|Empress XXV Marlena celebrated her 70th birthday last fall with a huge bash at her Hayes Valley bar. PHOTO BY RICHTROVE.COM
On January 25, 1980, Garry McLain unpacked his bags in San Francisco and started a love affair with the city that has lasted three decades. Soon after, he dove into the Imperial Council of San Francisco, enjoyed the SOMA gay bike clubs and began forging the life he dreamed of since childhood.
Ten years later â€“ as San Franciscoâ€™s reigning Empress XXV Marlena â€” McLain opened his namesake Marlenaaâ€™s Bar at 488 Hayes Street. Able to buy in cheap because it rested in the shadows of the old freeway exit, which was destroyed in the 1989 earthquake, Marlenaâ€™s has since become a thriving business, fundraising powerhouse and de facto home of the local Imperial Court system.
In the first of the Bay Timesâ€™ â€śSpotlightâ€ť series, Marlena reflects on owning her own business, talks about the changes within the Imperial Court system she loves so much and explains what it means to her to be a â€śleaderâ€ť in the gay community.
You celebrated 30 years in San Francisco Jan. 25. What brought you here?
I have always wanted to live here, since I was a child. In Modesto, where I was born and raised, I became Empress and was very active in the gay politics. I worked with the Imperial Court in San Francisco, and already knew everybody here, so it was like moving home for me, really. I love this city. I may not have been born here, but I am a San Franciscan. Iâ€™m never going to leave. When they haul me out of [Marlenaâ€™s Bar], theyâ€™re going to haul me out feet first. I may sell the bar someday, and I probably will, but Iâ€™ll never move. I adore this city, so why would I?
Youâ€™ve owned Marlenaâ€™s Bar for almost 20 years. What has that been like?
Itâ€™s been exciting! It grew from almost nothing to what it is today. Iâ€™ve always gone by the rule that first weâ€™re a neighborhood bar, then weâ€™re a gay bar, and thusly we mix, which really has invited everyone. I have really lived by that rule, which is why I guide [the Hayes Valley Follies drag] shows the way I do. We have many, many fundraisers. I donâ€™t give it all â€” the people who go there do â€” but we give many thousands of dollars each year to charity. I think ititâ€™s one of the things Iâ€™m proudest of, that we can do that. I love different types of people. Itâ€™s nice to be a leader. Itâ€™s nice to be accepted. Itâ€™s nice to have friends everywhere come see you. Traveling as much as I do, predominantly with the Imperial Court but now with the leather community, I meet people all over the world. I was in Italy with friends, and this guy came running across the street saying, â€śMarlena!â€ť He used to live here in Hayes Valley years ago, and I met him when I first moved here. Then he moved home to Tusca. Itâ€™s such a small world â€“ but such a wonderful world.
Youâ€™re very involved with the Imperial Council of San Francisco, a drag-based fundraising organization celebrating its 45th anniversary. How did you first get involved?
I got involved in Modesto, 35 years ago. In Modesto they had a court, and I helped the person who ran to be their second Empress. She won, and I worked with her, so I got my feet wet. I was looking for something to put my hands in gay-wise. Iâ€™d been married and all that. I even had custody of my children when I was Empress of Modesto! I really had a diversified life going. Iâ€™ve just been so lucky!
During the time youâ€™ve been part of the Court system, youâ€™ve seen it change. Its popularity comes and goes. Right now, people might argue that the system as a whole is at a low. To what do you attribute that?
At one time, the Imperial Court â€“ even before the Ducal Court was established â€“ was the only ballgame in town. And the AIDS crisis changed everything. We lost so many great leaders in our community to AIDS. Personalities come into it also. Some people donâ€™t want to get involved, because they say, â€śOh, itâ€™s the same old people trying to run it.â€ť Thatâ€™s not always true. I do believe young people are stepping up to the plate, and by â€śyoung peopleâ€ť I mean more current people. The system has changed a lot. The process has changed. Maybe itâ€™s time for some of these things to change and move forward. I believe in growth. Sometimes you have to take a step forward and then half-a-step back. If it ends up stagnating, itâ€™s going to wind up dying, and then nobodyâ€™s going to get anything out of it.
What would you say if someone said to you, â€śI was interested in getting involved with the Imperial Council, but the group wasnâ€™t welcomingâ€ť?
And Iâ€™ve heard that. Youâ€™ve heard that. Iâ€™d say go to the meetings. Go to some of the functions that are going on. You canâ€™t base it on one evening.
You canâ€™t base it on one set of people if you get pissed off at them. Thatâ€™s not really fair to the organization. The organization as a whole is really supposed to represent everyone. Sometimes, we get cliques. Iâ€™ve seen it. Iâ€™ve been in it. I tell people all the time to give it a chance. If you really want to be involved in something, find what your niche is, and go for it! Then go out and become a leader within it if you can â€“ or at least a big supporter of it.
That could be anything from the leather community to drag. Even the leather community, which raises so much money in its own right, has divisions.
There are the puppies, the hardcore leather guys, whatever. And our drag queen community is a lot more diverse than itâ€™s been in years past, too.
Someone once told me the only difference between the leather and drag communities is that the â€śdragâ€ť in the leather community is much more expensive.
(Laughing.) And thereâ€™s something to that. You know, Iâ€™ve done drag. Iâ€™ve done leather. Iâ€™m a person who has really explored so many things in life â€“ even at my age â€“ and I think I should. I think weâ€™re so lucky! I love this city, and I like all aspects of it.
As a respected person, active member and some might even say a leader, what do you feel your obligation is to our community?
To be true to myself, to be true to â€“ as far as my bar is concerned â€“ the customers, to be true to the organizations I belong to, just to be an honest, true person. If someone says something which bothers me, to take that person aside to talk to him. I do believe I know who I am, what I am, where I am and why I am there. Why is that? Because itâ€™s where I want to be. Iâ€™m comfortable in my own skin. Iâ€™m very comfortable in my own skin. Iâ€™m very proud of my accomplishments. I donâ€™t let it go to my head. I donâ€™t believe in that. I do believe I am very, very comfortable being Garry McLain and being Marlena, Empress. Iâ€™m very comfortable with that. Iâ€™m very comfortable being an active member of this community. Iâ€™ve known every mayor weâ€™ve had since Moscone, and Iâ€™ve known most of the politicians in town. Iâ€™ve worked with many of the AIDS charities. I have my leather guys, The Mr. Hayes Valley Leathermen. This is our ninth year. Iâ€™m with the Imperial Court for over 30 years. The Ducals, Iâ€™ve been involved with them from the beginning, actually. I knew [Grand Duchess I] H.L. Perry before she was ever a Duchess. Iâ€™m proud of that. Iâ€™m proud of our people. Weâ€™ve come a long way.