In June 1969, a small group of social misfits, outcasts and pariahs had had enough.
The watering hole in which they were socializing among themselves, not hurting anyone, was being raided by the police — yet again. Out of frustration and anger, some of these people fought back. The watering hole was New York’s Stonewall Inn, and the resultant altercation escalated into a three-day riot that sparked the modern gay-rights movement.
And who was in the forefront of the Stonewall Riots, manning the barricades, fighting tear gas with mockery and chorus lines, standing up to police in riot gear?
In some form or another, drag queens have been part of the gay world, the gay experience, since time immemorial. There’s no question drag queens helped spark the Stonewall Riots and have continued to be an important component of the gay-rights movement ever since.
The relationship between drag queens and the gay community at large has sometimes been a troubled one, even to this day. Some in the gay movement have been uncomfortable that drag queens insist on being so vocal, so out there — so prideful, as it were. But then, these people have always been uncomfortable with those segments of the community deemed likely to alienate the mainstream and thus harm the movement. Dykes on bikes and leathermen have often faced similar in-community prejudice over the last half-century.
But times change and attitudes change with them. In 2019, in cities around the country, the drag community, inspired in part by the success of such shows as “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” is enjoying a burst of visibility and popularity unprecedented in its history.
In Philadelphia, this growth is particularly noteworthy, reaching almost explosive levels. This is evident not only in the number of live drag performances in gay bars (where drag queens have always been a prominent and popular fixture), but also in a host of other types of drag-related events: drag live cabaret, drag contests, drag charity bingo, drag musicals, drag brunches — and even Drag Queen Story Time, where the guests of honor read children’s books to groups of kids at local public libraries.
“There’s no question that drag has exploded in the past several years,” said Eric Jaffe, an up-and-coming performer on the local scene who performs regularly at venues like Tavern on Camac. “And it seems like it’s happening in almost every major city in the country. For the first time, drag has come into the mainstream.”
Salotta Tee is a longtime local performer remembered for years of performing at 12th Air Command (now Tabu), who still performs regularly at several local venues. Tee agreed that the scene has experienced dramatic growth in recent years, crediting the media for much of that growth.
“Social media has really blown it up. It has given today’s drag queens an avenue for presenting themselves, that for promoting themselves they never had before. It has amplified the scene dramatically, for sure,” Tee said.
The success of cable television’s “RuPaul’s Drag Race” gets its share of the credit — or blame — for the drag phenomenon. Many gay bars have regular “Drag Race” viewing parties that pull in healthy crowds, and many of the cable competition’s participants have gone on to become community celebrities with lucrative careers. Such viewing parties are proving popular even in gay venues such as Boxers and The Bike Stop.
Jaffe points to RuPaul as a major factor.
“It’s definitely because of RuPaul that it’s become so popular in the mainstream.”
But Tee contends that drag has always been a popular form of mainstream entertainment.
“Drag, in one form or another, has always been ‘family entertainment.’ Bugs Bunny did drag all the time. People loved Geraldine on ‘The Flip Wilson Show.’” Tee pointed to such successful Hollywood releases as “Priscilla Queen of the Desert,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “The Birdcage” and “To Wong Foo” as examples of the continued popularity of drag with mainstream audiences, at least as entertainment.
But the reason more and more gay men are exploring drag as an avenue of performance is not easy to pin down.
Brittany Lynn is another veteran performer who not only hosts a number of popular regular drag brunches, but also founded the local branch of Drag Queen Story Time.
“[Gay men] see RuPaul, they see all the local drag competitions, and that encourages them to come and enter those competitions— and then they catch the drag bug,” said Lynn. “It becomes gay boys’ main outlet for performance after competitions.”
The current proliferation of drag performers has definitely made an impact, on the performance scene and on drag as both art and lifestyle.
“Definitely drag has evolved,” said Tee.
Martha Graham Cracker is a prominent veteran drag cabaret artist. “When we talk about the growth and expansion of drag, it’s hard to avoid mentioning RuPaul. Thanks to her show, the level of drag visibility is at an all-time high.”
Lili St. Queer, a cabaret artist who performs at L’Etage and several other local venues, credits “RuPaul’s Drag Race” for inspiring her to enter the world of drag performance.
“‘Drag Race’ was one of my earliest exposures to drag. There’s so much I’ve learned from that show. I’ve been inspired by those performers.”
While everyone is willing to credit RuPaul for inspiring much of drag’s current popularity, not everyone is entirely happy with the sort of inspiration she and her contestants provides.
One of them is Sandy Beach, a veteran local performer who was one of the original organizers of the famous Miss’d America Drag Pageant in Atlantic City, N.J.
“RuPaul has a habit of showing queens ripping each other apart,” she said. “In real life, if you’re talented, you keep your mouth shut, don’t diss others, and you get work. Nice pays off.”
Tee echoed that sentiment. “RuPaul has taught the new performers the wrong way to be entertaining.”
Lisa Thompson runs the weekly drag show at Bob & Barbara’s Lounge on South Street is the longest-lived regular drag show in Philadelphia. Miss Lisa Lisa, as she is sometimes known, is well aware of the growth of harsh bitchiness as a source of comedy, and makes every effort to see that the comedy provided by the performers she showcases comes from a different place.
“First off, I make sure that my girls are very talented, but then I make sure they know that we want to give our audiences a positive, uplifting experience,” said Lisa. She added that while campy bitchiness has always been a part of drag’s comedic appeal, the best camp comes from a source of love and respect that the performers must have for each other, and for the audience. Perfect example of the are the bitchy exchanges between the characters in the movies “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” and “To Wong Foo.”
“Those characters loved each other, you could tell.”
While most performers extol the feeling of family that exists within the drag community and the LGBTQ community at large, as in all families, not everything is sweetness and light. There has always been a segment of the community that has looked upon drag queens with scorn and derision. Also, for many years, drag queens have been marginalized politically by certain activists who view them with a certain embarrassment and believe they are a hindrance to societal assimilation.
Jaffe views such negativity as a form of misogyny, which can rear its ugly head even in the most progressive of movements.
“There is definitely an anti-drag presence in the community,” he said.
Yet, the local drag performers acknowledge that society has become more aware of and sensitive to issues surrounding genderqueer expression of all forms. Thus, those misogynistic voices in the community are losing traction with the growth of drag’s popularity in the mainstream.
A careful examination of online events calendars shows immediately that, literally, there are as many drag performances or drag-centric events in a typical month in Philadelphia as there are days in that month, if not more.
Is there truly a market for that many drag queens?
Lynn put it bluntly: “The market is oversaturated now.”
Miss Lisa Lisa is more sanguine. “I hope not. Look, if you’re going to be in it for the long haul, you have to be prepared to accept that you’re not going to hit a home run every week. You have to be willing to eat it on a slow night. But if the shows are good, people are going to keep coming back.”
Jeffrey Sotland, one of the owners of Tabu, said he’s optimistic.
“Over-saturation is not an issue when your people have enough talent to hold the audience’s interest.” Scotland feels that the new crop of performers is bringing a freshness and new energy to today’s drag performances. “The new crop is younger, edgier, with more intense costumes and a gender-queer mentality that feels new.”
Other veteran performers draw from their long experience, viewing the current surge in popularity as just the latest in a historical cycle of booms and busts.
“Drag comes and goes in waves,” Tee said.
Sandy Beach echoes that sentiment. “Drag always comes in cycles. It will be hot for a few years, then die off — and it comes back. Trust me, I have made more comebacks than Liza!”
Cookie Di Orio, a prominent drag cabaret artist, looks at it from an artistic-evolution perspective.
“Drag is performance art. What we’re seeing now is just another form of the evolution of queer art, just as in any other artistic discipline.” Where it all may end up, she’s not willing to hazard a guess — but that’s all part of the mystery and appeal of any art form: What’s next?
We’re seeing part of that evolution involves opportunities to perform outside traditional bar venues.
Di Orio has, almost from the beginning of her drag career, taken this approach. “I make my own opportunities outside the traditional venues.” She chooses to perform her live cabaret act, not in the bars, but in more traditional cabaret venues.
Other performers like Di Orio, who possess creative talents in music and playwriting, are using the current popularity of drag to make their own opportunities beyond the usual drag performance formats. Jaffe, for instance, successfully put together his own full-length show (a la Mickey & Judy) called “Thweeney Todd,” a musical drag parody of the Sondheim classic.
Lynn has taken a number of approaches to standing out in a crowded field. First she dove into the newly popular field of drag brunches, which she calls her “bread and butter.”
Many restaurants, such as Valanni and L’Etage, have discovered that bringing in a drag act adds fun, excitement and panache to the traditionally staid weekend brunch ritual. Of course, that means that drag brunches are also proliferating wildly in mainstream restaurants, especially in the suburbs.
“It’s the most fun you can have during the day,” said Lynn.
She has also proven herself a pioneer by being one of the founders of the local branch of Drag Queen Story Time. DQST is a national program, with branches in several cities, where drag queens appear at libraries and other kid-friendly venues and read children’s stories to groups of kids and their parents.
“It’s less about drag and more about teaching kids to express themselves in a non-traditional way,” Lynn said.
DQST has proven immensely popular with both kids and their parents.
There also have been a number of drag-bingo fundraisers popping up around town. The original Drag Queen Bingo in Center City has been a popular AIDS fundraiser for years, so it’s only natural that other venues and causes are seeking to duplicate such a successful format. And they also serve as another alternative to the traditional gay bar circuit for performers to display their talents and wardrobes.
DQST, drag brunches and similar drag-centric events show that drag queens are still serving as pioneers for the LGBTQ community. Even as they led the way during the Stonewall Riots 50 years ago, helping to spark the modern gay movement, they are leading the way in building bridges to the mainstream community. With style, wit and way too much fashion sense for one gender, drag queens serve as our community’s goodwill ambassadors.
Long may they sashay.