It took Donna Personna a long time to get up the nerve to put on a dress.
“It took me 59 years to have the bravery to be who I really feel that I am: a female, a woman, a girl,” she tells Pride Source by phone from her home in San Francisco.
What held her back was a fear of embarrassing her family and a longing for a “normal” life. “My father was a Baptist minister in San Jose and I didn’t want to bring that to the family,” Personna says. She was also singled out at school. “I was bullied. I was teased relentlessly, given a bad time by people and it was scary,” she recalls.
“In school, the authorities took me aside and had me speak to mental health people and I didn’t ask for that,” she adds. It led her to the conclusion that “the world already sees that there’s something ‘wrong’ with me. And I didn’t want to make things worse for myself.”
But today, at 75 years old, Donna Personna doesn’t care what you think of her. Because the drag performer and transgender activist is living her best life. “I donned a dress and I never took it off,” she says. “And actually, my name spun from that: Donna. I donned a personality. I put something on and it went from there.”
Not only has she embraced her identity as a woman, but she also takes great joy in drag performance. “It’s exciting; oh, I just love it, she says. “It’s like a drug for me now, I guess.”
Enter James Hosking, who lived in San Francisco for nine years. The photographer and filmmaker saw Personna perform at Aunt Charlie’s, the last LGBTQ+ bar in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. “Her confidence is inspiring to me,” Hosking tells Pride Source from his home in Chicago.
Personna and two other mainstays at Aunt Charlie’s, Olivia Hart and Collette LeGrande, are at the center of Hosking’s multimedia project “Beautiful By Night,” which features photography and a short documentary film. “The focus of the series kind of took shape over time of being about older drag queens,” Hosking says. “I really gravitated toward their personalities and how they photograph and their outlook on life.”
“[‘Beautiful By Night’] is also about labor and repetition and finding beauty,” Hosking says. The film focuses on the act of transformation, the work that goes into drag, because there is so much more to it than what audience members see on stage. The film shows the protagonists in their homes applying makeup and getting dressed, we follow them to Aunt Charlie’s and see them put on their finishing touches in a cramped backstage area, we watch them perform, and then we watch them return home. Much of it is not glamourous.
And yet: “They keep a sense of joy and excitement in it and there’s something that pushes them to continue,” Hosking says. “The confidence that all of them have is intoxicating and inspirational. I think we see that in the film in how they make their way in the world and how they interact with people.”
“Drag completes me,” Hart tells Pride Source by phone from her San Francisco home as she gets ready for a show. “I used to be a very shy person until I put a dress on and then I realized I don’t have to be shy when I’m dressed as a boy, either.” Hart says that she loves entertaining and “being able to make people laugh, or cry if they want to.”
Hart describes Aunt Charlie’s as a “good old fashioned hometown dive bar where everybody knows your name.” “To me it’s all about making people feel alive and happy,” she says. “They paid $5 to get into the joint, I want them to leave having a good time.”
Amanda Krugliak, arts curator at the University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities Gallery, used to live in San Francisco and knew of Aunt Charlie’s. She is excited to bring “Beautiful By Night” to Michigan. “The work is very sensitive in the way that [Hosking] is not exploitative or invasive. It’s very clear that he has a close friendship with these people. He’s not a voyeur,” she says.
Originally, the exhibit opening was to coincide with a speaking engagement featuring Detroit queens Maxi Chanel (House of Chanel), Nickki Stevens and Lady T Tempest. The event, part of U-M’s School of Art and Design’s Penny Stamps Speaker Series, has been postponed in light of the recent COVID-19 surge.
“I’m so excited for all of it to come together in the theater,” says Chrisstina Hamilton, director of the Penny Stamps Speaker Series. “The event in the [Michigan Theater] will also be this sort of celebration harkening and beaconing this exhibition around the corner at the Institute of Humanities.”
While the Penny Stamps lecture will not take place as originally planned, the opening itself will, including a conversation with artist James Hosking at 6:45 p.m on Jan. 13.
Personna, Hart and LeGrande are living history and are beloved fixtures in the San Francisco drag scene. “In San Francisco, there is a great sense of appreciation for gay elders and I think that comes through at Aunt Charlie’s in the way that the crowd reacts,” Hosking says.
Being elders is an asset, Hamilton says, and the rich history they share is a great fit for the Penny Stamps Series. “I think it’s really important to see and be able to celebrate these people who have dedicated their lives and have the long view to share with us. In certain societies, older folks are really celebrated and lauded, but in the U.S. that’s not always the case,” Hamilton says. “We have to remember that age and wisdom are valuable.”
That’s part of what motivates Personna to continue to do drag. “I want people to say to themselves, ‘Oh it doesn’t end’ or ‘You can be 75 years old and do this.’”
“Beautiful By Night” captures an important piece of LGBTQ+ history. During his time in San Francisco, Hosking saw a number of LGBTQ+ bars close. “I wanted to capture a place that I wasn’t sure how long it was going to be around,” he says of Aunt Charlie’s. “Places close and then it’s gone forever and there’s no documentation.”
“When he told me the concept of ‘Beautiful By Night,’ I appreciated what he was trying to do to let everybody know a lot more about what drag performers are,” Hart says.
Hart and Personna are both looking forward to one day meeting the students at U-M who “are going to show some interest in what [drag] was, what it still is, and what drag can be,” Hart says. “I love the idea that I’m going to do something on a stage for an audience and for a group in school, l just love that,” says Personna. “I want the world to know there is no expiration date on living a vital, purposeful life. It’s never too late to come to inhabit one’s authentic self.”
And, of course, both artists want to perform as much as possible.
“Honey, this is my first tour,” Hart says. “I’m going to be like Cher and never stop.”
The exhibition runs through Feb. 21 (Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.).