The Internet has been quietly aflutter lately with a sort of drag debate: drag kings rallying for their place in the scene after RuPaul recently said kings and queens “don’t really mix”; “faux queens” or “bio-queens” asserting that their drag is as valid and subversive as other drag queens only to garner an entire response essay picking apart their argument. Though drag is indeed replete with layers and a multifaceted history, including its ongoing relationship with trans and gender non-conforming folk, Ru did classically say, “We’re all born naked, and the rest is drag.” However, one could look to the ever-growing medium of Internet Thinkpieces and get a sense that the scene is much more fragmented than that.
But at Bushwig, a drag and queer performance festival that occurred for the fifth year this past weekend, folks traded in their thinkpiece armor for glitter, and all sorts of queer groups united under one big roof. At this event founded by Simon Leahy (Babes Trust) and Matty Horrorchata, over 150 performers of various genders, ages, and styles—including kings and queens, bio and not—flocked to Maspeth’s massive Knockdown Center for a full weekend of shows and more. The festival had previously been held at Secret Project Robot in Bushwick, but with the venue’s recent closing they decided to relocate and super-size.
To accommodate the massive lineup, essentially everyone performed one short number right after one another. Two days of almost nonstop lip-sync seems like it could get monotonous, but to characterize the colorful array of performances this weekend as merely lip-sync would just be scratching the surface. The lineup ran the gamut, featuring traditional drag, performance art, cabaret numbers, original music, dance, and more. And of course, ever-impressive costumes that were a hearty mix of haute couture and Halloween looks.
Bushwig was generally very well-attended, but the large size of the venue meant that the crowd was sometimes more dispersed, making for a sparser stage area. However, these queens really brought their A-game despite crowd size or energy—I never saw anyone giving less than their all. Truthfully, I’ve seen a lot of Bushwick drag, and never have I seen a stage with this much room to move around, much less a 50,000-square-foot venue.
For example, Will Sheridan’s high-energy rap set was filled with unrelenting and joyous sexuality, featuring to-the-point lyrics like “Fuck my face,” and innuendos about Halal white sauce, and saying he could not feel his feet due to the adrenaline. It wasn’t just that; a host later explained he recently had torn his Achilles tendon, making his impressive performance even more notable, in the sense that it was very good but also I hope he didn’t make his injury worse.
And when the crowd went wild, they went wild: when headliner and Drag Race star Latrice Royale hit the stage in all her voluptuous golden glory, a star was truly present as she sashayed through the crowd, twirling and death-dropping to sunny disco beats. I felt like I was among royalty as she graced several adoring fans with the brush of her hand, and ended her set grinning, clutching mounds of wrinkled bills.
It wasn’t all glamour, as much as Sequinette and West Vargina’s high-vaudeville-looking duet recalled the starry silent film days. Humor was a big factor in many performances, and much of it was political. In particular, one queen did a mean Hillary, frantically grinning her way through “Rose’s Turn” (from the musical Gypsy), which had been very fittingly framed as Hillary finally taking the spotlight from her husband. Sunday afternoon, powerhouse king Reggie Regina did a raucous spin on Trump, throwing fast-food tacos at the crowd and shooting the pig mask off his face with a confetti cannon, revealing a Hulk Hogan-esque handlebar ‘stache and American flag doo-rag. Meanwhile, Lucy Balls showed everyone how to Sissy That Wok—complete with an actual wok, of course.
Another notable was Lady Bunny, founder of Wigstock, the old Tompkins Square Park drag festival that Bushwig is partially inspired by. Introduced as a “fat, old man in a dress,” she pleased the crowd with her shows, including a bluesy self-deprecating excerpt from Trans-Jester, her solo show at Stonewall. When I heard this show was about the horrors of “PC culture,” I braced myself for an angry critique of “millennials” and “safe spaces” that could be potentially alienating to a lot of the crowd. However, Bunny’s set was refreshing and entertaining, especially when she spent most of it in a spontaneous battle with a particularly long balloon string. “Wigstock never had it this together!” she laughed, gazing out at the crowd. The iconic Bunny was even present before she performed: an earlier performer who did an Orthodox Jew striptease dedicated their performance, and authentic earlocks, to her.
Things got even wilder from there: Bon Bon’s teddy-fetus doll outfit mystified audiences as she chanted mantras of self-love, the latex-clad Pulp Friction brought her dog onstage with her and possibly tossed some salad (take neither of those literally, if you know what I mean), while trans performer Charlene stripped down to nothing on the catwalk, explaining that while she doesn’t care much to entertain differences between Manhattan and Brooklyn drag, “The difference is that they are men and we are women, honey.” Cue much applause.
Then Macy Rodman took the stage. The former drag queen and host of “drag show for fuck-ups” Bath Salts has now put out some impressive tracks and been christened a “trans pop Courtney Love.” Looking classy but edgy in long black gloves and sporting razor-sharp bangs, she howled out some originals like her single “Lazy Girl” as well as a PJ Harvey cover. She noted that this year’s Bushwig was much classier, namely because there “[aren’t] as many people wandering around on K.”
Certainly, there were many more performances worth noting, but to aptly describe them all would be to write a fairly dense novella. Even the hosts were impressive, changing outfits left and right and switching frequently—I’m not sure I could even name all the hosts.
The performances certainly weren’t just contained to the stage, and I’m not just talking about Judith Butler’s theory of gender performance (which was present as well, mind you). Within the crowd, some people seemed more interested in executing their newest dance moves to whatever upbeat song was playing, or lip-syncing from the sidelines. A particular highlight of this sort was street performer Qween Amor, who seemed to be giving shows at any given moment, wherever she was. Crucifix in hand and devil horns atop her head, she paraded through the weekend with seemingly endless energy, whether twerking on tables outside or proudly getting biodegradable glitter applied directly to her crotch.
Drag is known for possessing a DIY spirit—most performers make their own clothes, accessories, and tracks, in one way or another. After all, drink tickets and fistfuls of singles don’t exactly allow for lavish spending. Fittingly, there was an entire room devoted to local vendors selling their wares, from custom lighters and voluminous wigs to hot pepper sauce and otherworldly bodysuits made of zipties. Also present was a pop-up shop by Bushwick’s House of La Rue, a kitschy delight that “picks up where Patricia Field left off.”
Of course, the festival wasn’t perfect. The cost of entry ($35 per day at the door) created an inherent barrier of accessibility for lower-income people, and despite the main Knockdown Center area being wheelchair accessible, I had a hard time imagining it would be easy to get around the gravel-filled outdoor stage and food area, considering many queens had trouble just with their heels on. There were apparently issues with long waits in the bar lines and a lack of bartenders, leading to many apologetic Facebook posts, but this seemed to be resolved on Sunday.
In a nice-sounding world where Walmart is a sponsor for Pride and marriage is technically a universal right for all, there continues to be injustices like the HB2 “bathroom bill” and frighteningly-high rates of violence against trans women of color, a fact that has been often ignored by commercial media and probably largely unknown to the scores of Americans who eagerly consume Drag Race on the regular. Clearly, there is much work to be done still. But it’s nice to have events like Bushwig to provide a sort of momentary escape from the world’s woes, where folks of all identities and appearances seemed to happily mix and mingle.
In the midst of all the looks, I saw someone wearing a plain t-shirt proclaiming “Gender is over! (If you want it).” For most of society it doesn’t seem to be that easy, but for a weekend, I really believed it.
Additional reporting by Nicole Disser.