Malt (left) and Octavia (centre) adjust their costumes. Photo: Heather Faulkner

Transiting to a new self: Regendering

Ros Prosser and Vicki Crowley attend the 80th birthday of drag queen Rouge in Adelaide

Nobody is born one gender or the other. We act and walk and speak and talk in ways that consolidate an impression of being a man or being a woman.[1]

Attending mega drag at Feast, Adelaide's QLGBT Festival in 2011, I saw a young man stop in front of Rouge, the Queen of Adelaide. She has earned this title due to her age and longevity. She has strong dancer’s legs and still performs. Bowing low he kissed her on the hand. This action of acknowledgment struck me as both personal and private, yet highly public in the message it sent out. This routinely established relation of respect and mode of being demonstrated the codes and meanings that operate within this community, and the relationships within it. My interest in drag as performance began at a much earlier date, from attending late night shows with Vicki Crowley and seeing most of my friends performing as drag kings.

My first encounters with Vonni and other drag performers take place at the Garage Bar in 2011 in Adelaide, a venue that was once a working automotive garage. A red brick building, industrial in feel with very little softness to it. I’ve invited Heather Faulkner to photograph the 80th birthday party of Rouge. At a later date in 2013, we document Rouge at her home. Heather shoots costume changes, poses and performance on a 40 degree Adelaide summer night complete with Malibu and lemonade, “a summer ladies drink”. During this Rouge talks and sings, telling stories of her life.

Rouge applies lipstick during her 80th birthday celebration, at Adelaide’s Garage Bar, 2011. Photo: Heather Faulkner. All images courtesy the artists

This photographic and interview documentation is part of a research project on queer memory with Rob Cover. One aspect of the project has been to think through the ways our personal memories are involved in the construction of gendered selves. Asking the question of what queer people do with memories of former selves, how memory is articulated, and the potential for memory to be an unhappy place led to thinking about memory in relation to the development of the queer subject. Drag performance as a performance of memory is cast as the memory of gesture, dance routines, lip synching, and bodily performance that is on the one hand spectacle and entertainment and on the other the development of an identity, with adopted names and personas.

Oktavia (centre) and Malt (right) on stage. Photo: Heather Faulkner. All images courtesy the artists

In interviews with Vonni I asked about the dance moves and where they came from. Vonni talked about Sheila Cruze, a well-known choreographer in Sydney whose influence on the Australian drag scene has been documented by Carlotta, an original member of Les Girls. The influences of the movements and gestures of Judy Garland, Donna Summer, Dusty Springfield, Shirley Bassey, Greta Garbo, Cher, Madonna, Kate Bush are also significant to drag performance and are passed from performer to performer informally and formally. The advent of the internet and the recording on YouTube of make-up tutorials and dance routines is having an impact on younger performers.

These are bodies that have our dreams and desires cast onto their performance; they exist in an intertext of photographic systems with an overlay of social and cultural meanings and interconnections. It is understanding the relational and the ways that drag can never mean anything without the referents, for instance the way that drag is thought about as a sexualised form, as negative to some, as the butt of humour to others, or the special place it holds in the QLGBT community or parts of it.

For queer people our memories are our histories. Drag has a long and resonant place in the history of queer culture. Entering into the realm of observation and asking for permission to study, to interview, to photograph, was not the minefield of power dynamics that everyone told me would exist. The dominant cultural stereotype of bitchy drag queens is part of the performance of drag and is used as humour that utilises sexualised jokes and innuendo. These present a kind of reverse discourse that confronts and tears at the fabric of normative heterosexuality. What I found in the process of attending and interviewing was at first a hesitant welcome mat, but a welcome mat nonetheless. I started out with my own cultural assumptions and pre-conceived ideas but these have been broken down by exposure to the lived experiences of people expressing a range of identities.

Oktavia (centre) pauses backstage. Photo: Heather Faulkner. All images courtesy the artists

There is no one over-arching definition or totalising way of seeing drag. Certainly there are regular and repeated ways of being and modes of address; however the drag community is as diverse as the number of sequins on a costume. In Adelaide the presence of significant showgirl performers, Rouge and Vonni, whose combined age of 145 years, with national and international backgrounds in Les Girls and in a range of venues in Adelaide appears to have an impact on the dynamics of the current lively scene; this includes the performers Fifi and Rochelle at the Mars Bar. The main focus of the research work has been at the Colonel Light Hotel with an emphasis on the regular Sunday events ‘‘Vonni’s Big Arvo’’, opened in 2012 by the Lord Mayor of Adelaide, Stephen Yarwood.

In my research I’ve always referred to Jacob Hales’ useful instruction: ‘‘Start with the following as, minimally, a working hypothesis that you would be loath to abandon: Transsexual lives are lived, hence livable,’’ quoted by Naomi Scheman in Queering the Center by Centering the Queer.[2] 

Calling herself a showgirl and diva, transgendered Vonni, whose early gender transition was the 7th undertaken in Australia, makes regular reference in her performance to her surgeries and her sex life. Beginning her performance career in Adelaide in the 1960s as a stripper and showgirl, Vonni now manages her own drag nights. Vonni’s outward performance of transgender is not found in all drag performers at the Colonel Light. Cross-dressing and female impersonation or drag has long been a tradition in the gay community, with amateur theatrical groups providing a safe haven for generations of camp men and women.

Drag Queens are an important cultural point of reference for the QLGBT community. As problematic as they are to some audiences they represent an entertainment form that can be studied for links to performance traditions and as a key part of queer history. Drag constitutes a lived mode of transgression from early forms of female impersonation through to gender re-assignment and transgendered bodies. The coalescing of a range of meanings onto the drag body provides for an excellent site of observational analysis. What is being cast onto the drag body is memory. Memories of early drag performance and memories of those who aspired to hyper-femininity and masculinity are linked through chains of references in performance.

The exhibition Transit Lounge is one outcome of the research documentation into a small section of Adelaide drag culture, and extends the question from one of drag performance to the notion of the everyday performance of gender and sexuality, recognising the now complex debates about trans and drag as one of its practices. It queries genders, gender fluidity, comportment, surgeries, stealth/passing, everydayness, desire, after-dark, excess, understatement, activism, m2f, f2m, sexual politics, queer kinship, gender tactics and strategies, sexual politics, and more. The exhibition develops the question of performativity, to think about the many ways that our everyday acts, gestures, speech acts and costume become part of the recognisable repertoire of queer cultures.

Performer at the 80th birthday celebrations for drag queen Rouge, at Adelaide’s Garage Bar, 2011. Photo: Heather Faulkner. All images courtesy the artists
Performer at the 80th birthday celebrations for drag queen Rouge, at Adelaide’s Garage Bar, 2011. Photo: Heather Faulkner. All images courtesy the artists

Footnotes

  1. ^ Judith Butler, <http://bigthink.com/videos/your-behavior-creates-your-gender>
  2. ^ Naomi Scheman, <sandystone.com/hale.rules.html>

Rosslyn Prosser is a lecturer in English and creative writing at the University of Adelaide.

Vicki Crowley is Senior Lecturer in Communication at the University of South Australia.

TransitLounge, curated by Rosslyn Prosser and Vicki Crowley and featuring work by Susan Bruce, Vicki Crowley, Heather Faulkner, Keith Giles, Jessica Miley, Vicki Rich, Will Sergeant and Kathy Sport will be at the SASA Gallery, University of SA, from 29 October - 28 November 2013 with a launch featuring external scholar Rob Cover on 13 November at 6pm.

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