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How a Drag Queen Taught Me to Be a Better Mother

It was an ungodly hour on a Sunday morning in 2013 when I walked into Marlena’s bar in Hayes Valley, San Francisco to meet Misty Blue for what would become a life-altering bus trip to Colma. Misty sat at the bar with Sharon McGroin, huge sunglasses on both their faces as they dealt with the repercussions of the previous evening’s celebrations. Sharon’s drag mother, Patty McGroin, had just been crowned Empress and, while everyone was very happy, no one had really slept.

More Imperial Court members trickled into the shadowy, showing various states of disrepair, but greeting each other like long-lost family though they’d been together just hours before. Finally, the bus arrived and we boarded. At the front was a diminutive but powerfully charismatic figure, draped in a black veil over a tall crown. This was Jose Sarria, also known as Mama Jose and the Widow Norton, the founder of the Imperial Court of San Francisco. She was surrounded by her closest friends and courtiers, including her heir, Nicole the Great.

Once the bus reached the level rumble of the freeway, Mama Jose picked up the microphone and stood to address her court. Immediately, I understood how this seemingly small person in a veil could have changed the world. Her words resonated throughout the carriage and her audience listened closely, many understanding that these may be some of the last words they would hear from Jose. He was 90, after all, and he might not be able to make this pilgrimage to visit her long-passed “husband”, Emperor Norton, again. But the day was not sad, as Mama Jose infused her famous humor into every lesson.

“Don’t try to imitate past winners,” Mama Jose advised the newly elected rulers and any future aspirants who might be listening. “Be unique. Be honest. And always take the time to listen.” 

She went on to say that it’s not easy to be a mama, because mamas always need to listen to their children. She described how it takes a half an hour to leave an event or gathering because everyone wants to talk…and mama has to listen. You could tell that she loved this, that it was important to her to really connect with her “children” but she had warning words as well.

“When you’re the mama, no one really tells you the truth,” she said ominously. “They tell you what they think you want to hear. So be careful.”

Ouch, I thought, almost grateful that my own child is incapable of such deception. But listening…yes. Do I do that enough with him? With anyone? That’s a pill I need to swallow now. Can I get a vodka chaser with that?

Jose went on to describe how important it is for everyone in the Court to “stop talking behind each other’s backs or Mama will find out!” Everyone involved needs to become friends and work together. She reminded us to reach out to the entire voting community of the charter location and reminded us that she gave money to unwed mothers and to the city when the need arose. And they voted. Then she uttered her most famous quote, which literally sent chills down my arms, “United we stand, divided they catch us one by one.” Cheers erupted throughout the bus and my eyes were suddenly full of tears. I’m sure it was just the morning sun.

When we arrived at Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma, Mama Jose greeted every single person as they stepped off the bus. I admit, I was nervous.

“I love your outfit, my dear,” she said to me, taking my hand briefly.

I flushed hot in my discount store jacket. “I like yours, too!” was all I could manage. My words sounded like an awed teenager’s and I was whisked away by the next arrival. But I still felt just a touch of that motherly love.

The ceremony at Emperor Norton’s grave site was beautiful and overwhelming. Donna Sachet’s performance of “Unforgettable” certainly was! Patty McGroin’s stilettos started to sink into the soft earth and I helped pull her out and get her settled onto a grave stone. That is a bonding experience right there! When Mama Jose sang “God Save Us Nelly Queens” I knew I was watching a piece of history unfold.

Years later, this day, with its lessons learned and relationships forged, stays with me. I am so fortunate to have been welcomed into the Imperial Court family during this special time and to have learned and grown more each year since. I know I have far to go and I will carry the memory and words of Mama Jose in my heart always.


Angels Among Us

There are definitely angels among us! I don't know why I get so lucky but I know that I do and I will never take it for granted.

Today, the underside of my front bumper finally collapsed (it's been headed that way for awhile) and the piece was dragging the ground loudly as I pulled away from the office where I was working in Sunnyvale. No way I could drive back to SF like that. I pulled over into the nearest parking lot, got out, and crouched down on the ground to see what I could do to rig it up and get home. It didn't look good.

Out of nowhere, a friendly voice said, "you need a hand?" I had to admit that I did. Long story short, I was sent a guardian angel in the form of a nice man named Will from San Bernadino (originally from Mexico.) He got under my car and would not quit until it was drivable. And it is!

He was so kind and understanding and funny - even when it started to rain, he kept at it. (I found an umbrella and held it over both of us.) He wouldn't let me give him anything for his time or efforts but I hope and pray that if he or his family ever need anything, that an angel will be there for them at the right time.


We're not behind!

I've been feeling this pressure to get Season Two of Happy Hour with Cameron Stiehl up and rolling as soon as possible, thinking that we first launched in November of 2012. Turns out, I can relax...but just a little bit. As I look here while updating a few things, it actually took us until February to be OFFICIALLY launched last year. Whew! Look for great things coming soon, folks. Two episodes are in the can and they are awesome.

When I read these old posts from last year, I can't believe how far we've come. I never thought we could accomplish so much in such a short time! Imagine what we could do with a BUDGET. That's one of the things we will be working on this year. How do we produce quality mini-documentaries without going broke? Don't worry. We'll make it happen. HUGE thanks to the sponsors and other supportive folks already starting to make a difference!

We're going to reach our goals, I just know it. One cocktail at a time.



The First Episode is UP!

I'm so excited to report that we are finally, officially launched as a web series. Well, if you can call one episode a series...but I know that this is only the beginning. Our first episode of "Happy Hour with Cameron Stiehl" was posted today after many, many, many hours of editing by Travis Valentine. What a great learning experience for all involved. I'm excited and encouraged by the progress we're making and I wish I could post all the other episodes RIGHT NOW! But they need editing, too. So bear with us. It'll be worth the wait.

'Til then, enjoy Nick Pugh's little screen debut.

And I can't wait to film again on Saturday, February 23rd, out at the Doctor's Lounge in the Mission (Excelsior? Whatever.) The owner there, David Henry, is a super amazing, sweet guy and so supportive of me and Travis and our project. I'm nervous and excited and looking forward to seeing how it all turns out.

I don't think I've ever worked so hard, or wanted to make something work so badly, in my entire life. If it brings people together, even in the smallest of ways, it will be more than worth it.


A Sort of Happy Hour - a story to share

The point of the new series, Happy Hour with Cameron Stiehl, is to share stories. I recently realized that if I stick to telling just the stories of those friends I can get into a San Francisco bar, I will barely touch on all I want to tell. So let's branch out and take a look at a bit of the story of one of my closest, longest term friends.

I've known Wayne, whom I call my "gay pagan doctor friend" since I was 17 years old. A long, long time. Let's just say we've had enough cocktails together for me to know a number of his stories almost as well as my own.

Wayne struggled with his sexual orientation. He didn't come out to his conservative, religious, though extremely loving and supportive family until very late in life. He admitted to me at one point that if he had had the choice, he'd have chosen to be straight because it would have been easier on his family and himself. But despite my best efforts during a short teenage crush phase in the late '80s, Wayne is not straight. And now, he is fine with it.

I asked him if he would put his story into his own words for sharing with the Happy Hour with Cameron Stiehl audience. He chose to share his perspective on growing up gay this way, with advice. Always the doctor...

So here he is, in his own words, Doctor Wayne, all the way from Arizona:

Thoughts From an Aspiring Sage


  1. Get buff. Sure, it’s a gay-male stereotype. But why not? It has served us well. It keeps you healthy and gives you confidence. And while many of our straight brothers, God bless them, are all looking more and more like the bloated offspring of Jonah Hill and Will Ferrell, gay men, as in the days of the Greeks, will continue to uphold the ideals of male beauty. Also, learn some street-fighter moves. Just a few. Enough so that you feel confident standing up for yourself. Yes, “It Gets Better.” But it gets better a lot faster if you can snap some snarky bully like a twig if you need to.  
  2. Get an education. I think one of the greatest blessings of being gay is you’re (often) exempt from having children. No screaming babies! No changing diapers! Well, at least not until our parents hit their nursing home years. So it’s vital to have some constructive, challenging activity to fill that void. And it might as well be a career. Being a cute young gay waiter, or fitness trainer, is almost a rite of passage. It’s great in your 20s and 30s. But when you’re pushing 50? Yikes. Me, I took the plunge, and spent 12 years in labor, complete with long sleepless nights, strange cravings, and swollen feet. At the end, I emerged the proud papa of a bouncing baby medical degree. Sure, she’s fussy and demanding, and spits up now and then. But she’s got me financially set, and now I only work 3 days per week. Once you’re papered, you can tell everyone to kiss your ass. 
  3. Make it a point, from time to time, to put down that martini glass, that book, that barbell, that GODDAMN CELL PHONE. Go out into the woods, or up into the mountains, or out to the oceanside, alone. Watch the sunset. Be still and silent. Breathe in the fresh, clear air. And thank God for the blessing that is your life.