Why Invite Drag Performers?
Fascism is on the rise in America. The first targets for new waves of extremism include people of color, women, and the transgender community. LGBTQ+ rights and events are being outlawed across the country. Drag performance has become illegal in numerous places, leading to a denial of First Amendment freedoms and harassment of gay affirming organizations.
This is why Plymouth United Church of Christ is standing up for Drag as an essential part of American culture and a sacred form of art.
In Jewish tradition, “Purim” celebrates the day the people of God were saved from Haman and the First Persian Empire with various festivities, including drag performances. According to the Talmud, in special cases like Purim, cross-dressing is not only allowed but can be an expression of sacred joy!
Christianity has also embraced drag as a symbol of holiness. Over twelve transgender people have been canonized as Saints by the Church. In their hagiographies (stories of saints), the fact that the holy person is trans was celebrated as embodying God’s creativity. For thousands of years, theologians have argued that non-binary people represent the promise of a liberated and transfigured humanity. Special holidays were declared throughout the Middle Ages where cross-dressing would be allowed and promoted across the Christian community.
For these reasons and more, Plymouth will be inviting Drag performers to share their craft with our Christian community after Church at the start of Pride Month. Now is an important time to tell our society that Drag is not dangerous, not sinful, and not harmful to children.
The leadership at Plymouth recognizes that many church members may not know much about Drag. Many of us have never attended a drag performance!
What Is Drag?
The specific performance art that we can drag has its roots in African American and Hispanic-American LGBTQ culture. In New York, many gay people of color were being kicked out of their homes, fired from jobs, and left to starve on the streets in the mid 1900’s. Collecting in places like the Pier, gay people would gather to dance and sing. Over the years, special events began to arise where the (mostly homeless or underemployed) gay community of color could forget their troubles for a night of celebration. People who could not find a job or a hot meal would get a chance at being called legendary Queens and Kings.
While most White Americans only think about the highly sexualied version of Drag that emerged in the the 1960’s, based on the new popularity of Los Vegas show-girls, this was only a small part of these Drag Balls. Other categories that participants would include were the Ivy League Student, the Business Executive, and Military uniforms.
The goal of each drag event was to allow LGBTQ people of color to imagine themselves doing jobs that they would never be hired for in real life. The military was segregated, elite colleges would deny their applications, and major businesses would not interview them. And yes, one of these jobs that these homeless youth would never be allowed to get was as Los Vegas showgirls. During a Drag Ball, however, they could be whatever they wanted to be.
Over time, teams emerged called “Houses.” These Houses were founded by the star Drag performers to train newer talent. Yet these Houses became so much more than a team. Houses became families. “House Mothers” and “House Fathers” would rent apartments, inviting their “Children” to leave the streets and live in these homes. Together they shared resources and love, like a real family. These Houses helped the gay and trans performers of color overcome their homelessness, unemployment, isolation, and shame.
Mothers of these Drag Houses, such as transgender icons of color, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were leaders in the 1969 Stonewall Riots. They later became the champions of the new LGBTQ movement for rights. This is the origin of Pride Month. Each June, we celebrate the anniversary of Stonewall, an event that birthed modern Gay and Trans Rights.
Yet with the rise of HIV/AIDS in the 1980’s and 1990’s, many Houses were totally wiped out and died. At the same time that the Drag community was dying off, White people discovered the art form. White people emphasized the sexuality of Drag Shows in order to draw in customers. Slowly the White community began to make money from these Drag balls that wouldn’t allow the original creators to attend because of Racism and Classism.
Nonetheless, the Drag community persisted. In New York, Chicago, San Diego and other cities the tradition of Drag as a place of liberation, community organizing, and education continues. Many of these Drag groups provide housing, healthcare, financial assistance, sex ed, HIV testing, and more to LGBTQ homeless youth of color.
Grand Rapids is a city that does not do enough for people of color, the homeless, and LGBTQ people who continue to be targeted by far-right politicians. Many Churches would like to eradicate Drag as yet another symbol of Black, Hispanic, Queer, and Transgender Pride.
Plymouth UCC is not like other churches. As Pastor Emeritus Rev. Doug Van Doren has long said, “we’re not radical, we’re just early.” We see and honor the value of LGBTQ people as well as the Black, Indigenous, and Queer People of Color. We remember that Pride Month honors the Stonewall Riots and hope to continue the tradition of fighting for LGBTQ Rights.
Our Congregation believes that the world becomes a better place when we educate ourselves and uplift the marginalized. We fight for Justice and Freedom. We hope that the liberative love of Jesus can transform our hearts and minds to see through the lies.
Join us this Pride Month as we make the loving choice to welcome Drag Performers into our community at the very moment when their rights are being threatened by Facism. May we show the wider world what radical love and hope looks like at our Church!