I’m stood leaning over the bar in drag when a drunk attendee leaves a red, sore mark on my bum after a slap while going in for a second squeeze. They disappear into the crowd before I can turn around and scream in their face.
The inappropriate physical contact experienced by far too many club performers needs to be talked about. It’s a problem that I’ve moaned about many times with fellow performers, but one that rarely ever seems to change. We galvanise ourselves against the unwanted objectification we experience, yet it keeps happening. As a performer, as a drag queen, as an explicitly feminine entity; I often feel that audiences believe they hold ownership over my body and over their experience of my body. The fact that I am paid to be there as entertainment is beside the point. I am not paid to be a multi-sensory play station.
Socially, we are wrongly taught that femininity and representations of the female body are products for our collective consumption and gratification. When confronted with a representation of femininity that only exists to gratify itself, do audiences feel somehow compelled to intervene physically? The sexually aggressive nature of the harassment experienced by performers is harrowing. We, as avatars of gender, are experiencing the violent objectification of femininity; the “you wear it, you ask for it” rhetoric, the complete denial of bodily autonomy experienced by women every single day.
East London fixture Bourgeoisie claims that they have “never understood the impetus to disrupt a performance in progress. You don’t go to the ballet or opera and try and reach out and touch the performers.”
Comments like these radiate ideas that the very feminine, sexual and queer ways we construct ourselves as drag performers that mark us away from other performers, produce us as being physically available for audience members to grope. We construct ourselves from what neo-liberal patriarchal systems routinely position as the ‘consumable other’.
Drag artist Georgie Bee view’s these encounters as examples of a “’this is about me and what I want, and not about you or how you feel’” mentality, selfishly placing the needs of the audience member over those of the performer.
Cabaret and drag artist Rubyyy Jones similarly describes it as “being treated like a party favour”, reducing club performers and drag acts to consumable products . As performers we offer ourselves to audiences, often in very vulnerable and intimate ways, though Georgie Bee excellently argues that she “never perform[s] for the sexual benefit of anyone but myself. I didn’t invite you, a stranger, to the party. You are merely watching. It’s taking something from my performance, that I didn’t want to give.”
You might think that we’re just big crazy club clowns, here for your amusement, but you don’t know us. Rubyyy points out that “it’s about the parts of your own trauma and parts of you, separate to the crafted persona, being attacked by someone.”
We are not the costumes we wear, we are not the wigs and the suspenders and the lashes. While there is perhaps a desire to figure the performer out, to decode them and press the artifice of their persona, physically invading my personal space me is not an attack or an objectification of Rodent DeCay, it’s an attack on me as an individual. Grabbing a drag queen for a selfie might seem like a harmless (but rude) thing to do, but when you grab us, you’re choosing to ignore us as anything other than a drag queen for your own gratification.
To drag audiences everywhere: this is not a painted middle finger up to your enthusiastic enjoyment of our work. This is a request that we have a conversation first. There needs to be a maintained level of respect between audiences and performers in queer spaces. These encounters are a behavioural hangover from a way of treating people that is brutal and dehumanising, something we need to be actively removing from our community. So let’s have a conversation, ask me for a picture, let me invite you to look at my costume. Just don’t grab and don’t be rude.