The Radical Art of Drag

The Radical Art of Drag

Amid a culture war over LGBTQ+ rights prompting protests of drag story hours, critic and curator Jarrett Earnest shares his own reading list starring the memoirs of famed drag queens.
Amid a culture war over LGBTQ+ rights prompting protests of drag story hours, critic and curator Jarrett Earnest shares his own reading list starring the memoirs of famed drag queens.

E xiting the ferry in Fire Island Pines there is a little area recently designated Trailblazer’s Park. Beneath a selection of flags by different contemporary artists, there stands what must be the prettiest drinking fountain in the world. Designed by painter TM Davy, it’s sheathed in technicolor glass tiles, depicting the smiling face of activist Marsha P Johnson in the manner of a Byzantine mosaic, complete with gilded halo. A close-up is printed on the cover of the current issue of Fag Rag Fire Island, distributed to every house in the Pines. Editor-in-Chief Tomik Dash describes the kind of erasure this public art is meant to combat: “Unfortunately, the memories of Marsha and so many of our LBGTQ+ trailblazers have largely been erased by the corporate takeover of our Pride parades and events.”

TM Davy’s monument to Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera at Trailblazer’s Park on Fire Island, New York. Photo via Fire Island Pines Property Owners’ Association

As the instigator of the Stonewall Riots, Johnson has been resurrected in the 21st century as a synecdoche for radical struggle, situating Black and trans life as the beating heart of queer rights, past and future. Her saintliness is so deeply ingrained that reading a contemporaneous description of her as a human being, wearing a crooked wig and stockings down by her ankles, has the thrill of blasphemy. Take this sketch from Holly Woodlawn: “Usually whenever I saw Miss Marsha sashaying down the street I quickly dodged to the other side to avoid contact. But this time the crowd was too thick and I was stuck. And she had already spotted me, so I couldn’t hide. I was doomed.” The throng she ran into was the Stonewall Riots, 54 years ago this month. Holly ends by proposing her own less reverent memorial: “I’m surprised they didn’t erect a statue of Miss Marsha on top of Sheridan’s shoulders, waving a pint of Cucamonga in honor of her carryings on.”

We’re currently in a culture war, though many people are still in denial about its intensity, even as cynical and cruel attacks on trans people and drag queens increase every day. In response to accusations of moral degradation, there is a knee-jerk impulse to push back with representations of upstanding LGBTQ+ people as model citizens. These tight moral frameworks don’t allow for the complexities and contradictions that define our actual history, excluding the visionaries, fuck-ups and weirdos who have pioneered new ways of being.

Art is one antidote. Some of my favorite books are memoirs by trans women who also happen to be drag queens and who came of age during the counterculture of the 1960s when being gay, not to mention trans, was illegal and heavily stigmatized. All were published in the 1990s, catching a wave of mainstream interest in drag in the wake of Jennie Livingston’s generation defining film Paris Is Burning (1990) and RuPaul’s crossover hit song “Supermodel” (1993) to cite just two. I’m recommending four of my favorites, which, taken together, create a dazzling portrait.

A Low Life in High Heels (1991) by Holly Woodlawn (with Jeff Copeland)

Holly Woodlawn in 1970. Photo by Jack Mitchell / Getty Images

Holly Woodlawn (1946-2015) is forever linked with Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling as the trans trifecta of Andy Warhol’s Superstars of the 1970s. A Puerto Rican who grew up in Miami, she hitchhiked up to New York City, just like Lou Reed croons in the opening of “Walk on the Wild Side” (1972). Her memoir of those years is essential for understanding the Warhol scene, with all its insane narcissism and drug-addled competition. She recounts Andy Warhol accusing Jackie Curtis of using him, to which Jackie shouts in reply: “No, you’re using me!” They were both right; of course, only Warhol got rich.

Outrageous and hilarious, Holly is a grifter with a heart of gold, coming across more like a looney tune than a hardened criminal, even as she’s committing crimes – mostly stealing while high on whatever. Take this scene where, after months of charging her meals and drinks to Warhol’s tab, she is abruptly cut off by a new maître d’:

“We can’t charge this. I need cash.” I was simply aghast. I had no money, I had no welfare, and – goddamn it! – I still didn’t have a husband. Oh, life can be such a kick in the face at times. Well, what was I to do but flippantly shoo away the horrid possibility that I, Holly Woodlawn (star of stage, screen and Max’s Kansas City), would be forcibly pulled kicking and screaming from my pedestal and reduced to washing dishes because of a flimsy little tab! I was not going to be mortified, especially in that pithole. I was going to sign the check and Andy was going to pay for it and there were no buts!

She gets her way (he almost gets fired), and always provisional financial arrangements are struck.

Man Enough to Be a Woman (1995) by Jayne County (with Rupert Smith)

Jayne County performs at the Futurama 5 festival at the Queens Hall, Leeds on 18 September 1983. Photo by Kevin Cummins / Getty Images

Jayne County (b. 1947) is the reigning trans rock ’n’ roll provocateur slash performance artist, subject of a retrospective at Participant Inc., New York in 2018. Born in rural Georgia, County left the Atlanta scene for New York, falling in with photographer Leee Black Childers, Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn, who all briefly lived together in a tiny apartment:

I slept on a little cot in the sitting room, and Holly would sleep on some blankets on the floor. One night I was trying to get some sleep before I had to go to work in the morning, and Holly came in and woke me up. I adjusted my eyes, and saw this heap of blankets moving around, and heard Holly going “Ah! Ah! Ah!” She was with a trick in the middle of the living room floor. I said, “Holly, you’re fucking on the floor. I’ve got to go to work in the morning. Me and Leee are the only ones bringing any money in, girl! Come on! Leee and I have to get up at eight to earn the money to keep the flat going. Do you dig that, girl?” Holly was so stoned that she just stuck her head out from under the blankets and said, “Oh, but darling, isn’t he gorgeous! Gorgeous, darling! Isn’t he gorgeous!”

(I can’t help myself quoting this passage – I just love Holly. There’s a lot of crossover in characters and events in these books, so reading each fills out the others in a sparkling panorama.)

Heavily influenced by the theatrics of Jackie Curtis and Charles Ludlum’s Theatre of the Ridiculous, County created a uniquely caustic glamor as the first trans rock ’n’ roll act. County passed stints in the underground scenes of London and Berlin, honing her craft and sharpening her transgressions. I was struck by one scene in which County performs at NYU in the seventies:

I had greased the dildo up and was just sticking it into my rubber pussy when all of a sudden the power went off and we heard this voice from the back of the hall yelling, “Being gay is nothing to do with hating women! This is a disgrace to homosexuals! This degrades women! We will not allow NYU to be turned into a 42nd Street porno show!” It was one of the guys from the Gay Liberation movement, and he’d gone and fetched the Dean who had pulled the plug halfway through the song. I remember thinking at the time how ironic it was that this straight-looking little Gay Liberation queen was pulling the plug on me when I’d been at the Stonewall Riots and everything, but little did I know that I’d get this reaction from some gay people throughout the rest of my career.

Just today I read this same argument against drag from someone on the right.

The Unsinkable Bambi Lake (1996) by Bambi Lake (with Alvin Orloff)

Bambi Lake. Image via the LGBTQ History Project

Bambi Lake (1950-2020) was the icy poet of Polk Street who passed through the visionary performance troupes the Angels of Light and the Cockettes in San Francisco in the 1960s, and, like Jayne County, entered the trans cabaret scene in Berlin around Romy Haag in the 1970s. She returned to the SF punk scene in the 1980s and made her name as a chanteuse, writing the anthem “Golden Age of Hustlers,” later popularized by Justin Vivian Bond as a way of paying homage to Lake’s genius. Her description of the Cockettes as artists remains an important precedent for today:

The Cockettes had pioneered a sort of shock therapy cabaret with blatant homosexuality, transexuality, gender fuck, foul language, nudity, and high drag. Though they often worked with old Hollywood themes they fused them with a sexual anarchy which was radical even by today’s standards. They were not only deconstructing America’s glamour myth from the ’30s and ’40s, but redefining old school concepts of female impersonation. Rather than dress up as a gay icon like Judy Garland or Barbra Streisand, or working some rich or suburban mainstream look, they created their own fantasy characters. Their drag was not about realness, but about fun and desire. They dealt with our culture’s rigid gender roles in a playful manner, utterly subversive to what feminists call the Patriarchy. Along with the Angels, the Warhol set, and Waters’ crowd, they laid the groundwork for modern queer culture.

Lake is a keen observer of the scenes she moves through. Her voice is both clear eyed and wistfully romantic, making her memoir a primer on the history of drag as an artistic endeavor, with its own elevated form of connoisseurship:

Drag, my dear, is an art: ever-changing, very amusing, always fun. An important influence on today’s drag were the ’60s French transexuals who emphasized realness and sophistication rather than exaggeration or camp. It’s a school of art, it’s my territory, and following developments closely is important. My identity is really based in that ideal filtered through the glamorous sensibility of the Warhol superstars. Keeping in touch with the artistic side of being a TS has always been essential.

Hiding My Candy by The Lady Chablis (with Theodore Bouloukos) (1996)

The Lady Chablis with Clint Eastwood and other actors at the 1997 premier of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Photo by John Hayes / AP Images

The Lady Chablis (1957-2016) burst into mainstream consciousness as a character in John Berent’s true-crime bestseller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1994). Already a local legend in Savannah, Georgia, she became a national phenomenon when she appeared as herself in the 1997 film version directed by Clint Eastwood and co-starring creepy closet-case Kevin Spacey, also apparently as himself. The scene where Chablis crashes a Black debutant ball, reenacting her real-life antics, is one of the most incandescent screen performances of all time.

Her wicked, irreverent humor is tempered by incredible heart. At one point Chablis realizes she’d put a lot of work into her outer appearance but needed to focus on aligning her spirit:

I began praying. Hard. I asked God to tell me if I was doing the right thing, to gimme a signal and lemme know. I told the Lord that I was gonna continue to do this, and if it wasn’t right, to please put an obstacle in my path and turn me round right quick. I kept praying on it, and one day, all of the sex-change issues came into some kinda focus: I really didn’t want an operation, didn’t need one. It wasn’t the answer. I was just as legitimate as a woman who’d kept her candy, if I believed with all my heart and soul that I was one. An operation could only allow my full length mirror to tell me what I already knew and felt inside, but it wasn’t gonna make those feelings and that knowledge any stronger. […] A new door opened of me: my humor emerged when I proudly revealed myself to the world. If I could touch people’s lives with my humor and make ’em laugh with my honesty, then this self-discovery thing had a lot going for it.

Her memoir is a philosophical self-help book for being free, summed up by her immortal catchphrase: “Two tears in a bucket. Mother fuck it.”

Running through all these books is a nuanced interrogation of embodiment, gender and sexuality, illustrating that there is no single summary of trans experience – and that the demand for singular explanation is itself a violence.

I also think of these books as just as powerfully about class. Excluded from traditional employment, by inclination and prejudice, all the authors were poor, and thus their decisions – toward self-creation and liberation – take on an almost metaphysical drama. They are not only about inventing yourself, using creativity and wit, but about bringing forth another, more beautiful world. These memoirs help us remember them not simply as saints or sinners, but as artists whose great work was their own existence: forging lives for themselves in a hostile world with unique arsenals of charm, humor and style.

Treat yourself and read them.

Banner: Marsha P Johnson on the corner of Christopher Street and 7th Avenue in New York City during the Pride March on 27 June 1982. Photo by Barbara Alper / Getty Images

Contemporary Art

About the Author

More from Sotheby's

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

arrow Created with Sketch. Back To Top