June is Gay Pride month. In New York, as in cities across the country, gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, transsexuals, and their friends will be marching in support of tolerance and diversity. It was in this spirit that my girlfriend and I attended Kings and Queens of New York City: A Drag Summit at the Bruno Walter Auditorium of the New York Public Library. Besides the -- in retrospect predictable -- obstruction of our sightlines, it was an enjoyable and interesting afternoon.
Sadly, the summit took place against the backdrop of the recent beating of drag superstar Kevin Aviance as he left a club in the East Village. As one of the panelists pointed out, this sort of thing happens all the time to members of the LGBT community; the only reason this incident made the news is because Aviance is famous.
Though the word "summit" connotes the lofty and unapproachable, the event was anything but that. And in fact it allowed the daytime people in the audience an all too rare opportunity to come into contact with the human face of drag. The moderator, Joe E. Jeffries of New York University, presented a slideshow on the history of drag from the ancient Greeks to the present (highlight: the governor of New York from 1702-1708, Lord Cornwall, was rumored to have dressed in drag), and then introduced the panelists. The luminaries on the panel included the drag kings Stormé Delarverié, Murray Hill, and DIYAA, and the drag queens Flawless Sabrina, Sade Pendavis, and Taylor Mac. The discussion was punctuated by performances by DIYAA, Taylor Mac, and, in what proved to be the highlight of the afternoon, a moving rendition of John Lennon's "Imagine" by the powerfully-voiced diva Sade Pendavis.
The Chelsea Hotel connection is Stormé Delarverié, a husky 86-year-old former cross-dressing torch singer and one of the sweetest old ladies you're ever likely to meet -- though one Storme you'd sure as hell better not cross. In the lobby of the Chelsea before the summit, Debbie Martin spoke with her, explaining that our blog readers wanted to hear her story.
"I've got a story!" Stormé exclaimed, "I chopped off my hair, put on men's clothes, and joined the Jewel Box Review!" The Jewel Box Review was a multi-racial drag revue that toured the country in the fifties, sixties and seventies. The only female member of the troupe, Stormé served as stage manager, musical arranger, emcee and "mother" of the troupe for fourteen years.
"But you're an important activist, too," Debbie reminded her. "Could you tell us about your role in the Stonewall rebellion?"
"They ask me, why do you want to be a target like that?" Stormé said, referring to her leadership role in the gay rights struggle. "They'll stab you in the back, they'll hit you, they'll shoot you." She paused to reflect and then said, "But honey, they're all dead, and I'm still here!"
All of the panelists had tales of struggle and violence -- ironic and troubling in the lives of such gentle people -- but they had overcome this adversity, in part, by transforming themselves. DIYAA said she had chosen to wear men's clothes because of the feeling of power they gave her.
As the teenage thugs were beating Kevin Aviance, one of the things they reportedly yelled at him was, "You're not diesel!" In the question and answer session of the summit, someone asked if anyone understood this remark. All of the panelists on stage were mystified. They were all a bit too old -- as was I -- to get the reference. But a younger woman in the audience stood up to explain that what they were referring to was in fact the Diesel clothing brand. They were saying, in effect, that Aviance wasn't butch enough to wear the brand of clothing he was wearing at the time, a brand that for these young men signified a certain macho lifestyle. And how ridiculous to be beaten because of a brand! Even more so than a hate crime, this was a crime of ignorance and stupidity.
It's tempting to say that these were just kids who didn't know any better. But am I the only one who notices a disturbing parallel between these young men's defense of the integrity of a brand -- a corporate brand that can take care of itself -- and the conservatives renewed interest in banning same sex marriage via a constitutional amendment? These teenagers didn't come by their ideas in a vacuum.
Still, the fact that the Drag Summit took place at a public library is not insignificant. Outside of the ignorant and backward, and the politicians who seek to exploit these people, drag and homosexuality are becoming increasingly understood and accepted. Nonconformity is rightly seen as something not to fear but to celebrate. As Flawless Sabrina says, "If you're not living an alternative life style these days, you're in danger of becoming a mystery guest in your own life."