In defense of Jayne County and RuPaul, a Punk perspective. • 20 years ago this month a group of us started Squeezebox! which arguably became the latest incarnation of the Max’s Kansas City scene — and arguably one of the last interesting, autochthonous scenes New York City will see for a very long time. The roots actually go back even farther, to the era of the old Tenderloin or the 19th century Bowery. In a communal, collective effort with many voices and artistic angles, we successfully merged the essence of these eras, their performance genres and the existing culture for ten years — when many in the so-called ‘community’ sneered, dismissed and patronized.
Many successful artists graced our stages and used the fertile ground to launch, reinvent themselves or just have fun (see: Hedwig, Mx Justin Bond, Antony Hegarty, Miss Guy, Joey Ramone, Misstress Formika, Michael ‘Lily’ Cavadias, Pat Briggs, Rupaul, Jayne County and oh yeah Debbie Harry – to name a very few).
Drag, gender-bending, is nothing new. Transexualism is not a 20th century invention. Performance is as ancient as the mythic tribal storytellers. The oldest art I’ve seen is 40,000 years old, in a cave in southern France. These things do not pop up haphazardly – it’s with the right delicate conditions that they reincarnate. Unfortunately, the current cheap, selfish, attention-seeking agenda of Politically-Correct attacks on RuPaul and others will damage the creative environment for decades to come, and is at its worst the supportive seeds of fascism.
At Squeezebox!, a venue which intended and achieved a consistent mixed crowd of hetero, homo, drag, trans, intergenerational people and a spectrum of musical tastes, I for one, was aware of the delicate balance. Point one finger you lose the crowd. I know all about marginalization and ostracism and being labeled. Anybody remotely queer does. Anybody remotely creative also knows the fragile balance between satire and objectification – and therein lies my point: the recent press attacks are nothing more than cheap PR stunts, and have accomplished nothing but division and vitriol.
We had Giuliani’s Fire Marshalls and NYPD sitting right outside the door every night ready to pick off anybody they could. The job? To clear New York of all the “homos”, “faggots”, “queers”, “shims”, “she-males”, “sissies”, and “AIDS spreaders” – words they used – and make way for the New World Order. What they did to the Occupy kids most recently they would have loved to have done to us – but they didn’t have Barack Obama to authorize the use of extreme force. The rest of the point: the Goliath establishment is not your friend, and will sell you out.
What concerns me most about this recent charade, is the lack of knowledge. I’ve seen people posting and carrying on about Bayard Rustin – taking quotes entirely out of context as bad as any Fox News show. I’ve met Martin Luther King Jr’s speechwriter, Clarence B Jones, Rustin’s contemporary in the movement, and he made clear to me that all their leaders agreed that “in order to get anyone in power to cede said power, you have to convince them it is in their best interest.” Well Trans-word-Nazis, you failed.
Sending in a couple of Johnny-come-lately, b-list nobody’s to spew in the Huffington post et. al. on how their ‘feelings’ were hurt over a word is lame, tired and sad. Attacking Jayne County, one of our Squeezebox! family and an advocate for queer and trans rights long before most of you were even born is desperate and ill-informed. And, condragulations, you’ve alienated a powerful base that could have offered a plethora of support – had you simply asked.
A key to identifying the ignorance behind an agenda is the application of it. No one has said one word about the use of the word ‘Fishy’ on the Rupaul show that I can see – as pointed out by Linda Simpson ages ago – a highly derogatory term for heterosexual women. Nope, not a mention. So much for all the “feminism” being shouted from the top of the word-police stations.
Do any of you have clue one about how much a stretch it is to even have a Rupaul show on a fledgling little network, barely able to pay the bills? Are you waiting for the likes of HBO to stereotype their way into your hearts when they finally get around to doing a trans show? Well, before that happens, I’ll tell you what’s going to happen: Fox News and other Murdochian tabloids are going to find a way to get hold of this, and trot you out like street corner hookers for their own profit. Let me know how far it gets you.
I’ll never forget backstage at Boybar, right about the time RuPaul had launched ‘Supermodel’. We were hanging out and the queens were preparing for a show. One well known, and recently transitioned female was in the room, complaining about being “bored”, “tired of the scene”, and “sick of it all”. She went on & on about how she couldn’t “find a lover” etc., etc. After a while, another well-known, highly political drag queen and advocate/friend of trans people had enough and stood up, and announced to the room:
“Girl, WHAT are you doing here?”
“I’m asking what in hell are you doing here then?”
“You are a full-fledged woman now. You need to be out in that world, finding your lover there, living as a woman. You ain’t going to get nothing you want in no gay bar, with a bunch of faggots… You’ve moved on, now it’s time to move-on!”
The things I respect most about Jayne, Candy Darling and many others is that they live(d) in their real world — not some subculture manufactured out of Hollywood gossip and a fight for the bottom. Recently, at a friends home in Paris, I was invited to a dinner where among the guests was the first doctor to perform gender reassignment surgery in the Netherlands, and in the world. He was very matter of fact about it all, and assertive that people should have what they choose. However, he was also very vocal that once reassigned, it was key to make the social transition as well. I’m no expert but this begs the obvious question: what are trans people doing on a satirical drag show?
And if the goal is to not be a spectacle and the subject of any ridicule, why are the apparent ‘spokespeople’ for the trans movement now, arguably a sideshow act? If Greyson Perry, not trans but at least in full drag, can go in said drag to Buckingham Palace to receive a CBE lifetime achievement award from Queen Elizabeth, you cannot tell me there isn’t work to be done around credible, informed visibility. Time is to come out, not sit back and throw stones.
Want to see the other side of word-policing? Look at the very recent case of Panti Bliss in Ireland. She called the homophobes ‘homophobic’ and got sued, ridiculed and paraded on national TV to apologise to anti-marriage campaigners citing: “only non-homosexuals can identify homophobia”. Watch her eloquent, tenacious, articulate response here.
Those involved in this may believe they are fighting the same type of cause as Panti Bliss did in Ireland, but the cases could not be more different. Panty Bliss was tried-by-gossip and fined under a draconian system run by old-school religious nuts, and was humiliated in front of her nation. What did she do? Rise to the challenge.
Rupaul provided a platform for those who would otherwise never have an opportunity to reach a wide audience. What did they do? Stabbed him in the back – sore losers. Bullies always pick on the most vulnerable. The fact is, you need Panty Bliss. You need Rupaul. Arianna Huffington is not going to fight for you when the right wing turns its hate your way. Those in the heterosexualist world will slink back from a nasty internal cat fight. Get it yet?
Now, after this parenthetical press romp, I think the trans movement today needs to redefine itself, reinvent itself, inform itself, and then seek friends to take the conversation forward — and I’m not entirely sure that McRainbow Inc. is even the place to start. What happened last week to Rupaul is shameful, and has set the conversation back light years. The telltale sign of a progressive movement in crisis is when it devours itself. And don’t you think for a minute some you call ‘friends’ aren’t working for the FBI, CIA and others deliberately spreading dissent and acrimony – ask any former member of ActUP about that one.
I call on you for a complete apology to Jayne Wayne County, Rupaul, and the countless others who’ve come before, and spent their whole lives making sure you had a column to complain in, and a TV show to complain about. This is not about ‘saving face’ or being ‘right’, it’s about acknowledging a nasty, hateful tactic and making a future strategy substantive.
You’ve had your 14 minutes, make the last one count. Drag is indeed ‘punk’ Lady J.
Martin Belk is a former producer of Squeezebox! New York City 1994-2003 and author of Pretty Broken Punks: lipstick, leather jeans, a death of NEw York