Urban Dictionary describes a “queen” as a flamboyantly fabulous gay male. You know, the ones regularly seen dancing at pride parades in skimpy clothing or wearing over-the-top outfits while oozing sass.
They may even dress as a woman occasionally and do some drag. Growing up in Las Vegas, these queens were a staple of the local gay scene. I was aware and comfortable with their presence because that’s just how it had always been in this city of sin and scantily clad men and women. What I didn’t realize, however, was that these queens weren’t universally accepted among the national community. In fact, in some areas they were absolutely despised for their behavior and actions. It was a post on tumblr by a now-former friend that illuminated me to the disdain for the queens of the gay community. This friend has posted something along the lines of: “I found out that guy I dated for awhile a few months ago does drag. Ugh. I’m glad I dodged that bullet.” Now, I repeat that these weren’t his exact words but the message that drag queens or flamboyant gays are somehow below him was clear.
I took his post as an opportunity to try discussing the issue and, of course, it devolved into a fight. Though his mindset of intolerance towards them didn’t change, it allowed me to see a side of the gay community that I was never fully aware of.
It’s no secret that the modern gay community is full of many different mindsets and opinions. Go on Grindr for five minutes and you’ll be exposed to a vast array of them. One such mindset is that of the “straight acting” gay guys who will say “those guys are too gay for me” before they drop to their knees and blow you. They are the guys who will assure you that they aren’t that gay before letting you enter them. They watch sports and lifts weights. They hate musicals.
While that’s all well and good to have your own likes and dislikes, I find it appalling to be so dismissive and put down the queens of the community while also discrediting the effect that drag queens have had on the gay rights movement. It’s this mindset of wanting to look “normal” in the public eye that pervades the gay community and even poisons the good intentions of many gay organizations – I see you HRC. I want to take this mindset and rip it apart. I want it put on display over a bright typeface announcing What Not To Do but before all of this, I must first start with a history lesson.
The day was June 28th, 1969. In the early morning hours of this fateful day, the gay rights movement burst forth punching and screaming. Stonewall Inn, a staple of the Greenwich Village gay community, was violently raided. It was these Stonewall Riots that spurred the gay community into action and caused an explosion of visibility for the gay community that began giving a face to what had previously been a silent minority. The LGBTQ community was born during that violent June morning and, for more than a decade, it grew and spread to many major cities around the country. It was during the 80s in New York that a second major pillar of the gay community burst onto the scene.
This pillar, dressed up in boas and glitter with just a dash of shade, was called ball culture. For those who have yet to watch the brilliant documentary Paris is Burning, a ball was a sort of competitive party in which drag queens would dance, walk, and vogue while trying to pass as a specific gender or social class. It was a big gay party that allowed drag queens to sashay their way into the public image at a time when anti-gay sentiment was boiling over. In a grim community grappling with the AIDs epidemic, these balls were the lighthouses guiding the community to safety. It was during this time that the gay community was ostracized and demonized for the so-called “gay disease”.
Fear gripped the country and many members of the LGBTQ community took the public animosity as a sign that they should remain as far in the closet as possible. They should invest in some deadbolts for the closet door they hid behind so that nobody would ever know their dirty secret. They should throw away the key.
Thank god for the queens because, had it not been for their courage and glamour, there would have been no safe place.
These balls celebrated homosexuality in defiance of a country fighting to demonize it. The comforting aura that emanated from these balls was like a giant neon sign reading “Welcome Home” for the new generation of gay kids in the city. These kids, many who were either in the closet or homeless as a result of coming out, needed a safe haven that allowed them to express and come to terms with their sexuality in a way that wouldn’t get them mugged or killed. On a grander scale, this was a time of drag queens standing up against the hate and walking loud and proud into the national spotlight while yelling out into the darkness that we are here, we are queer, and we will not hide any longer. Elegantly dressed, these queens stood up and struck a pose against the hate. They formed families, created a safe haven for the newly out youth, and gave the community a voice that they had been so sorely lacking. Eventually, the popularity of the ball culture waned, the queens lost their spotlight, and drag culture fell into a deep sleep.
After a long and fierce hibernation filled with many costume changes and countless buckets of glitter, drag culture has emerged once again as a major facet of the gay community thanks to shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and movies like Hedwig and the Angry Inch and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
The return of the queens has come and, unfortunately, it is not without its share of backlash as I found out that fateful day on Tumblr. Now, this isn’t a sweeping frame of mind among the gay community. I have met many queens who are loud and proud about their identity, I’ve met many gay men who respect and admire that facet of the gay community, and have, unfortunately, met many other gay men who are appalled by both the queens and drag culture as a whole. I can only hope that by encouraging more gay people to look into the roots of their community and examine the impact of ball and drag culture, it will help lead to more tolerance and acceptance of all facets of this wonderful family. We owe it to the new generation of gay boys and girls to give them the safety that the queens of the past created with their ball culture.
See, we come from a history of dissonance and hatred leveled against us for being gay. The gay bashing against the queens who don’t fit hetero-normative societal standards needs to stop. We are one group and, no matter how “straight acting” or flamboyant you are, the fact is we are in this together. To discredit and scoff at any one group in our community is dangerous. It doesn’t matter what your preference is, be it bear, twink, queen, otter, or anywhere in between. It doesn’t matter how normal or strange you are, if you make a positive impact on the fight for equal rights, you deserve to be recognized and treated with respect.
Love each other, sashay towards equality with heart and voice, and may god save the queens.