Bambi Lake is a chanteuse who sprung out of the Cockettes, the radical, gay, hippie performance troupe and the Angels of Light, the free-theater child of the Cockettes. Off and on, for nearly 50 years, she has performed in San Francisco at the biggest, smallest, cleanest and dirtiest clubs. When I asked her what her greatest talent is she said, “making people cry.”


Bambi is sculpted by those who glance at her, finely chiseled by her music, poetry and mystery. Forever a pioneer, she paved the way for transgender women, women who would normally be forced to succumb to the internal isolation outsiders can’t describe. The same isolation visionaries overcome to attain their status.  


When I was 18 years old, I read Bambi’s book, The Unsinkable Bambi Lake, and knew that I had to find her. I searched and searched and searched. In my quest, when I mentioned her name to people, I would hear gasps and, often, be asked to leave.


One day that same year, I found her strung out and homeless on the street. I had her book in my backpack. For 35 years, Bambi was drug-riddled and disabled, sleeping under the freeways, being raped by other homeless men.


Bambi screamed at me, “Are you the boy that fucks transvestites?” and explained, “Pictures with me cost a quarter. They go for a lot of money on eBay.”


Bambi Lake, Jaded Lady, Tenderloin, San Francisco, Cockette,  Gus Bernadicou, August Bernadicou

Excerpt from Bambi Lake’s

“Golden Age of Hustlers”

In San Francisco long ago, I made my living hooking
On Polk Street, at the old Black Rose, my eyes were always looking
For some dumb man to pay my rent and some young man to love me
With so many Heaven sent, I thank the stars above me
Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me

The queens and the hustlers of the red light zone never did desert me

I saw the best bodies of my generation
Sold, bartered and destroyed by drugs and prostitution

Pretty queens on the corners and midnight cowboys in the doorway

Golden girls and boys all must like chimney sweepers come to dust

It’s hard to find someone you can trust amidst the rhinestones and the rust…

Prettiest boy I ever saw was San Jose Johnny the Libra

They don’t make them like that anymore, a baby-faced gentleman outlaw

Sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never hurt me
The queens and the hustlers of the red light zone never did desert me…

In the olden days, the Golden Age of Hustlers...

Midnight the next year, in 2010, I saw Bambi at Carl’s Jr. She had a home, and she was sober.


Poetry spilled out of her midnight, Carl’s Jr. coffee, “There is a whole world of beautiful people under the beautiful American Dream.” To me, she is one of the great, unsung San Francisco street poets and performers. 


Recently her phone was shut off, so I called the assisted living facility she lives at and said she was my mother and that I needed to speak to her. I have always labeled her “the mother of us all.”


The rumors that cloak her legacy aren’t always true, but they helped build it. One time when I was walking around with her, someone stopped us on the street and exclaimed, “I found Bambi Lake! I can’t wait to tell my wife.” 


Bambi Lake does make me cry. She lives in the Tenderloin, the San Francisco ghetto, the neighborhood that ruined her life. When she walks around she passes homeless people, not dissimilar to her less than ten years ago. She is banned from most bars, restaurants and coffee shops. Every day she is reminded of her past, reminded how she never became what she wanted, drugs got in the way, she got in her way.


Bambi spends most of her days alone. She has always been alone. She tells me that she should be traveling to Europe, performing all around the world. It should be her. 


I tell her that without her so many trans people wouldn’t be able to perform. She was too much, too out there, too early to have the life she longs for. She pounded the pavement, and, to this day, her songs are performed all over the world. Like her hero, Joni Mitchell, said, “The reasons artists live to be quite old is because they are children… that never put their crayons away.” She is forever chasing fame in a circle outlined with crayons. Since she started performing again a few years ago, she has consistently sold out two hundred people theaters.


Sometimes you meet someone and they stay with you. You see them where they aren’t and hear them in silence. Bambi Lake is one of those people.



“The name Bambi means leave me alone. My name, Bambi, was kind of like a don't hurt me name and protective.

I guess my greatest talent when I perform is making people cry. I don’t know exactly why. It’s usually my song “Golden Age of Hustlers.” There are certain singers that are just better at sad songs. I spent a lot of time learning how to sing. I’m doing little things that people don’t realize. I have a lot of technique. I believe in the power of the voice. I don’t have a rock ‘n roll voice, I have a Broadway voice. My voice is a velvety watery sound that draws people in. All of a sudden, I can get very, very loud or all of a sudden very, very soft. It’s manipulative. When you study voice, you learn how to do a lot of vocal tricks. My talent, well, I'm stuck there. It feels unnatural talking about how good I am. I can't really.

I have been trying to define San Jose Johnny the Libra for a while. He was a real person and if he would only show himself it would be great. He ended up moving to Texas to be a fisherman. He was simple and an enigma. He was an Okie with the cutest, butch way of talking. He lost all his teeth from doing drugs, and he was a master thief. He had grown up in jail. He didn’t have the slightest bit of menace to him. We met at a time when we both couldn’t judge each other. He knew what a queen was and how to respect a queen.

He didn’t turn tricks. He never looked at anyone else or at other girls. He only looked at me. We lived in a cheap motel room and listened to classical music at night. We made love. He was in love with me when he was with me. With him it was different, he was special. He was sweet and romantic and the love of my life.

“Golden Age of Hustlers” affects people so much because I'm not proud of it. I didn't enjoy it. The song has that context to it. It’s not something I recommend people do. People get shocked by that because it's right on my sleeve. I've watched people destroy themselves. It has a very sweet melody so you don’t quite recognize it. It hits you as you get into the song. It’s talking about speed, actually, crystal meth, how there were boys with really good bodies and I visibly saw them deflating.

This gets into an area that I simply don't want to talk about. My speed problem was just ugly and I don't like to talk about it. That's what this is getting into. It’s just— there's a line. I don't like people to think of me in those terms. It's more powerful than people realize.

I have to stop there because I don't know how to say any of this stuff. I just don't know. I think that's enough, especially for today."