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Reading is Fundamental: New WGST Course Prepares Students to Perform in the Spectrum Drag Show

By Fred Trevino

Professors Adam McKinney and Nino Testa during their duo performance at the 2019 Spectrum Drag Show. Photo by Cristian ArguetaSoto.

When you hear the word drag, what do you think of? Do you think of RuPaul’s Drag Race like most people? Or do you think of your local drag show at places like Urban Cowboy in Fort Worth and S4 in Dallas? At TCU, we might think first of our own drag show: Spectrum’s annually produced “Night of Drag.”  The 2019 show was a huge success and highlighted a community at TCU that many probably had not seen publicly on campus; the 2020 show was cancelled due to Covid-19. This year’s drag show is going to be a hybrid of in-person and virtual attendance, but this will be the first show where students from a WGST class will be producing their own virtual drag performances.

This year, Dr. Nino Testa, the Associate Director of Women & Gender’s Studies, has introduced a new course titled The Queer Art of Drag. Testa was inspired by his friend Dr. Kareem Khubchandani, a professor at Tufts University who teaches a course called Critical Drag. Khubchandani uses a drag persona, LaWhore Vagistan, to help students learn more about drag and help them develop their own drag personas. Khubchandani’s students spent their semester workshopping performances, culminating in a live performance at the Tufts library.

Alongside his inspiration from Khubchandani, Testa wanted to get the TCU student body interested in drag and to have an active part in the show. “Drag is a thing that you do in community with others,” Testa said in an interview about his new class. He is using the class as a way to develop a campus vocabulary to understand drag and its significant history in LGBTQ+ communities. By creating the class, he hoped to inspire more students to feel confident participating in the Spectrum Drag show.

Testa’s own drag persona, Maria Von Clapp, came to life at TCU at Spectrum’s 2019 drag show. Since then, Maria has appeared on campus at other WGST events and has participated in Westide Unitarian’s Sunday service to teach kids about gender diversity. “I  started doing it recently at TCU, wanting to support the Spectrum Drag Show.” Testa felt that if faculty and staff weren’t willing to perform, students wouldn’t be able to see themselves as potential performers either: “The students and the show really got me thinking of my own persona and who she could be.” His Maria is inspired by the iconic Julie Andrews character Maria Von Trapp from The Sound of Music. “I think about Maria as a queer teacher. She swoops in and shows everyone the queer possibilities that are right in front of them.” Testa draws inspiration from other Julie Andrews characters in movies and stage shows like Mary Poppins, Cinderella, and My Fair Lady, to create a drag persona that “weaponizes old fashioned or traditional values and beliefs about gender” and encourages audiences to see gender more queerly.

Students in Testa’s class are beginning to create their own drag personas, which they will unveil at this year’s Spectrum drag show. Although students will not be able to perform live due to Covid, the team who is producing the drag show has found a way around that problem. Each student will submit a one-minute performance that will be played at this year’s drag show, in between live performances by professional drag performers like Tara St. Stone, Brock Bottoms, and Sapphire Davenport Daze. A limited number of students will claim VIP tickets to the socially distanced show in the BLUU Ballroom, where all but the performers will be masked. The rest of the community will be able to watch a livestream of the live and recorded performances, for a hybrid communal viewing experience. Students will also have the opportunity to contribute to ongoing gender diversity education through Westside Unitarian.

Testa is assisted in class by Mariana Gonzalez, who is the Graduate Assistant for the Gender Resource Office (GRO). Gonzalez received a Bachelor of Arts in dance at Texas Women’s University and is now a graduate student in the College of Education. As part of her work with GRO, she will be supporting the coordination of the Spectrum drag show. She offered to help with Testa’s class in hopes that a collaboration between academic and student affairs would strengthen programming efforts through GRO. Gonzalez is using her dance background to help students develop their drag performances, and consider the crucial ways that movement helps all of us to embody our gender. “Drag is a performance and a lot of drag kings and queens dance. When they’re on stage, they’re putting on a performance, portraying a character with movements so it’s a lot more than just dance,” Gonzalez said in an interview when asked how dance influences drag.  Gonzalez will lead choreography workshops and will work with students one-on-one.

The class includes a wide range of texts and reading assignments from queer theorists like Jack Halberstam, Judith Butler, José Muñoz, to writings by and about contemporary and historical drag performers. Alongside the readings, students watch and analyze performances, like Dolly Parton’s “Backwoods Barbie,” and films such as Paris is Burning, in order to fully understand not only the world of drag, but all that drag can teach us about gender and identity. The class also has guest speakers such as Khubchandani and Dr. Lady J, who spoke to the class about their experiences performing and teaching about drag. As the Spectrum drag show gets closer, the class will begin workshops on makeup, costume, video editing—which will be led by the Center for Digital Expression—and choreography in order to fully prepare the students for their first-ever virtual drag performance.

Gonzalez first encountered drag when she moved to Dallas after graduating from TWU. She had attended a drag show at a gay bar in Dallas in what is famously known as the Oak Lawn gayborhood. “Not only do you have to work on your performance, but you also have to work on your makeup. As a dancer I wore makeup, but the type of makeup you use for drag is different,” Mariana said in an interview about the amount of work that goes into a drag performance.

Testa and Gonzalez also presented their work at the Texas Tech Big 12 LGBTQIA+ and Allies conference in February, highlighting this unique collaboration which includes not just GRO and WGST, but campus partners in Spectrum, The End, and more. Together, these campus partners are creating a space in which TCU students can learn and engage with an important part of queer culture and community.