Dèvo Monique: Dear White People

NYC-based Black drag performer Dèvo Monique addresses Black queerness in relationship to the NYC nightlife scene, the BLM movement, and white society.

Photography: James Thompson

It’s not a surprise that many New Yorkers fled the city as soon as they got a whiff of the looming pandemic and the stay-at-home orders that followed. Many creatives and people working in the nightlife industry opted to stay with their families in other states while coronavirus ravaged The Big Apple. It’s still uncertain how many people will be able to return and resume their home and work lives, even as NYC cases have significantly slowed and the city is in the fourth phase of its reopening. At this point it’s anyone’s guess what the landscape of nightlife and freelance work will look like in the future, even after a vaccine becomes available and New York City’s economy returns to “normal.” 

One of those creatives is NYC’s drag artist Eugene, who prefers to go by her drag moniker Dèvo Monique. Dèvo has been waiting out the pandemic with her family in Virginia. Even though she wasn’t physically present in NYC when the unrest over George Floyd’s murder started erupting, she and fellow activist Ickarus served as organizing and guiding voices for those who were on the ground, Sidewalkkilla included. Within a matter of a day after the first protests, the duo organized a chat group that enlisted over 100 people exchanging tips and information on the events happening in the city. A few days later Dèvo reached out to let us know that she had partnered up with RuPaul’s Drag Race season 11 alumni Honey Davenport and drag artist and political figure Marti Gould Cummings to change the whitewashed landscape of New York City’s nightlife for good.

Drag Saved My Life

Growing up in Richmond, Virginia, Dèvo never really felt like she belonged: “I grew up as a dancer and I was dancing professionally until 21. I grew up combating the world of Virginia which on one side was very forward-thinking and very artistically forward, but then you had people who were throwing textbooks at you every other day and calling you a fag.”

Dèvo Monique was born in the local Richmond drag scene, but yet she also felt like she didn’t belong. As a drag performer, Dèvo always felt the pressure of presenting something she was not,

“I was never going to be a Virginia pageantry queen, and not that I don’t respect those queens or love that kind of drag, I was just never that girl that they were trying to make me out to be.”

When Dèvo made a debut in the NYC drag scene, she claims that it saved her art, and drag itself saved her life. When Dèvo’s career as a professional dancer ended and she felt that she was hung up in the space of not knowing what the future held. Upon moving to NYC in 2017, Dèvo was approached by a drag queen named Heaven-Leigh Kennedy, after dancing her heart out at a local bar.

“She was like, you’re really good and she would not take no for an answer. I tell you, I turned her down seven times and she was like, just let me know when you want to perform and I sat on it for about a week and then I messaged her and I was like, I’m going to come in. I went to sort of like an amateur competition show and I won and that was it. That checkmarked everything. It brought everything together and it just made sense. I finally started to make sense and I made sense most when I’m in drag, that’s what I mean when I say drag saved my life.”

Blackness Does Not Look Better on a White Person

Even though Dèvo was well on her way to finding her voice and aesthetics as a drag performer, it turned out to be a little harder to carve out a space in Manhattan’s gay nightlife, where white queens ruled. “So I was working this party as a host at this bar and I was really excited because it was my night and they put my name on a poster. But I got inside and I was like, oh, I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do that, and they were like, no you can’t do any of that. They said, you can’t perform this kind of song, you have to perform top 40 songs and if you are not going to wear this next week, you are not going to be able to do this party again. They tokenized me as just having a Black queen and didn’t give me any right to really perform what I wanted to perform. It really irked me because I really thought I was making it through and I really thought a lot was changing for me, but it didn’t. And they told my DJ, ‘Can you play something more top 40?’ And I was like, ‘You mean white music?’ And the bartender just laughed and shook his head and I was like, why is that normalized?”

“What’s really wild to me is I will never understand how a bar will have a happy-hour show and have a night show and that happy-hour show will have all white queens and that night show will have all white queens and then that bar will only have a Black queen that works there once a month,”

Dèvo continues,

“And then she does it once a month and the day she works is not a Saturday or a Friday.”

Dèvo feels that Manhattan’s gay nightlife has been appropriating Black culture and being celebrated for it for way too long. “White people really think Blackness looks better on them. It really kind of irks me when I see white queens getting tipped all this fucking money because they do a Nicki Minaj or a Doja Cat song and a Black girl does it and does it 20 million times better and they’re like, oh but you’re expected to do that because you’re Black. Blackness does not look better on a white person. It does not exist. You can’t tell me that what I invented myself and what my ancestors invented will literally look better on you, because you want to try it on.”

Dear White People

Within the first week of the NYC protests, Dèvo partnered up with drag personas Honey Davenport, and Marti Gould Cummings, to have every New York bar take the pledge to be truly inclusive in their staffing. “I would literally like every single bar to have at least someone Black who is producing or putting a show cast together. Every bar needs to have a Black bartender. Every bar needs to book multiple Black DJs, multiple people of color working. That’s what I want to see. I want to see true inclusion. I want to see true accountability, because white people, as much as they want to believe it, as much as they are learning and watching Pose or whatever documentary on Netflix, to learn, they are never going to have the knowledge to understand what it takes to be a Black person, so hire a Black person.”

“When you don’t

invest in the people that are making up

the world around you, you are

silencing voices”

“I got really good advice from a queen once – she told me, it’s your job to know who everybody is. It’s your job to know what girls in Manhattan and what girls in Queens are working and how to know what they’re doing and I feel like bartenders and bar managers and producers are not taking that job as seriously as people of color are taking that job, because I know damn well, there are a lot of Black queens that know the bars just as well as I do. I can tell you what is happening on Sunday at every single bar. It’s important to know, so you can know who’s in your community, so you can have access to the full array of what your community can offer and so you can build a better community for everyone and for everyone to not only feel included but to feel accepted and to feel like their lives really do matter and their voice really matters. Because when you don’t invest in the people that are making up the world around you, you are silencing voices. How are you going to listen to something that you don’t know exists? How are you going to speak up for it? How are you going to integrate it and make sure it’s executed properly? How are you going to book it in your bar? It’s a trickle-down effect.”

Black Trans Lives Matter

In the midst of the national protests over the strangulation video of Minneapolis resident George Floyd, another video surfaced from the same city, only of a different nature. A mob of Black people attacked Iyanna Dior, a 21-year-old Black trans woman, at a Twin Cities gas station. The video sparked nationwide debates over the inclusion of Black trans and Black LGBTQ lives into the Black Lives Matter movement. Less than two weeks later, around 15,000 people showed up in solidarity with Black trans lives at a Brooklyn Liberation March

In a short video posted on Twitter, trans entertainer and LGBT activist Ts Madison voices her concerns over the lack of support for Black trans people within the cis Black community: “With me even not feeling included, I know it is my duty still to stand up for Black lives, Black lives protests and movements because I’m Black first. Now the thing that hurts me the most is, I gotta face white supremacy from the white man, then I gotta turn around and face hatred from my own Black. I think what people don’t understand with trans women is that it’s hard and it gets more and more difficult when each year two, three, four of us are being killed in one year and no one is really speaking up for us, or standing up for us, or protesting for us the way that they are. You know, cuz when Trayvon Martin died, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, I’m forward, using my voice to talk about this stuff you know, but if the tables were turned, there is that question, would they do this for me?”

Hate towards the most marginalized groups of people doesn’t only happen from outside of its community, but also within. It’s not a secret that there has always been a lot of tension between white gay men and trans women of color. Didn’t trans women of color birth the gay scene? So where is that disrespect coming from? “Entitlement and privilege,” Dèvo says, ”We would be nothing without Sylvia Rivera, we would be nothing without Marsha P Johnson. There would literally not be any of these bars and establishments to go to. There’s just so much disdain and disrespect when it comes to trans people and trans lives that I’m really kind of disheartened and always mind-boggled by the way that hate is executed out in such a free manner.”

So how can we change that? Dèvo thinks that the answer is simple: we can change by educating and listening, “I think people think it’s such a huge math equation they need to figure out and you just need to listen to trans people and just listen to what they want. For a long time trans women, trans men, and trans individuals have been seen as crazy or have been seen as ‘you just got here, you just came here’ and it’s like, girl, they’ve been here as long as you’ve been here. And also the inventions that trans women have created are always undercut by their white counterparts of either gay men or cis people who take it over because they want to feel entitled. Like the Ballroom culture, has hugely, hugely been infiltrated by white people now to the point where gay white men are at the club trying to do hand performance to a fucking Lady Gaga track and act like they invented that shit and it’s like, no, that’s not the tea.”

Do You Have Real Black Friends?

Dèvo believes that Blackness and queerness shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, “My drag is very queer and I don’t think the references like that are afforded to Black queers or are necessarily based on the idea of queerness, it’s more based on the idea of Blackness, and I think sometimes Blackness can be very anti-queer and we don’t realize it because it’s also just so angry. But I’m a queen who mixes Blackness and queerness. And people don’t always really want to fuck with a queer part of it… I love Being black. I love my Blackness, I really discovered my Blackness heavy in the last seven years of my life by really recognizing what my culture means and what it really represents in me, but in that it was so tensed up and unhinged, because there was a lot of anti-queerness in it. And it gave me a lot of mixed emotions. So relating that to drag, where white people have a view of one drag queen and they want that one drag queen to be the same because that’s the only way they can relate to you and relate to your art, because if they don’t they would have to combat the ideas inside themselves of why they can’t relate to your art and what they’re actually exposed to and wonder if they’re exposed to it enough. And they would really have to do their homework to understand it. And white people never want to do their homework to understand anyone besides themselves. That’s something that goes into all cultures and all art forms and that’s wild.”

“There are coons who get next to white people to kind of bleed off the access or the accessibility of what they can acquire for them,” Dèvo continues, “and I think there’s a lot of white people who feed off that energy and feel good about themselves because, ‘I’m not racist. I have one Black friend and he tells me I’m great.’ And I’m like, yeah, but do you have real Black friends who are really into Black culture and speak their Black culture on a daily basis that you’re not listening to? … And I think it’s also a thing where they don’t know how to relate to Black people because they choose the kind of Black people they want to be friends with because it’s only palatable enough for them to understand. And they don’t want to hear it, because if it’s not palatable enough to hear, they’re not interested. If they don’t get it, they can remove themselves from it. And that’s the beauty of their privilege, and they fully access it when and however they want to.”

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