Last Thursday – July 2nd, I went to the greatest drag performance I have literally every been to.
I cannot share pictures because the basement of the venue we were at (which is where the performance took place) wasn’t exactly up to code. Instead, allow me to paint you a word picture
It’s south Brooklyn, the night before Independence Day (observed) so none of us have to go to work the following day. The show starts at 9, but I get there at 10. A few minutes later my friend shows up and we realize the show is downstairs. We slink down wooden steps to what feels like your friend’s dad’s basement, except it’s crammed with 30+ Brooklyn Queers and allies on wooden benches and pressed up against walls watching a 6 ft tall drag queen on a rickety wooden stage (platform, really as it was only about 8 inches off the ground) lip-syncing her heart out to Lady Gaga’s “Yoü and I” in which she shouts out Nebraska half a dozen times. On the eve of America’s birthday, 6 days after gay marriage is legalized, we’re watching a drag queen perform 50 Songs for 50 States. That was number 7.
As the night progressed, Charlene (her stage name, and more as we would later learn) performed admirably. She did some drag standards – Showtunes, Whitney(South Dakota), Reba (Louisiana), Britney (Alabama) but she also did this wonderfully subversive thing, where she lip-synced songs done by male artists. Eminem (“Just Lose It“) for Michigan, Kenny Rogers “The Gambler” for Nevada (which has been stuck in my head ever since) and “Courtesy of the Red White and Blue” (not linking to that one) by Toby Keith for Missouri. But she did it so well, and the illusion never died. Even when she grabbed her sack. Even when the heat of the too-close stage lights pointed at her face melted off her make up revealing dark stubble underneath.
I can wax poetic about the fluidity of gender but the fact is, we’re there. Sure, this was the niche-st of the niche, but nonetheless, this was transcendent. This went beyond gender expression. This was gender performance which, cis, trans or other, is something we all do nearly every day of our lives. This was just a much clearer presentation of it. And it was amazing.
There were two big important moments for me that night. The first was the song she did for Mississippi, in a stark contrast to Toby Keith, she performed (in solidarity) Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn” which is one of the most important songs of the last 100 years. It’s revolutionary. It’s the Civil Rights movement in 5 minutes. It’s still relevant today, which is depressing, but it’s also, despite its beat, not a happy or uplifting song. But it’s so vital and it so encapsulates the struggles of then and now, for LGBT people, for people of color. It was moving.
The second moment was, at about 12:30 she dashed off stage, when she returned, she explained she had to take her testosterone blockers every 12 hours and she’d missed a dose. You see she wasn’t just a drag queen she was, as she’d brought up repeatedly throughout the evening, a week into being a woman. It was perfect. Combined with everything else on that stage that night, how far we’d come as a country and the fact that, in a way, taking the hormone was part of her performance is just a testament to America in 2015. What a perfect way to celebrate the nation’s birthday.