Today I was driving home from the Dakota Divas Halloween show feeling tired but satisfied; we had a solid show with some interesting and diverse performances by a total of 11 performers. One of the things I love about producing drag shows is the opportunity to work with local performers and build a show that is always unique and changing. It’s also very important to me that performers have a space where they feel respected and are able to develop and hone their craft. Occasionally I will give some direction in terms of themes or styles of musics to fit a specific show concept, but I don’t think I’ve ever told a performer they couldn’t do a song they wanted to do…unless someone else had already claimed it, and that’s just the law of “First Come,First Serve.” I hope the performers I’ve worked with feel that I’ve treated them with respect. But that’s not what this post is about.
When I got home, I had a message to one of my business pages on Facebook. Someone who attended the show didn’t like some of what I had to say, and they didn’t like some of the performances. That’s nothing new; as they say, “You can’t please all of the people all of the time.” That’s why I bring in a wide variety of performers, and I try to bring a range of topics into my emceeing. But what really bothered this audience member was the political nature of some of the show’s content. Again, not a surprise. I’m both fairly progressive and also vocally critical of many Republican “leaders” (see, there I go again! I just can’t stop myself!), so I expect that some of my material won’t always land for everyone in the crowd. This is especially true when the show takes place in conservative strongholds like Bismarck, and so this feedback wasn’t entirely surprising.
But there was something in the content of her message that really struck a chord with me, and I wanted to share our conversation and spend a little time thinking about the nature of the audience/performer relationship and the issue of entitlement. These messages were exchanged through the messenger service on Facebook on my business page, and except for removing her name and identifying details I have not altered them for content or spelling. I’m not including them in the post, but I also took screenshots…as the kids today say, “Gotta have receipts!” This is not to shame her (hence why I removed identifying details, to protect her privacy) but rather to start a conversation about the role of the drag show in queer culture and how privilege and entitlement feed into one another in a way that damages community-building.
Here is her initial message to me:
I want to express how dissappointed i was in the Dakota Outright Drag show last night in Bismarck. My boyfriend and myself both have tough jobs and wanted to go out and enjoy ourselves. We have been to many of your shows before and enjoyed them. However,we were very displeased with the way you kept bringing up political topics. You hear that all week on the news! I dont care what peoples political views are at an entertainment event. We were appalled at one of the dancers need to shred pictures of political people and stomp on them. It really made us not enjoy the show. Maybe one political joke,but half the night of listening to political views just took away from the entertainment. Theres a time and place for that and the show isnt one of them. Also,this particular group of dancers( not including you)looked pretty rough. Im from [large metropolitan area] and those drag queens look fabulous….last night a few looked like death warmed over,nothing we want to ever see again…a very huge dissappointment compared to your past shows.
I’m not sure if she expected me to apologize for the content of the show (as you’ll see, I didn’t) or just wanted to vent, what’s most provocative to me (aside from insulting my fellow performers, which I also address in my response) is her assertion that “there’s a time and a place” for political commentary, presented through jokes, and “the show isn’t one of them.” Ever since Laura Ingraham told the Dixie Chicks to “shut up and sing,” that’s a common sentiment that I’ve seen come out of primarily conservative comment circles: that somehow entertainers aren’t “allowed” to infuse their work, their creations, with their own political perspectives. That idea is ludicrous, that somehow being an entertainer strips you of your right to comment on the world around you and your perception of it.
The root of the issue is entitlement: obviously this woman felt that she was entitled to come to a show and not be presented with material that she would find at all challenging. At no point was this show advertised as “Come see our completely sanitized, non-political, safe for all audiences drag show!” I’ve always been an emcee who uses current events and “hot topics” to shape my monologues, and being a couple weeks out from a hotly contested midterm election means that of course politics are going to be on people’s minds. To expect that they would magically disappear so that this person can have a guilt-free night is not only naive, it’s ludicrous.
Here is my first response:
Hi [name redacted]. Thank you very much for your candor and I’m glad that you decided to spend your Saturday evening with us. We have a large community of people who work very hard to out on these shows, and the funds raised from the shows are used to help and support the LGBT community in the state. I understand that you were not satisfied with the amount of political commentary during the show, but I’m not going to say that I’m sorry you were uncomfortable. We live in times that are very difficult for many in the LGBT community, and while it’s far too simplistic to attribute all of that to one political party, or scapegoat an entire political philosophy for the actions of specific individuals in power, you have to at least acknowledge that many of the negative actions taken against LGBT people come from the very individuals that were mocked and lampooned at last night’s show. If you felt uncomfortable for a few minutes during a monologue or watching a performer tear up a picture, try empathizing with a trans person whose very existence our current president is thinking about legislating away by decree. You expect the drag performers to provide you with entertainment that you find palatable, but when they remind you that they are actual human beings who are scared and angry about how they are being treated offstage, you complain that “there is a time and a place” for these complaints. But you are wrong. The performers in the Dakota Divas shows don’t owe anyone anything except to bring entertainment to our stage for your consideration. You can enjoy it, or not. You can respect it, or not. But you do not have the right to tell them that what they are bringing to the stage is in any way inappropriate because of your political affiliations or your taste in subject matter. The discomfort you are feeling comes from the privilege that you have, and while I’m glad you don’t have to face some of these challenges that queer people face, I hope you will think about your discomfort and develop some feelings for those whose lives are not like your own and whose opportunities are very different from yours.
As for some of our performers looking “rough,” I am extremely proud of every performer I share the stage with. Champagne Dreams Productions and Dakota Outright have worked to make our shows an inclusive place for local and regional performers, whether this is their first show or their 1000th show. They spend a lot of time and energy and money on their art, and whether or not someone happens to appreciate their artistic choices does not diminish the commitment and effort. I hope that we will see you at a show in the future, but if you choose not to join us I understand. And I hope you understand that I will always…ALWAYS…stand with my community and against those who would do us harm, and use my platforms, whatever they may be, to call out prejudice and marginalization, regardless of who might be made to feel uncomfortable. With love, Miss Jaye
First of all, can I just say that the queer rabble-rouser that I was in my 20s would have unleashed an expletive-ridden rant on this woman and completely shut down any possibility of productive dialogue. That’s one of the ways I’ve mellowed: I’m still tart-tongued and I can be savage af when I want to be, but I’m weary of just going right to the nuclear option. In some ways it’s easier to just let the rage fly, but it rarely gets you anywhere.
If you have been to one of my shows, especially one which featured any sort of political rant, I hope that you can appreciate the spirit in which I approach my material: I don’t suffer bullshit, but I always approach anything I talk about with compassion. I want my community to come together and support each other, and the hard truth of that means that sometimes we have to say uncomfortable things about power and privilege, both within our communities and without. I’m not perfect, and I know there is material that hasn’t executed the way I imagined it in my mind, and my material continues to grow and evolve and change because of feedback that I receive. There are bits that I did ten years ago, five years ago, even two years ago that I wouldn’t do now, or that I would do in a different way. But I never approach my material from a malicious place, and because of that I stand behind the content and the performances I create. I take accountability for my material, and if someone chooses not to support me any longer because of material that makes them uncomfortable then I have zero fucks to give about that because I know that what I present is true to my integrity as an artist and performer, and I know that when all is said and done my goal is to bring people together in a way that doesn’t continue to marginalize or silence the most vulnerable in our queer communities. If someone doesn’t like that, then they are free to look for entertainment that meets their needs elsewhere. Or as my sassy self would say: “Bye, Felicia!”
Here is the next part of our exchange:
Your very much missing the point. We and people sitting near us went to see a drag show,not a political debate. Your also by your words assuming im a straight person whos a republican and thats not true. I know all too well what people go through, but the point im making is that its a drag show meant for ALL people to enjoy who pay to watch the show. Again,a joke here and there is funny,but turning the show into a political event was very disappointing.
I’m afraid I’m not missing the point. You paid to see a drag show, and you did. There were 9 regular cast members as well as two “newbies” who all performed in drag, doing a very traditional lipsync performance. The show was advertised as a Halloween show, and there were lots of costumes and Halloween-themed numbers. We provided you with exactly what was advertised. At no point was the show advertised as a space where people could come to be free of any political commentary. In fact, if you have attended my shows in the past, you know that I am known for talking about current events and sharing my thoughts through jokes and a perspective that I always hope people will engage with in the spirit in which it is meant: one of compassion, but that does not compromise on the dignity and integrity of queer people. You say that I am assuming that you are straight and Republican, and while I think those would be fair assumptions to make given the nature of your complaints, my argument is that you felt uncomfortable because of privilege that you have. Whether that privilege comes from your sexuality, your gender presentation, your political affiliation, your socioeconomic status, the color of your skin, or any other identity or experience does not matter; what matters is that you came to a space of queer entertainment and are attempting to tell queer artists what you feel is appropriate or inappropriate for them to express.
Before I get to the rest of my response, that last sentence is where so much of my anger about today’s world stems from: it’s one thing to have opinions about the art and media that you consume, and whether or not you like it, but to go to artists of any marginalized group or identity and tell them that the art/content they create is inappropriate simply because it makes you uncomfortable is unacceptable. It is the ultimate expression of privilege and entitlement, assuming that you get to tell someone that they can only express their lives and experiences in a way that you find personally palatable. It’s disgusting, and again my fingers kept wanting to throw in some colorful language to my response, which continues below:
Again, let me be clear: you have every right to like it or not like it. I know that not everyone will love every performance or act or monologue that I bring to the stage, and I’m fine with that. That’s why we have almost a dozen performers in the show, and we hope everyone who comes to one of our shows finds at least one performer or a number that really resonates with them. You yourself said that on other occasions you have really enjoyed what I’ve brought to the stage. In this instance, you didn’t care for it. And again, that’s perfectly ok. But once more I feel like I have to be perfectly clear on this point: in no way were you promised an evening that would be free and clear of entertainment that might challenge your perspective, and in no way are you entitled to that. Drag has a long history of being a medium that challenges people and makes them uncomfortable, and when people or institutions make like [should have said life] difficult for queer people, drag performers have historically engaged with those people and institutions in an effort to enlighten, skewer, and create positive change. Change doesn’t come without some discomfort; that’s why they call them growing pains.
I appreciate that you were willing to share your perspective with me; that takes bravery. I’m sure there were others who didn’t care for some of the material in the show and just grumbled to themselves and will never say a word to me. I always listen to the feedback that I receive about our shows, both positive and negative, and it informs how I continue to evolve and grow as a performer. But now I’m asking you to continue to be brave, and to consider the people in the crowd who may have needed to hear and see exactly what was presented on Saturday night. People who feel like the world is hostile to them, and needed to come to a place where some of the rage and frustration and fear they feel every single day was put on display in a way that made them feel powerful. And think about what I said in my last message: that I will always stand with queer people and against those who would try to marginalize them. Because regardless of what your identity or your affiliation is, coming into a queer space and telling queer artists that the art they produce is inappropriate because it comes into conflict with your personal perspective, is an act of marginalization. It may not be intentional, and it may not be done with any malice, but it still serves as an attempt to silence people. And I will not be silenced for the sake of someone else’s comfort. With Love, Miss Jaye
I’m not posting this to turn myself into some sort of Norma Rae queer warrior, or to seem like I’m better than anyone else. There is just as much ugliness and pettiness and poor judgement in this human animal as there is in any and every other one. I was an English major and I love to throw together long-winded responses and show off all of my fancy two-dollar words, but that’s just to make me feel like all that education I’m still paying off was worth it. No, I’m including this so that anyone who reads this will know, without question, where they stand with me and the content I create: as long as I haven’t done so out of ignorance or some unrecognized prejudice or privilege that I haven’t taken accountability for, I will never apologize for making you uncomfortable. If something I say makes you uncomfortable, I would challenge you to ask yourself, “Why is this particular thing something that makes me feel this way?” If you ever want to give me your thoughts, or your feedback, or even ask me questions about why I choose to do a specific bit, please do! I welcome feedback. What I do not welcome is someone who attempts to control what I put into my content and performances for their own comfort.
Her response took the conversation in an unexpected direction:
Ill finish with this by saying we have seen dozens of drag shows and never was politics involved. I also must ask what proof do you have that Trump hates the LGBT community?
I was actually a little confused when I got this response. If you go back up to our exchange up to this point, there was no mention of Donald Trump. And really, Trump wasn’t that much of a focus of my commentary in the show (I can’t speak for the performers who included political content in their numbers, as I didn’t witness them). I made general statements about the world being on fire, and although I think Trump is part of that I was speaking much more generally about how we interact with each other in the public sphere. There was a bit I did comparing the need for people to vote in the midterm elections using the cliche “the lesser of two evils” that referenced the 2016 election, but even that was less focused on Trump and more related to commentary on the race between Heidi Heitkamp and Kevin Cramer. At no point did I say or insinuate that I thought Trump “hated” queer people.
I wouldn’t do that, and here’s why: truthfully, I don’t give a shit if Donald Trump hates queer people. I don’t care if anyone hates queer people, or if anyone hates any other group of people for that matter. What another person thinks or feels in their heart and in their soul about another person or a group of people means nothing. And “hate” is an emotion word that is meant to get people riled up in opposition to whatever is being presented.
What I care about are public statements and, more importantly, actions. If someone wants to hate me for being queer, I don’t care. But the minute you take that to Washington or to the state capital and try to restrict my rights to live my life, then we have a problem. Go sit at home and be hateful by yourself, but when you go out in the world be respectful and act like a goddamn human being.
Here is my response:
I’m confused as to why you say that I think “Trump hates the LGBT community.” I didn’t make such a claim, and “hate” is a word that involves much more emotional attachment than is usually actually found in the political sphere. If you would like to know whether or not I think Trump has been disrespectful to the LGBT community or has done things that have a profoundly negative effect on the LGBT community, then I would say absolutely. Right now, he is considering creating by presidential decree a definition of gender that completely invalidates the lives and experiences of trans people. He has attempted on multiple occasions to ban trans people from military service, which has been overturned by the courts as patently unconstitutional. He has opposed legislation that provide support and resources for LGBT people and their healthcare, and has worked to rollback employment protections for LGBT people, which would make it legal for people to lose their jobs for no other reason than their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Beyond that, Trump’s rhetoric has lead to an increase in violence against LGBT people, especially those who are also people of color, making it more dangerous for queer people to just live their lives. And as long as that rhetoric is being put out into the world, queer artists like myself are going to continue to call it out and comment on it. I’m glad to hear that you have attended many drag shows and are supporting local queer artists. However, if you have attended any of the Dakota Divas shows in the last few years, there was definitely a fair amount of political material in my monologues. At the last show, in the Belle Mehus auditorium, I opened up with a fairly long monologue about politics and the importance of making your voice heard. Observations about Trump and his presidency have been a staple of my routines since he took office and before, so if you’ve seen any of my shows since at least early 2016 you have heard a fair amount of explicitly anti-Trump material. I’m not sure why this particular show seems to have caused a particular challenge for you, but again I would just ask that you consider sitting with that discomfort and trying to figure out where it comes from.
I don’t hate Trump and I don’t hate Republicans; hate is a toxic condition, and nothing positive ever comes from it. But when I see people taking actions and using words that belittle and demean my community, I am going to comment on it, and I’m going to do it through my writing, through the content I create, and yes, through my drag show performances. That has been true since I started, and it will continue to be true, and people will have to decide individually whether or not they want to consume that content or watch me perform. Some people may choose not to support me, and as long as I continue to create content that doesn’t cause me to compromise my integrity then I am absolutely at peace with that. And the only thing I would say in response to to challenge them to think about what it is in my message that they find so uncomfortable and try to engage with that discomfort in a productive way. With Love, Miss Jaye
I did take issue with her saying that she has never heard politics in my material at any previous shows. Obviously I don’t know what shows she might have attended, but I know I’m a fairly mouthy broad and I’ve been feeling a type of way for the last two plus years, so I’ve definitely been talking about it. I’m really not sure what caused this performance to be the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back,” but it’s not in any way different than my previous performances.
She either felt she had said everything she needed to say or had merely grown weary of my annoyingly verbose responses (a bitch is wordy, I know that, leave me alone!) and she ended with a cordially predictable Cartman-esque “Screw you guys, I’m going home!” response:
Good luck to you and your show,honestly i hope all people will fight for what they believe in. Ill just pick another entertainment to go to that is fun without political reteric.
I do apologize if I seem a little catty in how I set that up, but I guess that 20-something shit-starter in me isn’t completely gone. Whether she meant it that way or not, there is something about that sort of response that just smacks of entitlement: you didn’t give me what I want, so I’m going away. As if she was owed something, and as if we would be sad to see her go! But she wasn’t owed anything, and it’s not my problem if she chooses not to be a part of the community we create with our shows. That’s what this whole thing has been about from the beginning: her privilege bumped up against someone else’s anger and frustration and fear, and rather than taking accountability and examining that privilege, she wants to make it someone else’s problem. She wants to pretend that it’s about her feeling excluded because someone made her uncomfortable without acknowledging that the price of her comfort is silencing those who don’t share the same level or type of privilege that she has. It’s the same sort of bullshit argument that underlies all of those “religious freedom” bills that conservatives have been championing: they only ever seem to apply to people whose “religious freedom” calls on them to discriminate and exclude someone else. The authors of these bills never use them to make it so Muslims can more easily practice their faith, or Jews, or Wiccans; it’s always cry-baby Christians who don’t want to bake gay wedding cakes. Sorry not sorry, but there is no reason to craft protections that only serve to protect privileged people who want to behave like assholes! And while I’m all about community building, part of being a full part of a community is recognizing your own faults and your own privilege to help lift up those who don’t have the same advantages you do. I never seek to make someone feel uncomfortable at my shows, but if that’s the reason why you do, then please see above where I was very clear how I would handle that situation. Because in order to feel that uncomfortable about a few jokes and slams at the expense of high profile political targets, she had to ignore all of the other things I said in my monologues about people treating one another with compassion, about listening to each other, and about making sure that we can all get back to being part of the same world once this election is over…and the next…and the next. She’s choosing to be offended, and she wants to make me responsible for that choice so she doesn’t have to take responsibility for what that choice might mean about her.
Here’s what I wrote back:
Thank you, I appreciate that, and I hope you find entertainment that suits your interests. I absolutely respect your right to choose whether or not to support my show and to take accountability for that choice, the same way that I ask you to respect my right to create my performances in a way that doesn’t compromise my integrity as I take accountability for my choices. I wish you continued growth and lots of laughs. With Love, Miss Jaye
I’ve been doing this for a long time. Some people love me, some people hate me, and some people just have no idea what to do with me. Most days I don’t know what to do with me. I don’t know what people will say when I die, or how they will remember me, but I hope they say that I tried to do the best that I could to build people up. I hope they say that I stuck to my guns and I didn’t back down when it was something I truly believed in. I hope they say I was fantastic in bed…c’mon fellas, do a girl a solid and let my legacy live on! I hope that maybe someone can say they learned a little something about community because of something I worked on.
And I hope they say I made them laugh, even if there was a little bit of discomfort along the way.