“I’m quite aware of how ridiculous I am,” says Nathan Lane, playing the queen of Miami’s drag queen scene, in The Birdcage. “I’ve been thinking that the only solution is to go where no one is ridiculous and everyone is equal.”
Lane’s costume-loving showgirl stage presence would likely feel as unwelcome at Glasgow’s gay pride weekend this year as he did trying to impress his right-wing future in-laws in the film.
In Scotland, a ban on drag performers at an event in this year’s pride celebrations has rocked the LGBT community and spun into in-fighting between advocacy groups.
Free Pride, a newcomer organization with a self-proclaimed plan to revive the event’s radicalism, announced what many found was a perplexing decision on Friday: It was banning drag queens from performing in their August celebrations.
In an explanation on its blog, the founders argued that drag turned gender identity into a joke. “The decision was taken by transgender individuals who were uncomfortable with having drag performances at the event,” it wrote. “It was felt that it would make some of those who were transgender or questioning their gender uncomfortable.”
It sparked instant outrage. Facebook and Twitter users condemned the hypocrisy of a policy of exclusion at a day dedicated to the opposite.
Pride Glasgow, the main organizer of the weekend, was quick to distance itself from the ban. “We can understand the actions behind Free Pride over the banning of Drag Performers but believe this action to be wrong and going against what an inclusive event should be about,” it said in a statement.
The social media backlash was swift and ruthless.
RuPaul’s Drag Race performer Michelle Visage wrote a fury of tweets against the decision. “WHO. THE HELL. BANS DRAG QUEENS FROM GAY PRIDE? THE VERY BACKBONE OF THE PRIDE CELEBRATIONS? hello, ever heard of THE STONEWALL RIOTS?!!!” she wrote, getting hundreds of retweets.
Drag queens were some of the first arrests at the Stonewall Inn in 1969, when the scene burst into riots and, eventually, helped pave the way for the modern gay rights movement.
Their boldness in dress helped make a pocket of the community mainstream, most famously in the 1990 classic about drag houses Paris is Burning and now in shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Watching from his home in Birmingham, England, Adam Stewart was dismayed to find his social media feeds filled with news of the performance ban, and then the allowance of trans drag performers.
The 26-year-old started the International Drag Day in 2009 to celebrate the role of drag queens in the LGBTQ rights movement.
“They have been there at every Pride march and benefit raising countless amounts of money for charity and fighting for equal rights. I think that because drag can be seen as camp, low-brow and comedic, we forget about this,” he wrote in an email to The Daily Beast. “On stage they make us laugh, smile and for that moment not have to worry about some of the crap that life can throw at people who are LGBTQ and I think they should be applauded for this.”
Free Pride relented. On Facebook, it posted a request for feedback on the ban—but added “if you are cis, please do not message us about this.” Cis refers to a person whose gender identity conforms with their sex.
Three days later, it decided to allow drag queens—but only if they were transgender performers.
In a long statement posted on Facebook, Free Pride wrote that potential performers were unhappy with the rule. “We did not in any way mean to equate cis (who are often seen as transmisogynistic by some portions of the Trans community) drag performers with trans drag performers,” it wrote. “We would like to explicitly state that while we attempt to include everyone, we have always, and will always aim to put the needs and voices of the most marginalized first.”
This did little to ease the flood of criticism. “I think this only adds salt to the wounds. I can't see what trans drag performers will do differently to cis drag performers? Is their Shirley Bassey more considered? Perhaps their Barbara Streisand is more on point....” Steward said.
Facebook comments were almost entirely unified in dissent to the updated decision. “You completely had my backing until you went down this ludicrous route of division and separation,” one wrote.
“And as I’m sure you've already been reminded, those Drag Queens you’re so desperate to exclude were the ones that got the rest of us off our closeted asses in the first place,” another said.
“How are you going to.moderate who is a trans and who is a cis drag act? Maybe they should wear identification. Such as a pink triangle..oh wait, that’s been done before....” said another.
“This is against the law,” a Facebook user wrote, noting that refusing to hire a performer based on gender identity or sex is illegal under the Equality Act 2010.
There were, of course, also supporters of the idea, but their presence on the comment threads was scant.
“From what I see Free Pride is simply supporting the views of the non-binary and trans participants who have asked that drag acts then not be preformed [sic],” a lone commenter wrote.
The ban even sparked a small, but growing, online boycott against the event.
Ironically, the Free Pride event was started to welcome those who felt marginalized by the mainstream pride event that takes place in Glasgow annually.
The main weekend festivities had become “de-radicalized,” an organizer of Free Pride told the Evening Times last week.
By staging a cost-free party at the same time, the event hoped to send a reminder about the nuanced issues within the LGBTQ community—from class and race to disability awareness.
In Scotland, which has been one of the crusading countries on LGBT issues, there still exists deep inequality for transgender people.
A new report by the Equality Network found that transgender Scots feel greater prejudice than any other sexual or gender identity in the LGBT community—94 percent reported that they perceived discrimination based on their identity. Free Pride was keenly aware that this group’s rights needed greater advocacy.
“Pride should be free. Pride should be a protest. Pride should be accessible to all,” the group’s Facebook description says.
But with the drag performance ban, it was being blamed for perpetuating division within the community.
On Wednesday night, Free Pride accepted the criticism and offered a mea culpa.
“Free Pride now welcomes drag performers of all genders and gender identities,” the organization said in a statement. “Drag is an art form, a form of expression and performance, a community with a rich history. The most useful comments and advice that we have been sent from around the world have been from trans people of color and working class trans people who support drag and have let us know that, without it, they might not have had access to trans/queer culture at all.”