Inside a Pageant for Indigenous Drag Queens

Instead of the cutthroat competition of ‘Drag Race,’ queens in ‘Black Divaz’ lift each other up.
October 25, 2018, 1:36pm
Photo of Indigenous drag queen
Images courtesy 'Black Divaz'

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

Adrian Russell Wills is an Australian filmmaker whose works often focus on and dialogue with the experiences of Australia’s Melanesian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and with his new documentary Black Divaz, Wills aims to spotlight an intersection of Indigenous and LGBTQ communities: Indigenous drag queens in Australia.

The documentary, which premiered in North America at Toronto’s imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival last weekend, follows six drag queens as they compete in the inaugural Miss First Nations Pageant in Darwin, Australia. The competition was devised by Darwin-based drag queens and hosts Miss Elaneous and Marzi Panne. “The idea of an inaugural drag pageant for First Nations queens was way too much of an opportunity to pass up,” he explains over the phone from Sydney.

The pageant’s setting in Darwin, a city isolated on Australia’s northern coast, became a point of interest. Wills says that LGBTQ folks living in remote communities like those in the country’s Northern Territory lack critical access to communal support. “It’s been a really tough time for a lot of LGBTQ people to come out in the communities and their families are particularly in remote areas so the whole competition in Darwin was really appealing,” he says.

Wills’s documentary follows the queens—Nova Gina, Crystal Love, Isla Fuk Yah, Josie Baker, Shaniquá Tiwisista, and Jojo Zaho—as they arrive, prepare for, and compete in the pageant with dance routines and talent shows. Wills’ intimacy and connection with the queens, palpable from behind the camera, is among the defining features of Black Divaz, which spools out equally as an interrogation of Indigeneity in LGBTQ communities and of queerness in Indigenous communities.

The documentary comes amidst what Wills refers to as a “zeitgeist” moment for drag, referring to the pop culture phenomena that is of RuPaul’s Drag Race. While he praises that series’ normalizing power, he notes that the pageant organizers intended to trade Drag Race’s cutthroat competitiveness for a more universal tone. “What really happened in the making of [_Black Divaz_], instantly, was it was about sisterhood,” he says. “It wasn’t about putting each other down or giving shade, which is part of the drag humor. It was about them lifting each other up, and helping each other with the costumes.”

Queens on Drag Race are often fine-tuned and tightly-manicured, having been experienced and immersed in drag communities. While the queens of Black Divaz ooze charisma and flaunt jaw-dropping looks like their RuPaul counterparts, the magic of the documentary is often in its precarity and vulnerability: Prior to filming, Shaniquá had only performed in drag four times; JoJo had never before performed with other Black queens. During an aside, Crystal Love, a Tiwi Island sistergirl, frustratedly unpacks feelings of insecurity. “I have a boyfriend who won’t hold my hand or won’t walk down the street with me,” she says sharply. “I look at myself in the mirror and ask: Am I ugly? Am I not good enough?”

Wills balances these moments of darkness with moments of triumph: Love’s cutting sadness is juxtaposed with slow-motion footage of her strutting through a carnival at night time. Heads turn to grin, echoing Love’s beaming, implacable smile.

These narrative supports are vital to other members of these communities, including Wills himself. “Drag has been a huge part of my life for a long time,” he says. “They’re the community that brings me up. When I’m down or when I’m feeling depressed, it’s a drag show that I’ll go to.

“I often talk about it being a spiritual experience, and going to a drag show for me is like going to church. If you think about gay rights and LGBTQ people and Stonewall, drag queens and cross-dressers and trans people were at the forefront of those civil rights. When HIV and AIDS came, particularly to this country, it was the drag queens that went out and showed people how to use a condom. Drag queens make it possible to talk about the hardest things, the most painful things, in a way that brings humor and humanity and acceptance.”

This view of drag as a community-building resource is one that runs through Black Divaz. While applying makeup during one scene, Miss Ellaneous explains, “The interesting thing about Aboriginal drag or sistergirls is that we’re already a minority, dealing with issues in this country of genocide and still fighting for our sovereignty. You’re not only representing your character, but you’re representing all of the mob out there who don’t have the same opportunity as you do right now.”

For Wills, representation is a part of combating two deeply-rooted issues: racism in LGBTQ communities, and homophobia and transphobia in Indigenous communities. As a gay Aboriginal man, Wills has experienced both of these oppressions. “The conversation with our own communities was why we made the film,” he says, noting the role of Christian colonization in pathologizing LGBTQ folks among Aboriginal Australians and Torres Islanders. “I really do think invasion and colonization and Christianity was what made [LGBTQ-identified folks] wrong in our people’s eyes and something to be feared,” he adds.

The effects of this colonial violence continues to shake Indigenous peoples across the world. Wills notes that suicide rates in Aboriginal Australians are among the highest in the world, a statistic echoed in Canada where Inuit suicide rates have reached 11 times the national average. Wills’ goal, he says, is to show youth that they, too, can and will find their mob.

With Black Divaz, he has already begun to accomplish this. The second annual Miss First Nations Pageant is underway in Sydney, and he explains that one of the queens is in the competition because of Black Divaz—she began doing drag after seeing the documentary. “She said, ‘It was because I saw the film that I felt safe enough to come out and do that,’” Wills says warmly. “You can take the shittiest parts of life, dress it up, put a set of lips and eyelashes on and smack a wig on, and have fun and live your life with all your colors.”

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