At RuPaul’s DragCon NYC, It’s A Party – 

With a Healthy Dose of Politics

At six feet seven inches tall in her black stilettos, the svelte blonde Strawberry, sporting a sleek fishnet dress, leather jock strap, and pencil-thin eyebrows, made a striking impression as she asked passersby a crucial question:

“Are you guys registered to vote?”

Strawberry was one of thousands of attendees at RuPaul’s DragCon NYC, a gathering for fans of the television show RuPaul’s Drag Race, on Saturday, September 7, 2019, at the Javits Center. Between hosting talks with Diane von Furstenberg and Whoopi Goldberg, RuPaul spun a DJ set for the crowd on the Main Stage, blasting favorites like Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love” and Missy Elliott’s “Lose Control” to guests outfitted in ball gowns, bouffants, Speedos, and sparkles. Beyond the fun of performances, dancing, and meet-and-greets with drag celebrities, one key theme permeated the convention: the importance of participating in politics to create change for LGBTQ Americans.

Strawberry herself hadn’t planned to register people to vote; she said her role was “thrust upon me by a chance of happenstance” that morning. Most people she spoke to were already registered, but she appreciated the opportunity to encourage convention-goers to engage politically.

“We live in a society where money is taking precedence over the consensus of the people,” she said. “The only way to fix a broken political system is from within.”

As much as she appreciated the convention as a safe space for the LGBTQ community, she was concerned that the abundance of vendors might give attendees the idea that it exists primarily as “a place to buy goodies.”

“I hope people don’t take away the idea that drag can be bought.”

More than 200 vendors filled the Javits Center with neon wigs, bedazzled stilettos, and clack fans reading “SHADE,” but not everyone was there to sell merchandise. HeadCount volunteer Sam Hardy waved a red and blue clipboard as she circulated throughout the show floor in search of new voters. Hardy, a second-time attendee of RuPaul’s DragCon, said, “Our goal is to make everyone excited to vote.”

Even elected officials themselves exhorted Drag Race fans to register for the upcoming election. In a prerecorded video message, Senator Elizabeth Warren told convention-goers, “Equal means equal, period, and that’s what I’m fighting for.” 

“I’m counting on you to make your voices heard,” she added.

At a panel called “Trump and Mitch, Sashay Away: How We Win in 2020,” Marti Gould Cummings, who is running for City Council in Council District 7, explained that their biggest concerns as a candidate are high cancer and asthma rates, climate change, and police-community relations. 

What draws most people’s attention to Cummings, however, is that they campaign in full drag.

“For me, drag is just an extension of who I am,” they explained. “If drag gets the attention, I can then say, ‘Great, you’re listening? These are the issues that we have to take care of. These are the issues that my constituents are concerned about, and this is what I’m going to do when I’m elected, so if you don’t take me seriously as a drag queen, look beyond what I’m wearing and listen to what I’m saying.’”

Performer Trixie Mattel’s encouragement to participate in politics drew one of the biggest crowds at any performance that day. To an attentive, tightly-packed group of hundreds encircling the Main Stage, Mattel declared: 

“If I have the time to vote in drag, you b----es do, too!”

History in the (Re)Making

Only the priests noticed that the King had now been missing from the Assemblée Nationale for more than 15 minutes, and their furtive note-passing betrayed their attempt at calm as they deflected glares from the Jacobins. Suddenly, the nervous President Barnave rose to announce, voice shaking, that Prussian forces had advanced toward Paris. Someone, he warned, must be elected to lead the Army immediately. A laborer, relegated to the back of the room, stood up to demand that his people be allowed to enlist – and that, if not, they would start a riot.

Then someone’s cell phone rang.

This was not the French Revolution. This was Reacting to the Past, a historical live-action roleplaying first-year seminar taught by Professor Patrick Coby at Smith College every Monday and Wednesday evening from 7 to 9 PM. Here in “Reacting,” as students call it, first-year students relive and recreate the events of two historical time periods: the French Revolution in September and October and the Parliament of Henry VIII in November and December. Each student is assigned the role of a character, which can be either a specific person, like Thomas Cromwell or Maximilien Robespierre, or a member of a faction, such as the Jacobins or the Crowd. Students deliver speeches, make deals, and vote in order to advance their characters’ "victory objectives,” which may include goals like abolishing slavery or enabling King Henry’s divorce. Smith offers three different Reacting classes per year, but Professor Coby’s fall class is known as the most intense of the three.

Reacting is unlike a typical first-year seminar because students must live the history in ways that go beyond just dressing in costume or using vocabulary from the time period. Students must use the same devious means as the historical figures they portray once did in order to achieve their goals. Rather than merely argue about taxes, for instance, the lords and commoners in Parliament poison each other, spy on each other, spread false rumors about each other, and put each other to death for heresy or treason. Additionally, characters may filibuster, shout down opponents, or worse: in one class, a student – with the professor’s blessing – burned another student’s paper over the sink.

Reacting is a psychologically intense experience of winning and losing power – and, as a result, it is incredibly addictive. Competition, backstabbing, paranoia, and secrecy all play an important and everyday role in Reacting and lead many past members of the class to half-jokingly refer to it as a “cult.” 

Amanda Miller, who portrayed révolutionnaire Antoine Saint-Just in the French Revolution game and Bishop John Fisher in the Henry game, agreed that “cult” is an accurate descriptor for Reacting: “The game really takes over.” In Reacting, she said, “I’m totally in the moment; I never think of anything else but, ‘Oh my God, it’s 1535, and, like, defense taxes, f--k!’”

“It’s like you’re possessed,” said Jenny Agel, who played the only female member of the Crowd faction in the French Revolution game, then a placid priest in the Henry game. “But it’s also a little bit exhilarating.” 

Miller agreed. “What I’m disturbed by is that it feels good.”

A unique aspect of Reacting at Smith is that most of the characters are male, whereas all of the students playing the characters are female. In both the French Revolution and the Henry games, students make many in-character statements about the impropriety of women being in government, owning property, or being able to vote. Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, the two women who make brief appearances in Henry’s Parliament, are there only to be publicly shamed for making Henry unhappy. Naturally, the gender discrepancy does not go unnoticed.

Lily Armstrong, who plays Thomas Boleyn, said, “[Reacting] undoes the way that we’ve been socialized to act as women in this day and age, as opposed to men in another era.” Amanda Miller added, “It’s the freedom to act like men in power without facing the repercussions of ourselves being judged that way.”

While Reacting is a firsthand lesson into the limitations of history, students find ways to add modern perspectives to the class. In the French Revolution game, one character passed a law establishing marriage in France as a civil right, which, as a result, legalized same-sex partnerships.

As soon as the gavel hit the podium, a beaming Antoine Saint-Just, sporting a handmade tricolore and cravat, strode to the front of the room and asked his colleague Maximilien Robespierre to join him. Pulling a red Ring Pop out of his pocket, Saint-Just got down on one knee and asked Robespierre to marry him. 

Robespierre said yes.

At Online Festival, LGBTQ Men 

Redefine and Explore Masculinity, Gender

Nathan Serrato has many of the hobbies one might expect of a life coach in Escondido, California. He loves yoga, hiking, and posting inspirational quotes to Instagram: “You are never TOO YOUNG to start an empire or TOO OLD to start a dream.”

He also loves to pole dance for strangers online. 

Serrato, a gay Latino man whose coaching practice is called Queer Conscious, said that LGBTQ people are more likely than straight and cisgender people to suffer from alcoholism, substance addiction, and sexual abuse. 

“By the time I was 21, I became a statistic of all of those,” he said. 

He’s now using pole dancing –– online only, for the moment –– as a means of reclaiming his identity and sensuality after trauma and religious repression. 

Serrato, 29, was one of more than 30 artists and performers at The 8th Annual New Masculinities Festival, hosted on Zoom on November 14, 2020. The festival, produced by two New York-based organizations, The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center and Produced by Man Question, spanned two parts: “Main Room” and “After Dark.”

While all of the pieces in “After Dark” had to do with sex, sexuality, and desire in some way, the overarching theme of the festival was about giving space to rethink what it means to be masculine or male.

Wearing a black hoodie, tall stilettos, and striped thigh-high socks, Serrato gyrated to the song “Silence” by Marshmello and Khalid: “Can't tell me there's no point in trying / I'm at one, and I've been silent for too long.”

At the end of his performance, his audience applauded him –– silently, with the clapping emoji.

“The arena of our sexuality and erotics is where a lot of gender performance gets put into practice. I’ve just wanted a space for us to get a little dirtier with it,” said C. Bain, the host of “After Dark.” Bain is a writer and performance artist in Brooklyn who describes himself as “gender-liminal.” He showed off tattoos of nautilus shells underneath his black chest harness.

Much of masculinity, Bain said, “exists in this domain that you can't explicitly make art about or even put language on, really, because of how our culture handles sex.” The point of After Dark, he explained, was to counter that limitation.

Steven Gordon, former executive director of The Pride Network, echoed Bain: “Sometimes we feel the need to compartmentalize our sexual selves from our activist selves from our community selves, and, really, they're all one.”

“I know the way I show up in the bedroom affects the way I show up in my community, and vice versa,” he said.

Emanuel Highlander Brown, a Black trans man in Georgia, recited a spoken-word poem about his body.

“Despite my complicated relationship with my fatness, I know it is dangerous. I know it is threatening to be big, bearded, and Black,” he said. “I know each wave of an arm or strong planted footstep creates fear. I know this body is policed.”

Other pieces that evening were more explicit: Jeffrey Cougler, a hard of hearing graphic designer from Rochester, NY, shared a video of colored pencil drawings of male nudes; Jake Frisbie, who is nonbinary, played a silent video of themself naked, flushing a toilet, overlain with text from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, a novel about a character who changes genders; and Chinese-American poet Chen Chen, who lives in the “second most conservative city in the country,” Lubbock, TX, read a longform essay about the poet Rimbaud –– and a sex act with a similar name.

At the end of the festival, C Bain was sad to be distant from his guests: “I want to hear the heels in the room!” Still, he said, the event was valuable to the community and society as a whole.

“A little gay sex and French poetry would make some people better citizens,” he said.

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