Drag Queens Can't Stop Serving Political Realness
Drag's always been political, but with the rights of the marginalized threatened more than ever before, drag activism has reached a fever pitch.
Tempest Dujour in drag as Donald Trump. Screencap via World of Wonder
The night of November 8, 2016, drag queen Marti G. Cummings had the uncomfortable job of hosting an election night party.
"I saw the tone go from upbeat and happy to silent," she said. She'd never been particularly political on the stage, but watching her despondent guests changed everything for her. "I said, I have to flip what I do in drag and use the platform I've been given."
A resident of Hell's Kitchen, she discovered that her neighborhood Democratic Club had been inactive throughout the election. She contacted a few local politicians to express her displeasure, and within days the Hell's Kitchen Democrats was relaunched with a drag queen at the helm.
"The election happened," she said, "and two days later, I was like, 'Let's fucking do this.'"
Marti's not alone. To challenge the gender binary has always been a political act, but following the 2016 election, there's been a surge in drag activism.
The phenomenon was particularly evident last month at RuPaul's DragCon, where panels on political drag drew overflow crowds. Though the convention hosted political panels in past years, they were triumphant and optimistic; this year, the queens spoke of scrappy guerrilla actions reminiscent of the aggressive fights of the 80s.
"It was out of anger when I started [doing drag]," Drag Race star Alaska told attendees, "And when Trump was put into office, that anger was reignited."
"More people are reacting out of fear," said Bob the Drag Queen during the panel, pointing out that oppression is nothing new. "This isn't unusual for queer people and people of color. White people are like, 'what do we do?' Black people are like, 'this is the last 400 years.'"
But what makes drag so uniquely effective as political speech? For drag queen Ambrosia Starling, it all started with the hair. When clerks in her home state of Alabama refused to issue a marriage licenses a gay couple she knew, she organized a protest and grabbed her least favorite wig, an oversized bouffant.
"I needed something I could turn into a hair-helmet that would stay all day," she said. But then she noticed something important: the eye-catching ensemble drew reporters. Since then, she's rallied for marriage equality, to challenge the state's homophobic Chief Justice Roy Moore, and to support candidates for office. And that wig has joined her at every public appearance.
"I could have done that rally as a man very easily," she said. "But who's going to pay attention to a 40-year-old queer standing on the steps with a bunch of queers? I wanted those cameras to look and not look away."
"If you hear a drag queen talk politically, it's surrounded by silly sexy smutty debauchery," said Gilda Wabbit. A photo of her sitting on a New York train next to a woman in a niqab went viral in February, accompanied with a mocking caption reading "this is the future liberals want."
"It takes the edge off of the seriousness of politics," she said, likening drag to taking a drink before a hard conversation.
Since starting the Hell's Kitchen Democrats, Marti Cummings has noted a dramatic change in the audiences at her shows. "People now are in the mindset of, 'you're not going to fucking tell me how to live my life,'" she said. Prior to the election, "people were like, 'whatever.' Now it's woken people up: 'Oh shit, voting really DOES matter.'"
Gilda had a similar awakening. "When the election happened, I was in a pantsuit at Boots and Saddle, doing an election night show, slowly falling into a spiral of depression as results came in," she said. But as soon as the photograph of her on the train appeared, "I was excited to use the platform that drag had given me... to speak about specifically diversity."
Now she uses her social media to urge followers to action; she includes political jokes in her act; and when she sings "Part of Your World," from The Little Mermaid, it's with parody lyrics that envision bright young women sick of swimming, ready to stand in the White House.
She's also careful to offer more complements to her fellow queers. "That may not seem overtly political," she said, "but in a climate that wants LGBT people to feel less-than, to sanitize ourselves for public consumption, the idea that 'I'm beautiful and have things to offer' is so valuable for our community to hear."
In Bellingham, a suburb of Seattle, Pheonix Riesling responded to the election by starting a group called Drag Militia. "We wanted to do political drag but got some pushback from other groups locally who said they didn't want politics to be part of the drag scene," he said. He plans to address domestic violence against trans people at his next gig by peeling off clothing to reveal bruises and lacerations, "replicating different types of abuse I've experienced."
Some bar owners, he said, have resisted his act's new turn. "We were told right after the election that no political pieces would be allowed on the stage," he said. "The bar we were performing at was run by a straight couple, and they didn't want our political viewpoints to negatively impact the bar's crowd. People coming in for alcohol was more important than having a safe space."
Gilda had a similar experience in New York. "There was a bar that started asking the queens that work there to stop talking about Donald Trump in a negative light," she said. "So four of their queens quit."
Marti Cummings's performances are peppered with information about volunteer opportunities, endorsements for organizations or candidates, and invitations to join her for phone banking. "I quit a job because my boss told me to stop being political on the stage, and I said, 'Absolutely not,'" she said. "He said, 'If straight people come to the show, they may feel alienated if they voted for Trump.' I'm like, no offense to our straight allies, but if you're a straight person at a gay bar, I'm not here for you. I'm here for the 21-year-old who's scared to go home."