Can drag queens repair our broken political system? This Oregon-based troupe thinks so.
The Liberty Belles kicked off a 33-city tour with a performance on Sunday, April 8 at Portland’s Darcelle XV, one of the country’s oldest drag venues. Featuring Madame DuMoore, Pepper Pepper, Carla Rossi, and Hydrangea Strangea, the group hopes to register 10,000 eligible voters between the ages of 18 and 30.
“Or sexy older ones,” Pepper Pepper (the stage name of artist Kaj-anne Pepper) interjects during a phone interview.
The aesthetic of the Liberty Belles is a bit different than Pepper’s customary shows. When INTO attended the drag performer’s Easter weekend appearance at Portland’s CeCe Slaughter’s, Pepper was nailed to a crossdying for our sins. Because the queen’s hands were literally tied, audience members who wanted to tip had to walk up to her and put money in her hand.
The Belles’ performances, however, more closely resemble a USO tour from the post-war 1950s than a Björk concert. The shows blend the patriotic innocence of The Andrews Sisters and the campy bon vinance of Marilyn Monroeserving American dream realness in the flyover states.
The air of nostalgia, however, is somewhat pointed. By recalling a time when the United States viewed itself as the greatest country in the world, the queens want to show that America is greatwhen we’re committed to making it great.
“The only way you can do that is by participating in the systemotherwise it collapses and fails,” Daniel Pulver, who performs as Madame DuMoore, tells INTO.
Their goals are extremely ambitious. The Liberty Belles hope to raise $250,000 in corporate donations and Kickstarter funding to rent a tour bus and A/V equipment. But in the 22 states they touch down inwhich range everywhere from the liberal Northwest to the Deep Souththey hope to appoint ambassadors to further political engagement on the ground.
“One of the reasons we’re going to the Deep South is because there are really dedicated queers that are fighting for survival and legitimacy, in terms of gay pride parades and things that we take for granted in more liberal cities,” says co-creator Kyle Ashby. “We want to show our support for them.”
The group aspires to open chapters everywhere from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Mobile, Ala. Ashby, a former political organizer, registered The Liberty Belles as a 501 (c)(4) organization to further that mission.
The idea of having a nonprofit driven by drag queens might appear novel (because it is), but he argues drag has “always been at the forefront” of the LGBTQ movement. The riots at Stonewall Inn were led by activists like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two transgender women who identified as drag queens during the queer liberation of the late 1960s.
“There’s a lot of versatility in what drag can do as a political voice that isn’t available when you’re in a suit and tie,” Ashby tells INTO over the phone.
Pepper says what the group recognizes is that drag is “inherently political.”
“Yes, you can do a buck and twirl and entertain and that can be a beautiful, powerful thing for the community, but I also like to put a little bit of a little extra edge on it to make a succinct statementto make fun of terrible politicians and to make fun of ourselves,” he claims.
Although the politics of drag aren’t always overt, the queens hope to use that to their advantage in their work.
Pulver’s day job is slinging cocktails as a drag bartender at the Portland gay bar Rainbow Room. What he has found through interacting with the public seven hours a day in heels and a wig is that drag queens have the ability to start honest conversations often lacking in our current discourse. When there’s a costume involved, customers feel like it’s safe to open up about everything from their financial situation to their political ideologies.
“I think being able to have those conversations will start bringing us together as a country, as well as moving us forward,” Pulver says.
The Liberty Belles believe that starting these dialogues also means reaching out to voters on the other side in order to further their understanding. According to Ashby, shaming conservatives about why they’re wrong often causes them to shut down altogether. No one likes being called a bigot, even if they are one.
But the artifice of drag, he says, can act as a buffer. When Republicans are busy laughing, they might not realize they’re being challenged to empathize with others who aren’t like them.
“They may be disengaged enough to be able to think about what their actual opinions are,” Ashby claims.
It comes down to what’s known as “exposure theory.” By interacting with drag queensand being entertained by them for two hoursresearch suggests conservatives are much less likely to espouse homophobic views in the future. Ideally, Republicans may pause before casting a ballot against LGBTQ rights in the next election.
“Meeting a drag queen doesn’t change your life forever necessarily, but in the short term, it has an impact,” Ashby says.
His white whale is to land an audience with one of America’s biggest opponents of LGBTQ equality: Tony Perkins, the right-wing extremist often credited with authoring Donald Trump’s transgender military ban. Perkins serves as president of the hate group Family Research Council, which has backed conversion therapy and notably compared queer people to Nazis and pedophiles.
The group has yet to confirm a meeting, but Ashby is hopeful. He says anti-LGBTQ groups will talk to just about anyone to further their ideology.
“I’ve interacted with their liaison,” he notes.
But more than anything, the Liberty Belles hope their shows will challenge perceptions about how to further civic engagement. Ashby wants to encourage liberals “to throw out the rulebook” and explore new ways to reach voters that haven’t quite been tapped into by mainstream political movements.
Organizers should ask themselves: What do people care about? What will speak to them?
“We know that the only way young people are listening to news right now is if it makes them laugh and if it gives them some sense of normalcy,” he claims. “We want to meet people where they’re at.”
“Drag queens are where people are at,” he adds.