Part 6: Parody, Realness, and Tales from the First Drag Con

Drag Con’s one overtly religious session was the Sunday service, which began at 11:30 and was led by Christ Chapel of the Valley featuring the Selah Gospel Choir.  It was still going strong when I left “Women Who Love Drag” so I decided to poke my head in.  “Can I Get An Amen?” was sparsely attended and seemed that much more bleak for being held in the largest session hall.  Though the amplified gospel music was a siren call for the curious, passersby paused only momentarily in the open doorways and then wandered off.  That Paris is Burning (Saturday 3pm) and the Sunday service were both held in the largest session hall suggested to me that the organizers imagined the events would have great crowd appeal.  Yet based on what I observed, neither program was very popular with convention goers.  I began to wonder why.

Christ Chapel of the Valley
From the Christ Chapel of the Valley website

Christ Chapel of the Valley is based in North Hollywood and describes itself as “one of the most diverse congregations ever” consisting of young, old, gay, straight, transgendered, and “ethnicities from around the planet” (www.christchapel.com, accessed 6/24/15).  Services feature “Powerful and awesome praise & worship music, from rock to gospel.”  Selah Gospel Choir, which had been handing out flyers earlier that morning, presents itself as a “multi-cultural, multi-generational, interfaith group.”  Their values are “love, diversity, and community” (www.selahgospelchoir.com, accessed 6/24/15). 

Recent police and civilian violent, racist acts have been the catalyst for long overdue open conversations about race and racism in this country.  Yet we continue to have coded ways for talking indirectly about race.  For example, a gospel choir that values diversity tells us nothing about the group’s racial makeup yet we know that the term diversity has become a coded, indirect way for indicating minority groups, often African American.  It would seem that in a curious transformation of the “one drop rule,” integrated religious and social groups become black through cultural contact.  (Does this in part explain former NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal’s rationale for her self-identification as black?)*  So while the Sunday service is meant to be inclusive and even—unlike other convention sessions—actively solicits attendees by handing out flyers in the convention hall lobby, using the language of diversity signals black.  I wondered if this coding was a deterrent for the mostly white convention goers.  Another explanation for the lack of interest could have to do with the broader cultural trend away from involvement with organized religions.  Most likely several factors contributed to the low attendance but I did wonder if there wasn’t a pattern emerging in which convention goers hierarchized drag and Drag Con performances and events that privileged whiteness.

Crystal LaBeija
Crystal LaBeija in a scene from The Queen (1968)

Although the Drag Con program does not mention race in its Paris is Burning (1990) description, race is a central theme in in the documentary.  Paris is Burning focuses on eighties Harlem’s black and Latino ballroom scene, which emerged in part as a creative and defiant working-class response to racism.  An earlier drag documentary, The Queen (1968), unwittingly captured a catalyst for the ballroom scene in its documentation of a 1967 racially integrated Manhattan drag pageant.  The gorgeous Crystal LaBeija, you will recall, was furious to be named third runner up, swanning offstage before the winner could be announced.  The Queen films Miss Crystal when she reappears after the pageant ends and confronts white Jewish pageant organizer Miss Sabrina about the judges’ decision to award the title to Miss Harlow, a blonde waif in a sad wig.  Observes Miss Crystal, “I don’t say she’s not beautiful but she’s not looking beautiful tonight.  She doesn’t equal me.”  Miss Crystal is clearly enraged at the injustice.  As we see throughout the film, drag requires a great deal of preparation.  Miss Harlow, as others in the film note, is a “natural beauty wonder.”  It is open to speculation that she relies on her conventional young white good looks without putting in the effort of a dramatic, dressed performance.  Miss Crystal, on the other hand, clearly put in a full, rich performance from wigs and makeup to elaborate gowns.  Though some, such as feminist bell hooks, have argued that drag is always a misogynistic mockery of women, others (including myself) maintain that drag is a much more complex social phenomenon.  Can drag meanly mock naturalized womanliness?  Yes.  Very often, however, drag is a commentary on what feminist Judith Butler calls gender performance.  Through parody, drag mimics and critiques gender categories and it does so on a spectrum of degree and kind.  Miss Crystal’s outrage has to do with Miss Harlow’s lack of effort in drag performance.  Though a direct observation of the judges’ racism is not captured in the film, Miss Crystal further implies that Miss Harlow’s drag is privileged because of its heteronormative whiteness.

Miss Harlow
Miss Harlow in a scene from The Queen (1968)

Crystal went on to found the kinship drag group, the House of LaBeija, and her heiress became Pepper LaBeija, who is featured prominently in Paris is Burning.  Unfortunately, with the exception of Willi Ninja’s House of Ninja, house origin stories are not addressed in Paris is Burning.  Nonetheless, race and class issues are ever present and many participants openly discuss such matters.  Says the transgendered Venus Xtravaganza, “I would like to be a spoiled, rich white girl.  They get what they want.”  The comment positions Venus Xtravaganza as poor and non-white.  Though she is light-skinned, the viewer presumes she is Latina as she belongs to the House of Xtravaganza, which seems to be formed along racial and ethnic lines, as are the other houses.

Pepper LaBeija
Pepper LaBeija in a scene from Paris is Burning (1990)

For all the flaws that critics and scholars have observed about Paris is Burning, it well reflects the complexity of drag culture where broader racial and class issues get played out.  At the balls, gay men, transsexuals, and transgendered women perform drag that at times mimics and repeats the dominant culture and at other times subverts normative categories.  Drag is always ambivalent and capturing that ambivalence is the film’s greatest achievement.

Describing the complex politics of Paris is Burning in fewer than 100 words is no small feat nor would it necessarily be in keeping with the overall lighthearted Drag Con spirit.  So it goes that the Drag Con program’s documentary screening description highlights aspects of the eighties ballroom scene that have since become mainstream: 

This film brought the ballroom scene to movie audiences everywhere and provided an in-depth look into the world of voguing, walking, snatching trophies, reading, and throwing shade.  This legendary film has become one of the cornerstones of queer cinema, and its influence can still be felt 25 years later.  Now you can watch the film in a way you’ve never seen it before . . . with a room full of drag queens!

The room was not full—not of drag queens nor of their loyal subjects.  And though the program description stresses the film’s importance in the queer cinema canon, it does so without regard to the politics that drove the ballroom scene.  Voguing, reading, and throwing shade are performances that have made their way into the popular culture, however watered down they may or may not now be.  What is missing is a frank discussion about gradations of affectionate homage and cultural appropriation that disregards historicity.

Paris is Burning and “Can I Get An Amen?” are Drag Con events that welcome all people while restoring black contributions to rightful places of honor within the queer/queer-friendly community.  Yet what happens if you build it and no one comes?  I do not know what the racial makeup of Drag Con attendees was but an informal observation suggests that overall attendance skewed white followed by Latino and then black.  Did convention demographics and internalized, systemic racism have something to do with the poor showing at the racially coded Paris is Burning and “Can I Get An Amen?”?  Moreover, how will the low interest in these two events affect programming next year? 

RuPaul clearly has broad appeal across the spectrum—racially, sexually, and beyond—and RuPaul’s Drag Race often references subversive, underground, and counter-cultural movements.  Yet such references are frequently subtle and no doubt are lost on many mainstream viewers and not a few of the competing queens.  RuPaul is to be commended for continuing to promote and advocate for such controversial figures as black transgendered porn star, TS Madison.  Yet as with any subversive or potentially subversive movement to be adopted by the mainstream, some of the edge will no doubt be lost.  The at times defiant class and racial politics of the Harlem ballroom scene depicted in Paris is Burning were largely absent from Drag Con and so, it would seem, was its audience for the screening.  There is a strong argument to be made that a light-skinned Latina such as Venus Xtravaganza, who says she wants to get a sex change, is simply repeating the white, heterosexual hegemony through her performance.  Indeed her performance is valued precisely because she convincingly performs heterosexual white womanhood.  Yet Venus Xtravaganza does not live to make her full desired transformation and it is the incompleteness of her desired performance that gets implicated as the cause of her brutal murder.  Says Angie Xtravaganza, the mother of the House of Xtravaganza, “I always said to her, ‘Venus, you take too many chances.  You’re too wild with people, people in the streets.  Something’s gonna happen to you.’  But that was Venus.  She always took a chance.  She always went into a stranger’s car.  She always did what she wanted.  She got what she wanted.”

Venus Xtravaganza
Venus Xtravaganza in a scene from Paris is Burning (1990)

Venus Xtravaganza was found strangled in a hotel room.  Presumably a john killed her after picking up what he thought was a straight white woman only to discover what Venus referred to as her “little secret.”  While her performance seems to emulate and elevate the dominant culture, ultimately the manner of her death reflects what can happen to those inhabiting ambiguous social positions.  Venus was a person challenging the identity imposed on her from infancy; someone whose ambition was to be a rich (straight) white girl, which presumably would have removed her from the many ambivalences and ambiguities of the ballroom scene.  Strictly speaking, Venus is not a drag queen yet she finds a home in a culture largely inhabited by cross-dressing gay men.  Drag Con organizers included Paris is Burning in the program perhaps because they recognize the importance of sharing stories such as Venus’.  Nonetheless, Venus and other of the film’s participants complicate drag culture.  This is not a bad thing.  What distresses me is the seeming lack of interest among convention goers in drag’s complexities. 

This is the final installment of my Drag Con field notes.  The convention was fun and thought provoking and has prompted me to embark on a much larger project about contemporary drag.  Keep checking in for essays and musings about dress and culture.

 

*Race identification through cultural contact may be a recent phenomenon in the US but has long been a common trope in Brazil.  For more on Brazilian racial conceptions, see Thomas E. Skidmore’s Black into White: Race and Nationality in Brazilian Thought.

Add new comment