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When Drag is Activism

By Fred Trevino

Throughout history, there has been a multitude of activism coming from the LGBTQIA+ community, and drag has always played an important part in that activism. When most people think of the activism that comes from the community the most notable event is Stonewall. Stonewall was a reaction to police raids in Greenwich Village in the summer of 1969 and it is known for its huge boost in the political activism of the LGBTQIA+ community. The uprisings at Stonewall are often attributed to gay men, but its most overlooked contributors are the trans community of that time. Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera identified as drag queens, but were not stage performers; today we refer to them as transgender women. They fought for their rights and for the rights of those in their communities despite the backlash they received, including from gay men. They founded the trans organization STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) House, which provided housing and resources to trans youth who were living on the streets. Although Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera are two iconic figures who are starting to get the recognition they deserve, there are so many more examples of drag as activism. In this semester’s WGST class The Queer Art of Drag, students learned about Stonewall, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and HIV/AIDS activism. For this article we will look at these movements through the lens of drag and how people have used drag as activism for their communities.

 

Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (photo: sfexaminer.com)

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are modern day nuns who use the term ministry very loosely. They use their drag as a way to raise money for parts of their community who cannot raise the money themselves. In the class, students watched a six-minute-long video on the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and one line in particular stuck out to me. Sister Merry Peter said in the video, “…everyone is so afraid of humor and laughter, this is a joke, I mean it’s not mocking someone, but it’s opening you up. It’s the idea of the holy fool, the ancient idea that there’s someone who stands looking completely absurd and gives you permissions to say things completely true and honestly without any misperception or coverings or avoidance or hypocrisy.” They use this form of drag as activism, but also as a way to allow people to speak freely with no judgement because like nuns they are figures who are meant to help. They then went on in the video to make what you could call a pledge, dedicating themselves to public service, social activism, and spiritual enlightenment. The program started in 1979 with a few men wanting to do something different on an Easter Sunday, their drag has a tradition of wearing white face makeup to keep their anonymity and it soon become their trademark. The reaction to the makeup on that Sunday was so strong that the men then continued on to create the organization that now has over 500 sisters who perform social activism, community service, street theater, and educates the public about social and health issues faced by the LGBTQIA+ community.

The sisters say that the nun habits encompass a large number of stigmas such as gender issues, identity issues, religious bigotry issues, and declared that the habit to them is like a lightning bolt to their organization. Almost like a spark of hope for LGBTQIA+ community members that might not feel welcome inside a religious institution. They state in the video that they do not mock nuns; they take the mantle that women have carried for years and turn it into drag to serve community members who might not feel cared for or loved by a church or temple. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are still going strong today with their most recent event having been on this year’s Easter Sunday.

In the 1980s, the original San Francisco order was hit hard by the HIV/AIDS epidemic and had their numbers go from over twenty sisters to just six in 1987. As gay men were dying at an alarming rate, fear and stigma grew across the globe. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence felt the impact of the epidemic directly and soon held the first HIV/AIDS benefit before doctors had even created a name for the disease. One of the main focuses of the order was to provide financial aid to the community to support those with HIV and to educate others to fight the stigma surrounding the disease.

Aleksa Manila (photo: Seattlemag.org)

Alongside the Sisters, many members of the LGBTQIA+ community attribute the birth of their drag personas to the AIDS/HIV epidemic. In class, students learned about Aleksa Manila, a drag queen who says that her persona was born out of HIV/AIDS activism. She was part of a program called YAMS or Young Asian Men Study from the CDC, that focused on young Asian gay and bisexual men from the ages of 15-25. The program hoped that if they could connect these men’s culture that their educational efforts might help them make negotiate safer sex and prevent the spread of HIV. Manila was an HIV tester for seven years in public health in bath houses throughout Seattle and she discusses the first time she had to tell a man he was positive: “For some reason they actually knew who I was…that I did drag, and they said, ‘Aleksa, can I get a hug?’…in that moment it felt to me how important that hug would have meant for him and so I hugged him.” She then goes on to talk about her drag kids that went on to become HIV positive and how proud she was of them for sharing it, but it also was heartbreaking to watch the sadness come over them. These moments shaped her drag persona and her career in activism. Seeing young drag queens she considered her children overcome the weight of that diagnosis led her to be an activist to help prevent the spread of HIV and to support members of her community who are positive.

Drag has been a force of entertainment for many throughout the years, but it should also be understood as a force of social activism. Many people see a stigma around drag or the LGBTQIA+ community particularly when it comes to the HIV/AIDS, but with the help of drag queens like the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and Aleksa Manila, that stigma might be lessened. The political activism and social education of the public may have gained recognition with drag queens and transgender women and Stonewall, but it lives on in drag queens and kings who want nothing more than to support and empower their communities. The activism that the Queer Art of Drag class has learned about is truly eye opening to the ways that members of the LGBTQIA+ are still struggling to this day. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the first cases of HIV/AIDS. As a gay man, I was always told that being gay meant getting HIV/AIDS, but now that I am an adult, I know that it is not a death sentence, because of the activism of people like Aleksa Manila, Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and so many others. The drag queens and members of the LGBTQIA+ community that fought for more research and raised money for their communities sacrificed so much to protect their communities, but also to protect us now.