When exactly i saw Paris is Burning, Jennie Livingston’s now classic documentary on the Harlem Ball scene, i do not remember but i can tell you what the room i was in looked like, how many books were around me, what pajamas i was wearing, how much i laughed and cried (and where) and that peculiar feeling of things falling in place which is swift like a headrush but is the opposite – a feeling of calm, settling down, feeling watered. To do a certain mathematics or what one may call memory jogging (the favourite exercise of us social scientists), it must not be more than five years ago, for it was my first lesson in downloading from the internet and it was the first thing i had downloaded. i had already read bell hooks and Judy on it but nothing had prepared me for the way i would come to these people, these lives, these stories. Like a love story, where the first encounter with a lover always seems like it isn’t a first, like you always knew them or that all the wait was for them, the wait could only be for them, as if they had made the wait (which is also true since the present is famous for pushing itself into the past, the encounter of which makes that thing we call memory). i was yet to articulate some political sense of self in relation to the struggles of non-whites in the US, so it must be most likely that i fell into the film heart first, through some benign sentimentality. (Something the film, i realise now, refuses so starkly. Flash back to how the Mother of the House of Xtravagana responds to Venus’s murder, or Pepper Labeija relays her relationship with her parents, or the wisdom of Dorain Corey in the telling of their story.) i have since then watched it many times, learnt to watch it in other ways, to pay more attention to what they say than what i hear. Tonight, i go back to it to work out a conflict in the present.
This Sunday is Pride in Delhi. The same night, one of Delhi’s largest queer friendly clubs is also hosting a performance by Alaska Thunderfuck, one of the runner-ups of the many seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race, a show that posits drag queen against drag queen in challenges about looks, humour, lipsyncs, and sass. Alaska is not the first star from the show to come to Delhi. She follows in the footsteps of Violet Chacki (a burlesque performer who won Season Seven) and Derrick Barry (a Britney Spear’s impersonator). Even as they are all different seasons, what is most common to all three is that they happen to be White or White passing. Well the odds are stacked in their favour, as the show has been dominated by white queens, and i don’t mean white because foundation for other skins are mostly unavailable. It is surprising however considering that RuPaul himself is black, not just racially but even politically.
White queens coming to India is never accidental. Inspired by RuPaul (i mean the show not the person, or the persona and not the person because things would be very different were it to be the latter) and the growing visibility and success of drag queens in that part of the world, there is an emerging and now definitive drag scene in India. This scene began mostly in a performance here and there some years ago and grew over social media and is now often found in the same clubs, as opening acts for the likes of Violet or as stand alone entertainment on club nights for queer parties. Common to these performers is the House of Privilege to which they belong and the vocabulary of upper caste, middle class imitation of US lingo and aesthetics. The most popular of these is a drag queen from Bangalore, Maya the Drag Queen, who not only had their drag persona married in full upper caste wedding gear and norms but relies on savarna respectability to school their audiences even in their stand up. Maya often champions the Indian equivalent of the great USA dream – the rags to riches – which centres grit and determination over structure, or something akin to what we call “merit.” Maya is but one example of the mushrooming of a drag culture patronised by clubs and the middle class over social media. These clubs that keep entry charge almost double the minimum wage in Delhi and then almost as much for drinks and food cater to a queerness only some can afford, who are the only ones you can expect to be well versed or at all invested in the vocabulary of these performances. The social media handles of these performers uses this vocabulary to build followers and create a community through networks that cite each other endlessly. One can’t blame since the media itself is keen to build a democracy of fifteen minutes of fame – a fame we can all have were we to ace the rules of the game, put the right kind of hashtags, and build our own special and unique identities.
To make it in the world isn’t something new to drag culture. Drag Queens in the Harlem Ball scene in Paris is Burning vie with each other to become legendary. Yet there is a difference. Unlike the clubs that patronise, like the one that is bringing these drag superstars to India, the Ball scene was open door and full of non-white working class, poor or homeless people. Moreover, the film notes how everyone at the Ball wanted to walk and it only took some nerve to do so. The Mothers and queens Jennie interviews in the film all took young folk under their wings to help them find or strengthen their nerves. The Ball scene built community even as it built celebrities, it sought to bring more and more in, not keep more and more out. (In fact, there were categories “for everybody!,” someone in the film says. So anyone and everyone could walk.) It had hierachies but in the world outside the ballroom they were all poor and working class, not rich and middle class like the patrons of these clubs in India. They sought fame not respectability, an imitation of the ‘American Dream’ not its hegemony. Much like drag itself, in imitating whiteness and its success, they were also its critique – revealing how empty and powerful it is.
Drag culture now is based on distance not community. Post-AIDS, gay men have built their bodies, masculinity, and desire in separating it from femininity. Now audiences to drag aren’t men who want to step into a queen’s shoes, well not as part of their personhood but only as performance. Femininity is acceptable only as performance and drag allows men to take up femininity, like it always has, but now through disassociation and detachment. (“I am not this. This is what I do.”)
I haven’t seen much of RuPaul’s show but i am amazed at how much it draws from the Ball scene, the likes of which Paris is Burning documents. Drag queens on the show “read” each-other down as part of the competition or there is endless citation of “shante.” As one of the longest careers in dragstory, RuPaul builds on the legacy of Paris, since it held a lot of space for drag culture after its release given that it was directed by a White lesbian.
Drag culture has always been evolving. Dorain Corey speaks about how he had seen changes in the kinds of femininity drag would build itself on – before the 1970s it was Las Vegas showgirls, then it was movie stars, and in the late 1980s it was supermodels. Drag cannot stop at reinventing femininity. If shade is what drag queens throw at each other, then shade must be what we throw at a drag culture as savarna, as elite, as exclusionary as the one emerging in India today. After all, if drag is about story telling then it is important what stories we tell. Instead of drawing from white Culture, what would a drag that tells the stories of our mothers and aunts and grandmothers look like? Even as Maya the Drag Queen seeks somewhat to do this, she translates her life world into the cosmopolitan individualism of nightclubs rather than use the former to critique the latter. Perhaps that is a structural limitation – about who is doing it and for whom. In building itself in its distance from working class cultures, drag queens in India are based on their distinction from Hijras/ Kinnars/ Aravanis/ Thirunangais and so on. The latter community has all the resources for a thriving drag culture – Houses, Mothers, Community, just not the respectability of a US import. Almost ironically, these communities use shame to earn their living and express the injustice of the world in which they have to run away from their natal homes to poverty, homelessness, and abjection. i do not for one instance want to romanticise this abjection nor these communities for we know them to be internally policed and violent. i want to suggest that drag in India must attach itself to the histories and stories of these communities, use itself to pull down this unjust world and open the damn doors to everyone, and all this to have a ball!
It is ironic that when we begin conversations about drag we go to RuPaul’s show now. Or that i begin this essay with Paris. When in fact we have known drag all our lives. It came to our neighbourhoods, was in our streets, was a loud clap that called out to us. And we were afraid. We were afraid precisely for what it would tell us about ourselves, would show us our own shame, would take from us what the world unfairly gave to us, would bring the house of cards called heteronormativity crumbling down. Drag today must respond to the exclusion of clubs, to the transphobia and femmephobia of gay men, to the respectability politics of our savarna movements. Drag to be drag – exciting, critical, entertaining – must be dangerous. Imagine, drag queens lipsyncing for their lives as the house of patriarchy burns in the background! Now that’s a show!