She’s the queen of the house,” purrs Perry’s manager Jose Ventura, nodding toward Sophia Carrero. Catching her breath, Carrero has just left the audience at the Adams Morgan restaurant in uproarious applause with her lip-synced performance of “Mentiroso,” a hot Spanish number by singer Olga Tañon. Ventura has led me into the eatery’s dank basement, where a cramped storage room serves as dressing quarters for Carrero and three other performers.
Assisted by her lover, Javier, Carrero fusses with her makeup and hair. “Sometimes people are just sitting there,” says Carrero, who has performed at Perry’s Sunday brunch for nearly two years. “But they liked the rhythm today.” The song was appropriate for another reason—it translates as “Liar,” and Carrero is a drag queen.
Not that anyone dining at Perry’s that day—or anyone living in Washington, for that matter—would be shocked (or fooled) by drag. Not anymore, at least. Carrero’s hour-and-a-half of prep time (“It takes longer ’cause I use my own hair,” she says with pride) may make her glamorous, but it doesn’t make her fringe.
Once cloistered in gay bars in Southeast, drag performances have curiously emerged in straight venues like Perry’s, Planet Fred, and—beginning this month—the Black Cat. Indeed, some local drag performers say that certain gay audiences resist some forms of drag, particularly campy drag humor, while mixed crowds of straights, gays, and in-betweens can’t get enough.
Drag’s newfound local popularity follows its nationwide ascendance on film. After the unexpected success of the documentary Paris Is Burning in 1990, several drag-queen projects hit the screen, from The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert to Wigstock: The Movie to an inevitable and disappointingly tame Hollywood apotheosis—this fall’s To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. Starring straight actors Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes, To Wong Foo simultaneously normalized and castrated drag queens.
In a typical week, Washingtonians can play bingo with drag queens, eat brunch with drag queens, and giggle at drag-queen stand-up. On Halloween, they can watch a “drag race” take over 17th Street NW. They can ogle drag queens at drag festivals and on MTV. The Washington Post has published 32 stories referring to drag queens this year; even the conservative Washington Times has printed 19. And all this week, Channel 5 aired an aggressively white-bread series on drag queens, complete with a gee-whiz look at a man applying makeup. Where drag was once fierce, as the queens say—recalling that drag queens helped incite the Stonewall riot—it’s now as accessible as a cup of Starbucks in Dupont Circle.
So has Washington finally conceived a hip alter ego? Or is there simply nothing transgressive about cross-dressing anymore?
Arnell and others say that the straight majority in Washington and across the country has become more tolerant of all kinds of difference, allowing it to look past outdated social mores and relish drag’s playfulness and style. Arnell thinks the prevalence of TV talk shows has helped inure Americans to deviance. “They see more on TV, so they have more respect,” she says.
The stars of Drag Freak Bingo, whose run at Planet Fred ended last summer before a jammed, raucous crowd of several hundred, say they wanted to tap into that growing tolerance. They brought their show to the funky bar, a mostly straight club south of Dupont Circle, “because of the fact that there are so many straight people that are cool and so many gay people that are cool that don’t have a problem with other people’s sexuality—or ethnicity, for that matter,” says Kevin Cordt, who plays bingo queen Beate (pronounced “bee-ah-ta”).
“When people come in…they let their guards down,” agrees Shane Mayson, better known as Cordt’s co-star, Bianca. “They’re wide open, and I can just sneak my little message in there, and when they go home, they think about it.”
Steve Saito, a straight 26-year-old Arlington resident who attended Perry’s drag brunch recently, thinks the message of tolerance has sunk in for many youthful urbanites: “I think it’s popular because it’s a gay-hip thing. Young, twentysomething hip people think a sort of gay sensibility is cool,” he says. “There’s a sort of sense of associating “gay’ with artistic prowess and even social prowess.”
All this optimism about gay/straight relations is infectious, and certainly drag’s long trip from the marches to the mainstream holds promise for social liberalism. But we’re not talking about true gender-bending here. What’s become so pervasive is drag performance of one kind or another, which shouldn’t be confused with acceptance of homosexuality or transvestism, much less transsexuality. The drag queens at Perry’s do their lip-syncing and then return to the basement, leaving polite brunchers to their angel-hair pasta and Bloody Marys.
Believe it or not, a rather arch academic debate rages over this very topic. On the one hand are writers like Marjorie Garber, a Harvard professor and author of Vested Interests, a 400-page study of cross-dressing that concludes that drag has been so omnipresent throughout history that our very culture would be impossible without it. On the other hand are writers like Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a Duke professor who has attacked Garber’s scholarly cheerfulness.
What Garber doesn’t consider, Sedgwick says, is that current drag often desexualizes drag queens. Denuded of its (homo)sexuality, popular drag grants a “public deniability” to the straight people who enjoy it. “Uncharitably, one might say that gender theory at this moment is talking incessantly about cross-dressing in order never to have to talk abouthomosexuality,” Sedgwick writes in her book Tendencies.
Closer to earth, Cordt and Mayson admit that despite their subtle pro-gay message, what they do is essentially “nonthreatening” to straight people, as Mayson puts it. A straight woman, Maureen Lallos, even plays Beate and Bianca’s drag-world daughter, Babette. And Cordt and Mayson emphasize that they pursue drag as a “freak” theatrical form, not as serious female impersonation. (By contrast, the drag queens at Perry’s regard their drag performance more earnestly, as a form of high art, and generally identify themselves by their female names.)
“Almost everything that we do [in bingo] is a parody,” says Cordt. “Part of what we’re doing is parodying drag queens.” While that’s not meant to belittle traditional drag performance, which the bingo trio esteems, it may help explain why straight onlookers access bingo so readily.
It also helps explain why all-gay audiences have reacted much less enthusiastically to Drag Freak Bingo. Cordt smiles when he recalls a string of poorly received performances at Trumpets, the 17th Street gay bar and restaurant. The crowd stiffly watched the shows, occasionally chuckling, but maintaining a safe distance. Cordt pithily nails the underlying problem: “It’s about letting go, and pretty fags don’t let go.”
Indeed, what becomes clear from interviews with drag performers and audience members is that the academics have it wrong: The real line separating those who enjoy campy performances from those who don’t lies on the axis not of sexual liberation but of social liberation. For all its fine dining and pricey decor, Trumpets is a gay meat rack—a pickup bar for gay men whose sole bow to transgression is acceptance of their homosexuality. Its patrons generally observe a strict social code, and Drag Freak Anything violates it.
To be sure, gay men have always enjoyed traditional drag, and Perry’s manager Ventura estimates the brunch crowd at 50-percent gay. But many gay men, particularly in reserved Washington, prefer to keep drag removed from the rather macho pickup scene. A drag queen having a drink at J.R.’s receives as many marveling stares as she would at the Front Page. In contrast, the U Street NW club Bent (for the “hipper homosexual,” according to their ads) creates a more laid-back space, using quirky props, like a picture of the Pope bearing a Queer Nation sticker, and hosting oddball parties, like the one honoring the film Carrie. At Bent, it’s the muscle-bound, baseball-cap-wearing gays who feel out of place.
A similar divide exists for straight audiences. “It’s a hip, liberal group [of straight people],” says Saito at Perry’s brunch. “We’re not talking about Republican circles here.”
Saito and other hetero spectators agree that appreciating drag means relaxing accepted social rules. “This is mostly about being non-Washington,” says Mark Maples, a straight public affairs consultant celebrating his 33rd birthday at Perry’s. “It’s pure camp.”
On the other hand, political Washington isn’t so elated by drag’s mounting renown. Conservatives fear that Americans have ratcheted up their threshold for transgression to dangerous heights, decimating moral standards in the process. Many feminists have long charged that drag pays homage to a kind of superfemininity that women find shackling. “Drag queens will insist that they don’t really want to be women, they just want to honor us, darling. Which was exactly how Al Jolson felt about his minstrel shows,” writes Kim France in New York magazine.
In September, the liberal Washington Monthly ran a peculiar article by D.C. resident Gareth Cook accusing the bingo trio and other purveyors of an ill-defined “camp” sensibility of classism. “Drag Freak Bingo got laughs with “white trash’ prizes like…air freshener. Camp has come to play on—and feed—some of the nation’s most damaging social divisions,” Cook writes.
Perhaps. But while you don’t have to be gay to like drag, you do have to understand its gay origins to get drag. Cook doesn’t. By shortchanging drag’s “murky roots in the gay subculture,” as he primly puts it, Cook fails to appreciate that drag pokes fun at “white trash” culture not because it represents poverty, but because it represents anti-gay bias.
Still, Cook’s very article, and its appearance in an occasionally numbing policy journal, underlines that the dissonance between drag culture—essentially one of irony—and Washington’s humorless political culture is fading. And why not? Social conservatives have shoved cultural experimentation into the purview of political writers, and drag has moved into the mainstream.
“Bingo got its start and its popularity because it was, quote, “underground,’ ” says Lallos. But with all the media attention, “it’s not underground, and now the people who come to it are not traditional underground seekers.”
Drag Freak Bingo comes to the Black Cat Saturday, Dec. 9. Tickets are $8. Perry’s Drag Brunch happens Sundays from 11:30a.m.-3p.m. Prices range from $10-15.