For the past 5 years, the University of San Diego has hosted a student drag show called Supreme Drag Superstar: Celebration of Gender Expression. Highly controversial on a Catholic campus, this student event has been embattled from its inception. It remains, nonetheless, one of the most popular events on campus. In the years 2015-2017, I was honored to offer remarks from a faculty perspective on the significance of drag in drag. Below are the looks and my remarks from USD's Supreme Drag Superstar.
April 6, 2017
For those of you who know me, you may not recognize me. Or perhaps you see me more clearly than ever before. For those who didn’t know me before, now you do.
We must begin with gratitude to:
· Paris Sukomi Max (for the look)
· Rita Taylor (for her leadership)
· Evelyn Kirkley (for her inspiration)
Though I hate to risk spoiling this lovely affair by raising the issue of politics, as the bearer of the academic portion of our program, I feel it’s my solemn duty to help us think together about what drag and queer life have to offer in this moment of political crisis. You might say, Prieto why you gotta make it political? Well, because politics has already got ahold of us. In Trump’s America, we are presented with a world where individual accumulation, callous disregard, and degradation are the primary currency, where hierarchy and dominance—being a winner—is most important. It’s a world where prejudice and bigotry are worn as a badge of honor. In Trump’s America there is no pluralism, no respect for difference, no basic tolerance. It is an ideology that occupies the field, leaving no room for diverse sexualities, unbound genders, or alternative kinships.
But Trump’s America isn’t the only game in town. Tonight, on this stage, we are giving you more than a show, we have a world to offer. It’s a portal, a symbol, a harbinger of what could be if we embrace the alternative order that drag and queer communities represent. Here, tonight, it’s about mutuality, openness, self-discovery, sexual exploration, gender self-determination, and, above all, love, especially for those who have gone on too long without the consistency and the communion that love offers. We are here not only for ourselves, but for each other, and especially for the most vulnerable among us. If our leaders will not offer their support, then it’s left to us to carve out a space of belonging. To put someone else before ourselves, to excavate a broadened scope of empathy from what pain and isolation we’ve endured, is to enact this belonging. When we recognize in someone else’s struggle our own vulnerabilities we can act in solidarity with them.
Drag queens have long been at the center of this queer universe. As we’ve talked about in years past, I think about drag as both a political act of transgression and as a medium of personal discovery and creative expression. It is both personal and political. Drag is an outward expression of an inward grace communicated through the idiom of dramatized femininity and exaggerated masculinity. Akin to what Gloria Anzaldúa, the famed Chicana lesbian writer, has argued about identity, drag is a kind of mask: but one that reveals more than it hides. It puts on the outside what beauty lives hidden on the inside.
What I want to stress tonight is that drag is also communal. Drag queens and kings rarely perform without an audience or a stage of some kind. Like Tinkerbelle, we’re the sorts of creatures that need applause to live. Drag has long served as a beacon for many generations of queers in search of a place of our own. Consider this very brief chronology of drag at the heart of queer public life:
In 1869, drag balls got their start at Harlem’s Hamilton Lodge, a place where gay men could congregate, drink, dance, and take in raucous drag shows. Moral reformers, like the New York based Committee of Fourteen, regularly attended the shows to document and expose what they called “sexual perversion,” producing some 130 reports each calling for a crackdown on queer public space. In other words, having hostile outsiders attend drag shows like this one and then mobilize conservative opposition extends a long and sordid history of homophobic surveillance.
These moralistic crackdowns by New York City’s so-called vice squads are precisely what inspired the violent confrontation that happened on and around the Stonewall Inn on June 28th, 1969. Never forget that gay pride began as an anti-police riot. Legend has it that the first bottle was hurled by a drag queen fed up with the humiliating raids of gay and lesbian bars by local PD.
In the 1980s, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence marched alongside gay men and lesbians demanding a federal response to the AIDS epidemic devastating gay communities across the U.S. They participated in dramatic acts of civil disobedience, scattering the ashes of loved ones who had died of AIDS on the White House lawn and participating in die-ins at pharmaceutical companies and at Catholic churches.
Last year’s emcee and RuPaul’s Drag Race alumna, Bob the Drag Queen was arrested in New York City’s Times Square following an act of civil disobedience in support of gay marriage.
Drag’s central role in queer communities and in the history of LGBT resistance must remind us tonight that we cannot, especially in the midst of the current political crisis, be here only for ourselves. We must be there for each other now. We remember this history to remember that this show is as much about the spectacle as it is about the spirit in which we are sharing tonight.
The way the famous drag queens Lady Bunny and Peaches Christ tell it, being young, gay and effeminate meant that they had to learn to stand up for yourself at a young age: it forced them to develop an outsized sense of self-confidence very early.
But some of us react differently. We wilt under the derision and hatred of classmates, neighbors, fellow parishioners, and family members. We become insecure, self-loathing, and untrusting, wearing our wounds as defensiveness and self-destruction. I think I was probably one of those young people. I was shy not because I’m naturally reserved, but because I hated the sound of my own voice. So, I’d try to lower it. But everyone knew what I was doing, so I kept quiet instead. I wasn’t studious and bookish because I was a child prodigy. I worked hard at school because I wanted to be good at something and school, unlike sports, didn’t require being tough, aggressive, and stoic.
But when Paris puts me in drag, when I remember this storied history of love and resistance, and when I see the manifest imagination, the sheer energy of these young queens and kings, I am returned to myself, and I’m inspired to be better than I am now.
This is what a queer community has to offer: a community whose membership does not require conformity and subordination. It honors all that makes you unique and works to lift us up. Individuality thrives in solidarity with others. We need each other to be who we are.
As you watch the show, I hope you’ll remember who you are, remember to give voice to those parts of yourself that you’ve quieted, and then commit yourself again to this broader community of which you are now a part. And act in solidarity with us. Stand up for the trans kid in the schoolyard who’s about to get their ass kicked for doing nothing other than being themself. If your brother or sister, niece or nephew is struggling to come out, talk to them, tell them you’ve got their back, and run some interference with the rest of your family. Cast a vote for a candidate who supports the equal rights of queer people. March in solidarity with all of those threated by Trump’s vision for America.
At the heart of this queer alternative is love, for those who support us, as well as for those who oppose us. The world that we are struggling to usher in does not require that we agree; equality does not depend on conformity. This is a critical distinction between these two visions: in Trump’s America, there is no live and let live, there’s my way or the highway. Queer love requires holding onto those with whom we disagree. But I’ll tell you like the Son of Baldwin told me: “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”
In the spirit of queer love, let me invite you now to show some love. Everybody say, “love.” We need each other now more than ever before. Start right now by lifting up your neighbor. Turn to them…do it right now…extend a hand in welcome, and tell them I’m so glad you’re here. Tell them “you are amazing, just as you are.”
I. Love you.
Have an incredible evening and enjoy the show!
April 14, 2016
The Politics of Provocation
In 1995, RuPaul made a well-known cameo in the cult classic film Too Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. In it she announces the winner of a New York City drag competition. Memorably she descends from the rafters on a swing, wearing what is now her iconic confederate flag gown. A masterful act of cooptation, we see RuPaul’s unique alchemy on full display. She transforms the flag of the confederate south into a perfectly queer vestment.
Flash forward to the summer of 2015 and Brie Newsome has ascended a flagpole in front of the South Carolina statehouse and ripped down the Confederate Flag. Widely heralded as a signal moment in the Blacks Lives Matter movement, the move spurred legislative efforts to have the flag permanently removed from its position of honor over state’s Capitol Building.
Tonight, the very basic message I hope to convey is that both of these are politics. By politics I mean the contestation of power in any arena. In two different realms, in these two different times, these queens made a powerful statement about the intolerability of white supremacy and its symbols. What they reveal is, first of all, guts. What courage it takes to pursue your convictions in these ways. It also shows us the ways that race, gender, and sexuality conspire together in the #formation of a distinctly queer and distinctly anti-racist politics. And it shows us the way that the prescience the utility, the goodness of provocation—that is, bold action waged in the face of spiteful opposition—can point the way toward justice.
RuPaul’s gown stands out to me as one of the clearest expressions of political drag, of the politics of provocation. Of course the dress is meant to shock. But unlike shock jocks, the point is not a few cheap laughs at the expense of those who are already so often laughed at.
By provocation, I mean to incite an audience to recognize and break through the limits of your own imagination and sense of normalcy. I mean provocation as a rejection of assimilation and respectable sexuality and a challenge to white supremacy. I mean that drag should provoke us to consider the limits of our own scope of empathy. I mean that drag should provoke us to embrace queer people, not on the condition they become more like straight people, but as a distinctly different mode of being in the world. Listening to the provocative can stimulate our radical imagination. It can even show us the path toward justice.
Consider the work of New York City’s own Bob the Drag Queen, here with us tonight. I won’t give away the details, but her drag is transformative. Her performances convert a look into a spirit: something both more ephemeral and more enduring. Her drag calls for a deeper recognition of the humanity of black, queer people: a humanity too often obscured by dense constellations of racism, homophobia, and sexism.
When drag provokes us it forces us to recognize the limits of our own ideas of gender, of sexuality, of grace, of strength, and of love. And, of course, provocation doesn’t only point toward politics. It can point toward art, toward the fantastic, toward fashion, toward comedy, toward service, toward beauty, toward music. The provocation of drag gives us a window onto an alternative arrangement: one is which gender is mutable, sexuality is plural, in which sex is not jealously guarded but shared, where whiteness is not the apex of desire, where respect for fags, dykes, and freaks is the rule and not the exception. And while these values may not be yours, to honor them across our differences is to deepen our love and respect for queer people in their staggering diversity. Queerness does not require conformity; it requires the recognition of our mutual humanity as it’s expressed through difference. I’m standing here in all this drag in an effort to usher in a world in which being loved is not contingent upon being the same. More to the point, I am interested in queer life and queer love that does not require complicity with violence of normative gender and white supremacy. The point is not respectability, but respect. Tolerance will not do. Begrudging acceptance is not enough. Love is the only goal worth pursuing.
A goal made all the more important by the proliferation of anti-LGBT legislation across the nation. The Human Rights Campaign reports that more than 100 anti-LGBT bills were filed in state legislatures in 2015. These efforts have been successful in Arkansas, Indiana, North Carolina, and Mississippi, where individuals and institutions are now free to deny services to LGBT people in the name of religious freedom. This backlash represents a reactionary conservative response to the equal treatment of LGBT people in marriage, in places of business, and in bathrooms: it represents a worldview that insists on the subordination of queer people in public and in private.
Which is to say that if we are a campus community that strives to lead the change, to be the change, if we are the changemakers that we say that we are then we may do well to reckon with and not recoil from the provocation that drag represents. We might stare into the face of a drag queen or a drag king and see in that visage the promise of a world in which love for queer people comes standard.
Drag is a fundamentally imaginative practice. Drag is a medium through which singularity is ushered into the world. It expands the horizons of our own sense of what is beautiful, what is loveable, what is fully human. Drag queens and kings are ambassadors between what we are and what we might become. It is a glimpse at what’s possible.
You know else drag is? It’s fun! It’s jubilant, it’s thrilling, and it’s an invitation to love yourself and each other. So get up. Get on your feet right now. Turn to your neighbor and tell them, I’m so glad you’re here. You can hug your neighbor if you want to! You can love your neighbor if you want to! But remember, you have to love yourself first. In the immortal words of everyone’s drag mother: if you can’t love yourself how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else? Say it with me: if you can’t love yourself how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else? Can I get an “Amen”?
Now enjoy the show!
April 16, 2015
On the Significance of Drag
When I was 6 years old, we spent a lot of time at my Nana’s house while both my parent’s worked. For those of us whose extended families supported our working parents, perhaps you also have abiding memories of warm afternoons passed under the care of grandparents or aunts and uncles or neighbors. We’d play while our parents were away. No homework yet, no chores.
My nana had this chest of drawers in her bedroom, and in the bottom drawer she kept these old nighties and robes that we’d use as costumes. So whenever we arrived to Nana’s house, my brother and sister and my cousins and I would all rush to the bottom drawer and grab whatever we could. When my Dad would come to the door to pick me up after work, sometimes I’d answer the door like this. When you ask my Nana about those days, she recalls my Dad being “so mad” when he came to the door, and I recall being sternly dragged out of the house. You know, my parents loved me very much, but even then I recall suddenly feeling very aware of a heaviness about myself; I was heavy with the weight of something my parents did not want.
Gender and sexuality have a strange relationship. They’re separate, but also related. We use gender to know about sexuality: when a boy “acts like” a girl or when a woman “acts like” a man, people sometimes call us sissies or tomboys, but more often they call us fags and dykes. And as I got older, that’s what people said about me and to me. I found it all very confusing as a teenager because all I knew is that I liked to let my hand float in the air when I talked, that I was quicker to smile than to scowl, to prefer books over baseball, the company of women to men. Every sideways glance, rumor, comment, every time I was passed over, avoided, and otherwise made to feel as though I was a fag and not a person: these many thousands of moments sedimented and weighed me down from the inside. I had failed as a man because I was gay. I had failed.
For many, many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, this weight is crushing. It immiserates, and in too many cases, it kills. According to the CDC, the second leading cause of death among young people age 10-24 is suicide, but LGBT youth are 4 times more likely to commit suicide than their straight peers. The rate is higher if you’re black or Latino. Just think about that for a moment… what do you have to believe is true about yourself and your future to prefer death to another day of life.
I came out as a financially independent adult, and after many years of struggle, my parents really came around: they love me now more than ever. In the absence of support, LGBT people must seek out other sources of love, a chosen family.
But what all does this have to do with drag?
For me and for many LGBT people, drag is a lifeline. Drag is a moment, a sanctuary, a place of acceptance, yes, but also of possibility. Drag queens give permission to those in their orbit to be and become the person that best suits you. If you can’t get love from your family or your community or your school or your church or your government, perhaps a drag queen can make you feel that you can be loved or, at the very least, that you can be.
Don’t believe me? Scholars have long made this claim. Drag queens were on the frontlines of the Stonewall Riots, sparking the modern gay and lesbian liberation movement. They have pioneered art and culture, and they continue to anchor gayborhoods from Hillcrest to the Castro to the Bowery.
But, you’ll say, why does it have to be so over the top, exaggerated, in your face, and vulgar? Drag must be these things because it seeks not to knock meekly on the doors of respectable sexuality and straight life, begging humbly for admission and assimilation. Drag is a confrontation. The bravery of drag is a direct and fierce challenge to the notion that men and women can only be one thing. To wrest the power of self-determination from the grip of compulsory heterosexuality, drag must claim its space. And in doing so, drag creates space for us to imagine again that your life need not be what others would have it be. You can be whomever you like, and drag queens and drag kings will guard that gate.
For me, standing atop these 6 inches of glittering steel, I feel confident, I feel self-love, awareness, defiance, and self-possession in femininity.
But you’ll say, Greg I’m not sure any of this really speaks to me. I’m pretty happy in the skin I’m in, what can drag do for me? Why should I care about drag? If you are not moved by drag’s challenge to struggle against homophobia and transphobia, by the simple personal conviction that the imposition of normative gender and straight sexuality is a form of violence, then consider this. Every single one of us in some way, large or small, has been subjected to these expectations. Every single one of us has been made to feel as though you aren’t man enough, that you aren’t woman enough. Drag is an invitation to you, too.
But above all, drag must be fun. So if you take nothing away from this, remember: life’s a drag, so have a ball! In this spirit, I leave you with the immortal words of the world’s most famous drag queen: “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else? Can I get an amen?”
Enjoy the show!