What is drag, anyway? We've all seen queens strutting their stuff at gay bars or comically feminine cross-dressers in the theater, but as the artform expands and explodes, how do we even define this type of expression? While drag has gained new levels of accessibility with television shows like RuPaul's Drag Race and social media platforms like Instagram, the performers at this weekend's Bushwig festival in Brooklyn, New York are challenging the mainstream idea of what a drag queen even is.
Organized by beloved Brooklynite Horrorchata, Bushwig has expanded from a small gathering of underground queer artists into a full two-day festival with over 100 performers. What started in a small backyard venue slowly grew over half a decade. This year, the Wigstock-inspired festival took over The Knockdown Center, a sprawling warehouse art space just on the outskirts of Bushwick, Brooklyn. For the first time, the festival featured a food area and an entire vendor section (lovingly named Bushschwag) with local makers selling their handicrafts and comestibles.
Horrorchata organized the festival just "as the Brooklyn scene was taking off" after noticing the sudden explosion of drag artists in the trendy city. "I feel like one day everyone just woke up and was like 'I'm a drag queen!' I don't know! It was just really crazy, I loved it!" she told me.
While the idea of a drag festival evokes images of big hair and glitter, most of the artists (and even the wildly dressed audience!) at the event this year were truly pushing the limits of gender expression, combining avant-garde fashions and makeup with subversive and often political performances. For example: one of the first artists on Saturday, Qween Amor, performed mostly nude whole forcing a plastic Donald Trump mask to explore their nether regions.
But if drag is no longer about cross-gender impersonation, and it's no longer limited to gay men, how are we to define it? "For me, [Drag] is a really awesome opportunity to play this hyper-feminized ideal woman, what you want me to be, and then crash that and smash that. It's a way to expand what gender can be and what performance can be," explained bio-queen (a biologically female drag queen) Miss Cuntstrude. "Everyone should have the opportunity to dissect the gender that's been forced upon them. I think drag is inherently political but it's also a f*cking blast. It's an opportunity to say something and also have a laugh about it."
Pushing this idea to its terrifying endpoint, some of the performers at Bushwig barely even resembled humans. Hystée Lauder, for example, donned a giant plaster claw and bled black liquid from her stomach while mouthing the words to Laurie Anderson's "Oh Superman" and emitting horrifying screams.
"Part of me is wondering about the double-edged nature of drag becoming mainstream," she continued. "[Drag] is not always optimistic. A lot of it is like 'I'm f*cked.' I like that though! Optimism kind of turns me off in away. Especially in the political climate that we're in right now."
Renowned club kid Lady Simon largely concurred and bemoaned the increased visibility of the genre: "I'm really more into the tiny, small undergroundness [of drag] but it's cool that we're getting a lot of recognition. I have the not-popular opinion on this issue: queerness in society being accepted is amazing but it was cooler when only a couple of people did it and only a few people got it. A lot of people were scared of it."
"But people are growing up! Kids are growing up and they're f*cking gay at like, 4 years old," Simon added. "It's cool that they have people to look up to. That they can be weird and different and be OK. I can't hate on that."
While lip-syncs were the predominant medium for Bushwig performers, queens from diverse backgrounds and genders used everything from acrobatics to electric guitars to express themselves. Some showed up looking like cartoon ladies, others like surrealist sculptures. One thing everyone, including the sparkly audience members, had in common: no one was having a bad time.
"If this sh*t was around when I was in high school, I would have shown up to class in full make up every day!" said Lady Havokk, a nine-year industry veteren who sees the mainstreaming of drag entirely as a positive. "It's so much fun! If you're not having fun, you're not doing drag!"
Meanwhile, girls like Erika Klash are offering an entirely different interpretation of the situation. Presenting herself as "New York City's video game, anime, and bukake drag queen," Erika paints herself to look like various characters from sci fi and fantasy. While the worlds of comic book conventions and queer nightlife might seem rather disparate, Erika notes the similarities in the discourses between the two: "The point of drag is to challenge notions and to showcase transformational artistry: costuming, make-up, hair. If you're doing all of those things you should be allowed to participate. Drag [challenges] gender notions and gender norms."
"I do female video game and anime characters. I also specialize in Japanese street fashion looks," Erika said. "There's a lot of debate about if people of color can cosplay as Asian characters, for example. There's a lot of self-stratification within these smaller groups that I think we need to challenge."
But what if we stopped thinking about drag as an artform and started thinking of it as a community? Without sounding too sappy: perhaps, this was the point of Bushwig after all. The festival seems to be giving a voice and creating a tribe for those so often rejected by most of society, who (despite rapid social change) still see queer people as -- at best -- strange and at worst undeserving of human dignity. Certainly the mood of the crowd confirmed this: with cheek kisses and warm hugs aplenty, the leaders of Bushwig have created a safe space for all genders to embrace each other.
"Drag has recreated a family for me," said Thee Suburbia.
"I have a great blood family. But drag has created a larger, extended family for me. Whether they want me around or not, everyone here is a family member. I learn something about myself every time I go out in drag."
[Photos: Eric Shorey, featured image of Chicito Ba Nay Nay]