At Guernica, Amanda Feinman visits the Rosemont Bar in Brooklyn, New York, to learn about how the venue’s drag shows are expanding the art with boundless inclusivity and one rule: “No one should say, ‘This is how you should or shouldn’t look.’”
Drag has exploded in recent years, reaching larger audiences than ever before on social media and YouTube, and through RuPaul’s sprawling empire. The art form has often provided space for cisgender gay men to perform exaggerated femininity: this might be called “binary drag,” the older and more mainstream school, where prettiness and pageantry are prized and performers are expected to cross unambiguously over a perceived gender line. That stuff hasn’t disappeared. Cis men are still the majority of drag performers, and many queens still aim for drag that’s “fishy” (or female-passing) and polished. But here, in this dim sanctuary from the bitter Brooklyn cold, you sense a hunger for something more knotty. The drag is messy, activist, inclusive. Its performers identify all along the gender spectrum. It engages explicitly with contemporary politics, does not shy away from pain and ugliness, and is uninterested in restraint.
Crucially, a lot of drag at the Rosemont resists binary expectations. It’s a church of “genderfucking,” where high-femme makeup gets paired with flat, hairy chests. Bare breasts meet penile prosthetics. A cinched waist sits below an ample beard. Where some drag prizes clear-cut movement across gendered categories, this work worships the collapse of category altogether.
“There is no reason at all to subscribe to a binary in an art form that is meant to be subversive,” Jupiter Velvet tells me. She’s a trans femme queen based in Miami, but because of her deep Brooklyn ties (Brooklyn maven Merrie Cherry is her drag grandmother), she’s frequently in the Rosemont’s orbit. When I first saw her gliding across Bushwick, she had on a full face of impeccable makeup, a tight shirt whose round cut-outs revealed hairy nipples, and a trans pride flag draped over her shoulders, cascading down her body in baby blues and pinks. “No one should say, ‘This is how you should or shouldn’t look,’” she insists. “We don’t always need to be padded or shaved.”
For a school of drag to have liberated itself from binary rigidity is no small thing. The variety and fluidity here hint at larger trends within the art form, and have implications that reverberate beyond the drag world, too. Even with the careful distance that I—as a straight, cis woman—must maintain when I enter queer spaces, I feel animated by the revolutionary premise of this kind of drag. Because it embraces a radical softening of social category, it suggests something about how the world might be. How we all might live, even after we close our tabs at the end of the night, and stagger back to our muted routines.