…in which I lay bare my internalized homophobia and other stuff I’m not allowed to talk about.
I had the honor of seeing a Bad Drag Show the other night. Before I begin, I want to say that it was for a worthy cause and I applaud this. I also enjoyed the company of the person with whom I attended the show. Heck, I even tipped the performers. That said, I most definitely did not enjoy the show itself.
Also, I am not calling all drag “bad.” This is not that.
My knowledge of phenomenology has been entirely gleaned from an article I used to assign to my students in a class I taught called The Mechanics of American Retro. The article was entitled “The Dislocation of Time: A Phenomenology of Television Reruns.” All I really remember about it was the notion that even the most serious television drama devolves over time into “an intense comedy of obsolescence” where the viewer just mocks funny lapel widths.
But basically phenomenology is looking at how a something affects the subject, who in this case is me. Therefore, I’ll be looking at what goes through my body and mind when I see what I consider a Bad Drag Show. I will not be analyzing any specific show; instead I will be constructing a generic show for the purposes of this exercise. However, it should be noted that all Bad Drag Shows are pretty much the same.
I will be the first to admit that a drag show needs to clear a pretty high bar with me before I will consider it something more than really bad. Don’t get me wrong, I have seen some amazing drag (and gender-fuck, etc.), but I feel those folks were entertainers first and foremost. For example, I am sad I will not be in Provahncetown to see the legendary Dina Martina this week.
- When I enter the venue and I realize that there will be a drag show, my shoulders slump, I sigh, and I feel a tightness behind my sternum. When I am not expecting a drag show and then realize there will be a drag show from which I cannot escape for whatever socially-mandated reason, I feel trapped. I begin to do breathing exercises. I continue to focus on my breath throughout the evening.
- When I see the tackily hung rainbow PartyCity detritus, I ask myself, “We’re in a gay bar, is anyone really gonna forget that they’re gay? Do they think I’m stupid?” I try to remember all those other things that remind me I’m gay, like the dude-lust, the coming-out struggle, and furniture with the clean modernist lines.
- I cringe when the mistress of ceremonies grabs the microphone and shouts into it in a voice that naturally does not require amplification. The tightness behind increases due to the physics of the soundwaves upon my person.
- Minor anger wells up behind my left eye when she welcomes the crowd by calling them “BITCHES!” I wonder where all this hostility is coming from.
- I find myself averting my eyes. I have never been able to watch stage performers who I am not enjoying. I first noticed this behavior when I was into improv big time and would go to a lot of shows that really weren’t funny. Somehow averting one’s eyes makes the bad easier to take. This not funny. I cannot look at her. The ocular aversion does not work too well because she keeps shouting “BITCHES!”
- As she introduces each performer, the tiny feminist that lives somewhere in my medulla oblongata cringes as she calls them names like “Whore,” “C*nt,” “C*m Slut,” and, of course, “Bitch.” I wonder to myself where all this misogyny comes from. Misogyny is never funny except in those rare occasions where it’s used as an ironic device to call out how hateful misogyny is. [Welcome back Steve Dallas of Bloom County.] But bad drag is incapable of irony –only archness.
- As each performer does their act I think, “How hard can it be to lip synch convincingly? I mean you obviously own a full length mirror.” Then I think how much I have enjoyed drag shows where the performer actually sang. Pleasant memories of Porsche at the Ice Palace in Cherry Grove spring to mind.
- I feel guilty because I am not enjoying the entertainments. I know first hand how hard it is to be up on stage and how disheartening it is when the crowd isn’t behind you. But the thing is, some of the crowd is behind the performance…
- So then I feel superior to the people who are actually enjoying this crap. I give these people a slightly smug stink-face, which from experience must register to them as I’m accusing them of setting my cat aflame.
- Then I feel guilty for feeling superior. I begin to think I’m a judgmental asshole… But…
- I stifle the urge to shout, “Come on! I thought the gays were supposed to have taste! Think of the furniture with clean modernist line! She can’t even move her body in time to the song.”
- Then I feel guilty for judging.
- Finally, this flip-flopping between the heights of judgment and the lows of guilt becomes too much, and I must go outside to get a breath of air.
- Eventually, I am able to return inside, where I am hit with a wall of “BITCHES!”
- I spend the entire evening living with the fear that the mistress of ceremonies will notice me. About 70% of the time I am trapped at a Bad Drag Show, I will hear “Oh look! There’s a bear here!” First I gird myself for tired “Woof!” or “Grrr.” I want to say, “Why do you peddle in stereotypes? No self-respecting bear uses those words when addressing another bear. And, furthermore, I’m not a ‘bear.’ I’m a fat guy who has a beard because he has a double chin! And the flannel’s just because flannel’s like the only thing you can get in XXL that looks normal. Leave me alone!”
- But she doesn’t leave me alone and starts in on my weight. Things like “Lock up the meat! There’s a bear loose!” or “When was the last time you saw your dick?” I time travel back to middle school. Bad Drag Queens are nothing but bullies who tuck.
- Then I feel even worse for the stray straight guy who’s there with his girlfriend. I can see the poor guys dissociate as the Bad Drag Queen paws at him, demanding to see his penis. I want to scream, “Don’t you have boundaries?” And in an extra dose of misogyny, the Bad Drag Queen repeatedly asks the girlfriend if she swallows. I want to curl up in a little ball of vicarious embarrassment.
- Lastly, in a final attempt to keep a panic attack at bay, I count how many time the mistress of ceremonies demands to know, “Are you BITCHES having a good time!” A simple task like this can do wonders in keeping me grounded. It becomes painfully aware to me that the number of time the Bad Drag Queen asks this question is inversely proportional to the actual amount of good time being had.
- When I am finally granted leave to leave –I have never voluntarily stuck around to the end of a Bad Drag Show –that tightness behind by sternum finally leaves, and I start to make eye contact with people again.
- .. I am not free. I do not feel I can criticize the Bad Drag Show. I flash back to that time in my Coming Out Support Group when I dared to say that I didn’t particularly care for drag. Someone screeched at me that I had internalized homophobia, and we spent the rest of the session discussing what a horrible gay I was. So, I have to choose my words carefully after the Bad Drag Show. This makes me tense for the rest of the evening and primes the pump for how tense I’ll be the next time I see a Bad Drag Show.
I cannot describe the hollow feeling that comes with disliking the Bad Drag Show. There’s this awful feeling that I’m doing gay wrong (except for the furniture with clean modernist lines). Asking for quality in my entertainments, asking that I feel safe and appreciated at said entertainments, asking that not all drag queens get a trophy doesn’t make me a bad person or homophobic. It just makes me discerning. And frankly, that’s what I thought the whole gay thing was about.
I would give anything to see a drag queen with clean modernist lines.