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Black Arts Festival 2019: Drag Queens Talk Race and Sexuality in 'Drag as a Black Imaginary Space'

By Annie Harrigan, Contributing Writer

On March 7, “Drag as a Black Imaginary Space” — the second-to-last installation of the 2019 Black Arts Festival — brought a discussion of queerness, race, and drag to the Phillips Brooks House.

The event was moderated by gender studies scholar Omise’eke Tinsley, a visiting professor from the University of Texas, Austin who taught a famed “Beyoncé Feminism, Rihanna Womanism” course last semester. The panel consisted of five drag queens of color from the greater Boston area: Civil Lie Zation (also known as Maiyan when not in drag), Nadya Plaything, Qya Cristál, Severity Stone, and Anya Nuttz. The event, organized by Black Arts Festival co-chairs Antonia L. Scott ’20 and Gabrielle S. Preston ’20, attracted approximately 30 people.

With Tinsley leading the discussions, the topics ranged from the nuances of the Boston drag community to race relations in drag, and from the destruction of queer spaces in Boston to the panelists’ most memorable performances. About halfway through the event, Tinsley opened up the discussion to questions from the audience. Students asked about the intersection of drag and “transness,” how drag functions as an outlet through which performers can “play with race,” and reactions received from family members.

Many of the audience’s questions focused on the balance between using performance to educate cisgender, straight, white audiences on queerness and race and maintaining agency over their art. The panelists responded with an even deeper look at gender identity, cultural appropriation, safe spaces, family, and self-acceptance.

When asked what she wanted people to take away from the discussion, Scott said that she hoped audience members would feel more conscious of how they reflected their various identities.

“Something that I’m glad that the panelists talked about was how it’s good to be conscious of the ways that you present yourself and how read yourself in multiple walks of life,” Scott said.

In addition to exploring themes of fashion and identity, panelists also examined the ways that gentrification has restricted Boston’s queer community and has led to a destruction of safe spaces for BGLTQ individuals.

“I heard a lot about the way that gentrification is pushing out queer performers — and if we don’t support queer performers, who will?” Tinsley said.

Preston mentioned feeling especially impressed by the performer’s “incredible resilience.”

“It’s so hard to even sometimes begin to talk about blackness and gender and transness and survival and resilience,” Preston said. “It’s so hard to be an artist when you have all that on your shoulders.”

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