Vice Blog

Does London's Drag Scene Have a Race Problem?

Too often, laughs from white audiences seem to be prioritised over the comfort and dignity of ethnic minority punters.

by Josh Lee
17 August 2016, 1:50pm

Illustration by Marta Parszeniew

Being both of colour and LGBTQ has always involved facing extra hurdles, compared to white people in our community. Racist profiles are two a penny on Grindr; mainstream gay media is still not representative of its black and minority ethnic (BME) readership; and health inequalities between BME men who sleep with men and their white counterparts are well known.

Historically, our pubs and clubs were places to escape a world that didn't love us. The same is true today – with recent figures showing a "shocking rise" in homophobic hate crimes.

In the last few months, there have been a number of alleged incidents of racism within London's drag scene, prompting bigger questions about whether clubs and performers are doing enough to stamp it out. While the representation of BME performers is – thankfully – slowly improving, we need to ensure the scene progresses in an inclusive way.

Santi Cardona is originally from Colombia and was taking part in a quiz at LGBT bar the Two Brewers, in Clapham, south London, in April this year. The night, which was hosted by a gay cabaret entertainer, soon took a sour turn when the host allegedly started to make racist remarks.

"It was my first time at the Two Brewers pub quiz," says Santi. "Initially, it was fun. But halfway through, things started to get really uncomfortable. There was a salsa class taking place in the back room. Once it finished, people were walking through the room towards the exit. He interacted with a few of them, including a black woman. He had a bit of back and forth with her over the microphone and said goodbye. But once she was out of earshot, he turned to the crowd and said, 'Bongo Wongo Congo'."

"He then asked me my name and where I was from. I told him I was from Colombia and he said, 'Oh do you have lots of cocaine?'. Given the overt racism I'd just seen from him, I was in no mood to let this slide. So I called him up on it. His response? 'I am not racist... Well I am.' It was simply using stereotypes and offensive comments to try and get laughs at the expense and humiliation of minorities."

It was simply using stereotypes and offensive comments to try and get laughs at the expense and humiliation of minorities.

Santi's friend, Andrew Le Breton, was also there that night. "There was a man who came through from the back room to leave, and was also called out by the host, who asked him where he was from, and then – presumably because the man was of colour – said 'Oh shit, he has a backpack, we should have searched him.'"

The host did not respond to our attempts to try and contact him. The Two Brewers declined to comment about the incident. However, according to Santi, after he complained, the bar's management held a meeting with him on the 30th April, in which they were "very apologetic".

"They assured me that they do not tolerate that sort of behaviour. They said that the act was new, and that they believed it was just ignorance rather than malice, which led him to make the comments he did. They said he was on his last warning. They seemed genuine."

These allegations are one of a number of incidents where the lines between entertainment and prejudice have been blurred on the queer performance circuit. Earlier this year, east London drag troupe Sink the Pink came under fire after one of their performers, Ginger, wore a white hood in the exact style of the Ku Klux Klan. When I challenged them about this on Twitter, they defended it as being "inspired by the Capriote" (a hood worn by some Christian brotherhoods in Spain). It's difficult to imagine that Ginger would have been unaware of its racially provocative connotations, though. The group also faced criticism for using culturally insensitive "jihadi cat memes" to promote the night in question.

"The response from some people to my performance that night has raised a lot of questions for me," Ginger told me in response to the backlash. "What parts of our visual history are out of bounds? How do different communities take ownership of their past and those people who continue to oppress them? How can I better document my work to serve as context for my practice? How do I make myself more visible as an ally?"

Earlier this year, Sink the Pink came under fire after one of their performers, Ginger, wore a white hood in the exact style of the Ku Klux Klan.

There is, it seems, a willingness to do better. Sink the Pink is a huge cultural focal point for the London LGBT scene, and the sorts of questions Ginger posed in his response suggests an understanding that, as the troupe's reputation grows, the responsibility to get things right and be a queer space for all will grow too. But at the same time, the very ethos of drag is punk, and the idea that there may be "rules" will naturally feel uncomfortable to those who believe in the purity of drag as a vehicle for no-holds-barred self-expression.

But the thing is, drag does come with rules. Shaming a man's femininity, for example, is unacceptable. Homophobia is intolerable. Perhaps because these rules benefit the majority, they don't feel like boundaries. And without extending these boundaries to meet the needs of queers of colour and trans people, a space designed to provide temporary liberation from a hostile world runs the risk of inflicting that same hostility on minorities within the LGBT community.

"The drag scene is littered with racial microaggressions," says black drag queen Leigh Fontaine. "I was once pulled up on stage at a popular cabaret venue, and the drag queen performing cracked crude jokes, saying if anyone in the audience wanted a big black cock she would auction me off in the bogs. To a white audience that might be funny, but to someone whose early sexual experiences were coloured by racial fetishisation, it reminded me how often the white gay community reduce me to a sexual object."

Too often, laughs from white audiences seem to be prioritised over the comfort and dignity of ethnic minority punters. And the lack of diversity in the drag scene only allows this ignorance to fester.

"The drag scene is very white," explains Leigh. "I don't think that's due to a lack of excellent black performers. For some reason, venues don't often book black acts. A burlesque friend was actually denied a spot on a line-up because the promoter had told her they already had a black artist performing. The line-up had six white acts, but that was apparently beside the point."

Diverse talent struggling to be heard is doubly frustrating when acts that rely on stereotypical interpretations of minorities manage to land work. Take Charlie Hides, a white queen who performed as Laquisha Jonz at a number of venues including the Royal Vauxhall Tavern (RVT) in south London and The Two Brewers, using African American vernacular and heavy tan to resemble dark skin.

A campaign, led by activist and writer Chardine Taylor-Stone, was started to get her banned from venues. "The LGBT community is more than just white gay men and we all should be able to feel that we are safe and respected when attending places that are meant to be for all of us," she wrote on the petition. "We are asking these venues to stop booking Laquisha Jonz and to create a code of conduct that supports artistic freedom but says no to acts that perform in blackface or perpetuate racist stereotypes."

The Royal Vauxhall Tavern responded positively to the campaign, saying: "Our venue is steeped in rich LGBTQ history, and we pride ourselves on supporting the community as a whole. It is for this reason that the character of Laquisha Jonz will in the immediate term not perform at RVT."

However, the venue still allows Charlie Hides to perform as its Sunday night headline act. "We fully support Charlie Hides... Charlie is a talented and innovative performer," the statement read.

What can and cannot be performed as drag will continue to be debated – and many defended Hides' character. But while it may feel as though Hides was censored, the RVT's decision accommodated everyone's needs – Charlie Hides is still able to perform without resorting to stereotypes of a community to which she doesn't belong, and punters aren't subjected to blackface.

As voices of intolerance against LGBTQ people grow louder across the world, our safe spaces have never been more sacred. When queer and trans people of colour speak up, it's because we recognise the potential of these spaces and want them to do better for everyone. Pointing out where an act crosses the line isn't about shutting down artistic expression – it's a push to create something better. We're edging towards a scene that feels more ready to listen to what racial minorities are saying, but without a diverse range of performers, and a zero-tolerance approach to racism, the march towards inclusivity may just come to a halt.

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