My partner and I took my sister to Darcelle XV Showplace Saturday night for her birthday. Darcelle XV hosts the longest continuously running drag show on the West Coast, and its iconic founder and star at 86 is the oldest performing drag queen in the world.
I first went to Darcelle’s about 25 years ago, just as I was coming out myself and as LGBTQ people in Oregon were fighting off discriminatory ballot measures. Darcelle’s was a safe space, a rite of passage, and a haven for queer culture and queer people. Sure, a couple of bridal parties were there celebrating, and a few straight couples came to enjoy the show. Mostly, though, the crowd of around 100 or so was gay men, lesbians, a few drag queens, maybe a drag king or two. Despite the presence of a handful of straight people, we were decidedly in queer space.
I wondered why all of these straight women saw this as a space that was theirs to inhabit, especially for that most heteronormative of rituals, the bachelorette party.
Saturday night was a completely different experience. While in line to enter, I noticed pretty quickly that almost everyone else waiting was either a (heterosexual) bride-to-be or a bridesmaid. I felt strangely out of place. I wondered why all of these straight women saw this as a space that was theirs to inhabit, especially for that most heteronormative of rituals, the bachelorette party. I asked the door manager what he thought of this appropriation of queer culture. “They’re here for the dog and pony show,” he responded. “That’s what we are to them. It’s just a show.”
It is a show, but it’s so much more than a show. While men performing as women has a long history all the way back to ancient societies and through Elizabethan England, contemporary drag is associated primarily with gay men (though some women also perform as drag kings). In the 20th century, drag became one way for gay men to claim self-expression for diverse sexualities and to challenge restrictive gender norms at a time when homosexuality was outlawed and wearing the clothes of another gender could lead to arrest and imprisonment. Drag conferred a kind of liberation, but it also often came at a high cost.
While queer folks had long resisted bigotry and discrimination, a pivotal moment came in 1969 at the Stonewall Bar in New York City when the drag queens and butch lesbians fought back. The Stonewall riots marked a visible beginning for the Gay Liberation movement and the subsequent struggle for LGBTQ rights that continues in the present.
When Walter Cole, who would become Darcelle, bought the old Demas Tavern in Portland in 1967, he hired a lesbian bartender and with her came a clientele of lesbians and gay men who found a home at the bar in a time when homosexuality was illegal and considered a mental disorder. Darcelle became a fixture in Portland and an activist and fundraiser for LGBTQ causes. Darcelle and her club reached out to straight Portland, building allies and strengthening LGBTQ rights in the city.
I don’t imagine any of those brides or members of their entourages have a clue about this history. Apparently, Darcelle’s has become the place for bachelorette parties, a stamping of heterosexual privilege over the invisibility of LGBTQ struggle in queer space. When we entered, my partner turned to me and asked, “Do you think it’s ok to act like we’re together?” After all, it’s one thing to pay to watch drag queens perform. It’s entirely another to see real live lesbians holding hands right in front of you at your bachelorette party. I felt defiant. “Of course, we’re going to act like we’re together,” I said. “They will not take that from us in our own space.”
A couple of the bridesmaids in the audience looked terribly uncomfortable. They didn’t laugh or clap with the music. They ducked their heads and averted their eyes. Even Darcelle noticed. She walked out to one of these women and commented, “You look scared sh*tless.” She did. I think she was.
Once the show started, I noticed something else new to me since I was last at the show 25 years ago. These young women had handfuls of one dollar bills that they gleefully tucked into the performers’ cleavage. I realized that Darcelle’s also gave them a space where they could indulge in some homoerotic fantasy with no risk of the actual costs of lesbian or queer identity. They could safely engage in the fantasy of stuffing bills in a performer’s bra with none of the risk or stigma of actual same sex sexuality since they knew these were “really men.” They could exert the capitalist power of heteropatriarchy by pretending drag queens were other women without risking the lesbian label or imagining how they might feel if strangers wanted to shove dollar bills in their cleavage. For a moment, they possessed the sexualized power of straight men in strip bar.
I also noticed that a lot of these heterosexual women felt free to hang all over each other. Our hard fought struggles for lesbian visibility made this possible. We have managed to dilute some of the stigma of same sex love and attraction, and so now heterosexuals can use our space to engage in physicality with one another without fear of being labeled “lesbian.” In fact, right by the stage two women were so physically engaged with one another that I thought, “Oh, perhaps we do have a queer couple getting married,” (since we did at last win that right just two years ago today.) I took comfort in that belief until Darcelle recognized all the brides-to-be (there were 14 of them). Darcelle asked the young woman where she is getting married, and she replied, “In a Catholic church.” So much for my fantasy of a lesbian bachelorette party at Darcelle’s.
I also noticed how racialized this phenomenon was. I don’t think there was a person of color in the bar other than one performer and one person working sound. These young straight women were white. Every single one of them. So the consumption of queer culture and queer space was not only their right as straight women but also as white women. For some reason, young, straight white women feel absolutely free to invade queer space, and, because of their privilege as young, straight, and white, they never even have to think about the fact that they might be invading someone else’s space, that their overwhelmingly white and heterosexual presence might create unsafe space for queer people, especially queers of color. They can just be out for a good time without ever questioning what their presence in queer space might mean for queer people. That is the very definition of privilege.
They can just be out for a good time without ever questioning what their presence in queer space might mean for queer people. That is the very definition of privilege.
When we left, the line for the next show extended down the block. More bachelorette parties. More young, straight, white women. As we crossed the street toward our car, two young queer women walking down 3rd hailed us. “How are you tonight? What have you been doing?” We locked eyes in recognition of our shared queerness. “We’re great. We celebrated a birthday at Darcelle’s.” “That’s great. Have a good night.” They continued down the street. I felt at home again. Maybe now that we can walk down the street out and proud a little more easily than we could 25 year ago, we don’t need the safe spaces of Darcelle’s quite as much. Maybe that’s why so few queer folk were there. Or maybe it’s like the dance club we lost as more and more straight people started to come, and eventually we felt unsafe in our own club. Maybe we don’t feel like we belong at Darcelle’s anymore because we only see queer on the stage as spectacle and not in the audience as full human beings.
Maybe the straightening of Darcelle’s is progress. It didn’t feel like it. It felt like loss. So on this day we celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision for marriage equality, we also realize the work that remains to be done. We aren’t equal yet, and white and heterosexual privilege still marginalize us, even in our own spaces. But Darcelle is still cracking queer jokes and wearing the mantle of queerness, and, after 50 years, her showplace still stands as queer space, even when invaded by straight white bridal parties. So the struggle goes on. But we’re still here, and we’re still queer.