Backstage: Monique Jenkinson and Kelly Lovemonster in Conversation
Among the many rich legacies and lineages in the Bay Area art world(s), drag and queer performance surely count among the richest. Performing artist and choreographer Monique Jenkinson and nightlife and visual art producer and curator Kelly Lovemonster are two linchpins of the contemporary scene; for decades, Jenkinson and her drag alter ego Fauxnique have pushed boundaries on stages, in clubs, and in galleries and museums; Lovemonster is equally adventurous as a curator, and his Swagger Like Us event provides a platform (local, national, international) for emerging, queer artists of color to experiment and grow. Open Space asked them to talk about their shared and separate histories, and to meditate on what makes the Bay Area such a distinct performance hub.
Kelly Lovemonster: I would love to hear you describe how you got involved in the SF dance and nightlife scene.
Monique Jenkinson: I came here in 1992, straight from Bennington College in Vermont. I really wanted to dance with the Joe Goode Performance Group. That was my dream — which didn’t end up happening, but I took a lot of classes with those folks. My early training is in ballet, and I had the usual moment of reckoning that a lot of us have with ballet, which is that virtually zero percent of people can really be successful at it without a lot of pain and heartache. And so I made the decision when I was in my teens to not go the full ballerina route, and began studying contemporary dance instead. I think it was later that I really came to think, “Okay, I have to make art, I have to make my own work,” and a lot of that impulse came from wanting to perform in a certain way that wasn’t happening as much in the dance world.
One night I went to this drag club — got dragged there, literally, by a friend. I was this good little dancer, who’d go to class and go to bed early and I was reading a lot of theory and I liked drag queens and I loved the aesthetic, you know, but didn’t know how much I needed it. When I got taken to Trannyshack, I became a screaming fan. I’ve told the story in shows that I’ve made: the first night that I went was Riot Grrrl night. I was like, “Okay, there are drag queens being feminists? With armpit hair and imitating PJ Harvey? Oh my god, this is home. This is my people.”
KL: Do you remember some of the drag queens in that show?
MJ: Rentecca did Hole’s “Rock Star,” then Heklina did “Sheela-Na-Gig” by PJ Harvey. A couple weeks later I went to Prince night, and that was the first time I saw Glamamore, and it might have been the first time I saw Ana Matronic. I was like, “Oh, that’s a woman. They might let me perform.” My friend Kevin Clarke and I started performing at Trannyshack shortly thereafter. Our first number was about gay marriage. This was in 1998, so it’d been an issue for a long time. We both played Mormon missionaries, so I did boy drag, and we had these tear-away suits… So yeah, that’s the very abridged version of how I came to this. How about you?
KL: I went to Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. I actually studied art history and English. A fun fact, which I don’t talk about very often — I also did modern dance. After graduating I decided to take a year off from academia and spend my time figuring out whether or not I was going to go to grad school. I had this strong desire to dance, so I joined this very small company in New Brunswick. For six months we worked on Subtext, a show about all of the things that people don’t say to each other. I guess we expected some writer or choreographer to come and see how fabulous it was and invite us to continue performing, ideally in New York. That didn’t happen and we were like, “What do we do now?” I was heartbroken because it became very apparent that the next step was going to be to make another show, but that took a lot of time and a lot of energy. I should also mention we had no funding and made very little money. [laughs]
MJ: Oh, I know. That’s Dance.
KL: Then a friend of mine was like, “Hey, I’m moving to San Diego, do you want to come?” Literally that easy. I packed a car and drove to San Diego, California. And I lived there for two years. I was doing this Allan Kaprow-style happening all over San Diego. We would put large pieces of canvas on the ground and then we would strip down to our skivvies and invite people who would just be walking through Balboa Park to come, take off their clothes, and paint with their bodies with us. And while doing all this fun art stuff, I decided to go to grad school to do something more practical, and the practical thing I thought was to study traditional Chinese medicine. My partner at the time was itching for a change, and I was too. We were like, “Let’s move to San Francisco.” I had been once. We packed all of our stuff in a U-Haul; I transferred grad schools, and my first SF apartment was on Haight and Cole. Once here I quickly started participating in nightlife. One of my first nights out was going to this gay disco party called Go BANG! And it was at… what was that space on Larkin maybe? I can’t remember the name of it, but it used to be a gay club, now it’s a straight club. SF has lost a lot of queer venues in the last eight years I’ve lived here to gentrification, exorbitant rents, and the great queer migration to the East Bay.
I continued exploring queer nightlife in San Francisco and found myself at this queer ’60s vinyl-only daytime dance party called Hard French. It used to happen the first Saturday of the month at El Rio in the Mission. I remember dancing onstage and being invited back for a paid gig. They were like, “Hey, would you like to dance at this party?” And I said, “I would love to dance at this party. And you’re going to give me money to dance at this party? Cool, I didn’t even know that that was a job that people could have.” [laughs] And then next thing you know I was asked to organize the Hard French Jiggalicious Dancers, a group of dynamic and amazing performers that would dance on stage during every party. That’s when I really started getting involved in SF’s vibrant nightlife scene, going to venues like The Stud, Public Works, The Eagle, Powerhouse, and Hole in the Wall. At the time, I wasn’t seeing lots of events specifically supporting artists of color, so I created the brand Swagger Like Us with my business partner David Richardson. We started bringing in POC artists from all over the country to perform, dance, and DJ. Producing events reminded me of my artistic background, and inspired me to do some more visual arts and performance productions, which in turn set me on my arts curatorial practice. I was a curator in residence last year at SOMArts, where James Fleming and I co-curated a large visual arts show and program called Touch On — James and I were just told that we were awarded the Alternative Exposure grant to do another project in 2018.
MJ: And that’s through who?
KL: Southern Exposure and The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
KL: Yeah, I’m super stoked. And that’s the abridged version of how I found myself working at the intersection of nightlife, visual arts, and performance.
MJ: Touch On was amazing. After the horrible election, it felt like the first time we all put on an outfit and showed our faces and hugged each other and saw some great art. It was beautiful and festive. It kind of felt like the office Christmas party, in that it was just different enough from a night out at a club that we had to have different conversations. I love all of the conversations I have in loud clubs, on dance floors, but you can just have a different kind of conversation, like we’re having right now at a kitchen table.
KL: Absolutely. I think it’s really interesting how we both have experienced nightlife as a space that helped us develop the ideas and practices that we currently have. A lot of people see nightlife as a space for drugs, sex, and rock and roll, but it’s also a space to share ideas. Like you were just saying, lots of important conversations happen on the dance floor. A lot of the people who were in Touch On I met on a dance floor.
MJ: Totally. That was what was wonderful about those early days of Trannyshack, too, it attracted all these smart people, like Jim Winters, Kirk Maxson, all those painters and artists who were also doing drag in that era. Jim did a lot of portraits of queens in the ’90s, but he also used to perform in a duo called Shindig and they would do these weird, arty, kind of drag/non-drag performances. Kirk Maxson makes these beautiful metal flowers and things now, but he had a drag character called Kay White. She had a kooky Weimar Berlin frizzy wig look, she was tiny and scary, and fabulous.
So all of these characters — and Vinsantos, and Glamamore, and Juanita, and Ana, all of those people who I loved were at Trannyshack, but they were already working at the intersection of performance and drag, art and drag. It was through drag that I went back and put my pointe shoes on and started doing ballet again, because if you’re a drag queen no one cares if your thighs are too big or whatever. And then I realized, “Oh, I’m not that bad at ballet actually!” So my practice folded both together. Later I realized that even in the early days of my ballet training, I was looking deeply at and digging into feminine performance.
KL: That’s really beautiful. You know, it’s interesting connecting the Trannyshack days to what I see my contemporaries, our contemporaries doing now. So many new queens who have thriving artistic practices, like VivvyAnne ForeverMORE a.k.a. Mica Sigourney, Dia Dear, boychild, watching them first at drag venues like the Stud and now seeing them perform all over the world, they use nightlife as a space for cultivating ideas around performance.
MJ: Yes. It’s really exciting to see. I feel really fortunate to have been at the vanguard of taking drag into museums and taking art practice into drag clubs and to be in that lineage of people. And Helen Shumaker, with whom I spoke as part of Lost and Found last February, had a one-woman show in the ’80s and she didn’t see it as drag at all, but I think with our expanded notions of drag I can point to her as part of my performance lineage, which also includes John Kelly and Cindy Sherman, and Marina Abramović, and Sandra Bernhard, and Justin Vivian Bond — I mean oh my god I’m so fortunate to call that one my friend!
Going back to my early days in San Francisco — in a lot of ways it was insular, that community, but you could watch the show one week, then go to Heklina, Trannyshack’s founder, and ask to perform the next week. And she’d say, “Do you do drag? You have to be in drag.” But then the idea of what drag is was really wide. I performed off and on a lot in those early years. In 2002 a friend of mine who had done a lot of backup dancing with Juanita More! told me I should talk to her. And so I contacted Juanita and said, “I’d love to work with you,” and it was so crazy, I thought I would have to audition or something and she was like, “Yeah, sure, come on down to rehearsal.” I must have been vouched for or something but that was really when I got in with, you know, the family. That was when Mr. David made me my first outfit.
KL: That’s how you know you’ve made it, when Mr. David makes you a look.
MJ: It’s the best! It was for a benefit for the Tenderloin AIDS Resource Center and the theme was the Tenderloin in the fifties. David made me this bright orange silk suit, a high-waisted pencil skirt, and a smart little jacket. He made that for me to be a backup dancer and I’ve worn it to weddings! And then fast-forward to 2007, the first show that Mr. David did at the de Young, which was a collaboration between him and me.
KL: What a perfect example of moving from the nightclub to a museum. What did that feel like, performing on the de Young stage versus performing on a smaller bar stage like The Stud?
MJ: It was huge and supported and beautiful. I was sweating it a little bit because David kept asking people to be in it, so the number of performers went from twelve to forty. I remember standing in one of the galleries watching people walk the runway, watching all of these queens come down the stairs and thinking, “Okay, this looks really beautiful.” And Renee Baldocchi comes up to me — and I was like, “Oh no, is she going to yell at me?” And she just looks at me and says, “Oh my god, this is amazing! I can’t wait to have you back!”
KL: And now you guys have done it —
MJ: So many years! So many years of this lovely relationship with the de Young, and then doing the fellowship there in 2012, which was incredibly supportive and kind of life-changing. Being able to really explore what it is to make work for museums, what it is to bring the sense of the nightclub to the museum, and how that works, and how that might not work sometimes.
KL: I’m doing some curatorial work at UNTITLED, San Francisco, which is happening this month, and I’m doing a special program for the VIP preview night at the Radio Cafe where we’re going to be highlighting artists who perform in nightclubs: VivvyAnne ForeverMORE, Nikki Jizz, the Spice Queers, and Jader. Curating a program for an art space as opposed to a nightclub just has different expectations —
MJ: Right. I’m curious actually about when you came here initially: what drew you to San Francisco? What were some of your expectations and some of the realities you discovered?
KL: San Diego can be quite conservative; I was looking for a queerer space. I wanted to experience walking down the street holding my boyfriend’s hand and not worry about being perceived as doing something wrong. The Bay has been very nurturing to me. Folks here are like, “Oh my god, welcome; who are you; what do you do; and where do you need help and support?” I feel really fortunate. We’ve seen each other many times out at gallery openings or on a dance floor, and I really cherish moments like this, connecting with folks I’m in community with. What about you?
MJ: Yeah, me too! It’s so great to connect like this. But, about expectations upon coming here — now maybe we’re not weighed down by the same binaries as we were then, but after I moved here and started dancing professionally I realized that there are like six times as many women in the dance world as there are men. Men are cherished and valued and are never at a loss for work and women are a dime a dozen. It was really hard: I was presenting this thing that isn’t actually in demand, even though I am talented and well-trained. I do think it takes a while (I was 21, 22) to then work on cultivating your interesting point of view, your artistry, and who you are, and making the thing that you are be interesting.
Ultimately the thing that made the work make sense for me was drag. It was that permissiveness. There was a moment too, and it was a political moment, like now, when we were all thinking about where we were coming from and whose voices needed to be heard and whose voices maybe didn’t need to be heard as much. And so there was part of me for a while that was like, “I’m a liberal arts educated white girl, who really needs to hear what I have to say?” I kind of bowed out for a while, and stepping back into it came through this drag world, where you can be whoever you are and whoever you want to be. I needed that nudge: “Oh, drag is also mine to play with. Femininity is also mine to play with.” Actually, it’s the performance of femininity that I’ve always been looking at. That’s where my work really sits.
KL: I love hearing you talk about how San Francisco gave you the space to grow into yourself. How would you describe your relationship between the work we see on concert stages here and the work happening in clubs and parties? How has that relationship changed over the years? What are the strong connections, the fractures, the boundaries? Since you’ve danced pointe in the club, and you’ve also done pointe on gallery and museum floors.
MJ: And I’ve also done pointe at Gay Pride in Sicily (on cobblestones, by the way). Wrap your mind around that. That was another thing that doing Fauxnique led to. These Italian queens — faux queens and drag kings — doing this work and then inviting me to be part of this festival they put together in 2013. That really put things in perspective — in San Francisco we were all kind of like, “Oh, you know, our grand marshal’s not politicized enough,” and in Sicily there are people actively trying to shut that shit down. These are people who are really struggling to have their gay pride. That was incredibly moving.
My work is pretty situation- and site-specific. When I watch a performer at The Stud get on the floor, I’m like, “Girl, I can only see you from the waist up, don’t get on the floor, climb up on a platform.” And there are some places where a drag number is just not going to work, like a daytime realness situation. I love that there’s a club night called Daytime Realness… I made an evening-length work in June that was Fauxnique, but Fauxnique in a contemporary dance and art context. It was a really nice kind of luxury to be able to put the aesthetics of Fauxnique into this situation that was about stretching out time and being quiet and rolling on the floor or ripping up the space in different ways. I think any work that is thrilling has a nice combination of taking the space into account but also giving us something that we might not normally see in that space.
KL: My practice as a curator is very similar. I’m definitely a site-specific curator. I’ve done stuff at Above DNA, which has a 200-person capacity. And then I’ve done things at the Mezzanine, which has a 1000-plus person capacity. Touch On at SOMArts was scaling up tremendously. We had to have lots of conversations around, “how do you fill a space that big?” It’s not only big in terms of square footage, the ceiling is something like thirty-plus feet high. You have to think about verticality. I’ve also had the pleasure of curating or watching something in a club and deciding to bring it to a gallery space. I don’t know if you know who India Sky Davis is, she does Topsy Turvy Queer Circus? She’s an acrobat and pole artist, a super beautiful and strong dancer, and just an incredible, incredible human being. I got to see India perform at a nightclub in Oakland and then asked her to come and perform in the SOMArts Main Gallery. We had proper lights and we added depth to the performance with projection. I think that spaces like museums and galleries can provide performers an opportunity to highlight what they’re doing as art, you know?
MJ: Yeah, with the work I make, I have always thought about it as art. But it does allow people to see it that way. When they go into a club, I think smart people will say, “Oh my god, that’s art.” But some people might not think that they’re invited to see it as art. Or they might not be paying attention — in the club sometimes, there’s so much to pay attention to.
KL: It also helps people who are in clubs realize that they like art. I’ve had people tell me, “I don’t really follow art,” and I’m like, “you experience art so often.” And it just reminds people, “Oh yeah, that thing that I saw Glamamore do? That’s art. And I liked that.”
MJ: And conversely, I’ve found that there tends to be a little bit of a a scarcity mentality around audience building in the dance world. That was the other wonderful, refreshing, amazing thing about performing at the club: here was this weekly practice if I wanted it, with the potential for 200 people in the audience. Which, you know, for contemporary dance you might get eighty people in the audience, and that’s really big. What I found is that the club audiences were curious queers who would go out to multiple things in a night. They’re hungry. The dance audience won’t go to the drag show at midnight, but the drag audience will go to the dance show and then go to the drag midnight show.
KL: That’s so true. We have a hierarchy and we see things in clubs as sometimes lesser than or as works in progress as opposed to things that are in museums or galleries or on the concert stage as a more fulfilled or completed idea.
MJ: And you say “we” meaning the culture.
MJ: Cause we, you and I —
KL: We get it. You know, I think that we have to talk a little bit about the culture of drag houses. I think that a lot of people who might read this won’t know what a drag house is. Drag houses are communities of individuals who get together and do drag. They give each other makeup tips; they help each other get gigs; they are emotional support for each other; they’re literally family units. The House of More! is a perfect example of a tradition and a legacy that I’ve had the opportunity to watch grow. It’s intergenerational. From Glama to Juanita to Vivvy to now Dulce de Leche and Nikki Jizz. Watching that trajectory of performers and all of their spectacular performances has been incredible.
MJ: Totally. I’m representing Glamamore — my fairy goddess drag mother — in my Glamamore t-shirt. I’m sort of a relation of the House of More!, which is also multi-disciplinary: Juanita and David/Glamamore do such amazing work of integrating all of these cultural phenomena and embracing life in this full way. Juanita, with all of her cooking and activism and appreciation of aesthetics and fashion — there’s this beautiful balance of fashion and pleasure and doing good in the world that is so impressive.
KL: They also sing and dance and curate extraordinary and elegant events. Talk about a collective that really can do everything from a drag stage to a museum stage.
MJ: You’re quite the interdisciplinary artist yourself. You do so much.
KL: Thank you. I think of us both as political creatures: Your daily actions and work are shot through with political integrity, and you think about the political dimensions of live work, of bodies coming together in rooms, of the possibilities around spectacle, entertainment, and pleasure. A lot of my practice is politically infused. I always try to prioritize marginalized voices, whether voices of color, women, trans bodies. Whenever I talk to anyone from a marginalized group and I ask them what it is they need or want, it’s always money or opportunity. So I feel really fortunate to be given platforms and be able to bring people with me. I might not be holding a picket sign, I might not be marching in protest, but my curatorial practice is definitely a protest. I have found a way to integrate my political views into my practice.
MJ: Oh yeah, definitely. I’m so struck by Swagger Like Us and where and how it’s landed and just how much we need it right now. There’s a defiance in the joy that it brings, which is so important. The picket signs are necessary, but what you’re doing is also necessary.
KL: I always tell people that Swagger Like Us is a place for people of color to congregate. It’s a place to be carefree, to be happy, and it’s a place to dance and move your body. That’s our mission. That’s it. I feel like that in itself is a radical act. Black joy is a radical act.
MJ: Absolutely. Hard French felt like that, too.
KL: When I first started going to Hard French five or six years ago, it felt revolutionary to me. It was the first space where I was really invited and welcomed. It was the first space that felt like a genuinely a queer space. A space where women were welcome, men were welcome, people of color were welcome. I was able to hire dancers of size, I was able to hire whomever, and no one ever questioned any of my decisions or choices. They loved anyone and everyone that I put on stage. You’re absolutely right, I think Hard French is one of those spaces that has had a political resonance to its existence.
MJ: It was so much about love and lineage too. So interesting and curious, we would go there and love it but I would laugh with my friend Karl — OMG these kids, these kids are dancing to music that’s over fifty years old. This would be us like dancing to big band or something; it really feels like a reclaiming of music made by Black people from white baby boomers.
KL: Also having the overlap or added dimension of a whole bunch of queer bodies dancing to ’60s soul music.
MJ: Exactly, queer bodies. And my favorite, a butch dandy. Or a shameless femme. All of it coming together in a beautiful space. And for all of the arguments around the word, I am just going to keep saying the name because that’s its name, Trannyshack — and that word at that point was a word of the community and no one else outside of the community used. It was this umbrella term and in that club it was similar. Everyone came together under that umbrella, and very respectfully and joyfully. Transwoman sex workers, drag queens, straight cross-dressers, baby dykes, bears, twinks, first-time ladies with their gay besties. I’ve been writing about this (I’m working on a book project) and I was just trying to get in the mindset of the first time going there, and this queen being like, “Oh girl, stand in front of me! Fierce, you can see the stage.” That generous spirit is important to remember. I love the visibility that things like RuPaul’s Drag Race have given drag but it’s important not to lose the love and the complexity that these places were welcoming, in a very broad way.
KL: Yes, I appreciate you touching on the cultural shift that’s happened around Trannyshack, which is now Mother because Heklina was like, “I acknowledge that the word ‘tranny’ no longer holds the same meaning as it did when we used it in the late ’90s or early ’00s.” Talking about performers and drag queens who have had long lineages in San Francisco and the Bay Area and who have had to also adapt with the changing times. Trannyshack was important for its time for all the reasons that you have talked about and now it’s evolving to reflect what’s needed right now, and right now needs Mother. And the parties Creature and High Fantasy, and all of these beautiful drag nights that are incubating these extraordinary performance artists, performers, and dancers.
MJ: I also think it is important that there are spaces where people feel like it is their space. As a white, not always queer-appearing woman, I’ve always had respect for queer spaces. Some queer spaces are mine and some aren’t mine. I wouldn’t go to a bachelorette party anyway, but I just don’t think they should be at drag shows. I don’t connect to any of that straight woman culture stuff.
KL: I think where we overlap is we’re both creatures from the fringes. Several of the spaces we mentioned highlight where our queernesses overlap and intersect. I always encourage people to have more complex and nuanced conversations about queerness because I think sexuality and gender are just the beginning of the conversation; there are so many other elements that compose somebody’s identity that also encompass queerness. Fauxnique is such a queer character. Anyone who would try to contest that would be foolish.
MJ: Thank you, thank you.
KL: Women doing drag is a very queer concept. There are so many things about your practice that feel intrinsically queer.
MJ: Right, right, right. I think too, when you see it, you get it. One of the things that’s sometimes hard is when there’s conversations online about things people haven’t seen.
Fauxnique has always been a feminist doing drag; it’s only been recently that I’ve announced it as such. The F-word, my drag feminist cabaret show, was a very explicit, I-am-making-a-feminist-show statement. And then the last work C*NT, or, The Horror of Nothing to See was Fauxnique in a dance context working with feminist theory and really interrogating feminist thought — and of course that’s a very expanded intersectional trans-welcoming version of what feminism is. But as I say in my solo show, I can only speak for my location on the intersection.
KL: Which is so real.
MJ: A person who’s been really influential to me around my work being political is Justin Vivian Bond, who brings such a great combination of joy and irreverence and the political. And all those queens who I saw perform at the ’shack — there was a lot of political work going on. What struck me early on when I went into the club scene was what the dance scene lacked. Dance world people were lovely but there was always this kind of, “Oh, we don’t have enough money to put on this show.” It was also a lot of liberal arts college-educated white women taking dance class together and talking about community. And then I was in a club where there are people of color, there are people of size, there are people from radically different economic and cultural backgrounds, there are people for whom English isn’t their first language. I suddenly have friends from all of those places. Friends who are twenty-five years older than me. In the club there was this community that was super diverse and integrated without making a big deal about it and maybe without intending it, but just because of the ways in which we intersected around that culture. It was also a really willing group of people, who, when you would say, “I want to do a show” would go “Great! I’ll help you make this! I’ll help you make that! Do you have two rolls of toilet paper and some tape? You’ve got a set!” Instead of “Oh, we need to apply for a grant.” I was in a community that felt, for the first time, like a community.
Keith Hennessy was a huge influence on me in terms of being a mentor, being a political artist, and being one of the first people who really saw my work as Fauxnique being art and being completely integrate-able with dance work. He was instrumental. And then Beth Pickens — who I think you probably know — she’s a brilliant arts consultant and thinker: one of those valuable people in the world who doesn’t make art but loves and values artists. I remember saying, “I don’t really know if my art is political.” And she was like, “Are you a woman? Do you make art? Your art is political.” Like thank you, okay. I think it’s the same — are you a person of color? Do you make art? Your art is political.
How do you think about what you do, given how fraught society feels right now?
KL: To be honest, I’ve really submerged even deeper into the bubble that is San Francisco; this bubble really protects us from a lot of the chaos of the outside world. That’s why my business partner and I have been trying to bring Swagger Like Us to other communities outside of San Francisco and give people a taste of the Bay. We’ve gone to Portland, Seattle, LA, Fresno, New York, and as far as Sydney and Melbourne. We’re trying to remind people that in all this chaos there are still moments for beauty, joy, celebration, community, and connection. I think it’s my job — to remind people of the beauty of the world that still exists, despite the fact that the world might seem like it’s burning all around us. That’s really hard to hold, to convince yourself and others that we need to celebrate, that there’s things to celebrate still. I feel like it’s what I was called to do, so I’m going to continue to do it.
MJ: Yeah, totally. Another thing Beth says is that some people’s job is to walk with picket signs, and some people’s job is to talk to people who they don’t agree with, and some people’s job is to write letters, and some people’s job is to make art and create spaces. And that’s what you’re creating — a space for people to come together like that. So important and you know, just being confident that what you’re doing in the way that you’re doing it is making some kind of waves of change.
KL: I’ve been reading José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia. He talks about how we experience and have experienced moments of utopia in our present and past. I feel like Swagger Like Us is this utopic moment, where a whole bunch of Black and brown bodies, a whole bunch of trans bodies, can get together and not have a care in the world. To feel safe, to feel beautiful, to feel like they’re celebrated. And to feel like maybe the rest of the world thinks the same.
MJ: Good, good. What kind of feedback have you gotten from people about that? Is the feedback just in the people showing up?
KL: Similar to you, I didn’t realize that the work I was doing was political until someone told me the work I was doing was political. Any day of the week you could go out and see another white guy DJ. You could go see another white man dancing on stage. You could see another white man singing a sad song. I just wanted to provide the balance to all that. I wanted to give a stage and a space for all the other fringes to come together and be like, “Okay, this is our stage, this is our space to do the dance, do the song, do this performance.”
MJ: I think there’s a way in which Trannyshack always was good at integrating women and maybe to a lesser extent folks of color, although there was a big Latina influence. I don’t want to get myself in trouble, but whatever, my critique of Mother is that it’s really — Heklina is a businesswoman, a good businesswoman. She would always bring in a co-host, and it was the co-hostess that mixed things up, so it wasn’t always Heklina’s curatorial vision. When I was Miss Trannyshack, I suggested themes like “My Literary Heroines.” [laughs] And “Feminism 101.” But I feel like right now the themes are just always “such-and-such tribute night.” In that way, it’s just going to be reflecting what pop culture is including, which is not enough people of color, not enough queerness.
KL: That’s what make people like Honey Mahogany super important. I loved the event Mahogany Mondays at the Midnight Sun, which would always feature drag artists of color. Now Honey’s hosting Black Fridays at the Stud. So there are spaces and there are drag shows that are highlighting other communities and I think that Honey Mahogany, who was on RuPaul’s Drag Race, is for sure leading that charge.
MJ: And those spaces need to be held. But it’s also really important for non-POC queens to do better in that way. I’ve never been a separatist. I’ve never wanted to just be with the girls; where I grew and got confident and had meaningful experiences was with my hat in the ring with everybody in one place. There’s a part of me of course that’s like, “I love this sort of feminism, the Riot Grrrl movement of like, we’re going to start our own record label.” I think that’s super important, but I think being part of the bigger conversation and showing up there is also important, even though it can get frustrating. You can encounter racism, sexism — and again, I’ve never wanted to show up in spaces that I feel are misogynistic spaces. I don’t hang out with misogynists — you’re maybe more likely to encounter clueless people in those spaces than you are when you know it’s your people. But at the same time I think having the cross-pollination is really important.
KL: I generally agree with you. I think that’s why spaces like Mahogany Mondays, Black Fridays, Swagger Like Us, and these more niche spaces within an already fringe community are important. These events highlight and give performers a chance to show what they can do. I hope people who have larger nights, will be like, “Oh, let’s get these girls who do these other nights to come in and perform.” A lot of times getting your start is the hardest part, and the above spaces exist to help people get their start. So people can be like, “This girl knows what she’s doing, let’s get her on our stage too.”
MJ: In terms of all of the shitty things that have been happening, and especially all of the stuff around women stepping forward about sexual assault and harassment — it’s rampant in every industry, and especially for women of color in other industries, not just actresses with lots of clout — there’s an industry like comedy, where one of the conversations that is happening is that it’s so hard for women in those spaces that they just quit. They don’t feel like they’re welcome to even get their start. I’ve been thinking a lot about systemic issues, about how people develop confidence.
KL: You had mentioned in the beginning of this conversation how a space like Trannyshack was super important to you because you went there, saw Ana Matronic performing and you thought, “I could get on the stage and do that.” And then you reached out and you did it. That’s why I think we need to have a multitude of spaces, because when people see reflections of themselves, it lets them know they can do anything. Once their confidence has a solid foundation, folks may feel a lot more comfortable moving onto a more complex stage or environment where there aren’t as many reflections of themselves. It’s all part of a larger conversation. It’s all important.
MJ: Americans love to glorify the pioneer. We love to glorify the individual who breaks down the barriers. It’s actually really hard to do that if you don’t see yourself represented. If every queen on the stage at Mother and every queen being imitated onstage at Mother is white, then you’re like, “Is this a space where I can actually exist, thrive, and be valued?”
Can you talk about some of the spaces that nurtured you — the clubs, the parties, the presenters, the theaters, the online networks as well, if it makes sense? Think about the overall infrastructure and ecosystem of performance in the Bay.
KL: The Bay Area has a very particular ecosystem. San Francisco has one of the most interesting and diverse drag scenes because it’s not always about being… how do I want to articulate this? It’s not always about performing your best woman, it’s more about, “Yes, we’re going to talk about femininity and we’re going to talk about the intersections with femininity and the art of being a drag queen and all the types of people who can be drag queens and drag queens with beards and drag queens without beards and drag queens with bellies and drag queens without bellies.”
MJ: What bodies can do, you know? And all these modes of shock and horror and humor.
KL: And beauty.
MJ: And art and silence and stillness. And fierceness. And Marilyn Monroe.
KL: And I think that the Bay Area does that really well.
KL: I’m so surprised that there aren’t more Bay Area queens on RuPaul’s Drag Race. The queens here are literally some of the most dynamic and interesting queens. I’ll admit, in the little of RuPaul’s Drag Race that I’ve watched, it seems a lot of the same.
MJ: I know, me too.
KL: We are going to get torn apart —
MJ: They’re going to come for us. No, they are not going to come. RuPaul will never read this. What is the connection to drag that you feel? I don’t see you as a drag queen.
KL: I’m definitely not a drag queen, but I’m definitely a lover of experimental drag, and the Bay has really provided a space for me to redefine how I understood something I thought I knew well. I grew up on the East Coast and I saw drag shows in New York and New Jersey. I saw a very one-dimensional type of show there. It was always a man trying to be his best woman —
MJ: What my friend, Precious Moments, used to call: “Look at me, I’m a Lady.”
KL: Very quickly in my experience in San Francisco Bay Area nightlife, I realized that’s not what was happening here and that the drag culture here was very peculiar, very experimental, very adventurous, and that set it apart from drag that I’ve seen all over the world.
MJ: What’s amazing is the way you put that, which is that drag helped you shift your attitude about something, that drag represents a larger-scale paradigm shift.
KL: I think living in the Bay Area everyone comes to their paradigm shift moment. I thought I understood what drag was. And then living in San Francisco, I was like, “Maybe I don’t understand what drag is.” And then I was like, “What else don’t I know?”
MJ: I think that I had a similar thing. I had built my identity around being a dancer in a certain way. And I was like, okay, maybe I can let go of a few things. That was right around the same time I went to a rave for the first time and tried ecstasy for the first time, which was when I was twenty-seven, which is so late.
KL: Right on time.
MJ: I remember dancing in that state for the first time being this incredibly important moment because this was one of the first times I really danced in pure joy, not being afraid that the guy who’s kind of hitting on me is going to go in some weird way, or being afraid I look fat, or being afraid I’m not good. That state created this absence of fear and atmosphere of trust.
And of course one can critique the darker sides of that — but I had been such a successfully brainwashed product of the Nancy Reagan just-say-no-to-drugs generation. I didn’t realize how puritanical I had been in my thinking about the art I was making. Which doesn’t serve it. So, yeah, those paradigm shifts are so important. “What else don’t I know?” is such a great way of putting it. With this chaos and horror that we’re experiencing in the world, do you think it’s a right time for continuing to ask those questions or do you feel like this is a time to be like, “this I know, fuck this other shit”?
KL: I think we’re in a right time for art-making. The art that comes from this moment is going to be really dynamic, it’s going to be really innovative. Right now is, yes, hard. But we’re going to see really rich art-making, really rich dancing, really rich community building. I’m super excited to see what happens next.
MJ: Me too, me too.