Ithaca is Drag
– Reporting by Sarah Chaneles –
Every Thursday night queer pride bursts out of The Range, a favorite bar and music venue in Ithaca, New York. The House of Merlot‘s troupe of drag performers host this weekly drag night, collaborating with local and traveling drag artists, and featuring comedy, burlesque, music, and performance art by LGBT artists. Monologging.org spoke with some of these aficionados to get an inside look at the culture of drag.
As with any art form, drag is privy to judgement. On top of using one’s self as the canvas for the art and stepping into the spotlight, a drag artist also plays with gender. House Mother Kat Von Riesling says drag allows her “to explore the divine feminine energy in [her] soul; an expression of fluid gender, quiet truth choreographed, rehearsed, and improvised.” Drag creates dialogue around the social expectations of gender that create pressure on every person to look like a “traditional” man or a woman.
The conventional concept of “a man in a dress” barely begins to cover the concept of drag; to truly explore this vibrant world, you have to include hyper drag, bio kings and queens, genderfuck performers, and those in between and around. In drag, labels are questioned, bent, and broken. Every drag artist has a unique way of relating to drag; everyday persona isn’t necessarily very similar or very different from drag persona. In the same way, gender identity in and out of drag aren’t necessarily similar or on opposite ends of the gender spectrum. Fear of asking questions leads to assumption, which is inconvenient at minimum.
Similar to comedians, many drag artists use their work to implore people to question society’s rules. Framboise finds drag to be “a unique opportunity to express how strange the concept of gender is and how its construction affects everyone.” Trying drag out is one way of understanding this art form and getting closer to understanding its surrounding culture. “Everyone should give drag a try, there’s a lot you could learn about yourself through drag,” said Dizzy DeScretion. Whether or not we know it, this culture touches our lives on a daily basis.
“Yas Queen. Slay. You betta werk bitch. Bring it to the runway. Spill the tea. Gagged. Eleganza. No Shade. Hunty. Serving you realness. Read for filth.”
All of this slang originated in drag culture and has been appropriated into mainstream vernacular.. Drag performers were using the word “Yas” even before the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning came out. Even dance moves and fashion trends are consistently influenced by drag culture. Madonna’s “Vogue” invoked the signature dance moves and house beats of the 1980s drag scene without directly crediting the artists who made the hit possible. In recent years, evolving media has more blatantly cued in the general public to the world of drag.
RuPaul’s Drag Race, for instance, has worked its way into mainstream culture. This is groundbreaking and many would say it is a huge step in the right direction. However as drag king Kale Green points out, RuPaul has presented some trans-phobic and problematic ideas. In recent months, Rupaul publicly apologized after facing criticism for his insistence that drag queens who are trans women should not be allowed to compete on the show. Kale wants his personal art to be safe and make his audience feel a connection to him and whatever he’s trying to portray. Kale says “drag is love, drag is safety, drag is exploration, drag is resistance. Drag is freedom to me.” Like so many other performers, Kale wants to ensure that drag is an inclusive experience for everyone involved.
Inclusivity is a huge theme of drag houses. Members of a drag house usually consider other members of that house to be their drag family. These drag family members provide each other with emotional support, advice and provide networking opportunities. Historically drag houses sometimes felt more like a family than what a performer grew up with, especially in cases of close-minded parents. Separate drag houses often “throw shade” at each other, the same as sports teams, but they still welcome outside performers to be featured at individual shows which only helps to grow audience numbers.
Drag performers depend on audience members for feedback, for the energy that drives their performances, and tips. At a drag show, everyone has a say, and everyone is in on the fun. With their weekly Thursday drag nights at The Range, House of Merlot aims to provide their audience with a hotspot that they can always count on for inclusive entertainment and eclectic fun. Their collaborations include some of Ithaca’s favorites; Kurt Riley, Whiskey Tango Sideshow, VeeDaBee, and Alan Xtra & the hit singles. In addition, the House has recently begun branching out into daytime gigs and non-traditional venues. In an effort to reach those under 21, they perform Drag Brunches hosted by local restaurants such as Ten Forward Cafe. They also get involved with local festivities such as Ithaca Fest. Most recently they secured a recurring spot at Drag Story Hour, hosted by Buffalo Street Books where every last Sunday of the month, kids of all ages sit down at this local bookstore and observe as drag performers read children’s books.
As drag reaches a broader audience, there is potential for increasing disagreement about what drag truly is. At the same time, there is greater potential to build community and expand the understanding of gender and personal identity.
Sarah Chaneles is the Director of Marketing and a Reporter for Monologging.org. She is originally from Rhinebeck, New York and has spent time in LA, Boston, and currently lives in Ithaca. She enjoys writing, photography, theater, most TV and Film, discussing animal rights, and hanging with her dog.