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The second annual RuPaul’s Drag Race convention, DragCon, took place earlier this month, drawing 23,000 people from all walks of life to the L.A. Convention Center to shanté, stay, dress up, meet their favorite queens, and just basically get their life. Also on offer were more than 50 panels on everything from makeup, wigs, and tucking to social media and The Golden Girls – but one of the most interesting and diverse panels had to be “Drag Is Punk,” which I had the great honor of moderating.
It may have seemed like an odd booking choice, at first, to put Black Flag legend Henry Rollins and Alice Bag (co-founder of seminal Los Angeles punk group the Bags) on a panel alongside Season 5 RuPaul’s Drag Race finalist Alaska 5000 and underground/queer nightlife promoters the Boulet Brothers. But this meeting of the very independent minds proved just how much the drag and punk worlds have in common, as we explored “why drag is still punk, how it challenges the norm, and how it encourages others to do whatever the hell they want to do.”
The DragCon YouTube channel has been putting up video of all this year’s panels over the past weeks, and now the “Drag Is Punk” panel footage has finally been Ru-vealed. Check out our lively discussion here, with some of the participants’ most inspirational, heartbreaking, hilarious, and definitely punk-rock pull-quotes below. (Warning: Video contains some profanity.)
On what the word “punk” really means:
ALICE BAG: I think it means finding a way to creatively fight against the things that keep you from doing what you want to do.
BOULET BROTHERS: Our approach is this: It’s radical self-expression, and going against anything that would stop that. Coloring outside of the lines, against norms or rules or restrictions… really just doing what your inner voice is telling you you should be doing. That’s punk.
ALASKA 5000: I think punk has to do with like, not giving any f—s. People always say to me, “Alaska, I love you because you don’t give a f—!” And I’m like, “I think I used to not give a f—, but I give so many f—s now!” Like, at this point in my life, I’m like the least punk I’ve ever been. But I used to be really a lot!
HENRY ROLLINS: For me, it just means you’re cool, and you’re beautiful, but the mainstream doesn’t dig you, but it doesn’t mean that you’re not deserving of dignity and respect and your kind of inherent specialness. So when larger society says, “We don’t want you,” it hurts at first – but then you find out who you’re hanging out with and you feel like you’ve won the lottery, because everyone around you is cool, too.
On a tribal feeling of belonging being a commonality between the punk and drag communities:
HR: I don’t think there’s any real separation between punk culture and LGBT/drag/gay culture, in that the scenes are seen as subversive, anti-American, anti-religion, anti-everything that is good and upstanding. And then you actually meet these people, and they’re wonderful and decent – or indecent, but it’s really fun! [laughs] But it’s a ghetto-ization of people who don’t “fly right.” I’ve never seen any real difference in the cultures, in that we’re pushed to the side by tough guys who don’t want us because our hair’s too good-looking.
On the early punk scene and its ties to drag:
AB: When I listen to Ru say that we’re born naked and the rest is drag, I think of a baby. And at [legendary L.A. punk club, now the site of RuPaul’s Drag Race and DragCon production company World of Wonder] the Masque, and when punk was first starting, it was a baby. And we all added our drag to it; we all shaped it. That happened because we felt like we had been thrown out of these other communities that didn’t accept us for who we were, and at the Masque we felt welcome and we felt free to express ourselves – our creativity, our sexuality. It was a place where anything went. And it think it’s still that. I think it held that energy, and it’s still feeding people who want to be able to do whatever they want.
HR: I come from Washington, D.C. – which is a very gay city, a very big military city, a very busy place. And to be punk-rock in those days… we were a very egalitarian, politically correct scene. If there’s a girl in the band, no one cared that she’s female; she’s just the bass player, let’s move on…. But as soon as you left [the punk club], there’d be some drunken Marine saying, “Come here, you punk-rock f–got!” And so “punk-rock” and “gay,” as a slur, were immediately melded together. “Come here, you Devo f–got!” Punk, gay – they just want to beat us up. So you would have gay people at shows – sometimes in drag, at the bigger shows – and I would almost feel protective. ‘Cause like, when the Ramones would play, everyone comes out of the woodwork, and some people are dressed up, and there’s some jocks there that would want to beat them up, and we’d have to say: “Not here! This is a safe zone.”… If you knew to go in the building, we were done judging you. And if you showed up with a wig on, we’re like, “That’s cool. If you here to see the Bad Brains, we’re all in it together.” I’ve never thought any differently. Like I said before, those scenes to me are inseparable. You can’t talk about one without the other. I’ve been very lucky – I’ve been able to tour America back and forth for decades. And Black Flag, we were often relegated… like, “No one wants you, so the gay bar will take you!” So we would play in front of like, bearded men with stuffed brassieres, and it’s like, “Well, that’s our audience! At least someone showed up!” So you realize those are your people – basically the unwanted. But when you meet them, you realize you’re one of them, if you’re lucky.
On punk icons that are influential in the drag world:
A5000: I like Divine, does she count?
BB’S: That’s what I was going to say too. Divine would be a major [influence], because she was sort of the first one that crossed those two worlds together in an official way… she was the “punk-rock drag queen.”
HR: And she took a lot of grief. A friend of mine is a big Dutch guy, very muscular, like a boxer type. He went to go see her play in the ‘80s, somewhere in Holland, and basically became her bodyguard after the show, because there were these Dutch tough guys who wanted to beat her up. He had to help get her out of the venue… he said it was just awful.
On violent reactions to members of the punk and drag communities:
HR: It’s that resistance to anything that isn’t flatline “normal.” To me, if you’re that normal, you’ve run out of ideas. It just reeks of mediocrity. So when someone sees someone beautifully stand up and bend that, like Divine or our good pal RuPaul, it is met with great resistance – violent resistance. Punk rockers got it. Like in Los Angeles, to the LAPD we were the endangered species that they wanted to eradicate. Now they call me “Mr. Rollins” and ask if I want the Early Bird Special at Denny’s [laughs]… but it’s that resistance from everyone we met, from law enforcement to local government, the Knights of Columbus, etc. So imagine being gay or trans or drag in South Carolina in 1980-something: You can do it, but you’d better be ready to fight. And that to me is why the drag and punk thing go together, because we were met with violent opposition. That’s why I not only had sympathy – which smacks of pity, so I can’t dig it – but I had empathy, because I’m running myself.
AB: We’re talking about 1976, ’77, when people didn’t know what punk was. So they’d see us and we’d look strange, and they’d wonder if we were in a gang or escaped from a lunatic scene or asylum. They didn’t understand that there was a scene or that it was creative expression; they were just afraid of it. I think it’s probably a lot of the same sorts of reactions that drag gets, where people just don’t understand it and they’re personally threatened by it. We had this big concert [in 1979] at this place called the Elks Lodge [X and the Go-Go’s also played], where the police sent in what was essentially a phalanx of officers that just beat everybody up. There was no reason for it. It was just the fear of the unknown.
BB’S: I can relate to what Henry was saying. I grew up in the early ‘90s/late ‘80s in D.C. as well, so I know that scene very well myself. I’ve seen both sides of it, because I used to be, you know, a little-kid punk-rocker. I grew up in that scene, and then became a drag queen… It was very violent. There were a lot of conflicts with skinheads at the time. That was the big thing in D.C. It was very political, so the punks were always fighting with the skinheads. [The punk scene] did merge with drag; at the punk stores there, you had drag queens working in them. It did blend very well. But yeah, as far as the violence thing, it was definitely prevalent during that time.
On staying brave in the face of such opposition:
BB’S: You have no choice. If that’s who you are, that’s who you have to be. You’ll never achieve your greatest you if you’re not authentic to yourself. You have to just live you, 100 percent, and really not give a f— about what anybody else thinks. And that is what punk is.
HR: On my 25th birthday, I was in Little Rock, Arkansas, and the show was finished, and this very attractive drag queen came over and sat on my lap and said, “My name is Peach Melba.” I said, “I noticed you’re wearing the exact same fishnet stockings as Madonna wore in her ‘Like a Virgin’ video.” I’m very observant. And she said, “I wore them for you, because I know that you like Madonna.” I said, “That is a wild outfit for Arkansas.” And Peach said, “Yeah. It’s tough being me here.” Then she asked me to come to the parking lot for a quick meeting! I said, “It is my birthday and I appreciate that, but I’ll pass. But thanks.” Then Peach said, “Well, I’ve already danced and made out with your bass player” – who was a very masculine guy. I said, “I won’t tell him. He won’t take that news well!” I’ve always been tempted when I see him to say, “Remember Peach, the gal you danced with? You should know that you just helped civil rights move along!” But I’ll never forget Peach – again, the bravery. Arkansas is a place where you could park in the wrong parking lot and not get to where you wanted to go, looking like that. What you’re seeing on this panel… this is civil rights. It’s a social evolution. That’s why it’s so important to show up to something like this.
A5000: Drag is shaking up the social norms that have been in place for a long time. And I think the more that we blur those lines between what is acceptable for a man to do and what is acceptable for a woman to do, the more we dismantle that, the more evolved our planet will be and hopefully there will be less war and hopefully it’ll be like Star Trek, you know?
AB: I am really inspired by what Alaska was saying, because I feel that when I watch Drag Race, I’m really excited to see the queens go in and out of drag, because it really illustrates the spectrum. It really shows gender as something that you’re not defined by, but that you choose to define… to really show humanity in a much broader sense. I applaud you for that. I’m constantly being inspired by you.
On RuPaul’s famous comment that drag is his “punk-rock statement” and drag will never be mainstream:
BB’S: There will always be rebellion in drag, even if a chunk of it became mainstream.
HR: I didn’t have any animosity towards punk becoming commercialized and becoming mainstream, because it’s a pop phenomenon, ultimately, and everything will eventually be absorbed by Macy’s. Everyone’s going to make a buck if they can. I greatly benefited from all that commercialization, because it brought more people to my shows. And it put me on MTV, which I thought was just the best thing since free beer. ‘Cause I wasn’t trying to play to nobody. I didn’t want to play in a dark room in front of four people; I wanted to play in front of every damn person who could possibly hear me. And so when those mainstream avenues opened up, a lot of my purist friends said, “You’re gonna be in Rolling Stone?” Oh hell yeah! I didn’t get in music to not be heard… The mainstream helped. I don’t know if they were all that happy about it, but we used it against them. It was great.
AB: I think you can have something like punk or drag go out into the mainstream, and there’s a certain element of it that just becomes something you can buy. Like, you’ll go to Hot Topic and buy something that looks “punk.” But the essence of drag and the essence of punk is something that cannot be sold… so that part of it will never be mainstream. The clothing may be, but not the essence.