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The New Pussy-Powered, Heat-Packing Drag Shows Taking Over Brooklyn The New Pussy-Powered, Heat-Packing Drag Shows Taking Over Brooklyn

Photo courtesy of Vic Sin by Cameron Cole

The New Pussy-Powered, Heat-Packing Drag Shows Taking Over Brooklyn

Apr 5 2016

In Brooklyn’s new queer performance scene, gender blending is the norm.

Entering the small, cramped back room of Branded Saloon in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, I see two young artists boy-banding onstage. In the throes of a famous head-bobbling N' Sync move that draws laughs of recognition from the crowd of 20- and 30-somethings, the "boys" begin to strip, revealing breasts and curvy bodies beneath their button-up shirts. Switch n' Play is the drag collective behind this show, and they represent a small but growing group of queer performers who are confounding typical gender expectations in the best of ways.

Many former New York City club kids may remember a time when all the alt scenes were together, under one roof. However, for the past decade of performance art in New York, there have been drag shows, and there have been burlesque shows—the case typically being that never the two shall meet.

But now, a new breed of shows, like those sponsored by Switch n' Play, are bridging the gap. A Brooklyn drag and burlesque collective that proclaims itself "queer in every sense of the word," Switch n' Play was founded in 2006 by Mr. Peter Bigs, Maximum Satisfaction, Trey Baise, and Chaz Del Diablo to challenge preconceived notions of what gender is, both onstage and in life.

"Draglesque boyqueen" Vic Sin. Photo courtesy of Sin by Dmitri Wildfong-Nishman.

Switch n' Play's most enduring and important quality is an accepting stance—the ability to believe that any gender performance is acceptable, instead of positing binary ideals of straight versus queer, femme versus butch, king versus queen.

Now a performer with the collective, K.James originally moved into the apartment of some Switch n' Play members in 2006, and started working the door at the collective's Open Drag nights at Outpost Lounge. He finally worked up the courage to perform his first act to Color Me Badd's "Sex You Up" in 2008, and joined the collective that night.

"I was thinking a lot about my trans identity and masculinity at the time," K.James says. "Drag was an empowering way to play with my own identity, and both critique masculinity in a way that was uncomfortable and also find a way to perform and live my own masculinity."

Genderplay, with roots in both burlesque and drag but breaking from current performance traditions of both disciplines, is that very idea that personal experimentation in gender and sexuality are not just allowed, but a right that every person has in order to define themselves as they please.

Vic Sin, a "draglesque boyqueen," is impressed with the freedom of expression in the burgeoning new genderplay scene. "So many performers are pushing the concept of gender so far out of the norm. I'm proud of the genderplay artists in my little community."

Photo courtesy of Vic Sin by Cameron Cole

In the past, Sin's community would not have included performers like actor and burlesque artist Melody Jane. Well known in the burlesque scene, she has found new freedom with the Switch n' Play collective. Jane, who is queer and cis-female, was adamantly told by her agent that she was not feminine enough and would need breast augmentation to be a success in the entertainment world.

"I'm a very gender-fluid person and have always felt both masculine and feminine," Jane tells me, recalling her childhood gender crisis. "Not knowing what was specifically for a boy or specifically for a girl, I just felt like I didn't fit, and that nothing I did was good enough."

In response, Jane, who idolized Freddie Mercury and identified with his gender fluidity, created her signature act to the song "Under Pressure" by Queen and David Bowie. In the act, Jane is a robotic monster who unearths a hermaphroditic diamond, sporting both a penis and pasties.

Jane is lucky to be included in drag events now—it wasn't too long ago when "drag" meant strictly conforming to the stereotypical look of one gender, and what was called "fishiness" was honored: Often considered a compliment, to be "fishy" was to be an extremely feminine, and thus, convincing, drag queen. It meant the performer was so good at performing "woman" that they could pass, undetected, by mainstream society. Gender identities were carefully guarded, and even policed, by fellow drag performers.

In Brooklyn's new scene, however, beards are combined with lipstick, and packing heat is contiguous with pussy power. For today's queer performers, passing isn't the goal, but being yourself, in all your gender-blending glory—onstage, and off—is.

In a performance world that is often challenging for genderqueer performers, who struggle with being misidentified or discriminated against, Switch n' Play (who stage shows at the Branded Saloon) and their contemporaries are pioneering a new frontier with shows like Homo Erectus at the Stonewall Inn, HyperGender Burlesque at WOW Cafe Theater, and White Elephant Burlesque at RockBar NYC.

"Switch n' Play's open drag and burlesque nights, started in 2007, were created to foster the drag and burlesque community by offering a safe and encouraging space to explore," K.James tells me about the collective he now calls home. "Switch n' Play is the reason why I'm a drag king."

K.James perfoms his "Cream" act. Photo courtesy of K.James by Grace Chu.

At shows like White Elephant, hosted by Viktor Devonne—a burlesque performer known for his clown-painted face and fan acts—gender blending and genre bending are the norm. Devonne grew up experimenting with cross-dressing as a child, and performed in The Rocky Horror Picture Show for seven years before starting his show at RockBar. He always identified with women, but did not feel pressure to be a passing drag queen. Instead, he wore garters, heels, stockings, corsets, and pants together, experimenting early on with the feather and silk fans traditionally associated with female burlesque performers.

"Since my performance career began with a mix of gendered clothing, I do find myself conceiving acts differently; it makes a difference [in] what statement you're making when you're stripping," he tells me when I ask about how his costumes characterize his acts. What is he hoping to show audiences? "It does, for most people, I would think, mean something very different for a man in a suit to strip, to reveal he's got on garters and thigh-high stockings—especially to a soundtrack of Leonard Cohen's 'I'm Your Man," he explains. "It means something very different than if I were to be in conventionally male-presenting undergarments, or even a nonspecific thong. I'm saying something with all those choices."

When producing, Devonne seeks to put together his dream show. "It was important to me that a burlesque show I produce, as in put my name and my wallet behind, be the exact show I want to see," Devonne says. "That includes all genders, races, and styles from performers I am grateful to know and watch. White Elephant merges a lot of burlesque: boys, girls, those who have no time for either distinction."

I've seen nonbinary performers give us four-minute explorations into what they've been meditating on for years.

The attitude in this new performance scene does seem to imply that everyone is indeed a special snowflake, that there are a million genders—and that there's nothing wrong with that.

"Performers are not focusing on 'boy' or 'girl' anymore. It's about expression," says Vic Sin, the draglesque boyqueen, putting the shift into words "You could be Beetlejuice, a dog, a troll, a witch—performers are pushing the boundaries of expression. I don't relate to guy or girl in my looks. I feel fem, strong, masculine, sexy, kinky. I don't do 'norm.'"

Devonne agrees with Sin's sentiments. "I have seen cisgender performers perform routines, original creations, and cosplay to popular entertainment icons," Devonne says of the variety he's witnessed. "I've seen trans individuals perform drag in the [gender] role of [which] they were assigned [at birth] but do not identify— which naturally creates something of a fascinating, unspoken commentary on what we might assume a person is all about, gender-wise. I've seen nonbinary performers give us four-minute explorations into what they've been meditating on for years," he tells me with an air of admiration for it all. "It is really all very fabulous. And we've been very blessed with an audience that wants to see it and support it."

Photo courtesy of Vic Sin by Cameron Cole

One night, during a performance at RockBar, a Victorian-looking gentleman in a tux strolls onto the stage, plucking off his top hat to reveal a very phallic unicorn horn that he proceeds to do very un-gentlemanly things with.

The wickedly improper gentleman is Goldie Peacock, a gender-blending performer whose daily life and performances play with, erase, and color all over strict gender lines.

"My act says that even within the most conservative person, there is a fabulous unicorn just dying to burst out and prance around," Peacock says of their routine.

Peacock has been performing gender blending since their time at Oberlin College, where they were a two-time winner of the Oberlin Drag Ball—first, one year as a drag king, and then the following year, as a drag queen, to much controversy. Peacock is the perfect example of how some in this new crop of performers pull back the curtain on gender so much, that they enter the world of the "glamdrogynous"— glamorous without specifically adhering to either gender expectations, but instead, flirting with titillating ideals from both ends of the spectrum. Peacock frequently sports a sexy, slightly handle-barred pencil mustache, gold panties, black sunglasses that could best Bieber, and an undershave beneath a wavy green mop on top.

Photo courtesy of Goldie Peacock by Suri

"I'm proud of my body; I like being sexy onstage, I see nothing wrong with it," Peacock tells me when I ask about their performances. "I'm a drag performer who doesn't necessarily feel committed to maintaining a certain illusion about my anatomy."

Not only does Peacock find it unnecessary to adhere to one set of gender expectations onstage, but they perform a similar version of genderplay offstage as well.

"Some drag performers have this really pronounced split, and see themselves as pedestrian people offstage and 'themselves' onstage. When they're onstage, they do everything in their power to maintain the illusion of this character," Peacock observes. "I feel, for me, my drag persona is just a more fabulous extension of myself. I feel my drag persona—like myself not in drag—is androgynous and gender-bending."

Nyx Nocturne, another performer who doesn't fit neatly into one box, has crossed over into the genderplay scene via burlesque, and has found an experimental home there.

"When I started, I did it because I wanted to figure out how to be a woman," Nocturne admits. "But my very first act I ever did was a drag act."

Photo courtesy of Nyx Nocturne by Elisabeth Fuchsia

As many will tell you, genderplay isn't always easy, which is why many performers have drag "parents" for moral and professional support. Nocturne was encouraged into the world of genderplay by legendary burlesque professor and performer Dr. Lucky, who counts Nocturne among her brood of drag children.

"My willingness to crossover has been influenced by Dr. Lucky's classes, where we did clowning, movement, and theatre exercises, learning that there is a fine line between genres and that we put those lines there," Nocturne says of what came out of her time with Dr. Lucky. "That influenced how I look at my own gender presentation."

Nocturne soon discovered that she felt most powerful, and comfortable, with a character she created called Andro-Royalty, which is not a drag king or a drag queen, but "in the middle of and between those two spaces."

Sporting a sexy beard and a priest's robes, Nocturne steps onto the stage and crosses herself. The priest strikes her way into the audience, healing audience members with her holy cross. When the priest reveals a body knotted in shibari rope knots beneath the robe, the audience scoots forward on their seats to see. Nocturne does not bind her breasts, but she's packing. By the end, she is self-flagellating as the crowd roars its approval.

Nocturne soon discovered that she felt most powerful, and comfortable, with a character she created called Andro-Royalty, which is not a drag king or a drag queen, but "in the middle of and between those two spaces."

"Everything about it is intense, and outrageous," she remarks of her act. "Some people see it as a priest act only, but I see it as a genderfucking act." According to Nocturne, her act is even more than performance. "It's really what's in my soul and feels like me. It doesn't necessarily put me in the confines of having to be sexy in a certain way, and it lets me show a side of me I don't often get to show."

This new genderplay finds challenges, too, in the world of what Crimson Kitty calls "ladyqueens"— cis-born women who perform as female drag queens. Kitty's heart and mission lie in female drag, but the drag scene at large hasn't always accepted what she does. In the past, ladyqueens have been accused of co-opting the gay cis-male drag scene.

Watch: Meet London's Female Queens

Though the ladyqueen, or bioqueen, is not a new fixture (World Famous BOB, Dr. Lucky, and Raven Snook are the stars of a 2010 ladyqueen documentary called The Faux Real), Kitty is determined to carve out a scene for those of her ilk looking for community, and she's educating the public in the process. Kitty is currently producing a new show, aptly titled Ladyqueen, at the famous Stonewall Inn, as well as planning a nationwide tour and an education panel.

"It's all about education," Kitty says about why she's embarking on this work. "I want people to ask questions, to have a great dialogue—and not necessarily a defensive one—about women doing drag, but not as drag kings. I want to educate people on how we are breaking down our own gender boundaries by exploring a hyper feminized version of ourselves."

Devonne, the gender-blending burlesque performer, sees a world in which drag and genderplay performers accept one another as unique. "I have seen a lot of drag that goes beyond the conventional [RuPaul] Supermodel of the World mold, and I'm all for it," he says. "I think men in makeup are beautiful. I think women in makeup are beautiful. I actually really love makeup itself." He adds, "I think it's incredibly bold to choose the face you wear, and I don't think it's at all a mask or a hiding place. I think it's one of the greatest statements of self-identification."

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