Last September, Bushwig sold out the Knockdown Center, that sprawling ex-manufacturing lot just on the Maspeth side of the Brooklyn/Queens border. It was perfect drag weather that weekend—a little overcast, finally cooling—and anywhere your eye flitted under those ancient exposed beams, there was color.
The two-day drag and music festival that calls itself “a celebration of queer creative New York” is entering its eighth year this weekend. What began, in 2012, as an intimate gathering at Secret Project Robot—a now-closed venue it eventually outgrew, in actual geographical Bushwick—has spread across borough lines, into the New York Times and the consciousness of thousands. There will be hundreds of artists this year, over 23 total performance hours: some are big out-of-town acts, like St. Louis-based pop star Slayyyter; quite a few are eye-grabbing headliners, like Drag Race’s reigning Miss Congeniality, Nina West. But Bushwig will also be sticking, as it always does, to its local grassroots. Babes Trust and Horrorchata, Bushwig’s founding mothers, find new talent all the time in their Brooklyn backyard, and they continue to offer space for performers of all aesthetics, gender expressions, and experience levels. There is purposeful elasticity here.
Because Bushwig has now opened satellite events in Berlin and L.A., it’s grappling for the first time with how to be both a local celebration and a global name. A Brooklyn-grown physical space and a transferable idea. There remain, in this moment of major transition, a lot of unanswered questions, but a key part of Bushwig’s Bushwig-ness—why that homegrown lifeblood still runs through everything that happens in New York, even as the festival expands—comes from the queens working tirelessly behind it, whose values seem incredibly consistent. Babes Trust was once an adrift 16-year-old in the London area who, after being kicked out of her childhood home, was handed her first wig by a caring older queen, and found a community. The one she’s built here remains committed to safety, inclusivity, and cultivating “utopian queer paradise.” Being a glittering bubble apart.
I caught up with Babes over the phone during the busiest week of her year, to talk about all things Bushwig: what’s changed, how she and Horrorchata are dealing with the growing pains, and what they’re committed to keeping exactly the same. Our conversation is condensed below.
Yeah, it was unexpected that it would become so big! We’re one of the main alternative gay events in New York City. Me and Matty [Horrorchata] realized, the way people were responding to and adding to Bushwig, it’s become bigger than us. It’s kind of like…our baby is growing up, and it’s learning to run. I also feel it’s grown very organically. And because [of that], we’ve managed to keep the essence and the heart of Bushwig the same, throughout the eight years that we’ve been doing this.
Bushwig is an accepting, safe-as-possible space to be completely yourself. Unashamedly. It’s the antithesis to very toxic, masc gay culture…like no fats, no femmes, that hyper-masculine, straight-acting culture…Bushwig is the opposite of that. And we don’t do Bushwig for the money. That’s for sure, girl. We do it—it sounds cheesy, but—we do it for the queens, and for the people.
At first, it was like: you ask us, you perform. You’ve got five minutes, you can do anything you want. I liked to think of it as a very anarchistic stage…but now, we’ve grown so big that we have to say no to people. This year, I think we said no to 250 people. Which is crazy!
There’s not really [criteria]…the only hoop we make people jump through is to email a video. Make a video and show us you want to do it. We give priority to trans people, people of color, and people who wouldn’t normally have access to a stage…kids from out of town that live in Trump land, who we can give the opportunity to. This year, this kid sent us this video of him crying, because he got accepted to perform at Bushwig. He lives in Kentucky and he’s coming to the big city, and it’s really beautiful. It’s kids from all around the world, now.
Yeah, it does. Bushwig is very grassroots. We’re being pulled to places that have big alternative gay scenes—and when I say “alternative,” I mean, nontraditional forms of performance, and very lefty, I suppose. Berlin has a huge left-wing, alternative drag population. We’re gonna do a party in Brazil next year, too, and Brazil, you know, has gone through a lot of political turmoil. I like the idea of going places, and creating spaces for queers that are necessary and needed. Just throw[ing] a fucking good party.
But we’re very in touch with the local drag community here, and we’re not as well connected in other cities. So we’re trying to find ways [to hold successful events] without just booking a huge artist, because that changes the dynamic. We’re starting to think about open-sourcing the festival. We’d write a manual, support [the local artists], but kind of give the festival away. It would be like community organizing!
No, not really. I was, like, a queer anarchist—squatting, attending queer festivals. Matty was a hustler, living alone, working really hard…both of our life experiences fed into Bushwig kind of naturally. We didn’t really start out with a grand plan.
Now, as it’s become bigger, and it’s become our full-time jobs, we are thinking about that stuff. Like, after we sell out the Knockdown Center, where do we go? The next step is like, Randall’s Island or something…we don’t want to sell out, [we want] to keep things affordable. But as we go forward into this new era, I really feel like it’s all possible, all out there for us.
One of our missions is to actually bridge the gap between generations of drag performers. A lot of the kids now, their first exposure was RuPaul’s Drag Race, so we do try to tie in a little bit of history, get some older queens to perform. I’m 38, so my experience of drag initially was like—the prostitutes, the homeless, the drug addicts, and the drag queens, we were all lumped together. And now you have these queens that are like A-list celebrities.
Since you are bridging these generational gaps, would you say there’s any stylistic or spiritual consistency across performers, regardless of when they started doing drag? Something that really speaks to people right now?
Yes. Another thing: Bushwig is ours, it’s our community, so we want to make a space where people don’t have to deal with the traumas of everyday living. Being alive, just living your everyday existence—especially in the current climate—is political enough! We need [spaces] where we can escape it. We try to make the space as safe as possible to just be ourselves.
I’m excited for the Brooklyn Drag Race girls to come back—like Scarlet Envy, it’s her homecoming year! I’m excited about the young performers, taking to the stage for the first time. We have this up-and-coming pop star called Slayyyter, who is really like, hyped right now. I’m excited to see her. And my band, Bottoms, is performing! I’m excited to come back to Bushwig with new songs.
I’m also excited just to walk around. Everyone who comes to Bushwig dresses up now, puts on a wig…people come to Bushwig for the vibe, and the experience of being together. It’s amazing to see everyone. I’m excited to take it all in.