Event Report: Philadelphia Queer Media Activism Series

Drag Activism: Performing the Revolution was highly educational and entertaining. I’ve had very limited experiences with drag, so I was introduced to a lot of new ideas. Perhaps the best way for me to summarize my experience is to touch on each person in the panel and what sticks with me from their contributions. I had never heard of drag kings before, so Charles Cohen’s entire act was novel to me. Since he introduced himself as a relative newbie to performing drag, I was really impressed by the high quality of his clearly well-rehearsed dance and performance. Compared to the other panelists, he had relatively less to say about activism or politics, but that’s probably because he’s still figuring out his position. Lascivious Jane was interesting in that she covers both drag queen and drag king roles, and she believes all gender play (in real life or on stage) is a type of drag. I liked how she described her troupe, the Liberty City Kings, as a body-positive, gender fluid, kink-positive group whose stage representation accurately reflects their community (their audience, friends etc.) in terms of race and body type. It was funny when she said lesbians don’t know how to tip. Mesopotamia LeFaye (spelling?) described herself as a post-gender radical fairy interested mainly in new opportunities for self-presentation. I thought it was cool how she’s interested both in hoarding and wearing vintage women’s clothing, and totally breaking free of the pressure of “passing” in drag by assuming the identity of a tree or a spoon instead of a gender. Apart from her beliefs, her activism consists of appearing at charity fundraising events and making them lively. She brought up the danger in taking drag outside of a safe space, sharing that she feels she walks a fine line when bringing her drag to some places because even though she likes to have a broad audience, certain environments have made her feel hyper-queer in a non-affirming way. This reminded of Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s “Introduction: From Wonder to Error—A Geneology of Freak Discourse in Modernity” that discusses anomalous bodies and how they have been viewed through time. I think drag may be comparable in some ways, especially how people in drag may, “function as magnets to which culture secures its anxieties, questions, and needs at any given moment” (2). Messy said that the way people stare or take pictures of her has made her feel like a caged animal at times, which recalls the monster discourse of freak show history. It’s curious that drag, as something one chooses to do, and disability, which is not a choice, can both induce awe, viciousness, and pathologizing (4).

Ricky Paul, who is the director of the Dumpsta Players, plays macho dumbass Italian guys (among other characters). He gave us a small snippet of that act, and I wish he would have elaborated because I find that a hilarious iteration of drag that I never would have imagined existed. He described the Dumpsta Players as being script-oriented and interested in flipping sad realities upside down to call attention to the ridiculous and messed up stuff going on around us. Mrs. Miller comes to drag from a compellingly untraditional background. She’s straight, and does drag to disappear into another character, talk about the sexuality of older women, and work out her own body image issues. Icon Ebony Fierce had a huge and magnetic presence—I was captivated. She said, “I just do my own art,” and her message is that we are all able to be artists of our own creation. She talked about how it bothers her that there are members of the drag community who don’t know anything about their own community or history.

Given the topic of the evening, it makes sense that there was agreement on the part of all the panelists that drag should be about something more than just glamour and getting attention. Some drag performers see what they do solely as a job (perform Top 40 songs, only perform for money), while everyone at this event was concerned with using their skills to support other causes and to make political assertions. Another similarity was that everyone on the panel agreed on the importance of audience feedback. I had no idea that drag performers rely so much on expressive and positive reception from the audience, which makes sense to me now because it is quite a participatory type of theater. The other common thread that surprised me was everyone’s emphasis on being nice and professional. I used to think of drag performers in a stereotypical way, which is that they are divas and difficult people in real life (like Madame Sata), but during the advice session, everyone stressed the importance of being easy to work with and saving bigness of personality for the stage.

After watching the performance, I found myself wondering what people did before drag. It seems to serve such an essential function both as a form of expression and social critique that there would have been a big gap without it. Then I realized that drag has existed for a long time in western culture in different forms, from court entertainment to Elizabethan theater. The major difference that I detect is that perhaps while drag has always been subversive, it has never been so owned by its performers as it is now. Drag artists today don’t need to do drag for some other purpose other than for drag itself and for whatever it means to them personally. Before the twentieth century, people who performed in drag were often lower class and performing for aristocratic audiences as part of a drama, opera, or even lighter comedic shows that may have poked fun at social constraints and the upper classes, but were ultimately bound by their patronage. It seems like drag performers today are in much more powerful positions when it comes to blatant self-representation and political messages.

It would be fascinating to learn what drag performers several centuries ago thought about what they were doing or what they were saying to their audiences. If drag has always been about the non-fixity and arbitrariness of gender and the exploding of social norms, maybe drag performers living in a more restrictive time simply had to invent creative ways to convey their perspectives, like Hollywood filmmakers during the Hays Code era. The show also made me think about how drag has been used in the later 20th century alone. It’s interesting that within about a twenty-year time span, glam disco drag (described as “classic” by Icon Ebony Fierce), Monty Python, and Tootsie all emerged. These three examples all use drag for what seem like very disparate purposes. I wonder about the different types of comedy that can be embedded in drag, and if they can overlap or if they point to conflicting underlying ideologies and world views.

Work Cited

Garland Thomson, Rosemarie. Ed. Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. New York: NYU Press, 1996.