As most of the world was put under coronavirus-related lockdown, the landscape of our day-to-day lives started shifting. It wasn’t a “free” world anymore as we knew it – perspectives on what’s important started changing, and it seemed that the value of human connection finally started outweighing the value of clout and material things. People started missing things that they had taken for granted, like seeing your abuela or walking down a crowded street.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic that has claimed so many elderly and immuno-compromised lives, another pandemic has long been present in the US for over 400 years which has also claimed countless lives. A pandemic that doesn’t care about your age, gender, or the status of your immune system – it only cares about the color of your skin. It’s not that systemic racism was news, like the outbreak of this strain of the SARS virus that was named COVID-19, it’s just that a combination of unfortunate events happening all at the same time made people say, “Enough.”
The shooting of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery while out on a jog, the killing of George Floyd by a cop kneeling on his neck, and then a video of a white woman, Amy Cooper, calling cops on a Black man and pretending she was attacked, fueled the fire that has yet to be stopped. Large-scale protests and rallies, some of which turned violent, erupted all over the country, sparking the conversation about racial injustice not only in the US, but all over the world. It’s a month into the protests and there is no end in sight. People are demanding real change. Even though the mass outrage has yielded some fruitful results – such as the arrest of all 4 cops involved in George Floyd’s murder, NYC’s section 50-a repeal, and Colorado’s police reform bill signed into law – the officers that killed young EMT worker Breonna Taylor in her own home are still walking free, and there are many other police officers on the job that have yet to be held accountable for their abusive actions. And while certain municipalities have promised to defund and/or shift police budgets (LAPD slashed by $150 million, NYC slashed by $1 billion), in general the local and federal government have yet to meet the Black Lives Matter movement’s demands regarding defunding the police.
For the most part of the spring it was all about supporting LGBTQIA+ creatives that were suddenly out of work due to the coronavirus, with no means to apply for unemployment; right now it’s all about supporting Black and grassroots organizations. Even though it’s still far from possible for NY nightlife to resume with the normal pace of operations in physical venues, nightlife hosts and performers have carved out an online niche as the means for raising money for needed causes. For example, one of NYC’s nightlife impresarios, Susanne Bartsch, collected $32,000 for the Black Lives Matter movement during one of her On Top virtual parties. Ceyenne Doroshow, the founder of G.L.I.T.S. (Gays and Lesbians Living In a Transgender Society) secured over $1 million in donations for permanent housing for Black trans people, all thanks to the power of the internet.
Amongst the sea of virtual fundraisers promoted all over social media, one particular event, hosted by drag artist Untitled Queen, stands out on its own. Brooklyn-based Untitled has a master’s degree in fine arts and puts on meticulously executed poetic performances that are as profound as they are beautiful. On July 4th, she will be hosting her own version of a fundraiser, an all-captioned digital drag show named Untitled (America).
“We're doing this fundraiser on the Fourth of July because it denotes the mass genocide and displacement of indigenous peoples and then of course enslavement and oppression of Black people in the creation of this country,” says Untitled on why she chose that specific American holiday as the date for the show. The show’s lineup is fully composed of drag artists of color, each representing the US state/territory in which they currently reside. There are four indigenous drag artists amongst the 52 scheduled acts.
A charity that Untitled decided to benefit is the Navajo Water Project, which is an indigenous-led, community-managed utility alternative that brings hot and cold running water to indigenous communities in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. Untitled adds, “Every year I do this one big fundraiser called the Brooklyn Ball, for Callen-Lorde Community Health Center. They do get a lot of funding but it's still a really important cause. Some of my smaller fundraisers are for more local organizations that are lesser known, and that are not getting any national aid or big corporate sponsorship, and the Navajo Water Project is one of them."
It seems that for Untitled, it always came as second nature to be a patient learner and a compassionate advocate for inclusivity. Untitled Queen is adamant about adding captions to all of her videos and encourages others to do the same, “I became more aware of deaf and hard-of-hearing communities as well as accessibility, because I went to the drag scene in Rochester. They have a huge deaf community because of their deaf interpreter school. And so when I went to do their show, their shows were completely live-interpreted all the time and they had a big deaf community in their queer club. They were interpreting and signing and I was like, whoa, I've never seen this before. That night I met a deaf drag queen. I’ve never met a deaf drag queen before. I was so stunned by that. I feel like in New York we think we're really ahead of the curve in a lot of ways and we're not. So then I started to learn more about deaf culture. Deaf culture loves drag, loves queer culture, just as much as anyone else. I realized, why would you go to a drag show or any live event if you're not being encouraged to be welcomed there. So that's when I started to get really passionate about it.”
Untitled has also become very interested in learning more about community-organizing aspects such as fundraising and charitable efforts. She says that uplifting and focusing on brown and Black voices has always been a part of her community in the Brooklyn drag scene, “I've always tried to challenge myself to widen the understanding of what community means, what it looks like and how to increase accessibility on lots of different levels, and I always realize how much more you can be challenging yourself to really understand what those ideas are about. Lady Quesadilla is a friend of mine and is another amazing drag queen and she’s been saying this stuff for years. In her pre-show speeches she’d always say, ‘We need to question what our community boundaries are, your community doesn’t look like you. Your community is the homeless, people with disabilities, the incarcerated. What are you doing for your community?’ And now its resonating with me even more hardcore. I want to also be an example for people to really acknowledge their complicity, acknowledge that you have something to work on. It's not like, ‘Oh, I just do these parties so I'm exempt from this conversation.’”
In a recently resurfaced clip from a 1992 episode of Golden Girls, Blanche Deveraux is challenged by then up-and-coming actor Don Cheadle, when she proudly hangs up a Confederate flag at a party and defends it as a family heirloom and a reminder of the good ole days. After a few rebuttals from Don Cheadle’s character, Blanche finally concedes,
“...Everything that I grew up believing in, all of my wonderful memories, they are tarnished now by the truth.”
Fragility seems to be another topic associated directly with people’s resistance to change and progress, and is something that Untitled is familiar with as a light-skinned Puerto Rican and Filipino descendant, “Everybody who’s not Black and who’s not indigenous is in some proximity to white supremacy and white privilege. I feel like people of color that are non-Black often feel defensive because it feels like it diminishes our struggles or our shared feelings of oppression. I feel like I felt that in other people and even in myself. I feel like I've come to the realization that it's not the same at all and that is the big distinction. I think that we are not exempt from the white supremacy machine. The only people that aren't in proximity to whiteness are Black people and indigenous people. So that's where I feel like we should recognize that we have the advantages, because of how we look… Being a non-Black, non-indigeous PoC doesn’t exempt you from having to work to dismantle white supremacy. I think it’s often an assumption that being a PoC means we share the same struggle as Black and indigenous people. We don’t, because we still benefit from white supremacy, and therefore still have privilege and work to do.”
A fine arts background served as an inspiration to Untitled’s name, and it also makes perfect sense why the show was named Untitled (America): “Untitled comes from just like the sort of a beginning as an art term, sort of a blank slate and an empty line that you can fill and project and create from what's really not a fixed point of view. I'm really interested in constant deconstructing and constructing identity that is completely fluid and that understands that all these things are fluid. To me, that is what drag really is – it’s finding that kind of a light that brings all these art forms together. Drag for me is like the quintessential form of this construction, deconstruction, challenging labels, ideas and binaries. Drag does it constantly and on a big level, in lots of different ways and with lots of different approaches. Then you realize, wow these things are everywhere – you don't have to be any certain way. But I think drag really emphasizes that because it's made up of all these moves that you manipulate... I think that's what's so exciting about the show is that there’s this whole assumption of when people say ‘America’ and they mean ‘white.’ We're always answering the questions, ‘Where are you from? No, really. Where are you from? Where are your parents from?’ because if you are a person of color, they don't understand that you're an American. The assumption is that America is white and so this show is talking about that.”
“I did a vampire show and I did a whole poem number about a Filipino vampire that looks herself up on Wikipedia. She basically begins to understand who she is based on what other people have told her on the internet and there's really not that much. There’s not many images, there’s no video and so this is a parallel about what it means to be a Philippine X, because a lot of it is told identity. Not necessarily what I reflect out.” – Untitled Queen
Untitled (America)’s casting was pretty specific. Untitled Queen says that local drag is her favorite thing. She feels that what makes it so political and punk is its response to the immediate place that you are in with the people that you make that space with. She wanted to make sure that all of the participants would be PoC and that they didn’t have nationwide recognition or a following that other drag artists might have. Untitled really wanted to focus on people who were really doing something in their communities, like creating art in direct conversation with people in America, but then also not having had the chance to tell their stories. Untitled emphasizes that the show is by no means comprehensive or exhaustive, “There are so many different ways of gender and drag expression. This is why I say ‘drag artists,’ it’s because so many people only want to talk about drag queens and it's so nauseating, so not wide, not a conversation. This is not just about drag queens, and the drag scene has never been just about them as much as we want to talk about them. The show is not exhaustive as in it doesn’t represent everybody, but it is a challenge for everyone, and myself, to expand what our community looks like, discover new artists, and uplift their work.”
Catch Untitled (America) on Untitled Queen’s Twitch account, at 5 PM EST on July 4, 2020. Half of the donations will be split between the performers, while the other half will be donated to the Navajo Water Project. Sidewalkkilla has collaborated with incredible illustrator Paco May, who was kind enough to contribute the beautiful illustrations of Untitled Queen, Cherub Borne, Ricky Rosé, Anya Knees, and Lynn Troller that accompany this article. All of the proceeds from the print sales of the drag artists’ illustrations will additionally benefit the Navajo Water Project. Please visit Paco May’s Etsy store and support the inidigenous grassroots organization and the incredible artists involved in the production of this show and the article (Untitled Queen and Paco May.)