Drag Shows, Here and There

Club Q, Colorado Springs, 2022. Photo: Google street views.

American delusions

The shooting this week at Club Q in Colorado Springs was as horrendous as it was unsurprising. Though the city has changed a lot since 1992, when local, anti-queer activists championed the passage of a statewide, constitutional amendment prohibiting municipal anti-discrimination ordinances, the area retains pockets of deep reaction. Colorado Springs representative Doug Lamborn, like fellow Colorado Republican Lauren Boebert, this year supported federal anti-trans legislation in Congress. Since at least 2016, Lamborn has attacked what he calls the “madness,” and “politically correct absurdity” of federal protection for transgender students. Boebert has described trans people as “depraved” and their defenders as “groomers” bent on turning innocent children into trans people themselves.

Their statements condemning the recent violence were strictly pro forma, condemning “senseless violence,” praising first responders for “their rapid response,” and calling for prayers for “the victims and their families.” Neither mentioned that the victims were at a queer nightclub or that fatal attacks upon LGBTQ folks have reached a record high. And first responders failed both to prevent the attack and had no role in stopping it. Police handcuffed and detained the good Samaritan who stopped the shooting spree, retired U.S. Army major Richard Fierro, and kept him confined for an hour in a police car while his family and friends were left to struggle with injuries and death.

Some Americans were probably surprised to read that Fierro went to Club Q with his family to celebrate a birthday. In the United States, it’s still rare for families to visit gay bars together or watch live drag performances. (On TV, RuPaul’s Drag Race has been a fixture for more than a decade.) The night of the shooting, the club featured a drag show titled “Delusions” hosted by a local drag queen with the stage name Del Lusional. The audience for that event was limited to guests 18 y.o. and older, but a drag-brunch open to all ages was scheduled for the following day.

Fierro was having a great time when the shooting began, he told a NYTimes reporter: “These kids want to live that way, want to have a good time, have at it….that is what I fought for, so they can do whatever the hell they want.” It’s not yet clear what were the precise motivations of the shooter, Anderson Lee Aldrich, but he faces murder and hate crimes charges. His lawyers claim that he is non-binary himself and prefers to be addressed using they/them pronouns and the honorific Mx. in front of his name. The assertion may be a subterfuge to undercut the hate crimes charges and establish mitigation.

Family attendance at drag shows has risen in recent years, so much so that it has attracted literally delusional reactions from the Republican-right. In June, Florida governor Ron DeSantis threatened to order the state’s department of protective services to investigate parents who take their kids to drag shows: “We have child protective statutes on the books,” he said. “We have laws against child endangerment.” State legislators in Florida, Arizona, and Texas have proposed laws to criminalize drag entertainment, and armed militia groups have threatened the lives of drag performers across the country. It remains to be seen if the recent massacre will cause any retreat in the legal and vigilante onslaught.

The proposed laws against drag are patently unconstitutional infringements of free speech and would likely be struck down in court – even by conservative justices. Apart from first amendment considerations, such laws would be largely unenforceable because of the multitude of liminal cases. Drag performances have long been a staple of theatre, film, and television, from Twelfth Night to Some Like it Hot to Kinky Boots. Would they all be banned? And the fashion industry is predicated upon playful subversion and compliance with gender norms – men in skirts and heels, women in trousers and work boots. Corporate America profits from trans.

Gender itself is a form of performance, the philosopher Judith Butler long ago noted, though one that by its repetition, shapes our identity. On that basis, almost any theatrical entertainment could be described as a “drag show” and its sponsors and performers trundled into court. But the point of the proposed laws is not to legislate costume, comportment, or performance, much less identity – it is to supercharge hatred and promote violence, thereby creating an atmosphere of crisis that can be exploited for reactionary (fascist) ends.

Drag is welcome here

There are many places in the world where drag shows are widely accepted and welcomed. I learned this almost 30 years ago during a month-long visit to Tahiti where I went to research my book, Gauguin’s Skirt. The artist, Paul Gauguin, lived there from 1891 to ’94, and then again from 1895 to 1901 when he moved to the Marquesas Islands. (He died there in 1903.) I wanted to learn more about past and present Polynesian racial identities and gender roles. The idea that one can learn about race and gender in Gauguin’s time by studying it in present day Tahiti — what’s called ethnographic analogy— was and remains controversial. But there appeared to me enough cultural continuity in other realms— such as language and expressive culture— to conclude that a visit to Tahiti might yield some insights. And no doubt be enjoyable too.

A small advance from my publisher allowed me to travel from Los Angeles to Papeete, Tahiti. There, I stayed at a cheap, tourist hotel on the harbor between the city center to the north and the posh hotels to the south. On the evening of Bastille Day, I was sitting alone at the grass-cloth covered hotel bar, when a tall, broad shouldered Tahitian woman dressed in a blue sequined gown came in and sat on the stool next to me. She asked me to buy her a drink and we started to chat. Her name was Daphne, she said, and she was on her way to the Restaurant Waikiki.

Seeking to keep the conversation going in my halting French, I asked her what the food there was like. She answered, somewhat impatiently, that she wasn’t “going there to eat but to watch the Miss Mode beauty contest!” I nodded, imagining some insipid and sexist entertainment, and retreated to my beer. After a few minutes, she ordered another drink, gulped it down and left. Immediately, a French businessman took her seat. He said he’d been watching us and asked if I knew I’d been talking to a rae-rae; that’s a Tahitan gender designation for gay men who cross-dress. Some rae-rae work as prostitutes, which was his insinuation. “Mon dieu!” I must have replied. I had come to Tahiti precisely to learn more about Gauguin and gender identity on the island and had met someone from the trans community without even realizing it!

I quickly left the bar and arrived at the Waikiki in time for the swimsuit competition. What I saw was one rae-rae after another strutting down a runway, showing off her figure, feminine walk, and most of all, lack of any visible bulge between her legs. (The performers penises, I was told, were pulled back and tied to one leg.) The audience—which included grandparents, their grandchildren, and all ages in between—hooted, pointed, and applauded with enthusiasm and evident love. It was that last reaction that was most profound to me, at a time when the achievement of gay and transgender legal rights in the U.S. was still just a fantasy. And one other thing struck me: The sexual come-ons and genital peek-a-boo was evidently understood by the audience as a form of humor and play – there was no sense that children needed to be shielded from it. Polynesians had long ago consulted and embraced their own, indigenous Freud, and recognized the sexuality of children.

The actual significance of this for my Gauguin writing is uncertain. My book was not about the figure of the rae-rae, but the mahu, a traditional trans figure akin to the Native American “Two-Spirit” (formerly named by anthropologists “berdache”) and the Samoan fa’afafine. Mahus occupy a highly valued place in traditional Polynesian (including Hawaiian) society. They are boys or men who wear typically feminine clothes, perform what is considered women’s work and are cherished for their wisdom, practical contributions to family life, and economic initiative. When I visited in 1995, I saw several mahus selling fruits, vegetables or textiles in the market place. They may remain mahu their entire life or marry a woman and become ta’ata (a man) and father. They have lately been the subject of considerable artistic and photographic interest.

In my book, I argued (controversially), that the artist Paul Gauguin was himself mistaken for mahu when he first arrived in Papeete in 1891 and remained mahuish – notwithstanding his exploitation of young native women — the rest of his life. Dressed in a fringed, Buffalo Bill Wild West costume, and wearing his hair long, he was taunted by native men and women upon his disembarkation as “ta’ata-vahine” (“man-woman”). Gauguin’s reaction to the tag is unknown, but it may have struck a chord. In Paris, he was intimate with the community of Symbolists, including Paul Verlaine and the wider subculture of gay men and cross-dressers, variously called invertis, ephebes, and insexuels. On one occasion in Concarneau, Brittany, he was arguably gay-bashed. Outlandishly attired in cape and astrakhan hat, carrying a dildo-handled walking stick, and sporting a monkey on his shoulder and a Samoan woman on his arm, he was assaulted by some sailors. They broke his leg.

Paul Gauguin, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897). Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

In Tahiti and the Marquesas, Gauguin depicted figures that appear to be mahu, or at least gender ambiguous, thereby projecting his own possible gender dysphoria while representing an honored indigenous (Maohi) identity. Trans or non-binary people are visible in some of Gauguin’s best-known paintings, including his manifesto-like Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going (1896). Is the central figure Eve, or a man enacting the role of Eve in the Garden of Eden? In letters, Gauguin variously referred to the figure as “she,” “he,” or simply “the figure in the center.” Mahus reappear in The Sorcerer of Hiva Oa — Marquesan Man in the Red Cape, (1902) and Bathers (1902). In the latter work, the large, standing figure holds up a man’s loincloth (maro), masking a brilliantly patterned wrap-around skirt (pareu) below his left knee. The latter were at the time worn chiefly by women, though again there is some uncertainty about this costuming. The ascription of gender identity in paintings by Gauguin remains challenging.

Paul Miot, Two Mahus (?), photograph, c. 1870. Paul Gauguin, The Sorcerer, Museum of Modern Art, Liege, Belgium.

The cultural assimilation of trans

Efforts to condemn and re-segregate queer and trans people in the U.S. are frightening and dangerous, as the shooting in Colorado Springs again demonstrates. The combination of hatred and gun possession – 42% of the world’s privately owned guns are in the U.S. – is demonstrably lethal, and the number of attacks on LGBTQ people is rising. Republican congressmen and their media allies are hell-bent on creating a sense of moral and political crisis. When Fox News star Tucker Carlson began a story about a drag show in Dallas last summer by saying “just another day in Weimar,” he was insinuating that the best solution to what he sees as cultural degeneracy is the Hitlerian one.

Such an eventuality cannot be entirely dismissed. The signposts of fascism are many, as Sue Coe and I describe in our book, American Fascism, Still, and the re-election of Trump or anointing of DeSantis could make them a reality. Nevertheless, the criminalization of LGBTQ identity in a Republican or neo-fascist homeland remains unlikely. Marriage equality and legal protection against employment discrimination have quickly become well-established in law, public life and commerce. And though backsliding is possible – as was the case with abortion rights – there are limited signs of that now.

More importantly, the embrace of LGBTQ identities by young people is widespread and expanding. More than one in five young adults (18-29) according to a Harvard University/Kennedy School poll, identify as LGBTQ. 72% say they are “very” or “somewhat” comfortable with a close friend coming out as LGBTQ, and 61% with a close friend transitioning from one gender to another. Those attitudes don’t, however, prevent 45% of LGBTQ youth from feeling that they are under attack “a lot.” And recent events more than validate those concerns.

Nothing in American politics and society is ever certain, history has shown us. “Everlasting uncertainty and agitation,” Marx wrote, “distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air.” Prejudice and violence directed at LGBTQ people and drag performers may be unlikely, anachronistic, and impossible, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Vigilance and activism are required simply to safeguard rights that have already been attained.

Stephen F. Eisenman is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Northwestern University and the author of Gauguin’s Skirt (Thames and Hudson, 1997), The Abu Ghraib Effect (Reaktion, 2007), The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights (Reaktion, 2015) and other books. He is also co-founder of the environmental justice non-profit,  Anthropocene Alliance. He and the artist Sue Coe have just published American Fascism, Still for Rotland Press. (s-eisenman@northwestern.edu)