Usually Manhattan’s Stonewall Inn is filled to the brim for the city’s annual Pride festival, however, this year saw a different scene. On June 1, a full crowd stood outside the bar demanding an end to the systemic oppression of Black and trans folk. Brooklyn drag artist Ryon Burrell, who goes by Hazyl, along with Wyatt Harms and their friends and fellow Queers for Justice organizers, Matías Alvial and Khalil Acevedo, quickly downed a JetBlue airlines banner that was hanging over the windows and replaced it with a new homemade one. The facade of the Stonewall Inn now reads: “Pride Is A Riot! #BLM. ”
In the 1960s, Stonewall was one of very few queer spaces in New York, and one of even fewer that available to more than just upper and middle class gay men. It welcomed queer people of all races, ages, and gender presentations. On June 27, 1969, the New York City Police Department again raided Stonewall—the NYPD regularly weaponized liquor regulations and drug laws to attack and shut down gay bars—but that day something changed: As the police loaded queer revelers into paddy wagons, someone threw a brick. Quickly, the crowd began to riot.
A group of predominantly trans and gender queer-presenting activists of color turned the riot into an uprising. For six days, activists like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Riviera helped coordinate and lead spontaneous protests against the continuous systemic abuse the queer community faced at the hands of New York’s law enforcement. People stood outside the bar chanting for gay and queer power and liberation. Johnson, one of queer liberation movement’s key leaders, was a self described Black drag queen and trans woman.
Johnson’s work and desire to express herself stemmed not just from the systemic oppression she faced as a queer person, but also as a trans Black person. Johnson’s fight for her rights did not end with gay liberation, but also with Black and genderqueer liberation. The Stonewall confrontation came, for the most part, from predominantly genderqueer people of color like Johnson, who were often the most mistreated by New York City and its legal system. Later, members of the gay community separated the gay rights movement from the trans rights movement, essentially abandoning many of the people who had helped them forward.
The “Pride is a Riot” sentiment is steeped in the lives of the Black drag scene of the second half of the 20th century. The fight for queer liberation is a complex one, and there are many camps within the larger group of queer people, but many times the most radical, and perhaps the most effective, are trans people of color who fight for their rights immediately rather than rely on a corrupt legal system that is oft-weaponized against them.
As marginalized members of an already marginalized community, queer Black and Latinx drag queens created a world in which fashion, dance, and beauty offered a method of survival. Dressing in drag was both a mode of self expression and a political act of escapism. A drag ball was like a temporary created utopia with specific rules governing people’s behaviors. As early as 1869, the queens of Harlem took certain parts of society—like high fashion and beautiful, glitzy aesthetics—inside, while leaving others—like deeply entrenched homophobia—at the door.
Drag balls in the 1920s and ‘30s helped inspire beacons of the Harlem Renaissance. Queens accepted outsiders, and artists and writers like Langston Hughes would attend drag performances and gatherings. Though some attendees tokenized or even fetishized their experiences, many observed a flourishing culture and immortalized it in their art.
The 1980s was a hey day for drag culture, but the AIDS epidemic also threatened the lives of many involved in the ball scene. HIV/AIDS threatened mostly queer people, especially queer Black people, and was largely ignored by public health officials. The documentary Paris is Burning and the hit Fx show Pose explore how many in the queer and drag communities dealt with this threat through art.
“Drag is an act of resistance that emerged from systems of oppressions,” Vincent Honoré, the senior curator at London’s Hayward Gallery, said. Drag performance incorporates elements of visual art and theatre to, in Honoré’s words, “resist [all] binary systems and norms, challenge oppressive structures, and echo social changes.” By expressing one’s true self, queens and other performers make statements about the ideal human condition and the importance of acceptance. As an art form, drag constitutes an assertion of existence and an exercising of natural rights.
“When I think of Stonewall, I think of Marsha P. Johnson and felt putting my armor on,” Hazyl says. When it came to going to the Stonewall protest, it seemed natural to wear drag. “If I’m in drag, I’m protected somehow. I felt this extra surge of confidence, of energy.” Other performers have echoed Hazyl’s sentiments in the power of drag. “Voguing is a political act in itself, that is what Pride is about. To have fun but do it with a message,” Benjamin Jonsson, a Father at the House of Milan explained.
The House of Milan is one of many houses in the contemporary drag world, an important structure for its informal community care model. Houses allow groups of performers to work together at balls and, more importantly, though, provide people with a family. Many drag performers are abandoned by their biological relatives because of their sexual or gender orientation. Even today, LGBTQ youth are two times more likely to face homelessness than their straight peers. In the ‘80s, older members of the drag scene would establish themselves as Mothers or Fathers and set up houses, chosen families that would mentor, shelter, and love younger performers. “My drag mother is…my mother,” contemporary drag artist Mahatma Khandi said. The drag community’s authentic mutual aid models of support continue to inform disenfranchised populations in the U.S. today, and their influence can arguably even be seen in the guerrilla Paypal community funds and grocery networks in response to the coronavirus.
Still, hiring and housing discrimination continue to endanger many trans people today. Historically, minimal job opportunities have forced out trans and nonbinary people to pursue alternate methods of supporting themselves. For many, this has meant sex work. While wealthier city residents have advocated for policing of sex work, members of the queer community have worked to remedy the circumstances that push many trans people into the profession in the first place. Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera founded the Street Transvestite Action Group (STAR) to offer trans sex workers a safe sleeping space and food.
For many involved in the drag scene, whether they identify as a cis drag performer, nonbinary, or trans, simply existing and thriving constitutes an assertion of ones rights that is a political act. For example, RuPaul’s Drag Race is a fun, bingeable reality show that has brought drag and its political elements to the mainstream. When queens are putting on makeup and preparing for competition they discuss the very real aspects of their lives. A typical Drag Race episode may indirectly explore topics like conversion therapy, marriage equality, and workplace discrimination.
Despite its flaws—RuPaul himself has refused to acknowledge the validity of trans, nonbinary, and female drag performers—Drag Race has provided the pop culture lexicon with a series of empowering, often feminized, phrases. The popular “werk,” “queen,” and “yas” are all ball-derived slang. Even though the terms have been largely stripped of their linguistic origin, they still carry connotations of self confidence. They empower the individual, often femme persons, to own their identity with the help of beauty and fashion.
“Yas” was arguably first introduced to the mainstream with Paris is Burning, but queer scholars have traced the term, and the sense of admiration it embodies, directly through the balls of the Harlem Renaissance all the way to the 1890s. Even with rampant discrimination against Black queens, and marginalization within the queer community itself, the icons of the drag scene have helped modern linguistics shape a more empowering and confident culture for many feminine-presenting people.
Plus, the Harlem Ball scene’s blunt address of sexuality and combining of feminine and masculine, demure and blatant elements of a person’s sexuality helped transform modern notions of sex. Johnson and Rivera’s STAR as well as Johnson’s other work helped to de-stigmatize frank discussions of sex and encourage widespread condom usage. Non-trans drag performers also helped open doors for the discussion of gender fluidity. Today, drag kings, drag queens, and non-binary drag performers all dominate the ball scene.
The Black and Latinx performers who shaped the Harlem Ball scene reinterpreted and elevated bold elements of 1980s fashion, even shaping our modern conception of the female pop star. There would be no Madonna without “Vogue,” and there would be no “Vogue” without, well, voguing. When Madonna tells her audience to “c’mon vogue” and “strike a pose,” she is telling them to perform in the style of these balls. Plus, her iconic Jean Paul Gaultier bra’s constructed, almost exaggerated, femininity is rooted in drag aesthetic. Gaultier often used fashion to explore notions of gender and oft-worked with androgynous figures like Grace Jones and David Bowie.
Drag still effects female pop stars today. Hector Xtravaganza, a ball costume designer created some of Lil’ Kim’s most famous looks. Voguer Willi Ninja, Father of the House of Ninja, danced for Queen Latifah. Drag’s unapologetic and energetic sexuality can be seen in the performances of contemporary performers like Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande, Dua Lipa, and Charli XCX. Outside of his work with the House of Milan, Jonsson has worked with FKA Twigs and Kylie Minogue, and Taylor Swift even explicitly acknowledged the mutual influences of female pop stars and drag culture with her recent “You Need to Calm Down” video.
Drag culture has also influenced fashion and beauty. There are the direct homages, like Opening Ceremony’s Spring/Summer 2019 love letter to the LGBT community and Gareth Pugh’s Spring/Summer 2019 collection that honored London’s ball scene. Drag queen Violet Chachki—who is white—has closed two Moschino shows. But, perhaps more powerful than these singular explicit nods to drag culture is the entire aesthetic movement of camp.
As the 2019 Met Gala reminded us, camp is king (or queen, or non-binary performer. Drag, after all, is about the self, not external labels). But, as all of Hollywood seemed to compete for the most campy outfit, Lena Waithe delivered the most important message of the night on the back of her suit: “Black Drag Queens Invented Camp.”
Waithe demanded that the fashion world credit the queer black artists who made camp. Through generations of innovation and sacrifice, drag performers created a movement. Drag is a culture and a community, a group of people who dedicated themselves to finding freedom and salvation through unapologetic joyful expression and performance. Historically, Black drag queens faced oppression in Black spaces for being queer, and in queer spaces for being Black. In response, they invented camp, a celebration of the self. The unapologetic pride that defines the camp aesthetic comes from real people’s perseverance and self-expression.
Waithe’s message did not stop with an homage to Black queens. Her sartorial partner for the evening, Pyer Moss’ Kerby Jean-Raymond, wore a matching suit with advice for future generations: “Fix your Credit, Pool Money, Buy Back the Block.” Between the two of them, the message was clear. The way only forward was through solidarity.
When Queers for Justice hung the banner at Stonewall, Hazyl says a spontaneous community formed on the sidewalk. No one in the group was tall enough to hang it by themselves, so a couple nearby protestors decided to help. They lifted up and held Hazyl’s friend Wyatt on their shoulders. “That was the image of what all of this is about,” Hazyl says. “We’ve got this small group of people coming to do something and this larger group is in support. They can see us struggling and then these two people just come and they lend their literal shoulders to us and to the cause.”
The owner of the Stonewall apparently saw—and loved—the Black Lives Matter banner. Since it has gone up, people across the city have come with candles and flowers. The bar may be closed, but it is currently functioning as a shrine of sorts to earlier queer activists (many of whom were Black drag queens) who contributed to the organizing and liberation work that so many queer people are continuing to undertake today. In Hazyl’s words, “It doesn’t have to stop here. We just hung a sign, but I got this surge of, what else can we do if a few of us come together and have one common goal?”END
prev link: https://www.crfashionbook.com/culture/a32803029/black-drag-queens-camp-stonewall-trans-pride/
createdAt:Mon, 08 Jun 2020 19:04:17 +0000
displayType:Long Form Article