Kimberly Bonner: Military and Dyke Marcher veteran

Kimberly Bonner: Military and Dyke Marcher veteran

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Historically, the Philadelphia Dyke March has fallen the night before Pride here in the city. This year, Philly’s Pride has been moved to June 18 to allow people to head to Washington, D.C., for a national LGBT march. But Dyke March organizers want you to know that they will continue the tradition of marching on the second Saturday in June — and the event will be as moving and magical as ever!

This week’s profile, Kimberly Bonner, may be known to you as Mr. Philly Drag King and Mr. Gay Philly, but she’s also a poet, a writer and an esteemed academic working on her second master’s degree.

PGN: Most important question: When there’s a match-up, are we more likely to see you in Dallas blue or Eagles green?

KB: Oh, gosh! I think it’s important to be a sports chameleon, so blue if I’m in Dallas and green in Philly. I was raised a Texan with family and friends prominent in football but, being a girl, we were encouraged to love football players, never the game.

PGN: What? It’s my favorite sport.

KB: Wow! See, this girl is butch in some ways and so gay in others. I never got into football.

PGN: Tell me about growing up.

KB: My mother migrated to this country from Panama when she was 16. I wasn’t scheduled so I was raised by my grandmother from Panama and my grandfather, who was 27 years her elder. My mother and uncle were like my big brother and sister. So I had lots of parental figures and lots of out-of-order siblings. Looking back, out of the many jobs grandparents have, gendering their grandbabies isn’t one of them, so the work of gendering me never happened. And by the time I figured out that girls were awesome, it was too late to teach me that I was one. I grew up in the Pentecostal church and got booted out of the church after having risen into my identity as a lesbian. I’d finally figured, Yes, I’m gay; no, it’s not a sin but now I’m getting kicked out of my church and my family home. So I went from a 100-percent African, Jamaican, Panamanian identity to living with six white dykes — because that’s who picked me up from the Lesbian Resource Center when I needed it. So I had one specific orientation for 17 years and then was rapidly pushed toward the future of a feminist world in three. [Laughs] I feel pretty lucky! It gave me a comprehensive understanding of what it means to be black, what it means to be queer, to be gendered, what it means to have faith and all of the ways those things can be diverse.

PGN: And this was all in Texas?

KB: Until 1994 when I joined the Army.

PGN: Were you a more of a daredevil, active kid or more scholarly?

KB: A complete tomboy/cowboy. I rode horses and played in the dirt and collected male friends along the way. I like to say I was the leader of a little gang. [Laughs] The one girl in the group was my girlfriend and nobody bothered us. I had a lot of different-aged boys as my primary friends and they protected us. That’s kind of still reflected today in my adult life; most of the people close to me are male or male-identified or very specific dykes similar to me.

PGN: What was your most adventurous moment as a kid?

KB: We would go to Panama every year until I was 12. Meeting my cousins and learning about the heritage of Rainbow City was interesting. We had to stop traveling because of Manuel Noriega; our cousins were forced to hide in church basements under his reign. That’s when I became interested in learning how war affects people. It was war that moved my family from Panama to Texas.

PGN: Favorite book as a kid?

KB: “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle. It resonated with me with the whole Christian hierarchy that’s built into it. It was like a Bible tale with an awful lot of science. It was very real to me.

PGN: Best subject in school? And what were some of your non-curricular activities?

KB: Best subject was social studies, which makes sense since I’m now a sociologist. And free-time activities were tennis and chess. And playing the best instrument in the whole wide world: the bass clarinet!

PGN: And poetry?

KB: Yes, I write too. More recently, I’ve been working with a group called Warrior Writers. I started with them as a grant writer and realized that I too have a veteran identity but I’d been too busy since getting out of the military to realize it!

PGN: What led you to the Army?

KB: A basic capitalistic exchange is how I frame it. I needed money for college and I was strong and fit and running around with a gun in exchange for an education didn’t seem too bad an idea. That’s why I went in but, once there, I discovered many amazing things that build the notion of what America is and can be. If other institutions were as diverse and as interested in nurturing and building its population, we’d be better off. Wouldn’t it be awesome if more institutions were actually invested in advancing and building its members but the exchange didn’t have to be the possibility of dying in a war?

PGN: And what did you get from the military, both negative and positive?

KB: The positive was the connection that you have with others; if you’re on a team of 150 people, that’s a lot of human interaction that can’t be replicated in any other setting. You’re living with one another, you’re sleeping and showering in the same space, and that degree of human connectedness was palpable. In civilian life, when you’re disconnected from your neighbors and your coworkers, you can often feel alone, but I never felt alone in the Army. And I also felt extremely obligated to be my best because that’s what my buddies required of me. There was a sense of interlocking obligations. It supersedes what’s expected in marriage, it supersedes what’s expected in friendships. It also demystified the differences — or lack thereof — between men and women; we all are brave and we all get scared the same way, we all cry the same way, get injured the same way. There’s no difference.

PGN: Tell me about serving overseas.

KB: Well, I served two overseas tours. The first was in South Korea in 1994 and that was amazing. They really embraced the presence of Americans and we really worked well together. I don’t think any other country blended as well with us. It was also the time when I discovered that there were a bazillion queer people in the Army. If you wanted to know if a girl could possibly be into you, you asked if they were on the softball or basketball team. But then in 1997 I was stationed in Holland, with my duties performed in Germany. I had a really rough time there, primarily because I had a supervisor who was a sexual predator. It was widely known that he was an extremely problematic individual and after enduring an attack from this guy, I responded by running for “Soldier of the Year” to distract from the fallout that came after. I needed something that was healing and restorative and it was a year-long competition that helped me focus on rising in the ranks and then getting out of there. I won the honor and then accidentally went AWOL for a week. The best part was that I discovered that the Army didn’t want to have to court-martial the “Soldier of the Year” so they welcomed me back with no repercussions! That’s my favorite story. It was a rollercoaster ride for sure.

PGN: Where did you go for higher learning?

KB: I have a bachelor’s in sociology from the University of South Carolina, a master’s degree in sociology from the University of Maryland and I’m currently doing a second master’s in social science with Bryn Mawr to put into actions the theories that I love so much. I love putting the sweat equity into the work necessary to create the reality I want us to live in. To reject the academy proper and get in the streets when people are losing their lives over things that are unthinkable.

PGN: How does that manifest itself?

KB: I perceive the work that I do in drag as a type of ministry. The scientific theories about gender and the medical arguments people want to have about genitals don’t matter when people are losing their lives just because of the way they are perceived, when someone is threatened for “not presenting accurately” to someone’s idea of the norm. I find gender expression is your art and for someone to take such offense that they would extinguish your life for it is insane. I get scared when I’m seen as a dyke and my non-conformity gets crafted as the enemy. Of course on the other hand, I’m very aware of the dangers of being a black man in society to the point that, when I finish doing a drag performance, I’ll rip off any trace of facial hair because I don’t want to be mistaken for a black man if I get pulled over.

PGN: So sad and infuriating. What’s your drag persona and how did you get into it?

KB: Mo’ Betta was developed many years ago and debuted with the D.C. Kings in the early 2000s. It was an organic manifestation of a place for the guy that is Sergeant Bonner to continue to exist. His tagline is “International Spy” and he has a British tip to him, accent and all. He’s traveled the world and has several top-secret clearances. He’s not a narcissist but he knows he’s pretty cool. He enjoys fast cars and pretty women who aren’t afraid to put him in his place every now and then.

PGN: And he was Mr. Philadelphia Drag King 2016.

KB: Yes, I was surprised because I hadn’t done drag in seven years and I was out of shape! It’d been a long time since I’d done any gyrating. I was booked to do four shows so I shaped up pretty quickly after that so I wouldn’t fall off the stage and break a hip! It was exciting to learn about the Dyke March and get to know everyone. The dyke community rescued me as a child so I wanted to get more involved and this was a great way to do it. I also started a drag troupe called Loverboys to have a chance to do even more shows and to give my fellow contestants more opportunities to perform.     

PGN: What do you do when not on stage?

KB: I teach as an adjunct professor in sociology but mostly I’m working with a program for refugees, which is in chaos under this administration. I’ve seen friends laid off and clients banned for no good reason. If you’ve been identified as a refugee, you’ve been vetted from top to bottom, so the illegitimate discourse as well as the impact upon real lives has solidified my desire to protect these most vulnerable people. I’m also looking forward to working in a program to help people who have been injured due to physical assaults, stabbings and shootings. How do we reduce the incidences of warlike violence that have become daily concepts? How do we lessen the number and types of physical altercations that occur?

PGN: It’s why I hate shows like “Jersey Shore” and the “Housewives” franchise. I truly believe that they are in part responsible for normalizing violence in our lives. When kids grow up seeing grownups curse at and slap and punch each other and then they’re on the cover of magazines and guests on “Ellen,” it makes it OK to conduct yourself in that manner. We’re mainstreaming violence.

KB: Yes, that’s an excellent term. I don’t get it either and we need to raise consciousness about it. How can you talk about domestic violence or protecting children when I might get my grown-up butt kicked for speaking up? What is going on? Regular people acting like barbarians.

PGN: Let’s talk about people coming together for a good purpose. The Dyke March is going to be held June 10. The tagline for the event is “We’re a protest, not a parade!” So what are we protesting?

KB: I think it’s super-important that dykes claim and take space in the cities that we call home. We work here, we live here, we pay taxes, we’re raising families and planting gardens, and we need to make our physical presence and our numbers known, even though it’s still only a fraction of how many of us there are in the city. By being public, we’re making the space safe for other queer babies. I perceive my dyke identity as my mother identity. I’m not going to give birth to anybody but I do exist in this world and there are little bitty trans babies and queer babies just like I once was who don’t know that it’s OK to be themselves. You want to call us perverts? You want to oppress us just because we’re in these female bodies, or brown bodies or differently abled bodies? No. I want to be there to pick them up just like those six dykes in Dallas were there for me. As were the countless dykes who were there for me in the Army, as were the countless dykes who nurtured me in the academy, as are the countless dyke friends who are an extension of my family, as is the dyke who loves me, my wife Latrice. So we march to reverse the oppression of anybody in any way. If we don’t, who will?

PGN: What do you think of when you hear the word community?

KB: Trust, home, shared hope.

PGN: Favorite piece of clothing?

KB: I’m an absolute shoe whore.

PGN: My friends would be surprised to find out that I …

KB: Am really sensitive.

PGN: What can people look forward to at the march?

KB: A truly welcoming community. I was afraid when I first went that no one would talk to me because I was just a stranger in a crowd, but everyone is so friendly. They want to hear your voice and the shows are tailored to connect with all the eclectic facets of the crowd. There’s no one way to be queer or to be a dyke, so they strive to be a welcoming event that’s a safe space for all.

For more information about the Philadelphia Dyke March, visit https://www.facebook.com/philadelphiadykemarch/.

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