Drag Queens in Kevlar, or The Right to Bear Arms in Queer Public Space

Photo Credit: REUTERS/Kevin Kolczynski

When I lived in New York City in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I frequented a weekly drag revue at a bar called Barracuda on West 22nd Street at Eighth Avenue. It was (and, I believe, still is) a bar popular among twenty- and thirty-something queer people who are largely though not only white and male. One week, there was a queen who performed in a green Bavarian beer girl costume with white tights, black character shoes, and hair in curled pigtails. While most of the queens who performed in the revue lip-synced to songs by well-known divas, the Bavarian beer girl lip-synced to… a woman yodeling.

Yodeling alone was enough to make her a hit with the crowd. But the queen became something of a legend when she supplemented her performance with tumbling passes. She would raise her arms, bend at the waist, do a flip across the stage, and then pose again, her arms raised as if she were an Olympic gymnast. After each tumbling pass, she would lower her hands to her mouth and act as if she had been yodeling all along. About 75 bargoers were crammed into a tiny back room that night and their cheers were deafening. At one point, the Bavarian beer girl’s wig fell off, revealing hair tamed by a silk liner, flattened with a tangle of bobby pins. Even then, she did not stop flipping. She never even reached for her wig as it flopped off stage—she just kept going. As I watched her perform, I laughed so hard I was crying. It was the funniest, craziest, most entertaining thing I had ever seen. In that dark room, humid with strangers cheering for a yodeling, acrobatic drag queen, I felt at home.

As many scholars have noted, the casual contact enabled by public spaces in urban centers provide people who experience same-sex desire with networks of people and places that help them organize those desires into identities and build communities with strangers they would not have met otherwise.1John D’Emilio, “Capitalism and Gay Identity” in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, Henry Abelove, Michele Aine Barale, David M. Halperin, eds. (New York: Routledge, 1993): 467-476; I explore this history in my book as well. F. Hollis Griffin, Feeling Normal: Sexuality and Media Criticism in the Digital Age (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017). Bars and clubs like Barracuda are the most visible manifestations of these phenomena. Such places enable a world making that is not always or even usually available to people who live and love differently. They allow queer people to congregate more easily and more comfortably than they do elsewhere. Even so, these spaces are not utopic. They often feature strict gender policing, which can make transgender people feel unwelcome and unsafe. Furthermore, the spatial arrangements of urban centers underline power differentials related to race and class. When bodies gather in queer public spaces, those dynamics mitigate people’s comfort there. Shaped by these tensions and limitations, queer public spaces are zones of intimacy and possibility. They spatialize desire in ways that foster new modes of being and wanting. I have been to very few places that were more fun or joyful than Barracuda’s drag shows—and I say that as one who has been to more queer bars than I could possibly count.

When I read about the June 12, 2016 shooting at Pulse in Orlando, I saw with new clarity how the public spaces in which I have felt most fully alive can so quickly be obliterated. The shooting at Pulse is many things at once: a hate crime, another installment in debates about U.S. citizens’ rights to bear arms, a reminder of the emotional toll exacted by homophobia (internalized and otherwise), and a violent intrusion on what so many people assumed was a safe space. None of the aforementioned descriptions do enough justice to what really happened there: the slaughter of forty-nine queer Latino/a people and the suicide of a man who happened to be Muslim.2Depending on which account of the incident you read, the shooter may also have been struggling with feelings of same-sex desire.

In the United States, lives lost to violence are most grievable when those deaths can be explained as the actions of deranged, hateful individuals, especially when those deranged, hateful individuals practice Islam.3I borrow the term “grievable lives” from Judith Butler. See her Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (New York: Verso, 2004Lives are somehow less grievable when the stories we tell about them insist on their particularity (i.e. the event has an impact on “just certain people” vs. “all people”) or, worse yet, raise questions about the real impact of beloved cultural institutions like the Second Amendment on people’s lives. In reading the countless “think pieces” published after the shooting, I found that gun control was mentioned frequently, but the authors struggled to imagine how citizens might organize and advocate to achieve that. Equally troubling: in many of these articles, the lives of the victims seemed most grievable when their status as sexual and racial minorities could be bracketed, and/or when Islam could serve as a boogeyman. That way, the deaths at Pulse can be crimes against “all of us” rather than just “some of us,” perpetrated by someone who was often deemed unworthy of U.S. citizenship in the first place. “Us” is a null category whose contradictions and exclusions are ignored or just left unspoken. Worrying about the right to bear arms was understood and written about as a universal issue—and, of course, it is a universal issue. But at the same time, it is a particular issue, with effects that are experienced differently by different groups of people. Simply put: the right to bear arms threatens the lives of minorities more than it does those of dominant groups. When recalibrating that right was discussed in the think pieces, it was treated more like a “pie in the sky” desire than like a reality that might be achieved through sustained effort over time. Most troubling: despite all evidence to the contrary, too many of these articles cast Islam as a bigger threat than firearms to the lives of minority people.

When violent crimes against “some of us” are imagined to be perpetrated against “all of us”—a twist of logic most easily achieved when those crimes can be blamed on an external “other”—the national imaginary’s comforting fictions about “us” remain intact. These fictions include but are not limited to: “we” are post-race and post-queer, “we” need to protect “ourselves” from a clearly delineated “them,” and “guns don’t kill people because people kill people.” From this vantage point, the U.S. is fair and right and good and the rights and protections of citizenship are accessible to the people who should have them and, because they are enjoyed equally, they must be protected at all costs. These ideas are pervasive because they are familiar; they operate as a kind of romantic commonsense that retains its magnetism despite compelling proof of its inaccuracy and harm. What makes that so maddening is that violent acts like the shooting in Orlando should provoke thorough questioning of what these fictions ultimately do for people, especially different groups of people. It should also stir real soul-searching regarding how often, if ever, those fictions deliver on their promises.

I read about the shooting at Pulse on my smartphone, in the safety of my kitchen. I broke into wet, heaving sobs as video began circulating showing the victims’ family members as they cried into each other’s necks and chests, begging God and anyone who might hear them for safety and comfort. In connecting the space of my kitchen to the sidewalk outside Pulse, the intermediality of the phone felt like too much and not enough: placing me in Orlando and then removing me at the same time. Witnessing the events on the screen felt like an important political act, as if it was the least I could do for the visibly terrified, anguished people on my screen. But then I felt stupid and selfish sitting in my kitchen, staring into my telephone and not doing something, however small, to help ensure an event like this one never happens again. So I did what responsible citizens are supposed to do: I emailed my senator. U.S. Senator Rob Portman of Ohio voted against the Assault Weapons Ban of 2013. The shooting at Pulse was a direct result of that bill’s defeat in Congress. Because Omar Mateen was a U.S. citizen, he had no real trouble getting the firearms he used to kill forty-nine people and then himself at Pulse. Writing on my laptop, I urged Senator Portman to pursue legislation that limits the sale of such weapons. While mass shootings are alarmingly common, many people in the U.S. do not find them as sad or tragic as they find the possibility of legislation that might limit access to assault weapons. Many see Islam as far deadlier. Senator Portman is one such person.

Senator Portman’s official website has a page where his constituents can email him, complete with a pull-down menu that allows users to pick which pressing issue they hope to bring to his attention. Tellingly, that menu includes options for “Iraq” and “Immigration Reform” but does not include an option related to firearms in any straightforward way. Rather, it is listed with the dogwhistle term “Second Amendment,” signaling to users that the Senator’s commitment to protecting the right to bear arms supersedes any concern about whether or not doing that actually keeps people safe. I sent an email anyway, pointing and clicking through the textboxes, telling Senator Portman that his constituents are scared and need his help. The perpetrators of mass shootings have different motives and come from assorted backgrounds, and it’s worth noting how often such shooters are straight white men. The only things that mass shootings have in common, really, is how relatively simple it is to procure firearms and how easy it is to kill many people at once when they converge in public space. Flush with anger and moral indignation about guns, not immigration or Islam, I told Senator Portman I would not vote for him in the next election if he did not make such legislation related to assault weapons a priority.

Spoiler alert: He never got back to me.

Websites like Senator Portman’s animate newer fictions about U.S. citizenship, suggesting to people that digital technologies allow them to register their ideas and feelings with elected officials and that the world will be a better place for them having done that.4Jodi Dean, Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009). Of course Senator Portman’s website suggests otherwise, but my message was never going to prompt some response from him. Sadly, these activities rarely have any impact on the political process. The only real effect was the feeling it produced in me—for exactly one-half of one hot second—that I had done something important. I knew from the beginning that it was foolhardy, but in thinking about it after, I felt like a moron for even trying. Reading about the shooting from the safe remove of my smartphone and then sending an online message to Senator Portman highlights how connectivity places citizens near current events and elected officials, in an affective sense. Even so, it has no necessary, much less linear, relationship with people’s ability to influence legislation.5A major goal of scholars and activists is better linking the power of online communication to meaningful acts of citizenship. See Henry Jenkins, Mizuko Ito, and danah boyd, Participatory Culture in a Networked Era: A Conversation on Youth, Learning, Commerce, and Politics (New York: Polity, 2015).

Cruelly, the feelings of freedom and belonging that attend U.S. citizenship require that the shooting at Pulse remain a possibility. When the wellbeing of people is understood to exist in tension with the rights promised by the Constitution, bloody bodies cannot compete with the sepia-toned filter through which the U.S. sees itself. When the rights associated with citizenship become so idealized that the people who enjoy them most are less than self-reflexive about them, those rights become abstracted from the very lives they are supposed to protect. In and of themselves, pointing and clicking are not adequate tools for people to protect themselves or precipitate change. Too often, such activities end in feelings of effectuality that are rarely, if ever, concrete actions with tangible results. Digital technologies are tools for citizenship that work best when they are used in concert with feet on pavement and people on streets.6This connection of online activism with on-the-ground organizing happens frequently. The activities of Occupy Wall Street and the protests in Ferguson, MO after the police shooting of Michael Brown are just two of many examples. Piles of bloody bodies in public space constitute an emergency so horrible that waiting for messages and tweets to prompt people like Senator Portman to do something is not ensuring people’s safety in the here and now. In some sense, it further endangers people’s safety by risking complacency. That is especially the case for minorities, who are so vulnerable already.

The modes of publicness available to sexual and racial minorities in urban centers are crucial. They enable the creation of nurturing communities and help people lead happier lives. The right to bear arms as it is practiced in the 21st century U.S. is at odds with such publicness. When I cried at my kitchen table, I was crying about a lot of things, but one of them was this: the frailty of bodies that converge in public space and the threat of losing something vibrant and pulsating, however unequal and episodic it may be.7Mary Gray uses the term “boundary publics” to describe this form of collectivity. Mary Gray, Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America (New York: NYU Press, 2009): 100-113. I also cried about the paltry mechanisms in place to redress it. As the shooting at Pulse demonstrates: the costs are too high for a privilege that does so much more harm than good.

Places like Pulse and Barracuda cannot be surrendered to the right to bear arms. The conventional methods people use to keep themselves safe at present—buying firearms and/or emailing elected officials—are not working. Finding ways for people to survive and thrive in public spaces must be addressed immediately. If circulating in spaces like Pulse and Barracuda is safest when wearing Kevlar, then let’s wear Kevlar. If that is a goofy idea, so is a yodeling drag queen dressed as a Bavarian beer girl. And as I’ve said already, she was fabulous. That people feel so unsafe that they might not go see performances like hers isn’t sad, it’s heartbreaking.

Notes   [ + ]

1. John D’Emilio, “Capitalism and Gay Identity” in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, Henry Abelove, Michele Aine Barale, David M. Halperin, eds. (New York: Routledge, 1993): 467-476; I explore this history in my book as well. F. Hollis Griffin, Feeling Normal: Sexuality and Media Criticism in the Digital Age (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017).
2. Depending on which account of the incident you read, the shooter may also have been struggling with feelings of same-sex desire.
3. I borrow the term “grievable lives” from Judith Butler. See her Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (New York: Verso, 2004
4. Jodi Dean, Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009).
5. A major goal of scholars and activists is better linking the power of online communication to meaningful acts of citizenship. See Henry Jenkins, Mizuko Ito, and danah boyd, Participatory Culture in a Networked Era: A Conversation on Youth, Learning, Commerce, and Politics (New York: Polity, 2015).
6. This connection of online activism with on-the-ground organizing happens frequently. The activities of Occupy Wall Street and the protests in Ferguson, MO after the police shooting of Michael Brown are just two of many examples.
7. Mary Gray uses the term “boundary publics” to describe this form of collectivity. Mary Gray, Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America (New York: NYU Press, 2009): 100-113.

2 Comments

  • Philip Scepanski says:

    This is an interesting and provocative article, Hollis, that touches on a number of issues I care about. More than that, it has forced me to reconsider what kinds of subtleties I’ve been overlooking as I binarize actual/virtual, physical/psychological, insider/outsider in my work on mediated crisis and catastrophe.

    You touch on an issue that has nagged me for a while now and that I think is worth taking a close look at. Your experience of shock and grief drove you to attempt political action. Ultimately, for now at least, your gesture has been met with a silence that betrays a breakdown in representative government (or at least seems to read that way to you).

    There seems to be a tacit assumption in much trauma theory that collective* experiences of shock, grief etc. are ethical goods. That is, we somehow ought to feel emotional pain when events like this happen, no matter our symbolic distance from it. I think your article here may be the first time I’ve seen it explicitly stated, but I think you access a larger assumption that this is based on a logic that collective emotions ought to take us towards collective action. But as you gesture towards here, there is reason to be pessimistic about the power of us “regular folk” to affect change in these areas.

    You provocatively call this hope a fictions. Indeed, emailing your representative seems to lie at the intersection of digital and enlightenment-era utopianism based on ideals of symbolic interaction and representation. It’s fairly easy at this point to dismiss techno-utopia as Silicon Valley hoopla, but it is more painful and possibly self-defeating to give up on democracy. Nevertheless, if we are at this point, then I think it begs the question as to whether there is any value in causing people distress when it comes to mediated disasters like this one. Although I find her work questionable in a lot of ways, one could even point to Naomi Klein’s notion of a “shock doctrine” to argue that collective distress has more notably been put to use justifying neoconservative interventionist policies that clearly cause more harm than good At best, we are brought to tears for no good. At worst, our sadness feeds still worse responses.

    I suppose my opinion on this matter is obvious, but I would be curious to know if, in the schema you work from here, you see redeeming qualities or effects to these experiences of collective grief. And since we can’t reasonably expect that news not cover disasters, is there any appropriate response besides turning off the TV and/or becoming a jaded asshole regarding other people’s genuine experiences of violence still other people’s frequently no-less-genuine, but media-inspired experiences of grief?

    *I want to make it clear that I find the notion of collective affect/trauma/etc. ideologically suspect for reasons that this comment only begins to address, but it is kind of a necessary shorthand here.

  • Hollis Griffin says:

    Hi Phil, this is a great, thoughtful comment. Thank you for taking the trouble to post it! I share the set of interests and concerns you lay out here. Collective grief can be cathartic and autotelic. To be insufferably banal: we live in difficult times and shared experiences of traumatic events can be comforting and sustaining. I worry about the extent to which collective grief can be the sum-total of people’s experiences of traumatic events. Which is to say: are we so disillusioned with the processes of citizenship that we see no point in trying to change “the way things are”? I don’t know — I don’t want to offer a conclusive answer to that. I don’t think there is one and I don’t think it would apply to all people. Here’s what: if events are traumatic and collective grief is something *in addition to* an end in of itself, I want there to be more attention to the PROCESS for realizing some sort of political or social change that might prevent that traumatic event from happening again. The line between witness and voyeur is thin and porous. The frequency with which I’ve seen footage of devastated family members crumpling into one another after mass shootings gives me some real pause regarding the connection between feeling and doing. Feeling comes easily, it seems. Think pieces, photos, footage — there’s an immediacy to it that’s missing from the messy, painstaking, long legislative process that might precipitate change in laws regarding assault weapons. Doing is frequently less sexy (for lack of a better word) than feeling, especially when it stretches on and on and on. NOT witnessing is not okay. Dead people and their grieving families deserve to be seen, by all of us. But witnessing — really, truly witnessing — is more than just seeing it, I think. It’s certainly more than seeing it and then using my finger to swipe the frame directly off my screen. Sucking my teeth, texting links of articles to friends and family, and then putting my iphone away is………. feeling ugly right now. Really, really ugly.

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