Culture

Punk queens, vaccines, and DJ Chelsea Manning: inside New York’s legendary drag fest

Bushwig began as a chaotic party in someone’s backyard in 2011. In the 11 years since it was founded in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, it has evolved into a two-day extravaganza in Queens with more than 150 performers – and tours the world with events in Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Berlin. The event resembles a deranged and depraved variety show – a seemingly endless showcase of emerging and experienced drag talent in a rave atmosphere. This year saw performances from gay icons including Amanda Lepore and the drag queen Lady Bunny as well as a much-anticipated DJ set from Chelsea Manning (“the most 2022 thing I have ever heard”, according to one attendee).

Bushwig has a punk ethos, embodied by the explicit artworks and semi-offensive slogan t-shirts on sale (“Sodom today, Gomorrah the world”) along with avant-garde and kink-inspired outfits that make the eyes boggle. Despite the high ticket prices (almost $90 for a weekend pass), and the large venue (the Knockdown Center), Bushwig remains the beating heart of American underground drag culture – it makes RuPaul’s Drag Race look like finishing school.

On the main stage this year, each queen was allotted about five minutes of time to shine. Balloons were fellated, death drops were executed and LGBTQ+ history was saluted. A surprise headline set from the singer Yaeji and a performance from the longstanding voguing house the House of LaBeija capped off the weekend as the closing acts of Sunday night, before Janelle No 5 was crowned the new Miss Bushwig.

people around the stage
Inside the Bushwig festival. Photograph: Jeenah Moon/The Guardian

Drag queens and the LGBTQ+ community have recently been subjected to violence and intimidation across America. In April, the newly opened Rash Bar, close to the Bushwig venue in the Bushwick neighborhood, was set ablaze in an arson attack. In June, the rightwing extremist group the Proud Boys hurled homophobic and transphobic slurs at a Drag Queen Story Hour in California, where drag queens read books to children at a public library. A few weeks later, a drag event at the California bar Mojos was cancelled after people shouting homophobic abuse sought to enter the premises.

These attacks demonstrate a hostile climate for drag, even if some drag queens now amass millions of Instagram followers, go viral on TikTok, and land makeup sponsorship deals. A lot has changed since Bushwig’s predecessor, Wigstock – the legendary New York festival started out of the Lower East Side’s drag club culture – began in 1984 (after ending in 2005, it was briefly revived in 2018 by its founder, Lady Bunny, and the actor Neil Patrick Harris).

Bushwig now proves the antidote to an elite, Drag Race-fueled drag culture that is over-saturated, over-corporatised and over-polished, with some queens even introduced by the hosts as “non-profit”, doing it for the love of it, not the cash.

As well as the main drag performers this year, there were indoor and outdoor raves and an all-night market and even an area where guests queued to get their monkeypox vaccine. As one attendee put it: “This feels like a safe space, full of people who are friendly, colourful and expressive.”

Chelsea Manning, DJ

What’s the significance of Bushwig in the current political climate for queer people?

When Reagan came to power there was a very conservative agenda, and clamping down on the queer and trans community. The only safe space for the community to survive and to thrive and to exist was ballrooms, the club scene, the bars. So I feel like we’re going back to the roots. I feel very at home in a space like this.

Portrait of manning with headphones and cat ears
Chelsea Manning. Photograph: Patrick Donovan

How long have you been DJing?
Since 2003, the vinyl era. I did actual DJ sets from around 2005 to 2007. Paid gigs, but I wasn’t a headliner or anything. Mostly for queer clubs in DC. So before I was in the military.

What’s made you pick things up again?
Having the time to get back into it. I had this book that I have been working on for the last several years. It’s been a painful, long and exhausting process, and time-consuming. This is just supposed to be something fun, more in tune with my roots as an artist and as a person. But eventually, I want to produce, to make my own tracks.

You have mostly been playing hyper pop in your sets.
Yes, but also drum and bass and trance. It was all acetate (small imprint 12-inch records) back in the UK, 2003 to 2005, and I collected them. So I mostly come from drum and bass and early Armin van Buuren and mid-2000s trance era. Before digital, drum and bass and trance weren’t really compatible in the same set, but now you can flow between them a lot easier. My sets are also hyper pop heavy. Hyper pop is difficult to define – it’s not necessarily new, just an exaggeration or remix of music genres that have been in the queer scene for a very long time. I would describe it as music that you hear on TikTok.

What are your thoughts on Donald Trump running again?
I haven’t really been thinking about it much. Ultimately, I don’t think it really matters who the Republicans run, whether it’s Trump or another rightwing figure. From an institutional and structural perspective, regardless of whether we have a Biden or a Trump, we still have a lot of the same policies: immigration policies, wartime policies. Funding of law enforcement, military and the intelligence apparatus keeps going up, regardless of who’s in administration. So I think that ultimately, it’s mostly a branding issue.

What’s most important for the trans community right now?
Things aren’t going to automatically get better, but as a community, we can mitigate that and we can build structures of resistance and survival. We are going to lose a lot of ground, but we’ve been here before. We’ll survive, we will thrive. I actually am somewhat optimistic because I’ve spoken to so many elders who had much harsher circumstances that they came through. We can do that again, if necessary.

jay kay wears bright face paint
Jay Kay. Photograph: Jeenah Moon/The Guardian

Jay Kay, host

Tell us about your look.
Clown, demon, idiot. I wanted it to be silly. I knew I didn’t wanna try to imitate womanhood because it’s just not for me. I want to look like a coloring book threw up on a Saturday morning cartoon and went out into the world.

How has the New York drag scene changed since Covid emerged?
There was definitely a shakeup. Some people quit drag and found new passions and double that amount started drag in their bedrooms, making videos, like my co-host Dawn. So there are people at Bushwig who have been here years and a new crop of talent who worked their asses off and built a career after the pandemic, which was a nightmare for us drag queens financially. I got a whopping $17 in my bank account this second so thank God they have drinks backstage.

Is it hard to make it as a drag queen full-time right now?
It absolutely is not my full-time job. It’s hard – you have to care and have something special. More than splits, dips, makeup and great outfits – something that is different to what everyone else is doing. That’s hard for people to get a hold of when there’s so much drag on TV.

drag queen in pink outfit
Coriander Spice. Photograph: Jeenah Moon/The Guardian

Coriander Spice, attendee

What inspires you to do drag?
I do drag for drag’s sake maybe every six months. I work on these looks for probably the entire year. I’m a career girl. I don’t look like this every day, so now I get to live this other life as a sexy loofah.

How do you feel about Florida passing the “don’t say gay” bill?
Things are never great in Florida. That’s why I left. My family is very Republican and conservative so it’s not shocking to me. I wish I could say it was but it’s not.

What inspires you about Bushwig?
I love the freedom, the creativity, the color. I came the first year as a creepy, queer Cousin It and I got the warmest reception. That’s my best memory, feeling welcome by the drag legends of Brooklyn.

Eric Lee, center, receives a dose of the monkeypox vaccine at Bushwig.
Eric Lee, center, receives a dose of the monkeypox vaccine at Bushwig. Photograph: Jeenah Moon/The Guardian

Eric Lee, vendor

What brings you to Bushwig?
I have a print shop in Philly called Come on Strong – crass, funny, sometimes political and very gay T-shirts. So we come to sell our shirts.

You just got your monkeypox shot – was it your first?
That was my second shot. I got my first shot in Philly. I think it’s great that they’re doing it here. I know a number of people who got monkeypox – immunocrompromised people, people with diabetes. It has been very painful for them.

If you’re doing harm reduction, you have to meet people where they are at. If there’s a high-risk population concentrated at Bushwig, they should come here.

portrtait of vendor wearing bright-colored headdress
Arthur Bramhandram. Photograph: Jeenah Moon/The Guardian

Arthur Bramhandam, vendor

What brings you here?
This event has a lot of POC aspects to it and you see so many types of drag, too, that you don’t see in mainstream drag. You see people super conceptual and abstract, then Drag Race style and very glamazon, and then you see horror. So if you don’t know drag well, you’ll see something you’d like.

Where is drag at right now?
More accepted in more public spaces than it was before, but the next step is more diversity. There’s so many types of drag that aren’t represented by the microcosm of Ru Paul’s Drag Race. But I think the personal stories on Drag Race let mainstream society realise it’s not such an anomaly to be nonbinary or express themselves in ways that don’t subscribe to the status quo.

two drag queens pose
Phoebe Bingbong and Ruby Tuesday. Photograph: Jeenah Moon/The Guardian

Phoebe Bingbong, performer and host

You and Ruby Tuesday took up drag a year ago – why?
I’ve always loved going to drag shows it was the best part of my week and I wanted to give that to other people.

How would you describe Brooklyn drag?
Brooklyn has so many avenues of drag – crazy drag, a woman, a monster. We have so many venues we can go to and feel welcomed, whereas in places like Wisconsin where I am from, there are fewer opportunities.

Ruby Tuesday, performer and host

Why is Brooklyn an epicentre of drag?
New York’s been a gay mecca for so long. It’s the fashion capital of the world, there’s Broadway, people come here to work in showbiz. But I think a lot of the weirdos don’t have as much money, and Brooklyn’s cheaper to live in than Manhattan. So it’s home to the weirdo drag.

Does it feel safe to do drag when there are attacks on Drag Queen Story Hour?
I don’t like to ride public transport by myself in drag, but that’s not a luxury everyone can afford. We have had verbal confrontations, people yelling, hazing, and people being creepy, sexually. But I think we’re extremely lucky to be in this city and have all these outlets for drag. We don’t take that privilege lightly.

Is drag important in the current political climate?
Yes. We are there to facilitate bar sales, but it’s about making sure people are having a good time. You’re also putting on a mask. You don’t have to worry about your personal issues; you become another person. Who you are in drag changes who you are outside of drag.

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