Throughout most of the 1990s my evenings were split between working at a nonprofit call center where I bummed money off strangers for good causes, and getting drunk and dancing at any of San Francisco’s queer punk clubs. I didn’t know the town was a hotbed of these two particular and generally separate subcultures—queer and punk—and I didn’t know how badly I needed this particular hybrid in order to discover myself, but when I walked into a club called Junk, housed in a gay bar called Paula’s Clubhouse, it was like I had walked into my own best-case scenario of life. Up in the DJ booth, a scrawny punk with a bright blue Mohawk spun Nina Hagen. Soon enough she would be my girlfriend, but that night I made out with a different girl entirely, when the centrifugal force of a broken mosh circle sent us flying into each other. I never saw her again, but no worry. The Mission District in the ’90s was a promenade of fierce young dykes, each more shorn, more intriguingly pierced, more gender ambiguous than the last. Reigning over all, at least to my starstruck eyes, was a motley crew of surly twentysomethings resembling Peter Pan’s Lost Boys if the Lost Boys were girls, the sort of girls who look like the sort of boys who might break a beer bottle over your head at a club. Many of them would transition to male later in life, but back then they were youthful and sweet-cheeked, their tender faces topped with hair matted into dreadlocks with spray adhesive, or glued into a Mohawked plank, or dyed black as coal and worn to the waist not in the way of a maiden but in the way of, like, Lemmy from Motörhead. I’m talking about the HAGS, and if you were alive in the Mission during this era you saw their tags everywhere, at bus stops and in bar bathrooms, on phone booths and brick walls. HAGS SF, HAGS IN YOUR FACE, in a black Sharpie scrawl. You knew a HAG was a HAG because they moved in a pack, as all wild animals do, and the backs of their motorcycle jackets and denim vests all proclaimed their affiliation. HAGS. More than the presence of a women-only bathhouse soaking with lesbians, more than the women’s bookstore selling Dorothy Allison novels and feminist newsletters, even more than the Bearded Lady, the dyke café that hosted late-night art events attended by Kathy Acker, the HAGS were evidence of the mad freedom to be found in San Francisco. The city was plagued by fag bashings and other antiqueer hate crimes, but if this was the place this group of magnificent and terrifying dykes thought best to call home, it was where I wanted to call home too.
The HAGS were formed by Tracie Thomas, a queer Colorado punk who followed her band, Feminine Deodorant Spray, to the Bay Area at the start of the decade. A photo from the era shows Thomas posing before what looks like a fuzzy, zebra-striped wall. Her Mohawk is as stiff as plastic, her denim vest covered in studs. She wears a bullet belt and a Misfits T-shirt and a handkerchief knotted around her neck. There’s a tattoo on her forearm and her head is slightly tilted as she looks warily into the camera. She seems to be trying to radiate classic outlaw toughness while simultaneously wondering if the photographer is going to kick her ass.
Sometime after this photograph was taken, Thomas was grieving a breakup by flinging plates out the window of a friend’s fourth-floor apartment down by Fisherman’s Wharf. She was not alone. “I had a couple of friends who were like, ‘Let’s hang out and support each other,’ and it was a kind of tough, get-your-energy-out, girl-support togetherness thing.” The inspiration to codify the energy struck Thomas. Influenced by filmmaker and misfit icon John Waters, she dubbed her posse the HAGS, after the auteur’s obscure black-and-white film Hag in a Black Leather Jacket.
The HAGS’ primary activities—and these remained constant throughout their existence—were roaming in a protective pack around San Francisco, getting drunk, going to punk shows, and the light vandalism known as tagging, leaving your gang’s name or your own inked somewhere it shouldn’t be.
“We’d spray-paint tags all over the city,” Thomas recalls. “I remember we spray-painted this van and it turns out it was the Breeders’ and they wrote the song ‘Hag’ about it.” Indeed, the lyrics begin “Hag! Coastal cutthroat!” and a bit further down Kim Deal speak-sings, “You’re just like a woman / Hag.” In this lost country of the 1990s, the HAGS seemed to rule by an almost cosmic decree. They would climb over fences at night and hop into public swimming pools to drink beer. They were like the alluringly bad boys of my youth, only they were girls. Like The Outsiders come to life, the teenage girl who wrote them into existence now showed all the way through.
“Just being a lesbian in this world, you’re going to have somebody messing with you, or even just being a woman,” says Thomas. “There was a lot of fag bashing going on in San Francisco, so we would take the streets and walk and it was like we were an entity, like, You’re not going to do this type of thing to us.”
Although San Francisco had been a safer haven for queers since World War I, when the military began dumping its “blue discharges”—gay soldiers—at its port, inadvertently creating a gay community, there have always been and there continue to be violent bigots in the city, as seen in the 2017 murder of popular transgender DJ Bubbles, who was gunned down near the record store where she worked in the Tenderloin, or the fatal bashing of Radical Faerie Feather Lynn in placid Duboce Park in 2014. Queer people are never safe, and in the 1990s that knowledge was acute. Packs of inebriated and aimless young men raised in an American culture of homophobia roamed this gay city. I recall driving by Esta Noche, the city’s first Latinx gay bar, and seeing a patron getting walloped by a two-by-four. My best friend was assaulted when a man ran out from the Valencia Gardens housing project and clobbered him on the head. A gang of bicycle thieves jumped out at me on Mission Street one night as I rode home from work, almost knocking me off my seat as they seized my rear tire and proclaimed my bike to be theirs. I fought them off with wit and outrage, tools I also used to scare off the single men and packs of boys who harassed me as I made my way home, though I was on occasion inspired to use my purse as a weapon, when the advances were especially relentless. Once, as my girlfriend and I were held up at gunpoint at a bus shelter on the corner of Sixteenth and Mission, I dissuaded our attacker with tales of our poverty and an offer of beer from the six-pack I was carrying. This was the landscape the HAGS gathered upon; they understood that as broke, female queers, we might be called upon to protect ourselves at any minute, and that safety in numbers was always more effective than a pocketbook.
Silas Howard directs for film and television now, but in the ’90s he ran the Bearded Lady café, and as the bass player for Tribe 8, was the focus of much HAG adoration. “The city was much more violent,” he remembers. “I got a gun pulled on me several times. Harry [the Bearded Lady’s coowner] got gay bashed at a taqueria on Twenty-Fourth Street. There were way more neo-Nazis going into the punk scene. All of that tension was on the surface—we were at war. It felt like that.” At war on the streets of our neighborhood, as well as in the culture at large, where Senator Jesse Helms famously called us “degenerates… weak, morally sick wretches,” and was backed up by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who compared being queer to alcoholism, and Bill Clinton, who we thought maybe liked us, but who signed the Defense of Marriage Act. “I believe marriage is an institution for a man and a woman,” he stated. For a certain segment of the queer population, the answer to such hostility was not to be respectable, to continue working to convince these bigots that we were “just like them,” but to become the degenerate beasts they accused us of being, to take delight in our monstrous power, to say fuck you and goodbye to the possibility of living a normal life in this culture. Enter the HAGS.
Green Mohawk, leather jacket, combat boots, spikes, piercings, rings, covered in tattoos, tiny, loud, in-your-face, laughing, crying, yelling, stoic, tough, pretty, kind, selfless, selfish, self-conscious, insecure, obsessed, girl-crazy, loyal, chaotic, serene, supportive, judgmental, rude, accepting, but most of all wild—as in untamed, dangerous, mind-blowing.” That’s Tobi Vail, founding member of Bikini Kill, describing Stacey Quijas, one of the five original HAGS. Vail spent a season on the road with Quijas, who acted as the band’s roadie during a tour in 1992. Originally from Colorado, Quijas was, like many HAGS, running from an abusive family; she quit school after eighth grade and had been on her own since age fourteen. Quijas wore her hair long under a backward baseball hat or up in a massive mohawk. From her septum dangled a ring, like a baby bull. Her legs were famous. On the back of each calf sat one-half of the logo for L7, the all-female grunge-metal-punk band. It was the sight of these tattoos, in part, that convinced another original HAG, Kelly Kegger, to move to San Francisco. There is no overplaying the importance of music to the HAGS, in particular girl bands who shredded and killed and murdered as hard as dudes, bands like the Lunachicks and 7 Year Bitch, L7, and Tribe 8.
Lynnee Breedlove was the singer for Tribe 8, and writer of the HAGS anthem, a lyric printed at the start of his HAGS-inspired novel, Godspeed, and also performed by the band, though not without controversy. A fellow band member had been intimately involved with a HAG, and the relationship had been marked by addiction and abuse. But to Breedlove, an “honorary HAG” who spent significant time with the gang despite a commitment to sobriety, it was deeper than that.
“I had to look at what is so great about them, why are they my heroes? There were a lot of nice, clean-cut lesbians that were cute and dykey and young and didn’t want anything to do with that kind of craziness. But what those guys were to me—what we all were—were fucking warriors. You’re facing down repression that’s in your face all the time because of your gender, your punkness, and you say, You know what? I’m gonna live. I’m actually not gonna kill myself and I’m not going to go downtown and get a nine-to-five, so fuck you. I’m gonna be fucking happy, whatever it takes. Even if I’m only happy in this moment, from a chemical or a show. I need to live my life in this moment any way that I can, and this is the only way that I know how to do it right now. And it’s a fucking valid way for me. And you don’t get to judge.”
Lynnee tells a story about the time Quijas flew to Europe with her girlfriend. They were both people of color, punk, pierced, and visibly queer, so, of course, they were hassled at the border. The hassle escalated into a strip search. “The scary border guard matron snaps her rubber glove all smirky-smug and intimidating, like, OK! Who’s first? And Quijas jumps up and yells, ‘Me!’ She jumps at the lady, like, You can’t rape the willing, put your finger up my ass. I like it, bitch. That, to me, was the only way I knew how to face authorities who were telling me to do shit that didn’t make any sense, saying, ‘Fine! All this shit that you say is going to hurt a normal person isn’t going to hurt me, ’cause I’m a superhero.’”
Lynnee is talking about sexual abuse. He’s sitting in the Outer Sunset in the twilight fog, eating a bowl of soup, and his normally fast talk is going faster and his eyes dart with a sort of pleading desperation, looking to land on something or someone who understands. He’s been preaching compassion for the HAGS for decades, though less now, since nobody talks about them very much. “What that does to people, what nobody in the ’90s wanted to deal with, because nobody wants to hand over that power to the perp, was, it does create superpowers. It gives you the opportunity to leave your body and move energy and escape the immediate situation, or deal with the immediate situation in ways that the average Joe doesn’t have.” He likens Quijas to a tiny baby dragon whose cute roar belies the fact that she can singe the hair off your head. He likens her to a person frozen in their childhood charm, the sort of charm possessed by a boy of eleven or twelve, or a girl who is like a boy of eleven or twelve and whose home is profoundly unsafe, who learns charm as a survival skill and rides it all the way home.
Joan got her name from junior-high classmates who were impressed by her shaggy hair and Joan Jett T-shirts; she modified it to Joan of Anarchy, her tag. When Bikini Kill played a dive bar in Austin, Texas, Joan showed up and, like Kelly before her, noticed the L7 tattoos on their roadie’s legs. “I was just taken aback, ’cause there were no other dykes like me. She was the first punk-rock-type dyke I ever met. I was really taken with her. I wished I could just go with her wherever she was.”
Soon enough Joan would. She caught a ride to Seattle and then hitchhiked down to San Francisco for an anarchist fair. Homeless, she met up with other gutter punks crashing on the streets of the city, and found her way to Turk Street Studios, a rehearsal space in the Tenderloin that had become infamous for the debauchery taking place within its warrens. “It was actually kind of like a big headquarters for crystal meth.” Joan fell in with a member of Tribe 8 who’d been ejected from the band for her drug use; the musician was shacking up with a drug-dealing HAG in a practice space. When Joan pointed out a bag of meth that had slipped from the dealer’s stash, she earned the HAG’s trust and began working as an apprentice of sorts. “A guy would come over and sell us eight balls and we’d take it and bag it for resale. I was the watchdog, I guess. I made sure people didn’t rip her off.” In return for her duties, Joan was permitted to crash at the practice space and was gifted free drugs.
Joan’s heart was outfitted with a pacemaker, which made doing any drug, but in particular speed, a poor choice for recreation. But Joan was under the illusion that she had only about two years to live. Back home in Monroe, Louisiana, hepatitis B had broken out at the café she worked at. A blood test came up negative, so she received a vaccination. When the café’s insurance company later requested its own blood test, the antibodies from the vaccine created a false positive. Mistakenly believing she had only two years to live, Joan abandoned her college and hit the road.
“I was living on the street, doing drugs. I wasn’t worrying about it, because I was like, I want to do what I want to do, because I thought I was going to die tomorrow.” A visit to Larkin Street, the Tenderloin clinic that cares for homeless youth, eventually verified that Joan was free of hepatitis B, but by then she was living a certain life.
It took Joan a minute to prove herself worthy of HAGdom. “They were very selective about who they let into that circle,” Joan, now Johnny Ray, recollects from his comparatively sedate life in Vallejo, California. “I think it was because of that strong love they had for each other. They were looking for their sisters from another mother.”
At a punk festival in Portland, Oregon, Joan spent the day with the HAGS, but come nightfall, they told her to buzz off. “I didn’t want to seem like it bothered me, but I was curious.” A single kindly HAG stayed behind with Joan, and the pair ran around Portland doing drugs, eventually coming to rest in a Dumpster. “It had potato sack bags in it, like the old kind you used to play with in school. We said, ‘Fuck it, let’s sleep in here.’ So we slept in the Dumpster with potato sack bags.”
Joan met up with the gang at the festival the following day, drunk and high and skanking in a circle pit. She noticed some neo-Nazis skanking alongside her. “I didn’t like skinheads much and I started beating on them in the pit. The bodyguards working the event had to separate us, and they were about to kick me out.” Joan was rescued by Becky Slane, a HAG who vouched for her and promised to help her cool down. Becky made a date with Joan to kick skinheads at punk shows when they got back to San Francisco. “And after that I was a HAG, I guess.”
Maybe Becky felt for Joan because her own HAG-ness had been contested by none other than Tracie Thomas, now unsuccessfully running the HAGs long-distance from New York City. “She was a figurehead,” Becky recalls from her sunny kitchen in Los Angeles. “A figurehead that did carry some weight. She had to give her blessing or it wasn’t official.” Truthfully, Becky was a little suburban in comparison to her gangmates. She hadn’t grown up in foster care, hadn’t been a teenage runaway, hadn’t suffered extreme sexual abuse at the hands of her family. Her music taste was a bit off—she embraced “sissy bands” such as Babes in Toyland and Hole. Her mom even provided her with money: “Never any more than ten dollars,” she recalls. “I’d get seven dollars in the mail sometimes.” Still, it wasn’t the cash; it was the presence of an actual family of origin who actually cared about her well-being that set Becky apart from the rest of the gang. Everyone else’s family had been split apart, by homophobia or abuse or addiction or all of the above.
Still, Becky got her ass kicked by a couple of mulleted softball lesbians for tagging HAGS in the Castro, and was a leader in the group’s intense drug use, so as far as the gang was concerned, she was in, regardless of Thomas’s ruling.
“I shot speed. I blew out veins inside my arm, like they were starting to leak, because it’s very caustic. If it gets in your soft tissue… if you miss or something, it is incredibly painful.” Like most addicts, she didn’t go to the hospital. Like most addicts, she kept on using. For a while.
Fiver came from Ohio, the middle kid in a big, Catholic family. When she was twelve years old her mother left them—no warning, no contact. For a while, Fiver was raised by her father, a biker who parked his motorcycle in the kitchen, taught Fiver to play the guitar, and may or may not have struggled with his own inebriation. When it got to be too much, the kids were split up into foster homes. Fiver actually got a good one. She grew close to her two foster brothers, in particular the younger one. Says Carina Gia, a poet who was in love with Fiver during their twenties, “They actually gave her a lot of stability. She really liked them a lot.” At some point the two brothers were messing around with a rifle. The older brother shot the younger one in the head. It was an accident, a mistake. It was Fiver who found the boy, already gone. After that she lived briefly with her mother, but that didn’t work. Then she was on her own. She made her way to California, like so many lost and restless queer people, queer girls especially, drawn to the Bay Area.
It makes sense that Fiver found her way to Berkeley, to the university, even if she wasn’t a student. She’d made it through a few years of college back in Ohio, as an English major, and had wanted to be a writer. She loved Kurt Vonnegut and was obsessed with Jean Genet, in particular Our Lady of the Flowers. But her primary occupation at Berkeley was getting wasted and hanging around the co-ops, the university’s alternadorms, each with its own personality. Carina began in Lothlorien, the vegetarian one, and made her way to Barrington, the more rebellious co-op. It was full of murals and its roof was known for launching students on acid to their deaths. Eventually it would be shut down by the neighborhood, but not before a blacked-out Fiver knocked on Carina’s bedroom door and asked if she could spend the night. It wasn’t romantic. The two had met only once before, and Carina had found her obnoxious. Any chemistry between them was further obscured by Carina’s youthful obliviousness to her own sexuality. “I identified more or less as a shy person, and that was it.”
Carina and Fiver stayed in touch from then on. When Fiver followed a girl to Tahoe, Carina found she was unable to eat or sleep. “I realized something maybe was afoot. In my heart. And I was like, That can’t be! That weird, freaky chick who’s really funny?” They began writing letters. Eventually Fiver returned to Berkeley, landing on Carina’s doorstep. “She just showed up one day. She had nowhere else to stay. After that things moved kind of quickly.”
Carina and Fiver’s romance sounds like a montage from a lost John Hughes film. “We would go into cafés and eat other people’s food, like the half cake they left behind. I would ride my bike and she would ride her skateboard next to me. We would steal flowers from someone’s yard. We didn’t have a lot of money; we were poor. But we had such good synergy that it didn’t even matter what we did. It could be about taking a walk, or reading books, or analyzing things into oblivion, or painting the kitchen. It didn’t really matter. We always wanted to be next to each other.”
A committed drinker, Fiver used drugs occasionally, and there were some substances that Carina was hesitantly accepting of. But she drew the line at harder drugs, and so when Fiver indulged in those off-limits substances, she did it away from Carina. The romance began to fray. “I was trying to get a degree,” Carina says. “I was trying to graduate. Her addiction took hold more and more, and I was trying to walk a different path.” The lovers split up. Carina went to Europe for a while; she had been born in Germany. When she returned a year later, Fiver was a HAG, and her drug use had become merged with the group identity.
“It was more than friends hanging out,” she says of the scene. “There was a lot of fuck-shit-up energy, without fear of the consequences. There was a certain beauty in the recklessness.” Still, Carina worried for Fiver’s safety, and missed the bookwormy skate nerd she’d fallen in love with.
“I feel like there’s a certain part of Fiver that was subsumed. People didn’t know that she was a writer, or that she loved to play her guitar. All that was left was this entertaining punk-rock HAG.” The humor she’d cultivated as a kid, as a way of commanding attention in her overrun family, became a single note within the druggy group dynamic. “My feeling was that I knew who Fiver was outside of all that posturing. I was wary of it because I saw the results in Fiver’s life. And I thought, What are you doing to yourself?”
Their contact became increasingly strained, with Fiver coming to Carina whenever her use spun out of control, and Carina employing what few resources she had to try to stanch the downward spiral. Twenty-three years of age, with no understanding of addiction, never mind the means to send her lover to recovery, Carina did what she could. “I tried to manage by trying to limit, like you do with a child, like it’s candy: ‘No more than this.’” Eventually Carina and Fiver’s relationship became untenable, and Fiver drifted toward a fellow HAG who used drugs as heavily as she did.
But there was a moment between Carina’s initial distrust and her eventual parting, when a friendship grew between her and the HAGS. She became a sort of Wendy among the Lost Boys. She found Johanna Lee, a HAG who had formed an intellectual connection with Fiver, to be brilliant. It was Johanna who “tagged in” new HAGS members by painting the backs of everyone’s denim and leather jackets. Carina also liked being around Quijas, whom she found to be good people. And she let a homeless Joan of Anarchy sleep in her living room with a similarly homeless girlfriend. During that visit, Joan confessed to having a nightmare in which Carina made her go to a poetry reading. “I said, ‘Don’t worry, I won’t do that to you.’”
It’s unclear if the HAGS understood what a spectacle they were in the queer-dyke landscape of 1990s San Francisco. When they poured into a bar my breath caught in my chest. I wondered what sort of transformation I would have to enact in order to date any of them and came up blank. Yes, I knew they did drugs. I was an adventurer, gearing up for my own wild ride; I wasn’t terribly put off by that. But I also didn’t know what it meant—not exactly.
In the 1990s my daytime hours were spent sleeping off my hangover on my crumby futon, eventually heading out to do some writing, a spiral-bound notebook stuffed into my army bag. At night I wrote in bars, but when the sun was out I wrote in coffee shops. Café Macondo was a good one. It was on Sixteenth Street, between Albion and Guererro. Now it’s a bar with pinball and a selection of one million beers, but then it was a café with a social-justice bent, with a table piled with flyers for political actions, empanadas in the cooler. One day some HAGS were there. I noticed them, then quickly made like I hadn’t noticed them. Not so much making like they weren’t a big deal—more like making that I was the sort of person accustomed to their type of big deal, like I was a big deal myself, maybe, in some parallel universe. I focused on my writing and tried not to eavesdrop on their urgent mumbles. One of them walked over. It was Johanna Lee. She’d grown her buzz cut into a long, orange mane; her friends called her Mountain Man. She had a sweet baby face and wire-rimmed granny glasses.
“Hey, can we borrow some paper?” she asked. They had just learned that Valerie Solanas, author of SCUM Manifesto, shooter of Andy Warhol, and a kind of proto-HAG, had died right here in San Francisco. It had been years ago, in 1988, but it had been here, under the city’s nose, at the Bristol Hotel, an SRO in the Tenderloin. Johanna and her co-HAG were going to make stencils about it and spray-paint the Tenderloin. I peeked over at her table. It was Fiver: gaunt, gray-skinned, a fisherman’s cap pulled onto her head, bangs spilling out. I tore pages from my notebook, thrilled to be a part of the caper. This simple interaction solidified all I had projected onto the HAGS—they were the Amazon warriors Lynnee Breedlove hailed them as. Despite their apparent scorn of contemporary feminist movements—“We ate Riot Grrrls for lunch,” quips Becky, declaring that movement “for fluffy little college girls that complained about stuff a lot”—they were, in fact, the deepest, wildest, truest feminists. So feminist they frightened other feminists, so feminist they could shit-talk the movement and write it off as a trifle, because they were in fact living the hard-core feminist lives that only someone like Valerie Solanas would have recognized and understood. And me. I understood too. I desperately wished they would invite me along on their vandalism art project, but they did not. And truly, their vandalism art project might never have actually happened. Nobody I spoke to knew anything about it. I heard about Fiver trying to get back into a bar she’d been eighty-sixed from, incognito in a bad wig and a pair of Sally Jessy Raphael eyeglasses. I heard about Johanna Lee becoming pen pals with Aileen Wuornos, the death-row sex worker condemned for killing abusive tricks; I heard about her pouring vanilla extract around the tents of lesbian feminists who were trying to kick the SM dykes out of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, calling forth a plague of raccoons. I heard about how, when Joan of Anarchy needed her pacemaker replaced, Fiver comforted her visiting mother, assuring her that Joan had a good head on her shoulders, that if any of them were going to make something of themselves it would be Joan. But nobody remembered them making stencils in honor of Valerie Solanas. Probably a good idea that got subsumed by speed-distraction and was eventually discarded like a broken clock.
It was Fiver who got Becky thinking about getting clean. They’d had the conversation before, about the look that comes into someone’s eyes when they’re nearing death. “Things that normally wouldn’t kill people would kill these people whose eyes went vacant and dead,” Becky says. “I still think this; it’s almost like a spiritual thing. Like drugs take you away from your soul, almost. Fiver came up to me and was like, ‘Dude. You’re starting to look like that.’”
There’s no explaining to a nonaddict how impossible it is to change your ways, even when they are clearly killing you. That some do is a miracle. That most don’t is reality. By the time your problem is a problem, it has leached into every facet of your life. It is your identity and coping mechanism; it is how you interface with others and connect with yourself; it is deep inside your cells now, and you belong to it. Becky wasn’t sure she would make it. The one thing that fed the hope that she might survive was Lynnee Breedlove, who cheered her on, believed in her, laid on the love and pep talks. “I credit Lynnee with [me] being alive today,” she says. A few years in, after she got her footing and was incredibly, blissfully sober, she pulled Lynnee aside to thank him. “In traditional Lynnee style he was like, ‘Dude, I was lying! I thought you were gonna die!’”
Joan of Anarchy wanted to get clean too. The revelation that she had been on speed for three consecutive months came after another HAG asked her when she’d last eaten. Joan could not remember. She hopped on a Greyhound back to Monroe, Louisiana, to kick drugs at her mom’s house. On the way, a seatmate commented, “Wow, man, you’re coming down hard.”
Once the speed was out of her system, Joan returned to San Francisco. She got a girlfriend, a nice girl with nice friends, and they became her social circle. She became Johnny. “When I started transitioning I stopped drinking so much and doing drugs, and started feeling more comfortable with my body.” Pretty much his only contact with the HAGS was when Quijas stopped him on the street to borrow money. She came over to Johnny’s new apartment and complimented him on his new deal. “She was like, ‘Man, you’re a good-looking guy!’” Johnny had been nervous, what with so many of the lesbians in the scene shunning trans men, and the HAGS’ own allegiance to women. But Quijas was cool with it, even if Johnny was less than cool with the direction Quijas’s life had taken. “Last time I saw her I was like, I can’t have Stacey in my life, because I’m trying to do right. And I saw her in the street, and she saw me, and I just passed her up. My girlfriend said, ‘Hey, that’s Stacey,’ and I said, ‘I know, keep walking.’ Stacey just chuckled.”
Underneath Johanna Lee’s drug use was something else, probably schizophrenia. Ren Volpe met Johanna in 1989, at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. After the fest, Ren hitched a ride out of the Midwest with a girl she’d hooked up with. When they pulled into the Bay Area, the girl introduced Ren to her live-in girlfriend. In spite of this, Ren remained in town. Within three years nearly everyone she’d befriended at the festival had moved to San Francisco.
Ren is a real can-do dyke. She’s written a book about automotive repair for women and currently is a schoolteacher and, like most every lesbian in this essay, makes part of her income caring for dogs. In the ’90s she helped produce a community newsletter, a sort of skill-share classifieds where women listed their talents and were encouraged to trade services with one another. She organized the city’s first Dyke March. Ren made zines and became close with Johanna, who drew funny, sharply subversive comics. Ren still has them, part of an archive of 1990s dykephilia which should be protected in some institution somewhere.
At her cottage in Bernal Heights, where a fire roars in an outdoor fire pit and her family—a partner and two daughters—awaits the arrival of a traumatized dog who dislikes men and thus is fostering in a lesbian household, Ren shows me Johanna’s art. The zine Up Our Butts portrays a mulleted leather dyke with a cross-body bondage harness on her torso, a garment for harnessing a phallus at her groin, a pair of asshole sunglasses obscuring her face, and a giant cat-o’-nine-tails in her fist. She speaks in a cartoon bubble: “I hope you don’t think this is WEIRD, but the GODDESS told me to give you this magazine!” In the lesbian community newsletter, Johanna offered her cartooning and drawing services, as well as motorcycle riding lessons. She was hoping to barter with someone who could teach her how to tattoo.
Initially I ran into Johanna at the Bearded Lady, where anyone could spend the day on a single coffee without hassle. Later, I’d see her on the street, begging spare change of oblivious passersby. I myself had come to the city essentially homeless, with no familial support; the specter of life on the street haunted me. Giving coins to spare-changers was a sort of tax one paid for the luxury of having a home of your own. But to Johanna I’d give a dollar. She always appreciated it.
“She’d been homeless for years,” Ren recalls. “I’d be driving around and see her; she’d always get in and drive around with me. She was in the backseat mumbling and talking to herself, just a crazy bag lady on the street. I’m like, ‘Johanna! Who’re you talking to?’ She said, ‘The voices in my head.’ I said, ‘Well, what are they saying?’ She said, ‘If they were meant for you, you’d hear them too!’ She was delusional, but she also had this metacognition about her delusion. She was really, really smart.”
Because it was not as large a countercultural movement as all that rose and fell during the 1960s, because it was less a national movement than something occurring within specific neighborhoods in San Francisco, and certainly because those involved were lesbians—specifically dykes who were not looking to fit in so much as fuck shit up—there is no recorded history of this scene and the copious amounts of culture it produced in the realms of politics, fashion, art, and sex. But like that other decade of revolution, the dyke ’90s in San Francisco began with a joyful, dark idealism that obscured the coming crash. As Ren explains, “We were all fucking nuts.” She talks about gangs of dykes selecting the most passably female one among them, dressing her up like a girl, and sticking her on the street as bait. When a man eventually fucked with her, the rest of them would jump out of the shadows and kick his ass. “We were all freaks that got drawn magnetically to San Francisco. Johanna was just a freak among freaks. How would you know someone was crazy when we were all pretty freaky?” There would, of course, be no way to know until the end of the decade, when an inventory of survivors could be taken, when we could see who among us was still standing.
Kelly from Torrance, California, HAG name Kelly Kegger, was always at work. She began as a bike messenger who didn’t know her way around the city, and, having slowly spent a three-thousand-dollar car-accident insurance windfall hanging out and getting slowly hooked on dope, couldn’t afford a Zo Bag, the practical accessory of choice for bike messengers everywhere. She kept her giant, sputtering radio shoved into the pockets of her cargo shorts. Eventually she learned her way around, got the necessary Zo Bag, and made enough money to pay for her weekly room at the Potter Hotel, one of the better SROs in the city, populated by fellow queers and bike messengers. She spent her nights debauching with the HAGS. “It would be four thirty, five in the morning, and I’d be like, ‘I gotta take a power nap.’ Then seven o’clock in the morning, everyone is still partying and I’d be like, ‘I gotta go to work.’” This was a common bike messenger lifestyle at the time; a popular T-shirt read Powered by Speed and Beer.
“It was nothing,” Kelly maintains. “You just ride your bike around.” Come three o’clock, she was done ferrying packages around the Financial District and would return to whatever communal house was HAGS central. If nobody was home Kelly would grab a piece of chalk and leave a note on the sidewalk. “We didn’t have phones or nothing,” Kelly says. “Those were like our little text messages.”
Kelly’s closest friendship was with Quijas: “We had a crazy relationship. We fought like we were a couple. She was super jealous. You couldn’t talk to any of her girlfriends. But she could fuck your girlfriend.” Kelly and Quijas both had femme girlfriends, sex workers who were friends with each other. Anya had been drinking tequila in a bush outside a party when she met Kelly; she was hiding from her clean and sober girlfriend. “I saw this person with long black hair walk up to the keg. She tried to pour beer and it was empty. She kicked the can and cursed and that was Kelly Kegger.” Soon the four of them—Anya, Kelly, Quijas, and her girlfriend—were family.
“I would go to work. Kelly would take me, drive me to my trick, would be there while I was doing phone sex, buying drugs,” says Anya. The same system was in place with Quijas and her dominatrix girlfriend; they would all pick her up at the dungeon and joke about it. Though Anya was as punk as the HAGS, and developed her own heroin addiction alongside theirs, she wasn’t a HAG. “There weren’t any real femmes in the HAGS,” Anya says. “They were the butches. Really tough, but masculine… It was a boys’ club. ‘Bros before hos’—that way you’re not vulnerable. The love and intimacy can penetrate the gang and make it vulnerable to the outside.”
As Kelly’s habit progressed, consequences began piling up. “I got fired from the bike messenger gig, which is really hard to do.” She’d picked up a side gig locksmithing and managed to hang on to that one. When she burned through her stash before payday—as happened more and more frequently—she would steal the locksmith van and drive it through Oakland, using her tools to help folks on the street bust into cars for a fee. Now living in a studio in Oakland, she became increasingly isolated from friends, her days and nights revolving around scrambling for cash and accessing drugs. When there wasn’t enough money for both rent and dope, dope won, and Kelly moved in with Anya, by now more of an ex than a girlfriend.
Kelly urged Quijas to go to the free clinic on Haight Street for a checkup, observing that her friend appeared dangerously swollen. “She just looked like shit,” Kelly remembers. “They gave her all these tests and her thyroid was fucked-up. She had to quit drinking and using drugs. They told her, ‘You’ll be dead in five years if you don’t do this.’ I was like, ‘Well, what are you gonna do?’ And she was like, ‘Well, I’m not quitting drinking.’”
Kelly’s friendship with Quijas came to a crashing end.
She let Quijas and another HAG stay at her place, but they were so loud and paranoid, screaming that Kelly had stolen from them, that Kelly feared getting kicked out. The last time Kelly saw Quijas was at a South of Market pay phone frequently used to cop drugs (you’d page your guy and he’d call back). At the pay phone they made small talk about whom they were buying from. Quijas recommended a new guy whose dope was good and cheap, and who would do home deliveries, even out to Oakland, anytime of the night. Kelly switched her source.
In early 1999 Kelly noticed she had tiny open wounds all over her legs and her butt. Little dots. She and her pit bull were still crashing with Anya; by day she would do methadone in hopes of getting off dope, but by nightfall her resolve would fade and she’d be back to heroin. “It was like a double habit.” She’d been skin-popping black tar heroin, the sticky, rock version of the drug found on the West Coast. The workers at the methadone clinic took a look at the wounds and sent her to the hospital. At Kaiser’s Oakland Medical Center, the doctors were baffled. Kelly explained she’d been using drugs. “They were like, ‘Well, you can’t use drugs anymore.’ That was their solution.” They sent her home with antibiotics.
Kelly stayed clean for several days, but on Valentine’s Day, she was unable to get out of bed. Kelly’s pit bull had shit all over the place and Anya was pissed. When she burst into Kelly’s room to bitch her out, she was shocked. “She was like, ‘What the fuck is wrong with you?’” Kelly knew only that she was sick, that something wasn’t right. Anya dragged her from bed and brought her back to Kaiser. When reception told them they’d have to wait, Anya went ballistic, furious at them for having sent her home the first time, and certain that Kelly was dying. “I was like, ‘Don’t be so dramatic. Jesus.’” But her fury worked. “They admitted me right away. And then they did emergency surgery.”
What the doctors were saying did not quite register with Kelly. Partly it was denial native to addiction, and partly she was haggard and addled from drugs and detoxing. Also she was sick, very, very sick. She worried about losing her locksmith job and the health insurance it gave her, a she wanted to know when she’d be getting out. “They were like, ‘We don’t know if you’re going to make it out of surgery.’ I was like, ‘Oh. OK.’”
Kelly survived, but the doctors warned her she might never walk again. This struck her as absurd, as she could feel her toes just fine. The doctors continued: if she had shown up at General they would simply have removed her legs. It had taken the doctors at Kaiser fourteen hours of surgery to prevent those amputations. Still, Kelly didn’t get it. “They were like, ‘You can’t use drugs ever. Do you understand that?’ I was like, ‘OK, whatever.’”
Kelly understood that she had had a bacterial infection, one that had gotten close to sending her body into septic shock. Her butt harbored deep wounds, now stuffed with gauze. After three weeks, the hospital wanted to send her home, but Anya had moved and Kelly had nowhere to go. She was sent to Medical Hill, a nursing and rehabilitation center.
At Medical Hill, Kelly was put on methadone and taught to walk again. After a month and a half she was limping around, which bolstered her certainty that her surgeon hadn’t known what he was talking about. She had yet to come to grips with her situation. When her morphine drip was removed after two months, she put in a call to the home-delivery dealer and ordered some heroin.
Also at two months, Kelly got fired from the locksmith job. “They were like, ‘You haven’t been here in months.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m in the hospital.’ But it wasn’t work related, so they’re like, ‘You’re out of here, dude.’” Cut off from her health insurance, Kelly had to either come up with $489 a month for COBRA—impossible—or get sent to Highland Hospital, Oakland’s rough general hospital. Kelly called her mom in Southern California to see if she might be able to come bring her home, but she wasn’t able to get the time off from her library job.
“This nurse lady, she comes in and was like, ‘I’m going to pay it.’ I was like, ‘What the fuck? Why are you doing this?’ She said, ‘Because then you’ll have to do something nice for someone someday.’”
It was Kelly’s roommate who helped bust her out of denial, a twenty-six-year-old mother from Richmond receiving hospice care for stomach cancer. The woman, who hosted lots of visitors, was confused as to why Kelly had been seen only by her drug dealer and Anya. At first she didn’t say anything to Kelly about it. But eventually she talked.
“She was like, ‘Oh god, you’re a junkie!’ I said, ‘Yeah, I guess I was a junkie. Technically, I guess I still am.’ I had never really said it out loud. They were on the patio smoking the weed the woman’s brother-in-law smuggled in to help ease the effects of her stomach cancer. “She said, ‘I never heard of anyone having what you had. Usually they just OD and die.’ It was a lot to hear. Like, Oh fuck, I’m a junkie. You’re not supposed to be a junkie.”
Eventually Kelly’s mom did pick her up and take her back to Southern California, where she flushed the last of her heroin and stayed on methadone. She spent the days trapped at home, tripping out on pop culture. She’d spent the past years without TV, snug inside the “queer drug bubble,” and was utterly flabbergasted by rap-rock and Britney Spears. One day Anya called her from a pay phone in San Francisco; during the conversation, she spotted Quijas and put her on the line.
“I remember telling Stacey what happened. She said, ‘Oh, it doesn’t sound like you were taking care of yourself. You should take better care of yourself.’ I was like, ‘No, dude, I’m telling you, if you get these bumps or sores you gotta go to the hospital.’” Quijas blew it off. Stung by the condescension, Kelly didn’t press the issue.
On June 6, 1999, a thirty-three-year-old woman presented to the San Francisco General Hospital emergency department with a chief complaint of two days of excruciating, sharp, and continuous pain in her left buttock after four days of fever and chills, nausea, vomiting, and lethargy. She reported five years of heroin use, black tar heroin use on the day of admission, and occasional methamphetamine use. She was alert and oriented but anxious, with pale, cool skin and pinpoint pupils.
Clostridial Myonecrosis Cluster among Injection Drug Users: A Molecular Epidemiology Investigation” is a difficult paper for a layperson to read. Partly this is due to sentences that contain phrases like “a crepitus area was found… with erythema, induration, and ecchymosis,” which require the sort of Google searches that beget infinite additional Google searches. Having actually known Fiver, having felt inspired and emboldened by her time on this planet, and having been close to Carina Gia, the poet who had loved her so, it is difficult, too, for me to read: “She developed refractory hypotension while being treated with intravenous epinephrine and dopamine and died intraoperatively seven hours after admission.” People I spoke with were under the impression that Fiver died in the elevator at General without ever being seen by a doctor. It was hard to obtain information, they said. The HAGS knew each other very well, but in many cases, they didn’t know each other’s legal names. For the record, from the records, it looks like they tried to save her—Fiver.
Five days after Fiver’s death, Stacey Quijas arrived at General. She was twenty-eight years old. She reported skin-popping black tar heroin for the past seven months, most recently earlier that day. Can I convey the simple chaos that existed outside that room, that hospital? The chaos of people living their lives on drugs, of people accustomed to no access, broke people? None of these people had cell phones—these were folks who communicated with one another via chalk scrawls on sidewalks. But what was the hospital’s excuse? When people went to check on Stacey, they were told she’d been released. For four or five days, according to Kelly, HAGS and other queers looked for their friend. Eventually some went to the hospital and told the staff that Quijas had never come home. “Oh, she’s still here,” the hospital told them. Stacey Quijas was in the ICU. By then she was probably on her third or fourth surgery.
Once they could get in, a vigil formed at Quijas’s bedside. Lynnee Breedlove came whenever he could. “She was knocked out,” he recalls. “I think they might have done a drug-induced coma. Blood was everywhere. Her beautiful body that was all tatted up everywhere—they had to cut away the rotting parts, and there was no way to stop the bleeding.” A day or so after her friends found her, Quijas died. Says Silas Howard, the former owner of the Bearded Lady café and a good friend of Quijas’s: “It was a horror movie.”
Dr. Andre Campbell is the San Francisco General attending surgeon who operated on Quijas and others who contracted the flesh-eating bacteria through exposure to contaminated black tar heroin. He is the coauthor of the medical paper detailing the cataclysm. In the wake of the deaths, he helped create San Francisco’s Integrated Soft Tissue Infection Service, a special clinic catering to people with abscesses and cellulitis. It treats about one hundred thousand people with soft tissue infections each year, overwhelmingly IV or intramuscular drug users.
“You can actually watch the infection go up someone’s back, their arm,” he explains from his office at General. “The only way you can control it is by cutting it. Debride. It means cut away, cut off the skin, the tissues underneath, the fascia and the muscle. You have to get control. It’s a race between the bacteria and you.”
The day before Quijas died, a third HAG came to the hospital. She had lived with Fiver and Quijas in a dilapidated warehouse where chickens ran amok and that would later be shut down by health department workers in hazmat suits. The third HAG had come to visit her friend, but while she was there, she spoke with a doctor about her worry: she had been skin-popping the same black tar as Fiver and Quijas. The doctors examined her and found nothing of any concern but gave her 2.4 million units of intramuscular penicillin just to be safe. The HAG went back to the soon-to-be-condemned warehouse and promptly shot a bit of the contaminated heroin into her stomach. This will likely baffle and even enrage anyone who has not been touched by the powerful insanity of addiction. Even I—who was grabbed by the undertow of my own habits many times before somehow getting clean—spoke aloud the phrase “What the fuck?” in a condemning voice upon reading this in the medical paper. The third HAG, unable to resist the pull of a piece of dope currently killing her two best friends, did some, and returned to the hospital the following morning. After ten surgeries, 20 percent of her body surface was removed. She was in intensive care for over a month. After forty days, she was released to a rehabilitation facility. She is alive.
The papers picked up that some addicts had been cut down by a sensationalistic “flesh-eating bacteria,” in part because Dr. Campbell himself conducted a press conference. Two other drug users had been admitted with the same lethal bacterial stew, one on crystal meth who’d reported that his drugs looked especially “dirty,” and lost his arm, and a black tar heroin user who survived three debridements and was released after twelve days. Between 1992 and 1997 General had treated only seven cases of necrotizing fasciitis; in less than one month it saw five. Dr. Campbell feared that a bad batch of the drug, and who knew how much of it, could be on the street, killing people. Getting the word out was crucial. “The problems get bad when people wait and they don’t come in,” he explains. Needle-exchange programs were kept in the loop by the health department, helping to spread the warning to IV drug users.
The story became more lurid with speculation that the heroin had become contaminated while being smuggled up from Mexico in cadavers. Dr. Campbell has himself heard of drugs being brought through customs this way, but it’s impossible to know how this batch made it into the US. What the doctor thought he could learn was whether the contaminant was present in the drug itself, confirming that a batch was tainted or if the bacteria had come from another source: dirty needles, contaminated water, chicken shit. Dr. Campbell’s medical sleuthing failed to prove beyond a doubt that the infections came from the drugs, though the evidence is suggestive, in particular when you consider that Kelly—who fell sick across the Bay and was not included in the study—had likely bought her drugs from the same dealer as the others.
Silas Howard found the media’s sudden interest in his friends angering and heartbreaking. The world had turned its back on the HAGS while they were alive, but in death, cut down by such a grimly newsworthy event, they were the talk of the town. “The way they were just reduced to being addicts, the way they were treated, it was really intense. Still to this day, if I look up Stacey Quijas, the first thing that comes up is the flesh-eating disease that killed her.” It’s true. If you know how to refine your search, you can find the two record covers of There’s a Dyke in the Pit, a compilation album released by the Outpunk, a now-defunct queer punk music label. In one version Stacey wears a Mohawk, and the leather-jacketed arm of a grinning friend is slung around her shoulders; she scowls at the camera like she’s issuing a dare. In the other she wears a backward baseball cap and a smirk, throwing devil horns aside two femmes with wild hair and glorious pierced smiles.
“I remember I was so mad,” Howard continues. “I was like, Who gave you the right to print our friend’s name and label them a drug addict? That seems slanderous. It seems, like, even if it’s true, why do you get to print their name, with only this thing?”
An ex-girlfriend of Quijas’s had come to town upon learning of her death; Howard took her to General, where they flagged a nurse. “I said, ‘Our friend died and my friend wasn’t here and she just wants information.’ And the nurse looked at her and said, ‘Well, you know what you guys do. You shoot up drugs. And you die.’ It was just the coldest.” Quijas’s ex had never shot drugs, and Howard had long been clean and sober. “It’s just weird the way society deals with addiction.”
Stacey Quijas’s body was sent to Colorado, to the family she’d run away from decades earlier, and was buried wearing a pink dress. “A lot of us people who were close to her did our best to advocate against that, saying she would not want that,” Lynnee Breedlove recalls. “It was an ongoing discussion and power struggle for three weeks.” The family refused to listen. Defeated and infuriated, her friends organized events to honor the fallen HAGS at Ocean Beach and in private homes. “At that point, everyone just had to go, ‘Fuck it. We’re having our memorial over here, we’re not going to that funeral. ’Cause that’s just her body. She left that a long time ago. Do whatever you want, dress it up, play your little games. We’re going to celebrate her life the way she would have wanted it.’”
According to Carina, Fiver was buried in Lincoln County, Ohio, where she came from. Although they played Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix at her funeral and buried her with a bottle of whiskey, she didn’t escape the final marks of a culture that misunderstood her, as Carina learned after speaking with the funeral director by phone. “He basically made it sound like she looked better than ever with the makeup they had put on her, possibly better than she looked alive. So,” she says wearily, “I guess that happened.”
In the wake of her death, Carina became determined to rescue Fiver’s belongings from the condemned warehouse. Fiver had been in a relationship with the third HAG, and the woman’s friends were possessively guarding Fiver’s belongings as the woman convalesced at General. Carina sweet-talked her way into the place and absconded with Fiver’s trunk. “This was my soulmate,” she says. “I’m not going to just let people throw this shit out on the curb.” Carina found the trunk full of Fiver’s clothing, photographs, books, and journals.
I think it sobered us all up quite a bit,” says Lynnee Breedlove, speaking in the aftermath of the deaths. “You know that moment when you’re an addict and you realize, Oh, I can die from this, OK. I think the whole community of us suddenly got that.”
Kelly got it. Having come up from Southern California to attend the memorials, she moved in with Breedlove, staying on his couch for a year, healing, kicking drugs, eating ice cream, smoking three packs of cigarettes a day, watching television. “I was like, ‘You stay here as long as you want, just do what you want.’ Quijas was her running dog. She had the grief of losing your best friend, to the same thing that almost killed you, that you didn’t want to tell anyone about because of the shame, and then you have survivor’s guilt.” Eventually Kelly began working for Breedlove’s messenger service, driving a borrowed truck. She moved into a spare room and became a proper roommate. She remained haunted. “Keg had trouble sleeping,” Breedlove recalls. “She would have to have a fan for the white noise, and blackout curtains, all this stuff.” She was unable to carry twenty-dollar bills on her person, as the sight of them was too triggering. But slowly Kelly returned to the land of the living. Rent was cheap, and she got a second job, with AAA. With some cash in her pocket, she took off for Europe to attend a summer metal festival. She experimented with drinking, figuring at least it wasn’t the harder stuff, and returned to the States full of regret, hungover, with the determination to become fully sober.
By fall, Kelly had cut off all her long hair. She stopped wearing her signature vest with its many music patches, a kind of tribal identification garment. She quit smoking. Sometime after the start of the new year, she looked around her room, essentially wallpapered with flyers for punk and metal shows. She began taking them down. They went into boxes, alongside other metal accessories and skull décor.
“She was able to sit and reflect in that room and go, What’s my part?” Breedlove says. “The answer came back—I’m somehow inviting this in, whatever it is. Pain, death, destruction, confusion. What can you do different? For her it was: ‘I’m getting rid of all this death stuff.’” Together they hauled the effects of Kelly’s former life down to Third Street, where homeless people, some of them tweakers, live in trailers. “It felt freeing,” says Kelly. On a delivery the following day, Breedlove drove past their dump spot and the items were gone. Kelly painted her dark room in light colors and took down her black curtains.
It’s June 17, 2016. Sixteen years ago Stacey Quijas died. Memorial posts are cropping up on Facebook. “Let me tell you how different my life is now,” Kelly says. He has transitioned. He still works in transportation, though higher up, and he managed to buy a house in Oakland when the market crashed. “Today, on June 17, what I’m doing is going to the LGBT night at the A’s, to watch fucking baseball. Who would have thought that in sixteen years I’d be going to some fucking gay baseball night? I didn’t even like sports. I still don’t like sports! But I like going to baseball games because I like hanging out with my friends and being outside.”
“I think it’s normal,” says Joan of Anarchy, now Johnny Ray, about his own life. He lives in Vallejo, and for the past nine years has worked for animal care and control. “I go to work and I come home and drink my beer and hang out with my animals. I try to keep a low profile. I still like going to shows and getting in the pit, but the last time I hurt my arm.”
Kelly’s ex-girlfriend Anya was stuck in the quicksand of methadone maintenance for years before being able to quit both that and heroin. She’s kept away from hard drugs, but dabbled in psychedelics until two years ago, when she became clean and sober. She raises her son in the East Bay and works as a sex educator and body worker. “I still do things that are super radical,” she says. She identifies as an anarchist and as a radical mom, but has shrugged off the punk identity that shaped her younger years. “I was almost dead because of the punk scene,” she says. “It’s really hard for me just to go to a show.”
Becky Slane spent some years traveling around the country, landing in Louisville, Kentucky; Nashville, Tennessee; New York City. Today she lives in Los Angeles and makes her living as a commercial painter. “I’m the person you call when you want some crazy, cool texture, a cool painting accent, or if you want something to look one hundred years old, like really a hundred years old, not like a Cracker Barrel gift center.” She also does tile and mosaic work, and credits finding her artistic gifts to her time with the HAGS. “We were constantly with the punk-rock arts and crafts,” she says, laughing. “We didn’t have anything that wasn’t altered or messed with. That was something I realized I had an aptitude for, and developed a love for.”
Tracie Thomas, who unknowingly began this saga with a tongue-in-cheek John Waters homage, lives in Florida with her girlfriend, an animal chiropractor. The story of the HAGS has left her “so antidrugs now, it’s not even funny.” She spends a lot of time at the gym and on the tennis court, and cares for a couple of French bulldogs. She runs a clothing business called Trauma Tease, which sells T-shirts silkscreened with flaming dice, mudflap girls, aces of spades, Satan smoking a cigar. One garment reads, Luck Runs Out. She walks on the beach every day. “The simple life, I guess.”
As for Johanna Lee, the HAGS madman savant, she lived on and off the street for many years, often cared for by lovers and friends, “an army of femmes,” claims Lynnee Breedlove.
“I saw her before she died; she looked like she was seventy,” says Ren Volpe. “I was like, Oh my god, this is my friend Johanna, a young, vital peer. In her case it wasn’t just drugs. It was drugs and mental illness, then all of the physical illness that comes with that.” What was she sickened with? “Everything,” says Breedlove. “HIV, hep C.” Unlike her compatriots, Johanna escaped the particular hell that comes from a problematic birth family having the last word on your life. She refused contact with her mother from her deathbed, and instead enacted what Breedlove calls “this whole Valhalla Viking ritual at the beach.” A close friend then brought her to the hospital, and she died.
Maybe the HAGS didn’t really mean anything. People live and die all over the globe; they struggle against external oppression, and those parts of our human interiority we call demons. But there is something. Perhaps it is connected to how quickly and thoroughly San Francisco changes, how so much of that change is centered in the Mission, HAG central. How would they have railed against the latest gentry? How many cell phones would they have smashed on the street? Is there a place in the culture for such wild ruffians, a crew of wounded animals who bash back? And what about queer history? Will the California public school system work HAGS 101 into its forthcoming curriculum? Will it find ways to discuss the violence, psychic and otherwise, so many queer people endured? Will it explore the various and creative ways queers made space for themselves, made family, made themselves big and scary the way you’re supposed to when facing down a grizzly? When facing down the drooling and ferocious wild beast of homophobia, the HAGS became gorgeous monsters. The strategy was not sustainable. Is it any less valuable for that, any less admirable, beautiful, clever? Even at a distance, the HAGS marked me, had a tattooed, silver-ringed hand in making me who I was and am. The HAGS are dead. Long live the HAGS.