Jo Mama’s friends warned her not to protest against police brutality while dressed in drag. If something happened, they argued, people could grab items off of her, or she could become a target.
“So I went in drag on purpose. Kind of in defiance, to be like, ‘You’re going see me,’” the Chicago queen said. “I’m going to be present. You can’t miss me and you’re going to hear my voice.”
With Pride month celebrations halted amid the coronavirus pandemic, Black drag queens are continuing their legacy of protesting inequalities in the U.S. by taking to the streets in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, donating to social justice organizations, supporting Black businesses and using their social media platforms to spread messages of support and to share resources. All while wearing glitter-flecked dresses, high heels, wigs and masks.
Their advocacy comes as protests have unfolded across the nation in recent weeks after the death of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis who was pinned to the ground by officers after being accused of passing a fake $20 bill at a grocery store. Black Lives Matter organizers are calling for local officials to defund police departments and for all Americans to do more to end centuries of systemic racism against Black people in the U.S.
For Bob the Drag Queen, winner of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” season 8, the movement is “compounded by a lot of things. Pandemic, people have been living in their homes without income for almost three months. “I can just easily see how that would put someone at their wit’s end.”
Bob, 33, has been directing her more than 1.2 million Instagram followers and 421,000 Twitter followers to resources on how to be an effective ally and help drive legislative change.
At a time when peaceful protesters have been attacked and gassed by police officers and National Guards members, many Black drag queens, who can stand out even in large crowds, understand that they are putting themselves at risk by advocating loudly for change. But the need to fight against systemic racism and discrimination outweighs those risks, they said.
They are building on a storied history of Black drag queens squaring off against violence to demand civil rights. In 1969, bar patrons and neighborhood residents in New York City’s Greenwich Village rioted and protested after police raided the Stonewall Inn. The uprising that unfolded across six days of protests and violent clashes with law enforcement outside the popular gay bar is heralded as the catalyst for LGBTQ rights in the United States.
And while no one is really sure who threw the first brick, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, pioneering transgender activists and drag performers of color who were at the riots, have been credited for being pivotal figures in the uprising and the fight for LGBTQ rights. After the riots, Johnson and Rivera advocated on behalf of those affected by HIV and AIDS, and LGBTQ homeless youth, founding the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries in New York, a group that provided support to poor young people shunned by their families.
Before that, the Council on Religion and the Homosexual – a joint venture of liberal Protestant clergy, and gay and lesbian activists – held a drag ball at San Francisco’s California Hall on New Year’s Day 1965. Police, who had threatened to arrest anyone dressed in drag, showed up with lights and cameras and repeatedly entered the venue to “make inspections,” but when attorneys at the event challenged officers, they were arrested. The next day, clergy leaders held a press conference decrying police harassment against LGBTQ people, helping to raise awareness for the movement.
“I’m a big believer that drag at its core is its own kind of punk act of defiance,” said Jo Mama, 34.
After marching in drag in a Black Lives Matter protest, she organized her own march in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood, one of the largest LGBTQ communities in the Midwest, with Black drag speakers. The event “Drag March for Change” is focused on demanding justice for Black victims of police violence and raising awareness for violence against Black trans women. It’s scheduled for Sunday and has almost 7,000 marked as interested on Facebook.
Many LGBTQ leaders have historically overlooked Black LBGTQ people’s unique experiences and role in advancing civil rights in the U.S., said Earl Fowlkes Jr., president and CEO of the Center For Black Equity, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., focused on economic and social equity for Black LGBTQ people. Fowlkes said the Stonewall protests were “a reaction from gender non-comforming individuals who were sick of the racism from the police department, and tired from the racism they were seeing from the LGBTQ community.”
He is relieved many Pride marches this year have been canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“My fear is that some of the more insensitive leaders from the Pride organizations would still have these marches despite what’s going on and there would be a further rift between the LGBTQ community and the Black community,” Fowlkes added.
That was the case for Los Angeles Pride, one of the nation’s largest annual Pride celebrations, which announced last week it would hold a “solidarity march” in support of Black Lives Matter-led protests and asked police to staff the event. But the organizers did not reach out to any Black Lives Matter activists before announcing the decision, raising questions about whether the Pride event was putting Black people in danger of police violence and ignoring their needs.
At protests, it’s important for allies to show support but stay in their lane, said New Jersey drag queen Harmonica Sunbeam. She has been doing virtual events ranging from drag queen Bingo to coordinating Drag Queen Story Hour for North Jersey during lockdown, but last weekend she decided it was time to hit the streets and march in her first Black Lives Matter protest.
There is a tendency for fans of the art of drag to prioritize what white drag queens say and do over their Black counterparts. Black drag queens who participate in the most visible drag show right now, “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” said they have been targeted by online bullying and death threats.
“This fight is our fight first and we welcome anyone else to join with us, but always know your place,” Harmonica Sunbeam, 50, said.
That means letting Black people do the groundwork of organizing a protest, she said.
Miss Toto, a Chicago drag queen who has been doing online fundraisers for Black Lives Matter causes, said it’s essential to listen to what “Black drag queens are saying without trying to dismiss it.”
Miz Cracker, a white drag queen currently competing in “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars” 5, said allies should use their platform to share what Black queens have to say. Miz Cracker wore full drag to attend a Pride vigil on June 1 honoring Black Lives Matter and protesting the violence against Black trans women. She attended as part of a group of other drag performers and trans activists of color.
“Use your privilege to make sure that Black people are heard. I’m not trying to talk about myself right now, I’m trying to pass on the knowledge of the Black people I admire,” Miz Cracker said.
White allies might inadvertently say or do the wrong thing, but they should be open to constructive criticism, she said.
“One of the hardest things to do is hear someone say ‘you shouldn’t have done that, ‘you shouldn’t have said that.’ And if you can hear that, that’s very important, that’s a huge step toward being an ally and an activist,” Miz Cracker, 36, said.
Miss Toto initially debated whether to attend a protest in drag or not, but ultimately decided that as a first aid and CPR-trained individual, she would be more valuable out of drag in case something terrible happened. In recent weeks, she’s organized online drag shows that focus on raising awareness for the Black Lives Matter movement to her roughly 21,000 Instagram followers and 12,000 Twitter followers.
“It makes them listen suddenly when you put a wig on and some lashes,” said Miss Toto, 27.
She tries to make her shows relevant to what’s going on in the world by “stacking” them with Black performers and having donations funneled toward organizations working on racial inequality, including: The Bail Fund, combating mass incarceration, Contigo Fund, providing funds to organizations helping LGBTQ Latinxs, and the Equal Justice Initiative, working on mass incarceration and excessive punishment.
“That’s another way that I’ve kind of politicized and polarized my drag,” she said.
Many Black drag queens supporting the movement are balancing whether they should go out and protest or risk getting coronavirus. As the COVID-19 outbreak continues taking the lives of LGBTQ Americans, especially those of color, it is leaving a population already vulnerable to health care and employment discrimination suffering from high job losses and a growing rate of positive cases, according to preliminary data collected from multiple LGBTQ advocacy groups.
“Most people at (protests) are wearing masks and being aware of the virus, as well. But in many ways going to this is a statement, you’re aware of the virus but this is more important,” Jo Mama said.
Bob the Drag Queen was worried about spreading the virus, so she provided support for the protest movement by going down to the police precincts to pick up friends from jail instead of marching in the streets.
“I want to go visit my mom when this is all said and done, and my mom has a compromised immune system,” she said.
Many Black drag queens are also encouraging fans to support Black businesses and examining their own behaviors – including their social media presence.
“If you can’t find a single person of color in the first five photos, then you have a problem. That looks like it could be a symptom of racism. You need to examine why that is,” Jo Mama said.
Follow David Oliver and Josh Rivera on Twitter: @doliver8 and @Josh1Rivera.