As political engagement during the Trump era reaches a level of monumental proportions, drag performers across the U.S. are ready to slay — with a civic twist.
Beatrix LeStrange, a Minnesota-born activist and community organizer who occasionally goes by the name of Jose Colon-Uvalles, became well known in the Texas drag scene after taking on social projects tackling HIV/AIDS awareness and immigration, and mentoring other queens who were just starting out.
GOPUSA Editor’s Note: This story from the New York Daily News shows the perspective of the far left. Can’t these people see what is happening to society? How about letting kids be kids? The last thing they need is to be exposed to unstable individuals. A man who regularly dresses like a woman should not be around our children!
LeStrange started performing in drag five years ago, in the “very alternative” drag scene of Austin, Texas. But when she moved back to her hometown in the Rio Grande Valley, people didn’t quite understand her take on the art form, and for a while she said she felt like an “outlier.”
Until one night when she met some activists from a group called Texas Freedom Network, a nonpartisan organization that supports religious freedom, individual liberties and public education. They were recruiting college-age students for a noble reason. They wanted young people to become activists.
At the time LeStrange was working at the Valley AIDS Council, an HIV clinic serving the lower Rio Grande Valley, and saw an opportunity of using her platform as a performer to educate other people and “to empower other drag queens to be socially engaged in their communities.”
She applied for a micro-grant from the University of Texas, and created a program called Drag Out HIV. Her goal was to recruit and train the next generation of “dragtivists.”
In 2017, the first group of queens to benefit from LeStrange’s mentorship attended four days of workshops and received training on how to mobilize people in a positive way. In return, they got money for gas, some nice-looking business cards, and they were also photographed for a 2018 wall calendar, which was “the icing on top of the cherry on top, because it really allowed the girls, the queens to be feature and highlighted, not only for their involvement in the program but so that other people could recognize who they were.”
For its second iteration in 2018, LeStrange condensed the training in one long day (“it was really hard to get people to come every other week, especially considering that in the Rio Grande Valley we have the poorest communities in the country.”) The queens got breakfast, lunch, and the same perks — only for the 2019 calendar, they had a theme to work on: “I challenged the queens to model a look inspired off of a fearless Latina or Latinx historical figure or activist.” Among the fierce queens to grace the calendar were Sylvia Rivera, one of the heroes of the Stonewall demonstrations, and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
The new class of queens also received training on immigration issues, such as what to do if a loved one gets stopped by a border patrol agent, and they learned about their rights, if they are undocumented. Beatrix grew up in the Rio Grande Valley area, but her family migrated from Mexico. She “grew up hearing stories of my grandmother who would tell me how she crossed the river to come to the US with my dad and my aunt.”
Looking at the mainstream acceptance (and several Primetime Emmy awards) that “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has received in recent years) it might be difficult to imagine that the subversive art of drag — the essence of queer underground culture — was once a vehicle of defiance.
Behind the gender illusion, the impossible costumes and those sickening death drops, darling, female impersonation in the LGBTQ community is more than just campy theater.
Since the early days of the LGBTQ liberation movement drag has always used as a way to survive. A way to fight back in a world dominated by cisgender heterosexual men, a world that’s known for oppressing differences.
Christopher Mitchell, a lecturer in gender and sexuality studies at Hunter College, told the Daily News that “drag became associated with gay culture between the early 20th century and the Second World War, but that even then (and well after) drag was still understood as part of nightlife entertainment for straight people.”
Mitchell, who researched postwar queer life in New York City for his PhD dissertation, said that “the first ‘political’ drag queen is probably the José Sarria in San Francisco.” The pioneer activist and self-proclaimed Empress of San Francisco is believed to be the first openly gay candidate to run for office. “He ran for office in 1962, although he downplayed his drag life in the campaign.”
In the ’70s, the LSD-loving, commune-living group The Cockettes, also from San Francisco gained national notoriety. After them, “the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, which are kind of a nun drag activist troupe become really prominent AIDS activists in the 1980s and 1990s.”
As LGBTQ culture becomes more mainstream, drag’s political message of radical change gets more and more diluted. In 1997, Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian on national TV; in 2003, same-sex was officially decriminalized; in 2009 America elected its first African American president; in 2015 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality.
And then something changed.
Philadelphia-based artist Mike Hisey can pinpoint the exact day when his dragctivist persona was born: Jan. 27, 2017.
On the weekend following Donald Trump’s inauguration, as the newly-elected president took his first official trip to Philadelphia for a three-day GOP conference, his White House team was scrambling to defend the self-congratulatory statement about the crowd of “a million, million and a half people” who had attended the event.
Kellyanne Conway stayed on Capitol Hill, in damage control mode. From the White House lawn, the counselor to the president delivered her infamous “alternative facts” line to Jake Tapper on CNN.
That night Hisey had a dream that Conway was in a doll box, wearing her much-talked-about “Trump Revolutionary Wear” Gucci outfit, and the two were arguing. He couldn’t really hear what she was saying, but he remembers “yelling back at her.”
When he woke up the next day, he ran to a local Buffalo Exchange store, found the outfit he was looking for — a blue coat, red hat, purse and gloves — and decided he’d found his way of protesting: A drag was born, and her name was Alt-Fact Kelly.
But his creation didn’t stay exclusively with the controversially outspoken lady. For the last two years, Hisey, under the drag name Alt-Fact Kelly has produced over 50 outfits, “some good ones, some bad ones,” he told The News. They have been featured on Vanity Fair, NBC News, Mother Jones, but perhaps more significant are Alt-Fact Kelly’s social media followers. The list include Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell and Betty Buckley.
“I’ve been lighting up Betsy DeVos this last week because of the Special Olympics s–t,” he said. Other popular characters are Melania Trump, The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen and the occasional boy drag, as The Donald, himself.
Unlike Beatrix LeStrange, who started out at the alternative drag world of Texas, Alt-Fact Kelly has only ever existed as a protest outlet. She only comes out when Hisey is fighting for his ideals, alongside activist organizations such as Gays Against Guns, Rise and Resist and Sing Out Louise, a New York-based group that protests with choral music: they show up around the city and perform popular songs whose lyrics have been changed “to mock Trump or anybody else.” In his hometown of Philadelphia, he’s part a group called Tuesdays with Toomey, where for past two years protesters have paid a weekly visit to the office of Sen. Patrick Toomey (R-Pa.) demanding a Town Hall meeting. They’ve never gotten one.
As performers, they both share the essence of all gender-benders. They twist the rules to shock, use camp to entertain, and make fun of the world — and themselves — to prove their point.
The fun sometimes comes with a price. Kelly Conway had Alt-Fact Kelly kicked out a hotel lobby once, Hisey said with a hint of Pride. And just last week in Washington, Hisey said he almost got arrested. The real DeVos was at a meeting, but couldn’t get outside because of protesters.
“The Secret Service lady was basically saying, ‘well you have to stand over there.’ And I said, ‘No! I’m not going to stand across the street. We’re going to stand here and protest her,” the fake DeVos said, standing around fake classroom boards, and a fake Mike Pence.
“I kind of I try to put a little comedy to it. But if you ever see the signs [such as ‘Surrender Donald,’ ‘Satan’ and ‘Tyranny & Co.’] for me that’s the political message.”
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