Heroine Addiction

Giving Gender the Shakes, Four Performers Prove There's Life in Drag Yet

The knock on drag is that it's the new mime, a woozy masquerade passing itself off as crisp commentary on the human condition. All is illusion, ba dum bum bump! Things are not what they seem! It was Freud who pointed out that "when you meet a human being the first distinction you make is 'Male' or 'Female' and you are accustomed to make the distinction with unhesitating certainty." But in the 100 years since Freud began toying with the binaries, all kinds of certainties have gone atilt. Blame postmodern theory, if you like, or Michel Foucault, or Jacques Lacan, or theorist Judith Butler, or Uncle Miltie, or such gender-fuck one-liners as Ru Paul. But the paradigm, you should pardon the expression, has shifted.

Not always the most reliable indicators of social change, the zeitgeist currently has something instructive to say about relaxation in our national obsession with gender. Consider the fact that a loopy matron (Dame Edna Everage) is currently packing the house on Broadway with her wicked invective while swinging a penis beneath her sequined dress; that a doomed stud is romancing small-town girls (Boys Don't Cry) in the cineplexes right now while walking around with an inconvenient vagina between his legs; that a transgendered queen in an East Village bolt-hole (Philip Seymour Hoffman in the forthcoming Flawless) can now inform the bigot downstairs that he's "more man than you'll ever be and more woman than you'll ever have" with every expectation that both bigot and audiences will see his point.

Drag, writes Holly Brubach, author of Girlfriend: Men, Women, and Drag,"relies for its impact on our stubborn conviction that the two sexes, equal or not, are in any case opposite-a model that polarizes men and women." A man is a man, says Brubach, only to the extent that he's not a woman. Increasingly, however, a man is a man to the extent that he's alsoa woman. See Brad Pitt proffering his naked behind in Wmagazine's Fight Club spread, or wearing minidresses in Rolling Stone. "Drag used to be conflated with homosexual identity," claims playwright and transgender activist Kate Bornstein. "That's shifted big time. People are more willing to understand that gender is flexible, that anatomy is not destiny. Suddenly, there's an admission of the possibility of paradox. There's an entire generation, say 10 to 30 years old, for whom the issue of a man in a dress is no big deal."

Not one-liners in a dress. From left: Vera Galupe-Borszkh (Ira Siff), Brini Maxwell (Ben Sander), Varla Jean Merman (Jeff Roberson), and Kiki (Justin Bond)
photograph by Robin Holland
Not one-liners in a dress. From left: Vera Galupe-Borszkh (Ira Siff), Brini Maxwell (Ben Sander), Varla Jean Merman (Jeff Roberson), and Kiki (Justin Bond)

And there's a generation of male performers who don dresses in theatrical settings not to lip synch to Streisand but to ring seditious changes on the absurdities of feminine/masculine. "What's great about all this," says Flawless director Joel Schumacher, "is that they're working from an understanding that a lot of our ideas about gender originate in a big Hollywood joke. These incredible archetypes of manliness and womanliness were invented, basically, by a group of dysfunctional, somewhat aberrant, misplaced, displaced, outcast Jewish men who came to Los Angeles and started a phenomenal industry in which they decided what constituteda man, what is a woman, what is a good mother, what is a stud, what is a whore."

Gender archetypes have been getting a strenuous workout lately from a particularly gifted group of local performers. Justin Bond, for one, has been playing to sold-out houses at Fez with his weekend performances as boozed-up 66-year-old lounge singer Kiki, half of Kiki and Herb, a duo dominated by Bond's Tourette's-style rantings and a playlist that gives equal time to "Melanie's Christmas Song," the Tigerlilies, and the Wu-Tang Clan. In the Tweed Company's Fractured Classics series at Mother, Jeff Roberson's outsized Varla Jean Merman persona recently morphed from club fixture to demented character study in parts drawn from film and theatrical chestnuts (The Glass Menagerie, Suddenly Last Summer, The Bad Seed) and rendered . . . well, straight is not quite the word. In his loopy cable show, Ben Sander invokes the spirit of Brini Maxwell-a prefeminist WASP housewife in the Donna Reed mold-with eerie precision. And-indefatigable Old School warhorse-Ira Siff's Vera Galupe-Borszkh stomps valiantly to the stage next month for the latest of his annual final concert farewells. Recently the Voice spoke to these various performers about their notions of gender under construction.

Justin Bond/Kiki: I started out in San Francisco in 1990 doing this really glamorous lounge act. I wasn't so scary then. I was wearing dresses and singing rock songs and pop music and it got really well reviewed. But I started to get kind of bitter. I was walking to gigs in the rain in a borrowed thousand-dollar dress and not enough money for a cab to get my huge $25 for performing. So I figured it's got to get better than this. Then one night I got really stoned listening to the Cure and I started to put on the wrinkles and that's how Kiki came into being.

Jeff Roberson/Varla Jean Merman: In Baton Rouge when I was going to LSU, every bar was a video bar. You'd go in and everyone was staring at a TV. I had a friend who did video stuff-he'd film literally everything-and I would just put mops and things and towels on my head to be insane. We decided to do some videos, 30 minutes of me in drag drinking a glass of milk, and bring them to the bars and see if they'd play them. To our surprise they did. And people would sit there and stare at thosefor hours.

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