black drag queens, Honey has made greater prominence, first, by not desiring to “fit in” and simply be her true authentic self as a non-binary trans woman and drag performer, and, secondly, by showing she can do more than strut in a gold lamé dress, bodice and matching mesh headpiece. She can organize. She can fight to protect the rights of marginalized communities. She can even run for public office and win.

Born to immigrants who escaped persecution from Ethiopia, it is perhaps no surprise why there is so much dimension to Honey. The American Dream is not a slogan, it’s a cherished and lived experience. Her upbringing in a family with collectivistic cultural roots and having attended a Jesuit school reinforced ideas to think beyond herself. Those experiences fostered notions that while individuality is key in creating a sense of self, community is the centerpiece that gives that self purpose and a true sense of belonging. It inspired her professional pursuits into social work where she led the Rainbow Community Center of Contra Costa County (RCC) as its community mental health director. There, she not only saw the suffering of those living at the fringes of society in homelessness and drug use, but the beauty that can come from transformation when instead of throwing in the towel, through focused efforts, you can bring about a sea change.

Honey realized this not only at the personal level of those that fell into her care, but more socially and culturally as well. She, along with a group of other LGBTQ leaders at various institutions and non-profits, including Aria Sa’id, Janetta Johnson, Brian Basinger, Stephany Ashley, and Nathan Albee were successful in creating the Compton’s Transgender Cultural District in San Francisco’s Tenderloin community. This first-of-its-kind initiative was an effort to preserve the buildings and the heritage of this area that was so pivotal to the Compton Cafeteria Riots and the LGBT Liberation Movement, and a safe haven for many in the trans community who called it home.

Similarly, Honey and a small group of her colleagues rescued the Stud, a cornerstone of the LGBTQ nightlife in San Francisco that faced closure due to the pandemic, by becoming its co-owners in a cooperative. The depth of her love of San Francisco and honoring its local traditions in the queer community it seems knows no bounds, and, for it, San Franciscans paid her in kind by electing her to the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee (SFDCCC), the first Black transgender person to be elected in public office in the state of California. The SFDCCC is responsible for setting the agenda for the city’s Democratic Party, including the chartering of Democratic clubs and organizing efforts, voter registration, and fundraising.

Regarded favorably for being one of the few RuGirls that can hold her own at the mic rather than lip sync (all thanks to her studies in musical theater), Honey has been singing in her own voice from the beginning, hitting personal and professional notes yet to be achieved by other drag queens. We sat down to talk deeply about her upbringing, the importance of drag culture and the great work that she’s currently doing.

Did your parents discuss the conditions under which they fled Ethiopia?

My parents didn’t discuss it that much. There was some discussion in terms of the oppression that was faced and how they had to flee the country. A lot of it had to do with my father who was against the government at the time. His Ethiopian citizenship was revoked. He ended up losing his scholarship, where he was studying at med school in Greece, because it was on Ethiopian student scholarship. When his citizenship got revoked, he could no longer continue his studies, which forced him to seek asylum. He eventually got it in the U S and then my mother came over with him. I think it definitely did make me appreciate living in a country where that was quote unquote free and, was a democracy, where people had free elections and were able to vote, and that we were able to have differing opinions and different parties. Being a part of the democratic process and having the people hold most of the power was something that we took very seriously.

You studied musical theater in college, and I imagine you must have been quite the entertainer as a child. Where did this passion come from and who, if anyone, inspired you?

It’s probably from my father’s side. My dad had an outgoing personality. My mom was much more reserved. To be honest, I can be very reserved as well, but there is a part of me that loves to perform. My older cousins would tell me that, as a very young child, I was enthralled by Madonna and would just be rolling around on the ground, like her in “Like a Virgin” video. And so, they were always just like, “Well, I guess they like to perform.” I think at a very young age, I also identified very much with more women and female performers. Though, I also loved Michael Jackson because he had that longer hair. I associated that with being more feminine. My mom also says that I was really into Cyndi Lauper, though, I honestly can’t remember that. I was just very much into Whitney Houston, Tina Turner, Madonna and Michael Jackson. Those are the people that I think I drew the most inspiration from as a child, or I should say that, motivated me to want to get up and dance and perform.

What was it like growing up trans in your family?

It was hard because my family was Catholic, very Christian. They weren’t like openly anti-queer, or anti-gay, or, anti-trans or anything like that, but it just wasn’t talked about. And then when it was talked about, it was guarded, sort of like something that you don’t talk about, something-to-be-ashamed-of tone to it, or something to not acknowledge publicly. So, in that sense, I think there was a sense of shame around it. As someone who was assigned male at birth, I think there was a level of shame there as well, especially for my father. My mother always saw me as being sensitive and just wanted to honor and protect that part but then also wanting me to grow up to be like a strong man. And so that definitely played out in a lot of different ways. I would get pushback a lot when I wanted us to do more feminine things like dance or take ballet class. Music, they were supportive of that, because it wasn’t as specifically feminine. But I remember when I wanted to really take ballet class, there was a lot of pushback around that. Although I eventually did it on my own regardless. So, it was very hard, in that sense. I had to keep a lot of it from my family and also didn’t feel like my family supported that part. But at the same time, I think that my family was very loving in general. I felt like I was loved by my family, and I didn’t feel ostracized growing up or anything like that. We were very tight knit.

So, with embracing your true identity, did that happen later in life or earlier in life?

I would say later, like after I went to college. I think especially for people of my generation. It’s very much the norm. People didn’t really come out as much in high school. Well, that’s not true. There were two or three people in my high school who were openly queer, nobody who was openly trans. There were a lot of folks who did not end up coming out until college because, at that point, you can sort of separate yourself from your family and actually have these lived experiences and have conversations with folks in a way that I don’t think you really can in high school. There’s a level of anxiety and fear, but also attachment in high school, where you’re sort of worried about what people think. When people go to college with a fresh start, people are more open to reexamining who they are and how they relate to the world.

Your dad was a cab driver and your mother put herself through school having the quintessential immigrant experience chasing after the American dream. What have you learned or gathered from their industry that has helped to get you where you are today?

My parents taught me that hard work is rewarded and that it very much was certified with the American dream. As immigrants, even though they weren’t tied to some of the historical racism of the United States, they definitely experienced it. Yet, they were able to push past that like many other people, in order to build lives for themselves. I’m very proud that they were able to build a life for themselves and family, buy a house and really build something from nothing. That kind of trickled down to me. I’ve always been the person to put my head down and get to work. I also have always had an attitude of “I can do anything that I put my mind to.” I feel like they’ve passed that onto me, especially my mom. Even with my dad, he did end up pursuing a variety of other things outside of being a taxi driver. Things didn’t always work out for my dad as much, but he was able in the end to provide for his family in a very meaningful way. That sort of hard work ethic and the ability to achieve your dreams, that’s something that I really did take on for my parents.

How did you become interested in drag? And what was happening in between the years you were in college and grad school, where it seems you took a break from drag?

The way that I first did drag was my friend who was in film school at USC, basically approached me and said, “Hey, I would like you to play this part because you’re the only guy that I think would look good as a girl. Will you do this for me?” I had just recently come out as queer. But there was something that really attracted me to that role. I was fascinated by dressing as a woman. And so, I did the role, and it was very well-received and then kept doing drag occasionally, following that first starring film role in the student film department at USC. When I was at USC, I actually was one of the resident advisors for the Rainbow Floor, which at the time either was the only or was one of two LGBT-themed dorms in the country. Then when I went to UC Berkeley for my masters, they were also just getting a program off the ground for LGBT student housing. I became the theme program advisor at UC Berkeley for Unity House. As a part of that programming, I got really involved in producing events and so we decided to produce those student drag shows.

Why have psychology and social work been areas of interest of yours?

I’ve always been interested in how people relate to the world and how we can continue to support people, especially people that need help, whether it be with resources or through counseling. My focus has shifted, but I think in general, it’s always been how we can uplift the community, fight for what’s right and help folks. Some of that probably came from my upbringing, being from a more collectivist culture, but also my experience going to a Jesuit school where the theme was about “being a person for others.” That was something that we’ve heard a lot, and the importance of charitable work. Maybe because I was afraid that who I was was not necessarily acceptable or supported, and I didn’t like how that made me feel. So, I wanted to be able to make sure that other people felt supported regardless of who they were or how they identified because I saw that these systems existed for other communities and maybe weren’t as widely accepted within my own community, which was the LGBT community, especially for LGBT people of color.

How would you sum up your experience as a RuGirl?

Being on RuPaul’s Drag Race is definitely a special experience. Obviously, we all gained notoriety and received a platform from participating in the show. As someone who did drag before RuPaul’s Drag Race was created, I can say it definitely economically empowered a segment of our community to be able to make a living doing drag. It has also changed people’s opinions about what drag is and what drag can do. Drag Race has glamorized drag to an extent, given it a spit polish, if you will. It’s raised its profile in a way that has allowed us as a community to have some tough conversations because Drag Race wanted us to have those conversations and also as a result of things that we would see on the show. Race has become a topic that is oftentimes discussed as a part of the way that Black queens are treated by the fandom and even by the show itself and how queens of color are sort of edited to fit certain tropes and stereotypes.

As a contestant, if we don’t often feel like we fit into those tropes, and if we don’t play these sort of reality TV games, then the edit that we receive is not always the best, because they don’t kind of know what to do with you. I feel like I fell into that category. I don’t blame the show for anything, but I also just don’t feel like I got what I could have gotten out of the show, because I didn’t fit into their idea of what a Black drag queen was. So, I appreciate my time on the show. It’s definitely given me a platform, but I still remain grateful for what the show has done for drag in general and grateful for my platform, but I don’t think I had the most positive experience on the show. I think that there are a lot of girls who feel the same way.

Why is drag important both to entertainers and as an art form?

I think drag is a key part of our culture because it allows us in a very visible way to play with many of the systems of oppression that we have been dealing with. It allows us to make fun of the fact that we don’t fit in and allows us to use arts and creativity and fun to build community. By that, I mean, drag has been at the forefront of fundraising for our community. Whenever it is in need, whether it be during AIDS, whether it be any other sort of issue that the LGBT community has faced, the drag community has been there to uplift those issues, bring attention to them and also raise money for them. This goes back to the very first LGBT nonprofit fundraising organization in the world, which is the Imperial Court System, which was founded in San Francisco by José Saria.

Drag queens are the storytellers of our community as well. We definitely help amplify what is happening now with current music, current numbers, exploring themes through performance that are playing out in the media or in our world today. But they’re also a way preserving our histories and oftentimes drag queens are the ones that are doing some of these old school numbers, whether it be female impersonation of older divas and women throughout history, or even bringing back old tropes and really making us examine what they mean through their performances. So, drag is really versatile in the way that it gives back to the LGBT community and it’s a part of the fabric of our culture.

What's your favorite makeup brand?

I use a lot of different ones. I struggle with that question because there are so many amazing independent makeup companies, including KimChi, Sugarpill that have created really amazing products. In terms of foundation, I have to give it up for MAC because I’ve done FENTY, and I’ve done KVD, and I’ve done all of these other ones – Anastasia Beverly Hills and Juvia. I often find myself going back to MAC because the quality of their products is just so amazing. And they have a range of foundations. It’s probably not very popular anymore, but it was definitely the big makeup company when I first started that we were really able to use besides Ben Nye. It’s still a goodie.

Border states like California are dealing with waves of immigration of folks coming to America for a better life. And I wonder as a Californian and the child of immigrants who fled, how does this affect you personally?

The United States has been a melting pot since the foundation of this country. In terms of immigration, what we’re seeing now is not that different [from] what we’ve seen over the last 500 years, which is that people come to this country looking for a better life. It’s important to acknowledge, obviously, there are people who were here first – our native peoples who are still here – but the fact is that this is a nation of mostly immigrants. I think the issue of immigration is a hot button topic at this point in time because of the tremendous amount of scapegoating that I think has happened because of some of the crazy foreign policy platforms that our government continues to use. I definitely think that there are issues that are real issues when it comes to this country’s foreign relations. The results of many of those policies have led to instability in countries across the globe. So, in some ways I think that the US has been a part of the problem and creating sort of messes across the globe. And so, we definitely need to think about how we are making up for that and how we are supporting communities who are negatively impacted by this type of globalization and interference and how we are supporting immigrants from these countries. Additionally, I think it’s crazy that we, as a nation of immigrants, continue to scapegoat them because we have learned this lesson so many times throughout our history. And, yet, we’re still going back to the same issues, the same mode of operation, which is to blame “the other.”

With so much discourse the last election cycle about banning transgender folks from bathrooms, from seeking asylum from the military and now in women's sports, what has it meant to you in creating a safe space, a whole district as a cultural place in San Francisco's Tenderloin?

Unless we fight to preserve some of its history but also the affordability of the neighborhood and really claim it for ourselves, we could quickly see the continued displacement of our people. This is something that I was able to witness firsthand because working as a social worker, I would see so many people displaced from the Tenderloin, from San Francisco because their building was being torn down and they were in a subsidized housing program and they were being placed out in the East Bay, places where they didn’t have access to public transportation, or didn’t have access to healthcare, or a community and quickly saw them devolve and resort to self-medication through substance abuse and resorting to sex work again, because they couldn’t find other work that was accessible by public transit or near enough to where they lived. So, this level of displacement really was a life-or-death situation.

That’s what led us to found the Transgender Cultural District. We wanted to make sure that we acknowledged the deep history of trans people in San Francisco and the world. A lot of that history has been erased due to white supremacy; an Anglo-prevalent culture has really erased a lot of the diversity of our history. I think that you see this specifically play out in communities of color and in marginalized communities like the LGBT community. For a lot of us, we were not able to congregate openly for a long time and we were forced to only congregate in places like bars and places that were underground and not well-publicized, but that were places that, for our community, were really sacred. Those places, unfortunately, were not preserved. Their histories weren’t preserved, the physical buildings weren’t preserved in the same way that we put effort and money into preserving a lot of those institutions, buildings, and people that we as a predominantly white culture uphold.

What did the achievement ultimately win? What does it mean in practical terms to have a cultural district?

The cultural district does a lot of things: it advocates for community resources, so we negotiate with any incoming developments to make sure that they are providing funding to mitigate the impacts of their displacement to community groups; we fight for the inclusion of more affordable housing within any new developments, whether that be in the development itself or in subsequent developments that are going to be in the district. we create community programming; we’ve hosted spring celebrations within the district on behalf of the transgender community; we currently have a housing program where we subsidize the rents of trans people living in San Francisco to prevent them from being displaced; we also have an entrepreneurship program that we launched that basically provides training for folks who have business ideas, as well as seed funding and support for those looking to implement business ideas within the district.

The trans district has also been very much involved in COVID outreach and work helping to organize testing days within the district for the community and also working with the city to try and do vaccine pop-up events within the district as well. We’ve done all that place-making within this neighborhood, and it’s helped to raise the profile of the trans community and make people be more aware that we are here and that we are an essential part of this community, and that the city celebrates this history and this community.

The pandemic has caused so much harm and loss of life and livelihoods. And I understand that you and your business partners also lost the Stud. What has the Stud meant culturally in San Francisco?

The Stud is a very important part of San Francisco culture. Before its closure, it was the oldest, LGBT nightlife venue left in the city and the oldest continuously operating one. It is emblematic of San Francisco culture in that it was a place where everyone was welcome, and anything goes. People love the Stud because of its “try anything” attitude, where people never knew what to expect. It was a place that was incredibly diverse. Actually, one of the original owners of the Stud was a transgender woman. We, to this day, have a lot of trans people who really consider the Stud their home away from home. We also have very deep connections to a variety of communities, whether it be furries, who had a regular monthly party at the Stud; more body positive parties, like Planet Big; we had Black Fridays, an all-Black review; and Club Papi, a Latin X party. The Stud has held a lot of San Francisco’s values of diversity and inclusion, since it first began. It has also historically been a place where music has really been central. Experimental DJs and experimental music were oftentimes played at the Stud at the beginning of movements, like the punk rock movement, like disco.

In the sixties when the Stud was founded, which was actually the same year as the Compton Cafeteria Riot, around that same time, there was obviously the Civil Rights Movement, as well as the gay liberation movement that was happening, and the Women’s Movement was also taking off all at the same time. Huey Newton, who was a leader in the Black Panther party, called for intersectional movements that we all work together and figure out how to fight for justice and equality for everybody. The first place that the Gay Liberation Front and the Black Panthers actually met to discuss how they can continue this collaborative work was actually at the Stud. So, definitely a deep, rich history of social justice and creativity and bringing people together.

So, are you guys planning to bring it back?

We’ve been looking for a new space. We don’t have an update on when that would happen yet. We haven’t found a specific place yet, but we are very much committed to bringing it back.

You're the first Black transgender person to be elected to public office in San Francisco and the state of California. How do you make sure that you are not the last?

That’s a great question. I try my hardest to bring people into the fold and uplift not just trans issues, given the platform that I have, but also other trans leaders and bring them to the table. I’ve been a collaborative force within the trans community, especially in the founding of the district. [I] really worked hard to bring people together, especially segments of our community that weren’t always friendly or who were sometimes at odds. Even if I move on to do other things, there are some people there that are able to do the work.

The last election cycle, nearly 600 LGBTQ folks ran, and about 40% won local, state and federal offices nationwide. What do you make of this trend?

It’s a long time coming. LGBT people have always been a part of leadership and doing various things. Now that they’re just able to do so more openly and be themselves, I think that it is definitely a sign of our changing culture and broader acceptance. I also think that there’s still a lot more work to be done. As you probably know, there are over 80 anti-trans bills being considered across state legislatures in this country, partly because this has become like a scapegoat for a lot of the issues that we have seen in this country. With Trump losing the election and white nationalists trying to figure out how they can engage their base, using the same sort of hate-filled rhetoric, they’re scapegoating trans people and using them as an issue to rally around. Something that we need to be aware of is that this anti-trans, anti-LGBT, anti-progress movement within the country isn’t dead and gone just because Trump wasn’t reelected. We have to continue fighting and pushing forward for change for all of us.

What falls under the purview of your current position?

I am involved with the rechartering of Democratic clubs in San Francisco. I also help with fundraising for the San Francisco Democratic Party, and I also serve as a delegate to the state party. The San Francisco Democratic Party endorses various resolutions and speaks out on issues. The city party platform – we definitely shaped that, but we also have a voice on the state and national platforms. Obviously, San Francisco is a heavy hitter when it comes to the Democratic Party and pushing it towards the left. We also have pretty strong representatives in Congress, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is a representative from San Francisco. We are a heavy weight when it comes to Democratic Parties. I think we will continue to be at the forefront of change for our country.

Do you plan to release any more music in the future?

I am working on a separate musical project with a group called Commando, sort of a punk-rock collaborative project by Lynn Breedlove, who is a Lambda literary award-winning writer and also a trans man who has in the past performed with bands like Homobiles, Tribe 8 and then with Juba, who was an original member of The Deep Dickollective. It’s definitely going to be a fun album. I just listened to it the other day. It’s just a really good mix of heavy metal, rock and roll and spoken word, and it’s just funky and fun and really speaks to punk rock’s history within the queer community and how we use it as sort of an outlet to speak truth to power. We’re going to be releasing a record probably in the next year.

So much of your experience has been fighting for a seat, a voice, to be seen and heard, to belong. Why is representation important?

Representation is important because unless we see something, then we don’t. It’s almost like it doesn’t exist. But when you’re forced to confront it, you no longer have an excuse. Visibility is incredibly important. Participation is a part of that. Making sure that there is space for trans and gender non-conforming people to have a seat at the table, so that they can speak and be a part of decision making is important. It’s equally important for people of color and for women. It’s just the only way that real change is going to happen.

What advice would you give to a young queer person who hasn't yet had their “aha moment” or know how to recognize it?

Just jump in and get involved. Sometimes things can be intimidating because you feel like you don’t have the skills. There’s this imposter syndrome that I think we oftentimes feel were we to take on this task or this position. But the fact is that’s how everybody feels and it’s just that now a lot of us aren’t used to being told that we can do things. And so, just being willing to jump in and get your hands dirty and learn while you’re going, I think is the most important thing.

If you didn’t have to be successful, what would you do with your life?

Probably what I’m doing now, to be honest. I don’t do what I do not because I’m successful at it, but because I think it’s important work. At the end of the day, even though I often do feel exhausted and drained – there are many times where I feel like, “Oh, I just can’t do this and why am I doing this? Like, it’s just too much.” At the same time, I feel as though if I were to die tomorrow, I would feel like I was happy with my life. I think that that’s what’s important is that we are happy with where we are in our lives and that we are fulfilling not just our dreams but our purpose. And I do feel like I am fulfilling my purpose and being the most that I can. I’m satisfied with that, and I don’t think that I would do anything differently.

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