Drag queens and activism: a story of political realness

30 June 2021

For two weeks during Pride month, Kingsley Napley are publishing a series of blogs to celebrate Pride and highlight LGBTQ+ issues from home and abroad.  We have included a glossary of terms at the end of this blog.

When I told some of my friends I was writing a piece about drag activism, their reaction was almost unanimous… 

Oh, but, is there much to say?

That's when I realised that drag queens, for many, are more synonymous with big hair and lip-syncing  pop hits rather than political consciousness and activism. You can certainly understand the reason for this - we have been totally spoiled in recent years with the explosion of Ru Paul’s Drag Race around the world - the make-up, talents and confidence being a feast for the eyes (and the soul). But we cannot minimise the political importance of Mama Ru’s creation. Who could forget numbers such as “Shady Politics”; the discussions of gay conversion therapy while applying make-up; and Bob the Drag Queen describing his arrest during a 2011 marriage equality protest? Not to mention Nancy Pelosi sashaying into the All Stars season…

However, long before RPDR, drag queens were fighting on the front lines for acceptance and equality. Being a drag artist in itself is already a dissident, provocative act as it involves going against all the gendered norms of society. It is deciding to be true to yourself regardless of what others think, putting your life in danger, and even sometimes facing rejection from your own community. Drag queens have not stopped fighting for their rights since the '70s and have always been at the forefront of the fight for gay rights, AIDS awareness, anti-racism and gender equality.

For Pride month this year, I have decided to celebrate the queens who dedicate(d) their lives (and art) to fight for the underrepresented and to remind everyone that drag is not just about the hair and (fabulous) outfits. This list I have included here is of course brief and I could have discussed many more examples, but if you would like to know more about the political dimension of drag, I invite you to read the articles linked at the bottom of this blog. 

Marsha P. Johnson

Icon of the LGBTQ+ movement and transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson is probably the most famous drag activist of all. She was a prominent figure in the Stonewall riots and a trailblazer in the fight for gay rights. 

Marsha was a drag queen in a (not so long ago) time when cross-dressing would almost certainly bring you unwanted police attention. It didn't take much for Marsha to quickly establish herself as a local celebrity in Greenwich Village, easily recognisable thanks to her extravagant outfits made of feathers, her pearls, and her flower dresses. She also quickly became a central activist figure within the gay community. Soon after the Stonewall riots, she joined the Gay Liberation Front and co-founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) with her friend, transgender rights activist Sylvia Rivera. A few years later, they also founded STAR HOUSE, a shelter aimed at LGBTQ+ young people who found themselves homeless (a situation that Marsha and Sylvia knew only too well).

In 1992, the police found Marsha’s body floating in the Hudson River. The official cause of death was suicide (something that Marsha’s friends and family always contested). Until this day, nobody knows what happened to Marsha. This is a painful story which is still relevant today - 2020 is considered one of the deadliest years for trans and gender-nonconforming people in the United States in recent history.

Marsha finally received the recognition she deserved in the years after her death through books, movies, and documentaries. In 2019, the city of New York announced that Marsha and Sylvia would be commemorated with statues placed not far from the Stonewall Inn. Those statues will be New York's first transgender monuments.

 

Asifa Lahore: Britain's first Muslim drag queen

In 2015, Asifa became a leading figure of the gaysian community when she was featured in the Channel 4 documentary Muslim Drag Queens, which attracted more than 1 million viewers. Asifa used that platform and her new notoriety to speak openly about what it's like to be gay and Muslim from a traditional upbringing. Asifa’s coming out has unfortunately brought her vilification from conservative branches of the Muslim community but her story has been instrumental in giving underrepresented young LGBTQ+ people from her culture a voice and a role model, which is so important now while we continue to strive to find the place for religion and the LGBTQ+ community to sit comfortable with one another.

Asifa is a passionate activist, constantly challenging the norms and what it means to be gay and Muslim, while helping others fight for self-acceptance. Asifa received a Pride award from Attitude magazine in June 2015, which has served to empower Britain's LGBTQ+ Muslim community, and she continues to be a voice by performing, DJing and speaking at various venues across London, including Club Kali and Disco Rani.

Asifa's website 

 

Sister Roma

Sister Roma is the most famous member of The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (yes, you've read that sentence right). Based in San Francisco, The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are "a leading-edge Order of queer and trans nuns." They believe "all people have a right to express their unique joy and beauty."

Sister Roma's reputation precedes her. She's spent her life fighting for gay rights, organising many fundraising events (she helped raise more than $1 million for various LGBTQ+ charities, including organisations fighting against AIDS), speaking about many LGBTQ+ issues, and of course … performing! 

In her fight for equality and recognition, she has not been afraid to take a stance against tech giants, in particular the social media behemoth, Facebook. In 2014, Sister Roma created the hashtag #MyNameIs, a movement aimed at protesting against Facebook's "Real" Name Policy – namely that users must use their “real” names on the site “as it would be listed on your credit card, driver's license or student ID.” Sister Roma led the campaign for the right to self-identify on the social network, eventually bringing about a change in Facebook’s policy and a public apology.

 

Son of a Tutu

London-based drag queen Son of a Tutu is an award-winning drag queen and activist. British with Nigerian origins, Son of a Tutu initially worked in finance in New York before becoming a drag artist following 9/11. She moved to London and developed Son of a Tutu, a Nigerian persona, while spreading awareness about the lack of LGBTQ rights in Nigeria. Under the Criminal Code Act and the 2013 Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, the LGBTQ+ community is criminalised in Nigeria – LGBTQ+ rights are not recognised and being openly gay is punishable by imprisonment.

Son of a Tutu acts as a beacon for LGBTQ+ people of colour and often talks about her experiences of overcoming beatings and family expectations to become the person she was born to be. She has been featured on BBC Stories and regular speaks at events on dealing with micro-aggressions in the workplace and in everyday life and how people can adjust their behaviour; and how to encourage large companies to work with local partners to drive change and create a world where LGBTQ+ rights are protected and furthered.

Son of a Tutu's Instagram

 

The drag queens I have discussed in this blog are just a small selection of a huge number of incredibly inspiring and influential figures in the public eye who help to drive forward the fight for equality for the LGBTQ+ community. Drag is an important medium through which to challenge social norms and show that it is okay to be who you are. I hope this blog has helped shed light on the vital work of a sometimes underestimated, but invaluable community. 

From the whole Kingsley Napley team, we wish you  a very happy Pride!

More resources about drag activism

Drag queens are more political than ever. Can they lead a movement?

The inspiring life of activist and drag queen Marsha P. Johnson

Drag Queen activists

When drag is activism

 

About the author

Melanie Bernard is Senior Event Executive at Kingsley Napley and member of the LGBTQ+ network. 

 

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