Gender Justice or Just Us?
This weekend was The International Drag King Community Extravaganza (IDKE). This was IDKE’s 12th year, hosted by Baltimore’s Gender Justice Coalition – a group of amazing activists, performers, and community members who did a fantastic job with this immense event. The theme this year was “Gender Justice,” which seemed fitting considering the tumultuous times we are living in. We were joined by amazing performers and activists like Tristan Taormino and my dear friends Johnny Blazes, Miss Tamale, and Kate Bornstein. IDKE’s mood held its usual empowered electricity, but underneath the excitement of the attendees and the efforts of the organizers there was something more: the fear of extinction.
IDKE’s community of drag kings, transformers, genderfuckers, burlesque dancers, and drag queens is diverse, complex, and spread out. The dwindling economy, personal life changes, and community politics have been chipping away at IDKE’s structure leaving us to question what IDKE is, who its for, and if it can or should continue. On the outside it may seem like its a simple issue of attendance or varying politics, but after this (my first) year on the IDKE Steering Committee it is clear that our struggles are the same as every other oppressed group. We are bullied, we are broke, we are bullshitters, and we are burnt out. But what is at risk here is more than just a conference and the best drag shows you’ll ever see. It is something more intangible, but much more important.
When I first attended IDKE it had already existed for nine years. The decade celebration brought it home to its founding place, Columbus, Ohio and in arms reach of me. I drove up to help my drag mentor, Luster De La Virgion, drag pioneer and co-founder of IDKE. I was excited but terrified – expecting a long weekend of wrong pronouns and isolation, the usual drill of being mistaken for a lesbian drag king. But when I got there I found something different, something that changed my life.
I stood shyly quiet, waiting for my spot at the tech rehearsal for the big Showcase. I saw someone across the theater and I could tell he was a transguy. I disparagingly wondered if he could recognize me… there was nothing tell-tale about my appearance and my pink hair didn’t help. My lonely desperation made me feel awkward and pathetic. I gave up on the idea of talking to him. Then, by chance I ran into him, quite literally, when we were going through the same door. We started to talk. “I’m not a drag king,” he said, “I’m trans so for me its not “drag”, but a gender performance. I’m a trans performer, a transformer…” As he spoke I was strangely overcome, like in a movie. I had never heard those words before, or I should say, I had never heard them from anyone other than me. It was like listening to myself talk, except with more eloquence, power, and confidence than I had ever thought I could embody. I will never forget that feeling, standing there in that dark, chaotic parking lot… the feeling of recognition through the ground-breaking realization that I was not alone, that it wasn’t just me. Three years later I had grown into my own as a trans performer and was doing genderfuck drag at IDKE. Afterward a stranger came up to me. “I have to tell you,” they said shyly, “You are the first person I ever met who does what I do. You made me feel like it was ok to be me and that I wasn’t a freak.” I was so moved all I could do was say thank you, pulling back tears. I had unknowingly become the beacon that I was looking for not so long ago. I told the story to my friend who was my ‘beacon’ and as we frantically drove to manage the next event our brains slowed down, remembering. “I never feel like I could be that to anyone,” I told him. He smiled and said, “That’s what I thought when you said it to me.” Years ago, before I said it to him, he had found his own beacon person. And I am sure that any day now, the person who said it to me will hear it said back to them. They’ll be that beacon for someone searching, wanting to know they are not alone.
To me, “Gender Justice” is about responsibility. We are responsible for creating a community that is visible, socially and politically conscious, and intersectionally equal. We are responsible for making our voices heard so we may inspire others find their own. We are responsible for maintaining our own space, our own community for future generations. Over the past year as IDKE dealings began to look more and more bleak, I started to think that maybe IDKE just wasn’t meeting the communities’ needs anymore, and if that was the case, we have no choice but to let it go. But I know I still needed IDKE. I look around at the small pocket of people working to keep this important community event afloat… I just can’t believe that we are the only ones who need this space. It can’t be just us. Watching attendees at the conference, it was clear to me that people where happy, but how many volunteered to work? How many answered calls for help over this past year? Organizers work to help our community, but is the community working to help organizers? We have to do more than take. We all have something we can give, we all must do what we can. Can we really promote “Gender Justice” if we are not actively taking part every day, each in our own way, to better our communities? The first step to accomplishing anything is having so much love and passion that we can put faith in what seems impossible -something seemingly abound in our community. But faith and passion are not enough, we have to act. We must work to turn that faith into proof that we exist. Drag is more than a show. Drag is an artistic craft; it is a creation of our community used to carve out a visible space for ourselves, a space in which we live. As Tristan Taormino said in her keynote this weekend, now more than ever we need drag to be that visible proof that it is ok to be ourselves. I say we must take culture into our own hands and mold it into something that speaks to us, that lets us we know we are not alone. That it is not just us.