Beloved San Francisco drag queen spreads message of heart health

By American Heart Association News

Heart disease survivor Mutha Chucka. (Photo by Harry James Hanson)
Heart disease survivor Mutha Chucka. (Photo by Harry James Hanson)

Drag queen Mutha Chucka is known for splashy costumes, striking hair and makeup, and humorous, politically pointed performances. A fixture of the San Francisco nightlife scene, Mutha has blossomed into a beloved celebrity, locally and beyond.

"People embraced me, and I just kept pushing the boundaries and pushing the boundaries," Mutha said. "I love the hair, I love the makeup, I love the clothes. … I love to engage with the audience. I have fun."

Mutha, also known as Chuck Gutro and to some friends as "Chucka," first performed in drag in 1976. As a 14-year-old in New England, he donned his mother's clothes and wig and entertained a surprised audience at a church youth talent show.

"It was quite some time ago," he said, "and I never looked back."

Whether lip-syncing to classic songs, sewing dazzling dresses, mentoring other drag queens, raising money for charity or deftly handling a corporate day job, Mutha has a knack for juggling an active life – with, of course, lots of flair.

Mutha Chucka juggles an active life, all with flair and dazzle. (Photo by Mabel Jimenez)
Mutha Chucka juggles an active life, all with flair and dazzle. (Photo by Mabel Jimenez)

So, when Mutha landed in the hospital in 2016 with a heart problem, maintaining a slower pace wasn't a familiar script.

He contracted a parasitic infection during a trip to Mexico in late 2015. The parasite went away after a few months of treatment, but good health was slow to return. Then, after a work trip to Europe and several days of walking miles through Paris, Mutha felt really sick.

Doctors diagnosed cardiomyopathy and "basically told me I was on death's door," Mutha recalled.

A blood clot had formed in the bottom of his heart. The clot broke off and traveled to a kidney, causing part of the organ to shut down. He was hospitalized for three weeks.

Resting back at home, he suffered a complication from a heart procedure: the leg artery used to access his heart began severely bleeding. That led to emergency surgery and 10 more days in the hospital. It was three months before Mutha could walk around the block, followed by many more months of recuperation.

"I was very, very sick for a long time. It was one step at a time," he said.

A close friend, Char Levitt, who knows Mutha as Chuck and first met him years ago when they worked together, helped as he regained his strength. Char and her wife brought chicken soup and other home-cooked, heart-healthy meals.

"He had to shift gears a bit," Char said. Chuck is a high-energy person whatever the endeavor, she said, be it fine-tuning a drag performance, hosting a Chinese New Year's lunch for co-workers or checking on his parents and being the "fierce older brother" to his three younger sisters.

"There's no stopping that guy," she said. "He's very much beloved, wherever he goes. He's inclusive. He's highly engaged."

Today, Mutha walks, exercises with a stationary bike and eats lots of vegetables and very little red meat.

Mutha, 58, is mindful of his family history of cardiovascular diseases. His grandmother had a stroke; both of his parents have high blood pressure; and his father has had high cholesterol and a heart attack treated with a stent. Mutha smoked as a teen and young adult, but quit at age 34. He currently takes medication to regulate his heartbeat and control blood pressure and cholesterol.

Along with paid shows, Mutha raises money for charities, including the American Heart Association. He first got involved with health issues fighting AIDS during the 1980s and early 1990s as part of Act Up and Queer Nation and protests at the White House.

During those years, Mutha only occasionally performed in drag, especially at Halloween and special events. Then in the late 1990s, after performing as a backup drag singer and admiring other queens who were active in charities, Mutha's own act took shape. That included becoming a self-described "dragtivist," speaking out on gender politics, feminism, Black Lives Matter and other left-leaning causes, often using humor, but sometimes turning serious. Mutha is a favorite at night clubs, street festivals, community events and, more recently, online amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Outfitted in pink and sequins and sporting a big blonde pinkish wig, Mutha hosted the AHA's virtual Pride celebration in June. Mutha led the audience through trivia questions, musical and comedic entertainers, an online dance break, fundraising efforts and messages about overcoming barriers to health care.

Members of the LGBTQ community face health disparities linked to discrimination and societal stigma, research suggests.

"You become 'othered.' When you're othered, it's tough on your heart," Mutha said.

Discrimination that LGBTQ people face has been associated with high rates of tobacco use and substance abuse. Mutha noted that the LGBTQ social scene was once more heavily based in bars, which led to more drinking, smoking and inhaling secondhand smoke, all of which pose heart disease risks. Now, socializing centers on many types of activities.

As he strives to live a healthy life, he urges others to, as well. Mutha points out that some studies indicate pet ownership can reduce heart disease risk, and he is adopting a dog. He's moving from his longtime San Francisco apartment to a dog-friendly house in southern California.

Mutha Chucka strives to educate the community about LGBTQ health and heart disease risk through charities, drag shows and online events.  (Photo by Fred Rowe Photo)
Mutha Chucka strives to educate the community about LGBTQ health and heart disease risk through charities, drag shows and online events. (Photo by Fred Rowe Photo)

Fans needn't worry, though. Mutha will continue online drag shows and return to San Francisco when it's time to go back to work in person. Expect Mutha to keep pushing boundaries – and spreading the word about good health.

"I just encourage everyone to take the best care of themselves," he said. "It's part of the persona of Mutha. I'm always telling everyone what to do."

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