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!”

Amidst COVID Closures, A BDSM Dungeon's Leader Takes A Beating, Then Creates Community Online

[Note: although this was created with permission as part of a class, I have removed some names for the subjects' privacy.]

Before its temporary closure, one of the closest-knit spaces in Manhattan was a venue where people got whipped, flogged, and massaged with flames.

As communities and hobby groups around the country respond to coronavirus-related closures in their own ways, one BDSM organization has adapted to engage its community through online meetings. The Kink Collective, a “leather family” in New York City, normally hosts parties, called Dungeon, on the second, fourth, and fifth Saturdays of every month at Paddles, a sex club on West 26th Street. Before the fourth-Saturday parties, the group also hosts Lifestyle Discussion Groups (LDGs) at Paddles; before the second-Saturday parties, they host munches – nonsexual social gatherings in street clothes, stylized as “aBSurDisM” –– in either of two venues on West 25th Street: The Blacksmith and Smithfield Hall. At the March 14th munch at Smithfield Hall, the entire space had only a small fraction of its usual crowd. One standout figure, however, was the leader of Kink Collective: 41-year-old “leather daddy” Joshua Rodriguez.

Rodriguez, a square-jawed former U.S. Marshal and sergeant in the US Marine Corps, now makes a living as “Master Joshua,” a professional Dominant who hosts parties, leads private sessions with clients, and facilitates educational workshops. He also creates online content with his 55-year-old partner, Cat Orme, in their Harlem studio.

Kink Collective is a “leather family,” a close-knit group of “about 18 members” who practice BDSM, “give or take whoever I'm arguing with that day,” Rodriguez jokes. During a party, leather-clad members of Kink Collective wear glowing red or white armbands to be seen inside the dark space. Some take tickets at the door or monitor the entrance to the couples’ room, but others circulate throughout the space to monitor scenes, answer questions, or give tours to newcomers.

Rodriguez operates all Kink Collective events through the principle of People Before Kink, which he explains as, “Before we pick up the toys, we have to know the people in front of us.” Part of his motivation to keep the parties safe came from the relief he felt at seeing “everyday people that were very inviting” at his first time attending a party at Paddles six years ago.

“Seeing community like that is what really drew me in beyond the ‘deviance’ that we were labeled with,” he said. “There was a sense of connection, people talking with each other and bonding.”

Although he goes by “Master Joshua” professionally, he and the other Kink Collective members only go by their first names at events. In fact, he has no patience for Dominants who refuse to socialize outside of scenes and reminds one Lifestyle Discussion Group that the simulated power structure of BDSM is “all make-believe, it’s all pretend.” Bathed in red light from the neon sign above the bar, he kicks off every party at 9:45 P.M. by standing atop a grope box and explaining, in depth, each of the event’s 23 rules: ask before touching. No means no. House safewords are “red” and “yellow.” Ask if you have questions. Be responsible.

Resident “fire Domme” T., 50, whose ‘scene name’ is “Smitten,” said that most Dungeon parties draw 50 to 100 people. On March 14, though, the environment was decidedly less full. At this party, the last one before New York’s PAUSE Order went into effect, there were no more than 25 people in attendance, including the staff. Although most attendees were veteran partygoers, a few new faces included Michael, a shy 20-year-old in business school, and Pete, a bearded 57-year-old who described himself as a “gentleman pervert.”

Before the party started, Rodriguez had already taken precautions against facilitating the spread of COVID-19, putting out additional two-liter dispensers of hand sanitizer and imploring partygoers via Meetup not to go if they had been feeling ill. Since then, however, Joshua and Cat have moved Kink Collective’s events online for the time being. Now, weekly two-hour Zoom meetings on Saturday nights replace the previous LDGs at Paddles.

Unlike the in-person discussions, in which participants can speak or ask questions at any time, the Zoom meetings are set up such that only a few pre-selected panelists, plus Joshua and Cat, are able to use audio or video. Other attendees can ask questions privately via chat to Joshua and Cat, who then relay the questions to the panelists.

Like the original LDGs, each meeting has a theme. On March 21, responding to the theme of “Social Distancing, Intimacy and Introspection,” 41-year-old Dr. S, a Kink Collective member, talked about how the quarantine had changed her life as a kinkster and as a healthcare professional.

“It’s a little scary, and the rules of my job keep changing every day,” she said. “I also feel love through affection, and I'm used to my kink family being able to hug and touch and see people at least on a weekly basis,” she added. “This platform definitely helps.”

At the end of every meeting, Joshua encourages guests to share their FetLife profiles to make connections, build community, and continue the conversation.

“I'm thankful for all of you for being in my life,” he told guests on March 21, “for being in our lives and for being able to represent this community the way you do.”

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.

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