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April 14, 2023

A beloved drag star returns to Philly

Controversy, boycotts and outrage are helping to define the brave new world of drag

Tammy Faymous Provided image/Alexander Kacala

Drag performer Alexander Kacala makes his hometown return on Saturday at the City Winery, 990 Filbert St.

It's a pivotal time to be a drag performer in America. Tennessee has put restrictions on drag shows. Other drag events have attracted protests in the Philly area. Last year, a conservative group protested a drag queen story hour at the Cherry Hill Library. It often takes a few outraged people to get an event canceled, though many other advocates and performers are showing up like never before — often in even higher heels.

Alexander Kacala, a performer who is making his hometown return on Saturday to the City Winery, 990 Filbert St, has spent several years working as a journalist in New York City covering LGBTQ issues. Before deciding to resurrect his drag character, Tammy Faymous, loosely inspired by the title of the 2000 documentary "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," Kacala reported on the issues that he now faces as an artist.

Of course, when he originally created Tammy in Philly in 2018 as an erratic pop-meets-punk persona (often tipsy), things were a bit different in the world of drag and in Kacala's own life. RuPaul's Drag Race was fast becoming a hit TV show, ultimately mainstreaming drag for audiences coast to coast, and stepping into a pair of high heels and wig was hardly a risky endeavor in the Gayborhood. Kacala himself also changed – he got sober, which prompted him to take a break from performing until he was ready to get back on stage without the liquid courage.

Ironically, the drag backlash, the new political landscape and the fear and anger many marginalized people are facing has helped to shape Kacala's performance in ways he could have never expected.

"I see drag as a form of rebellion," he shared during a phone call from his Manhattan apartment. The character that he created as a 20-something has evolved into a 36-year-old. While Tammy is perhaps best known for her messy wig, smeared lipstick and love of live music ranging from Patti Smith to Miley Cyrus, it goes deeper. Tammy's entire performance takes stereotypes about gender, what it means to be "pretty," and tosses them around like Tammy does her wig during a particularly riotous show.

Kacala said he's been inspired by a range of performers of different gender identities and artistic styles, including Philly's own Martha Graham Cracker and New York performers Joey Arias and Bridget Everett (star of the acclaimed series Somebody, Somewhere), and even Sandra Bernhard, a longtime icon in the LGBTQ community.

For him, drag is more of a protest than a warm and cuddly experience; it's more punk rock than Drag Race; it's "messy." "As an artist, you are the statement," he said. "Restarting this chapter is the greatest thing." Kacala (in character) will be accompanied by a band for the first time, featuring backup singers, a guitarist, bassist and drummer. Kacala's musical director, Darnell White, is fresh from a regional tour of "Aretha: The Musical."

A brave new drag world

As Tammy steps back on stage in a new set of heels or combat boots (it can go either way), the drag world is admittedly going through some big changes, too, something Kacala knows about from his years at NBC. After spending his media career chronicling LGBTQ people and issues, he keenly understands the distinctions between avant-garde performers, television stars and singers/actors who hail from musical theater. It may all get pushed under the drag umbrella, but it is definitely not the same kind of drag.

Before the recent backlash, an argument could be made that drag had become almost too mainstream. It was everywhere. You could scarcely throw a pair of Mardi Gras beads without hitting another drag brunch. But ever since drag started being targeted by right-wing legislators, the focus on the art form has been stretching to fit new perceptions and places.

"I think RuPaul says it best," Kacala explained, that the controversy over drag is really "a distraction from the real problems" facing our kids, "namely gun violence." For him and many other performers who experiment outside gender norms, the notion that they could be harming kids with messages about love and acceptance is, frankly, "bizarre."

Drag is old, it's the controversy that's new

For better or worse, despite the recent spotlight on drag entertainment, it's nothing new, explained Laurie Greene, anthropologist and author of Drag Queens and Beauty Queens.

"In Western culture, modern drag is first found in the 16th century, where art, including performance, was regulated by the Church. The Church structures demanded that only men could perform, and so men dressed as women to play their roles," Greene replied in an email from Stockton University, where she teaches.

In modern times, drag has also been used as both a form of celebration and activism. It was, after all, black and brown drag and transgender people who inspired the protest at the Stonewall Inn in New York City in 1969, an event that started the modern gay rights movement in the United States.

And what Generation Xer doesn't remember seeing music icons like David Bowie and Boy George blur the lines of gender on MTV throughout the 1980s?

Drag has played a vital part in American pop culture, whether as a powerful statement about fluidity, or even as a punchline (hello, Milton Berle). It's reached all facets of society through every single media imaginable, from TV and music to theatre, social media and movies.

"Drag queens are important to the LGBTQ+ community for many reasons," Greene said. "They have always been on the front lines of gender. They are, for one, unabashedly and unapologetically 'gay,' and are signifiers of LGBTQ identity and a celebration of LGBTQ culture."

Liz Krick, a Philly artist, said that she went to drag shows as soon as she could get into the clubs with her legal ID. "I'm confident that it not only didn't harm me, but enriched my life as a person and an artist," she said, adding that her mom also took her to drag stores in New York City in the 1990s.

Many times, drag is also often the first exposure a lot of people have to LGBTQ culture and identity. "Drag is a highly visible expression of camp sensibility," Greene said. "Camp humor is both a critique of gender norms and a way to cope with the pain caused by homophobia."

I "sometimes get death threats"

Philadelphia drag performer Brittany Lynn (real name: Ian Morrison) has been performing for more than 26 years, first at well-known nightclubs like Shampoo and later as host of Drag Queen Story Hour. But for the first time in almost three decades, the 50-year-old said he's facing protests and death threats.

"It started in 2015," he said by phone."We had protestors at Germantown Friends," and later in Cherry Hill. He said more people tend to show up to counter protest than those who are there to protest him, and that most families who attend these events tend to be heteronormative parents and kids. "They want to expose their kids to diversity," he said, something that has helped him amass a loyal and diverse following.

"We have been the only events to ever sell out at the Please Touch Museum," Morrison said. He's also packed local libraries in recent years, and makes it a point to live stream his story hours on Facebook so people can enjoy them from anywhere there's an online connection.

"The purpose of story time is to teach children literacy and to get them excited to read books and visit libraries," he said. "Drag just happens to be the medium to create excitement." It's only been recently that a few local schools have begun canceling his story time events "after one or two parents complained," Morrison said. "Honestly, there's a certain fear factor because I sometimes do get death threats. But that's not going to stop me from what I do. It's important for kids to encounter different cultures and lifestyles, and for visibility."

He's even gone through an FBI-approved background check so that people who attend his events know he has never been arrested, something he's proud of, but not something he ever expected he would consider doing just to read a book to children. Most coaches, religious leaders and teachers will never be expected to have background checks. But it's a new reality. And at one event last year, he had to be escorted through a back door in full drag to avoid angry protestors yelling epithets.

The audience is in on the gag

According to Greene, there's a misconception about what drag is — and isn't. For example, Morrison's storybook events are specifically designed for kids, while Kacala's cabaret is unapologetically NC-17 and has been ever since he lived in South Philly.

"Tammy would never read a children's book," Kacala joked, saying that all performers have their own lanes and styles. His happens to be ripped from the covers of rock n' roll magazines and high camp.

But not unlike any theatrical event, while some drag shows are designed to be family friendly (the mummers recently featured a troop of drag queens dressed as Disney princesses marching down Broad Street), other shows are for adults in venues that are strictly 21 years and up. This is pretty standard in the world of entertainment. Just as unlikely as it is for a parent to take their kindergartner to an arena rock show, they probably aren't going to try to get them into a nightclub after bedtime, Kacala said.

Greene believes that knowing what drag is (and isn't) can be a real a-ha moment, especially for critics who are trying to spread the message that drag is about grooming kids.

Education and exposure can go a long way, Greene said. "Drag is not cross-dressing. Drag is not female impersonating. Drag is not being transgender," she explained. "Drag is a performance art that plays with normative notions about gender."

She said that drag queens generally are not trying for "realness" as trans individuals might in the ballroom world, which was depicted for mainstream audiences in the TV series Pose. Instead, they create characters that bring light to the "ridiculous nature of gender norms," Greene said, "usually through humor. The audience is in on the gag; that's what makes it drag."

Kacala said after seeing and performing drag around the country, he believes that performers have an obligation to know their audiences and that audiences need to do their homework about what to expect from shows.

That's why when he gets on stage at City Winery this weekend, he doesn't expect to see children in the audience. Frankly, he said, "straight people are bringing kids to shows" that may not be appropriate: "And these are the stories that end up on the news" to try to suggest drag queens are "dangerous."

It can be frustrating for performers who walk the gender and sexuality line through art, something that can be complex in the LGBTQ community where families haven't always been supportive of their queer kids. Kacala said that this arc to family-friendly drag is a natural movement toward wanting to be inclusive in ways that many families have not been until very recently. But up until now, there really hasn't been outrage over it. People who weren't into drag simply didn't go to drag shows.

Never a backlash like we are seeing now

Greene said the newest controversy over drag is actually very new.

"There have been laws in the past that have outlawed 'cross dressing' in general, but I do not remember a backlash against drag in particular like we are seeing today," she said. "But this isn't really about drag in my view. It is more likely generally a posturing against 'liberals' and the inchoate threats that they pose to far-right conservatives, and a way to discriminate indirectly against LGBTQ+ people, especially trans individuals."

Issues like bathroom laws and questions about transgender athletes competing have been talking points for many right-wing politicians in recent years, notably after same-sex marriage was codified into the federal level during the Obama administration.

Greene believes that the more recent discussions about drag are tied to - and are directly influencing - the myriad of anti-transgender legislation that has been proposed or passed in the United States in the past two years. In Arkansas last month, a law was signed requiring children to use a bathroom reflecting the gender on their birth certificate or risk a $1K fine. How this will be policed is a big question.

"The backlash is most likely in response to the increased visibility and successful progress toward equality that have been made for the LGBTQ+ community," Greene said.

It's a sentiment that Morrison believes strongly, especially as an openly gay performer who has found a new way to reach bigger audiences with positive messages about acceptance and inclusion. As he takes the stage as Brittany Lynn at the LGBTQ Center at Penn on April 27 and at the Fishtown Library in June for Pride, he will be welcoming all ages with family-friendly shows.

"If as a kid I went to drag queen story time, it would have made my life a lot better," he said. "I would have known there are more people out there like me."