Here’s to the ladies, who are not quite ladies, who lunch.
Drag queens. In gay culture, they’ve been both venerated and ridiculed. Depending on which side you tuck your politics, you might celebrate queens for their provocative art and embrace their willingness to highlight the performative nature of gender. (I’m in this camp, no pun intended.) Or you might be the type to distance yourself from drag, hissing that its purveyors are embarrassing ambassadors of the gay community: as though it is their collective responsibility to single-handedly ameliorate our reputation with Ma and Pa Middle America, those who have consciously limited their exposure to LGBT people to a news clip of a Pride parade they saw on 20/20 in 1989.
Overall, it seems there’s a bit of a drag renaissance happening in my generation. Over the last few years, RuPaul’s Drag Race has widened the appeal of drag: my Facebook feed indicates I have as many straight as gay friends who watch it. And among folks my age, I think, appreciation for drag – its importance, value and general awesomeness – has been enhanced. We’ve reached peak hour at Appreciation Night. (There’s no cover. But tips are mandatory if you know what’s good for you.)
My only concern, slash hope, is that as Drag Race continues to churn out marquee names (drag’s widely marketable pop stars, if you will) we continue to support local artists: older queens who have been toiling at their craft since the days it brought jeers, not cheers, and transgressive types who are ensuring that drag – even as it gets gussied up for primetime TV – doesn’t lose its importance edge.
(Directive to young gays: when you’re next in P-Town, buy tickets to some old pro’s cabaret show. Make her smile, and make him – the one under the makeup – feel appreciated. And explore exciting new nights from the new generation of stars, like Perestroika at Jacques Cabaret. End: soapbox.)
It seems like attitudes toward drag from gay folks, those outside drag culture, is largely predicated on age, geography and circumstance: how you were exposed to it, and how if it all it resonated with you. My first real exposure to drag came in college. My friends and I would head to Lansdowne Street for Axis nightclub on Mondays. About halfway through the club night, the untz-untz beats would stop and the stage would suddenly be full of larger-than-life personalities wearing larger-than-life ensembles. A hush would fall over the crowd, but once the music kicked and the performances began, it turned into an approving, enthusiastic roar.
I was often the lone gay in my group of college friends, but never – not for a second – did I feel uncomfortable being “associated” (by virtue of what?) with the queens on stage. Of course, that’s largely because my friends didn’t paint an entire community with a broad brush. (They were cool enough to enjoy hanging at gay clubs, after all.) And actually, if anything, I probably got unearned props for being considered part of a culture that could create such magic. This is effing cool, my friends would say, sometimes out loud and sometimes with their eyes. They learned the queens’ names like they were superheroes, each in possession of a unique power: Mizery hypnotized with ferocity. Kris Knievil commanded with grace. Destiny had the inexplicable ability to make absolutely everyone in the room want to bang her. (We were all pretty jealous of that.)
Those drag queens did a service, damn it. Gay media groups were busy banging on the door of the mainstream, begging them to let us in. But these queens turned the tables. They made my friends feel privileged to be in our world.
Things get a little weird, the bathrooms are gross, and the vodka is cheap. But welcome. Don’t you never want to leave?
When I see the phenomenon that Drag Race has become, I feel glad that many more people have received an invitation to the party, and are feeling that privilege. In my college days, there was still a 50-50 chance you’d get an eye roll-worthy response when openly admiring the art of drag; the straight-laced gay majoring in Political Science would have some predictable rebuttal that made you want to impale him with a stiletto. Now, getting your photo snapped with Latrice Royale is the equivalent of kissing the pope’s ring.
In fact, I think the bold, colorful personalities that once made drag so contentious are now driving its success. When it comes to representation in mainstream entertainment, the LGBT community has come a long way. That’s great. The downside is that now, so many of the progressive gay characters lighting up TV screens, while lovely, somehow lack something our community has always had in surplus: character. I’ll take one less gay PTA parent on primetime, and one more gay criminal, or politician, or – or drag queen. Most of the gay roles you now see on sitcoms are about as interesting and fully realized as those stock photos of (usually, faux) gay couples used in “romantic getaway” travel packages. They’re just there because they have to be. Everyone’s gotta feel included, right?
Sometimes it seems like in granting such normalcy they’ve stolen what makes us interesting. My generation’s newly rejuvenated appreciation for drag is in part, I suspect, a reaction to that.
Thank you, queens, for keeping it interesting. I bow humbly at your feet.
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