Thursday, November 29, 2012

Dragging down

I've had just over a month in Sydney and have been loving it so much that it hurts. In a good way.

I should start this post with the image of live art legend Sari Kivinen and I on Sunday morning on Oxford Street. It was about 1am and we were clad in pink lycra weirdness, no eyebrows, half wigs with Yiorgous's leftover scenery from the Oxford Art Factory draped around us, as we soberly sashayed up a street full of incredulous drunks, asking for photos with us, and the best comment ever "what a fuggin waste of money!" (massive WTF moment since our costumes outlay was less than $10!) Yiorgous's mantle - the heavy silver foil floor linings scraped heavily on the ground. Dragging a sound and a sensibility of strange playful delight. It made me incredibly glad to be who I am, where I am, and to be able to step back into the lives and worlds and possibilities I left behind when I left home four years ago.

The previous week Sari and Richard Gurney/Lori Keat had done a similar post performance stroll as part of the amazing screws loose/freefall project.- to be adulated by some long lost gay clubber, for reminding him of the 'good old days' when Oxford street was full of freaks in drag, or drag queens, or freaks.

Now - Oxford Street is a nastier shadow of Kings X. Full of young drunk str8 kids, and the odd Crystal Meth addict. It's not very queer here - aside from the occasional bar where gaystreaming males still strut their stuff, looking tragically anomalous in what used to be called the gay mile. 

Similar shudders echo down the now Liberal voting Newtown. King Street is almost Chapel Street, a place where Neutral Bay comes to play. Bland blond, boring. It has changed and become a restaurant strip for white backpackers. Am I too harsh? It has become a place I catch a bus through rather than stroll up, because there is nothing here for me now, between Enmore Road and Sydney Uni....

So different from the glory days of being drawn to King street by bus or shanks pony just to promenade, to wander along or through. to have chance encounters, to cruise dykes not pushing prams, or pop my head in at the Newtown, or the Bank, just to see, just if....or to pose provocatively in a cock and a frock for a friends film project, or the time I was half naked running along the tarmac, after dashing out of a friends car jammed in traffic to pop into the chemist to buy more gold body paint for Mardis Gras.

OK. It's not the nineties, but I'm still mourning the faded rainbows, and how gaystream is so very beige and so very unqueer. Newtown girls typifies the quality of this change. the share house is a renovated duplex. Everything is squeaky clean, and contained within recognisable and tres cheesy tropes of butch and mostly femme, with nary a hint of weird scruffy strangeness. the latter is what I consider queer, and what I left the cnutry for. It's bigger, and messier than gaystream, or lesserbeingstream. It's definitely not LOTL and definitely not something that can be done in small country towns, and definitely not by overweight middle aged bookish sapphists, which is the nearest thing to what I present as.

So - this is a circuitous route to how I'm trying to critically envisage drag, my drag and others drag at this very moment. ie the nights before my drag performance with others at Carriageworks
I quickly typed the following: 

Like many freaks, I have appropriated the Judith Butleresque idea that all gender is drag, and we use terms like "corporate drag", "family drag" etc. to describe the different variations on our gender. I was having a non-costumed conversation with Sari Kivinen tonight - along another strip of nostalgia (Enmore Road) concerning our alter egos, and when/what how differing characters are drag or just dressups.... I would have liked to have spent more time considering this difference... and why the pink lycra freak on Sunday night was not drag, but the orange skinned mullet skirt is.....both wore wigs, both are extraordinary dressups, but the first was a performative play with colour and shape and texture and my strangening body shape, and another body shape, and yarn, and flowers and bubbles and a sack - not about identity as such, more of a de-aggregation of identity. I wonder how Richard Gurney feels about his similar wigged performance the week before?

I do like to think of "real drag" as the point where identities can be played with, and not just performed for convenience/habit/necessity...... and where their constructedness can be revealed....

But of course who gets to drag what identities where is a profoundly vexed question to do with power, and social proscriptions of identities and all that stuff....

As I wrote on the FB site for the event: 

Drag is not just about crossing genders (and genders are far more than the old binary model anyway). We can drag ourselves across class, across age, across species and across deities (Race/ethnicity is something so brutally proscribed that it can't be dragged with, at least not by white people). The motel sisters are cross dressing deities, like Raelians, or some other pantheistic divinity. In all this identity crossing 'drag' is the smear, the stain, the residue of that frisson with alterity that reveals the exquisite falsity of it all....

So what is drag? and what is gender crossing? and how do they mix? or can they?

the performers exchanged a flurry of emails this week because I wrote an email after a dear friend of mine raised a big concern about the "audience must come in drag" proviso on the even invite. They weren't the first queer friend expressing extreme discomfort with this, but they were the most articulate.

"they really want to come to the event, however they are concerned about how they will be 'read' within what we assume will be a mixed straight/queer crowd of many genders.

As we ALL know - Drag (as gender transgression) can and often does act to reinforce the binary model of gender (the footy show), and I assume that tonight is more about how drag can open up the possibilities of how gender (and other identities)  is performed and played with in order to destabilise those identities.

I'm worried that "Audience in drag" will mean that everyone will be assumed to be crossing a binary gender divide of M/F, and will be 'read' as either doing Female Drag or Man Drag.

Where/how does a butch dyke fit into this? Does she have to Femme up? will her suit be assumed to be man drag? will that make her feel more or less comfortable in the space we are creating?

What about femmes - and peeps who do various levels of feminine attire in order to be safe in the world..... (I'm imagining some of my babyqueer students at La Trobe) - will they be "read" as female "drag" when they may be gender queer or queer or pre-trans or just trying to work out how to do their genders in a binarised world?

Who will be at the doors "gatekeeping" the levels of drag?

And also - with moderation - how will we deal with transphobic comments?  Especially if we are in character?

Jack Halberstam has written more eloquently on drag and the nuanced negotiations of drag/cross dressing/cross gendering that queer peeps do. As my very eloquent host put it: "For some of us, gender is a source of pain, doing gender is painful, and so being asked to cross binary categories that we don't even fit into in the first place, adds to that pain". Or words to that effect. Their comments reminded me of the writings of my beloved Sir, negotiating strange looks in ladies loos, and being constantly called "mate" and "pal" whenever not in the ghetto.

and this, of course is just the tip of the iceberg. One performer keeps hinting of his desire to discuss doing race drag. He (a non Muslim) performing in a Chadoor. I cringe, and hope Scragg can muster up the courage to throw her baby (doll) at him if he even dares...

And there is also the dilemma of how queers who do performance and creative work as a means of survival (and I mean that in absolute seriousness) negotiate the very mixed publics that are attracted to performance art venues. Those who consume culture as opposed to those who make it. 

I kind of had my nose rubbed in this distinction tonight, at a theory talk, when I asked why the two speakers were *still* evoking a binary model of gender, even while citing the work of trans* identified theorists? They ignored me. I assume it was too hard for them, paid keynotes at a queer theory fest. And I assume I, as an articulate, theory loving queer performer was also too hard for them. these people assume they can speak for people like me, and don't know what to do when we have read more than they have, and know more than they do about our own lives and work.

So, here I am, trying to use my ire to drive me into editing a chapter down to give a conference paper next week. Again - trying to intervene in theory land and academia. this strange foreign world that is my own. and more writing - that tormented labour of gnashing teeth, hair pulling and insomnia, fittingly enough undertaken while my dear friend zoo finely wroughts the emmendations on her own PhD on gender queer performance art.....

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