I am not a very social individual.
Approaching strangers for a conversation has always been a fear of mine; the idea of forcing myself to interact with someone whom I have never met fills me with unspeakable dread. I’m the type of person who crosses the road to avoid conversation. It’s ridiculous. Which is exactly why, as I walk hastily into Birmingham Pride, I wonder if I’ve made a terrible mistake. I’m here to talk all things drag with Pride goers, which involves a lot of approaching strangers. Too much for my liking. But I’m eager to learn more about the drag community and where’s a better place for that than Birmingham’s Gay Village during Pride weekend?
Aside from a handful of shows I’ve covered for Birmingham Review, the drag I’m used to is what you see on the Internet – polished queens posing for photos in their finery, wigs coiffed to perfection, lip-sync routines performed with choreography and backing dancers. Indeed, Ashleigh and I are covering RuPaul’s Werq the World Tour at the Symphony Hall in only a matter of hours. But I suspect there are sides to it I’m missing – a much more intimate layer to drag that, especially if I’m going to start covering it properly, I need to learn. It feels like I’m back at school all over again.
We spot a drag queen posing for photos with the public, towering over them with a purple wig and sparkly dress. For Dixie Normous drag is a form of release, “I had a problem drinking and had to get away from the gay scene and I didn’t know how to get back in,” she explains, adjusting her wig. “Now, I’m eight years sober and it helped me return to it. I don’t perform in Birmingham, I’m not a working performer, but I work for pride events such as these, hostess events, DJ events.”
Does she feel that there’s any competition in drag these days? Normous shakes her head, “No. I have friends who do drag as performers, they love performing but there is no competition between them.” She pauses momentarily, “I mean, there is competition in the form of lip-syncing but it’s not malicious. I take my hat off to them, they sing for seven days a week and they say the same to me – there is mutual respect, there’s loads of work out there.” Work seems to be growing for drag in the UK – are popular programs such as RuPaul’s Drag Race partially to credit for this? “RuPaul’s Drag Race shows a different type of drag from the UK scene – I grew up on different things,” she gestures to her beard. “Like, I don’t want to sacrifice my beard and UK and USA drag can be quite different, drag is quite feminised there. I’d never get away with this and my tattoo.” A group of Pride goers run up, cameras in hand, and I know it’s time for us to leave, but not before Normous gives us a hug, a kiss on each cheek, and sees us off with a graceful wave of her hand.
Already I’m feeling more confident, and we weave our way through the crowd towards the Main Stage. Towering over everyone in eight-inch red heels and clad in what appears to be a skin-tight interpretation of my grandmother’s chintz curtains, Nora Virus is hard to miss. She’s on her way to perform with Glitter Shit on the Main Stage but is more than happy to stop for a quick chat. Judging by the crowds here at Pride, does she think that Birmingham’s drag scene has grown? “It’s definitely grown, not just in terms of drag but the whole queer scene has within the last five years or so,” she exclaims, posing against a backdrop of apartment buildings while I grab a few photos.
Nora Virus‘s type of drag isn’t what we typically see commercially. I ask how she feels about this and she shrugs, it’s a mixed response, “The media… it only contains certain types of drag… and you can be whoever you want to be, that’s what’s missing. It depends on what viewers get from it. If programs like RuPaul’s Drag Race open the door to drag, then it’s performers like us on the other side who are ready to educate the masses.” I’m aware she’s running out of time and her friend, Liam, directs us to a man behind us who is nursing a pint with a few friends. Paul McAvoy is the general manager for Holy Trannity, one of the biggest drag event organisers in the UK. If anyone is worth talking to, it’s him. We wish Virus luck and off she bounds, a foot taller than the crowd she’s wading through.
Liam’s right – McAvoy is more than happy to talk shop, despite today clearly being a day off. “We organise a lot of the drag queen events across the UK, especially the acts from RuPaul’s drag race,” he explains, sipping on his pint. “Drag’s growing throughout the UK, it’s not the normal kind of thing shown on TV, not the normal hosted stuff, it’s a different type of reality. More exciting and scandalous than what the public are used to.” And he’s right. Watch any episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race and you’ll see what I mean – tensions grow so thick you could cut them with a knife, and tempers flare on the regular between queens and judges. We chat more about drag and he mentions some exciting stuff that we can’t print (yet). We realise he’s working at the Werq the World show later and bid him farewell, promising to catch him at the Symphony Hall – I don’t want to take up any more of his time, especially as he’s been so patient with us.
By now Birmingham Pride is heaving, and the bustling crowd has us feeling knackered. We set off towards the seating area and plonk ourselves down opposite a couple who are in the middle of a heated debate. It seems opinions on drag aren’t reserved to the performers themselves, as we question partners Liam and Chris. “Drag now is mostly RuPaul and that’s not drag!” exclaims Liam, throwing his hands in the air. “If you’re a supporter of drag you know your local acts, not just the famous drag queens. They have a habit of falling into the commercial pit; it’s become an act now where you just have to put a dress on and boom, you’re a drag queen.” I push for him to elaborate.
“So, for example, Charlie Hides used to perform at Eden before she went on RuPaul. She was a local queen through Birmingham, London and Bedford and since she has been on RuPaul suddenly she’s charging double. It pushes out the local scene – like, don’t forget where you come from, don’t forget your roots. The queens will throw everything into their fame and they will fizzle out… RuPaul is like the drag equivalent of X Factor, and who remembers the last winner of X Factor?” I can’t even remember the last time I watched it, let alone who won. He nods earnestly, his point proven. “The RuPaul generation, to describe them like that, are keener on watching drag through a screen on TV as opposed to seeing it live. They see a very polished version, not what drag really is.”
So, what does Liam think makes a drag queen? He pauses momentarily, clearly deep in thought. “I think when you look at artists like Myra Dubois, she delivers everything in a political way, she speaks about everything that is going on in the world and it’s how you make the most of your platform. These days anyone will put on a dress and lip-sync for 20 quid, the acts are more in it for the fame. There’s a lot of old school drag that is getting pushed out and people aren’t getting a sense of what it was before.” My mind flips back to Normous and I curse myself for being so ignorant. Of course there are different styles of drag, why haven’t I noticed this before? And if the industry is so difficult to break, why are local queens doing it in the first place? ”So, some queens will be spending double of what they earn, they’ll be doing back to back shows and it’s the reason why you do anything that you enjoy – you do it because you love it. Despite the long hours and all the misconceptions, you get with it. You love your job, and when you love your job it’s not work.”
I think about my job as a photographer, and the nights I spend editing when I could be working a ‘real’ job, and finally I find ground where I can relate. Clearly there’s some real local talent I’m missing – who can Liam recommend me to watch? “So… Sandra, Danny Beard, Mary Mac, Viva Vivacious,” chips in Chris. “I think if you want to discover new drag in Birmingham, you should search for Eden on Facebook – the content they deliver on weekdays, on Thursdays, is great. Garry and Cal really know how to work their venue. I run a venue in Bedford that puts on drag acts called The Barley Mow, so I’m always looking for new talent”. I make a mental note to head to Eden on my next Thursday off, and to organise a road trip to Bedford with a few friends during the summer months.
By now we’ve been talking to the boys for over half an hour and we leave them to their pints before heading back off into the hub of Pride. We pass numerous dance tents filled with barely-clothed individuals performering inverted-apex-god-knows-what on stripper poles, and I can’t help but crack a smile. Pride is where people can be completely at ease. It’s a novel feeling.
At this point, Michelle speeds past in rollerskates, flinging rainbow condoms at anyone who will take them. She looks amazing, and I can’t help but snap a photo of her. She’s here with Umbrella Health, who provide free, confidential sexual health services across Birmingham. “We just usually hang around by the entrance, and hand out free stuff, answer questions… everyone is usually chilled out and happy,” she exclaims, filling my arms with pens, lip balms and yet more condoms. “We see a lot of drag queens come through, we always try and get a photo with them. I’m actually going to Werq the World later, I can’t wait!” She flashes a smile and skates off, a woman on a mission. Things to do, condoms to fling.
A trend seems to be emerging here – those who are fans of drag lean towards the commercial side we see on TV, while those who are actively involved in the scene tend to view the commercial side with weariness. The more we speak to people, the more I think that mainstream media is dispelling the truth that drag has roots that run much deeper than the odd TV series. It’s a large, complex community that deserves more recognition and exposure than it’s getting.
I spot local performer, Paul Aleksandr, having his photo taken with a gaggle of visitors. Draped in what looks to be the dismembered corpse of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, I have them pose up against a fire truck while I snap some photos. They’ve just come off tour with Adore Delano with Drag Punk – how did they find it? “I know there is this stereotype of ‘millennials’ and they are given a bad reputation,” explains Aleksandr, “but millennials are passionate people, they shouldn’t be dismissed because of their age. The shows with them were immense… one of the people that was there has come to Pride with us today, she’s only fourteen,” they exclaim, gesturing over to a girl bedecked in a long, pink wig. The fan base for Delano’s shows seems to be much younger than I anticipated. I catch the girls eye and ask to interview her next – she nods with glee before posing for more photos with the public.
Did Aleksandr find approaching members of the pubic hard at shows, or is it a skill that comes naturally? “It’s organic, if you do drag people talk to you – it’s a platform, it’s pushing people to do their thing,” they explain. “It’s not just a lip-sync but making a statement about important topics such as misogyny and empowerment. It’s a form of education, especially when some fans are this young – they can’t go to local shows as they’re all 18+.” Should drag be reserved for certain individuals of a certain age, or should it be open to all? “In the last four or five years, drag has become accessible to everyone. Gender is tied to identity and drag is a way to spearpoint identity. In the 80’s queer identity died for multiple reasons, and now you can build something with drag. Performers are responsible to educate the masses, especially on what we lost back then”.
Do they feel Birmingham Pride is inclusive for everyone who wants to explore drag including women? Aleksandr’s hands fly up in the air animatedly, “Of course! Like, who the fuck cares if you have a clitoris – stop thinking about their genitalia! Out of like 16 venues participating in Pride, there is only one owned by a women. There can be issues within the community such as racism, transphobia and ableism… we should be aware to that.” If there are still issues of exclusion across the community, how does the social hierarchy affect those within it? “If you’re a lesbian you’re sidelined. If you’re bisexual you don’t exist. If you’re anything but white and gay, to fit in you try and be flamboyant, to mould yourself into what is deemed socially acceptable.” I look lost, so Aleksandr simplifies it, “the white cis gay man is in a nice mansion on the top of the hill but if you’re trans black woman then your house is burning down”. Ah, that makes sense. Horribly.
I must be looking slightly crestfallen at the entire thing, so Paul Aleksandr directs me to Rosary Bee and Amber Cadavarous. I recognise Cadavarous from the recent Drag Punk Candyland event at The Nightingale, as well as a Facebook video that went viral a few months ago where she explained her place in drag as a woman – honestly, before I saw it I had no idea women could even do drag. And it seems I’d be easily forgiven for this. “Trans women invented our drag,” explains Rosary Bee, “it’s very Shakespearean and the night life scene contributed to its growth. Women have always been in drag – it just hasn’t been documented. I mean, history was documented and created by guys and they chose what they wanted to be seen.” For a 14 year old Bee is educated beyond her years in drag, and defends her position to the hilt. It’s amazing to see, and that she’s so passionate about it. Bee explains how she looks up to Amber Cadavarous as she is also a woman, and how they met at one of Adore Delano’s shows before meeting back up at Birmingham Pride.
Amber Cadavarous is everything I imagined her to be – from her silver shiny boots, right up to the exaggerated bow in her hair that depicts the phrase DYKE in big, black letters. She’s patient and friendly while I question her on everything drag – especially their decision to bring Bee to Pride in drag. Does she think there should be age limits on it? “I agree there should be age limits, maybe, as there is sometimes a lot of adult content,” explains Cadavarous. “It shouldn’t be mutually exclusive though – there should be a space for young adults and below to explore drag. I used to sneak into clubs to watch drag performances. It helps you figure out who you are in regards to things such as your sexuality and gender – especially for women”. Does she feel that this could be possible in Birmingham?
“The scene is very inclusive in Birmingham in general. It’s welcoming and very diverse and I never felt like I couldn’t do drag here. I never asked for permission and I didn’t feel excluded, I found my family here,” her eyes dart to back Paul Aleksandr and Rosary Bee. ”I wanted to educate and uplift women, and use my platform to support them – queer women especially. When we recently supported Adore, a lot of kids came up and said I didn’t realise I could do this, but you can, my love! I received a lot of messages saying this and seeing them realise they could do it was a wonderful feeling”.
We’ve been talking for so long that we fail to notice the sky turn an ominous grey, and rain soon starts to fall heavily. Hastily saying goodbye, Ashleigh and I dart through the crowds, finding refuge in the Main Stage tent with thousands of others. We spot two drag kings sheltering under the eaves of a food van; Adam All is in his trademark purple suit, while fellow performer Oedapussy is dressed like a Viking warrior, adorned in countless blue flowers. They look incredible.
I ask for a brief rundown on drag kings. “So, drag is much bigger than it used to be, the concept of drag king started in 1867 and it started underground with male impersonators on stage”, Adam All explains. “We didn’t have much of an uprising until the early 1980’s and 1990’s, now we have women’s bars and it’s really helped promote it in the last ten years or so. The number of drag queens is around the 100’s in the UK but when I started there was only a handful of us – here in Birmingham, Manchester, Brighton, Cardiff and Edinburgh. Now it’s all over the place in the UK. Drag kings are popping up everywhere and it’s constantly gaining momentum”. What’s to credit for the growth?
“Social media helps,” exclaims Oedapussy, “in London there are mixed shows and we go to see some queens and there is more of a crossover. Also, drag in general is becoming more acceptable, this has never really been covered before, like women doing it”. They’re right too – I was surprised to see women as drag queens. Having now seen two drag kings in the flesh, my mind is blown. I wasn’t wrong about needing a little education.
By now what was a slight trickle of rain has become a monsoon type downpour. Ashleigh wearily eyes my camera, and we realise we must make our way up to the Symphony Hall. We stagger out of Birmingham Pride and I bundle us into an uber, our clothes soaked, laughing at our misfortune. Only we could get caught in a downpour like this before a show.
I imagined leaving the festival with our carefully composed questions all answered. Instead, we’ve now got so many more to ask and clearly it’s going to take longer than a few days at Birmingham Pride to answer them all. But the warm welcome and engaging response we got from the drag artists we talked to, and the crowds buzzing around them, was infections – embracing us into a wonderful and creative world, but one with something serious to say. You couldn’t help but feel part of something. Even to a social recluse like myself.
For more on Birmingham Pride, visit www.birminghampride.com