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Arts Initiative

The politics of drag for LGBTQ+ History Month: U-M expert offers insights

Jamie Sherman Blinder

University of Michigan professor Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes, author of “Translocas: The Politics of Puerto Rican Drag and Trans Performance,” is available to discuss drag as an art form and the politics of drag for LGBTQ+ History Month. 

He will moderate a panel discussion about drag as resistance with “RuPaul’s Drag Race” star Monet X Change and other local drag queens at Ann Arbor’s Necto Oct. 12. The panel is organized by the U-M Arts Initiative and U-M Museum of Art as part of the Arts & Resistance theme semester.

La Fountain-Stokes, who performs drag locally, is a professor of American culture, Spanish, Latina/o studies, and women’s and gender studies. He talks below about drag in society and his 20 years of research in the field.

Performing drag

I taught a first year seminar at U-M through the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts entitled ‘Drag in America,'” he said. “So for me, drag is something I write about, it’s something I teach, and it’s something I perform. I’ve performed as Lola von Miramar since 2010. 

It has been really interesting as a person who is primarily a scholar—my salary from the University of Michigan comes from being a professor, not an artist—but as a person who writes about drag, it was really meaningful and useful to perform in drag, to be able to write from an insider, outsider perspective.

Politics of drag

Drag, in addition to being a form of entertainment, in addition to being a subcultural expression very linked frequently to LGBT cultures, in addition to being an art form and something that is fun and that people like to do, is also a type of resistance and there are politics linked to drag performance whether it is done by cisgender people or transgender people.

Drag is a term that is related to political struggles, it is related to artistic expression, and it is also a type of employment. Rather recently, several states and politicians wanted to ban drag or say drag was dangerous to society and should not be allowed in proximity to schools or churches or to young people. It was a type of political censorship as much as artistic and work censorship. I think it really helped a lot of people clarify the politics involved.

For example, when Tennessee, then Texas, then Florida and other states, tried to ban drag, it became much clearer for people how drag has become a touchpoint in culture wars, in wars about LGBT rights, in discussions about transgender rights and self-expression.

Is drag always making a political statement?

No. It is not a statement no matter what, because anyone can do drag, regardless of their background or their identity. The politics of drag are open—they vary enormously. People bring different commitments and agendas and interests to their drag performance. 

So what is absolutely true is that some people see drag as a profoundly political act. For example, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, in California and now globally—they explicitly see drag as a way to challenge the hypocrisy, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia of the Catholic church and American society. You have artists like Taylor Mac, who has won major awards across the U.S., he is a Macarthur genius grant awardee, and he sees his drag performance as a way to make an intervention about politics, gender, sexuality. 

But it is never not an art form. Any art form can be used to convey and discuss political messages, or not. It’s really a personal choice. Sometimes there are politics associated with the reception, so maybe I think that I am not a political artist, but then immediately when someone tries to ban what I do, it becomes a political performance. Not because of my intention, but because of the resistance to the art form.

Why speak up now?

(In April), there was a growing awareness of the challenges that drag performers face, and how there is this effort to demonize drag performance as something that is inappropriate and dangerous and undesirable. That is why we were so vehement and committed to talking about the social role of drag, its importance and its value as an art form, a type of political expression, as a free speech issue, as a labor issue and as an LGBT issue.

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