One defining, central fact of most queer lives is some measure of repression and/or trauma during adolescence, some essential hiding of the self that leaves many us grappling for much of the rest of our lives with when, how, to whom, and for what purpose we choose to disclose our various identities to the people we know. In The Epistemology of the Closet, the seminal work of queer theory that investigates the ways the closet has shaped discussions around queer people, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick acknowledges the danger inherent in centralizing the closet without providing some alternative, inadvertently “presenting as inevitable or somehow valuable its exactions, its deformations, its disempowerment…” However, she wrote back in 1990, she sees no alternative to ‘closet’ discourse: “I scarcely know at this stage a consistent alternative proceeding, however; and it may well be that… no such consistency is possible.”
Drag Kids, a Canadian documentary that made its US festival debut at NewFest this past week, asks: what if there were another way? What if, no matter how many kids at school made fun of them or how many adults claimed we are “sexualizing” or “abusing” kids who want to be different, we just let them dress however makes them happy and perform whatever pop songs they want, no matter how “gay” it seems? What if we support our kids and emphatically refuse to feel shame about them, as a way to shield them from having to carry shame themselves?
The documentary follows four children who dress in drag: Laddy Gaga (aka Stephan, a British kid living in Spain), Suzan Bee Anthony (aka Jason, of Missouri), Bracken (a Vancouver “hyper-queen” who was born female and dresses in an exaggerated feminine persona), and Queen Lactatia (aka Nemis, of Montreal). Some of them, like Stephan, sound mildly confused when kids at school bully them for being “gay;” his mother emphatically says that Stephan dressing in a wig has absolutely nothing to do with sexuality. Nemis, on the other hand, seem to be fully self-aware at age 9 and wants to throw insults back in faces: so what? We’re introduced to the queens all separately, all wishing they had other people in their lives “like them,” who understood what they already know: that they are different, and they shouldn’t have to know that that’s not okay.
After the introductions, they’re brought together, so they can meet one another and perform together in a choreographed dance routine to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” There’s a lot of Gaga here, which I loved. More than one queen does a number to “Million Reasons,” and it’s striking to realize that the song (which still feels like a newer Gaga hit to me) has been out for nearly a third of their lives. Laddy Gaga herself was only a few months old when the Gaga wore the meat dress and announced “Born This Way” at the 2010 VMAs, but that doesn’t stop him from dressing up like his hero and prancing around the house in heels to “Paparazzi.” Drag Kids had me wondering: who would I be if “Born This Way” had soundtracked my entire life, rather than having been released during my pivotal undergraduate years?
The interplay between the four kids when they finally meet one another is fun to watch — mild conflict is mined from who’s supportive of the others, who’s shy, who seems to have budding anger problems, and who’s the biggest diva, but overall, the kids are overjoyed to have other people in their lives like themselves. I maybe would have liked to see a little more conflict, but these are children and it’s probably for the best that things are mostly kept light and inspiring. (And they are inspiring!)
What was almost as interesting was the focus on the parents. All four have families who encourage them to express themselves, whether that’s painting on oversized lips, dressing in skin-tight leotards, or stomping around the subway in high heels. The parents are all well-aware of how their kids are perceived; they manage their social media presences for them, head off arguments from other parents who want to tell them how to parent, and shepherd them around to various events to ensure that they don’t encounter any danger on the way.
“We all have other children,” remarks one, countering the argument that they’re not forcing their children to do this; “not all of our kids are flaming queens.” The other parents all laugh in complete understanding.
Toward the end, the host of a vogue ball calls Suzan Bee Anthony’s parents up on the runway after she stomps the catwalk, her shy backstage personality falling away to reveal the fierce queen within. For a moment you wonder whether the host is going to have some quippy remark about the fact that there’s a child onstage. Instead, taking the microphone away from her mouth, she says simply, “I just want to say… thank you.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by the organizer of a competition guest-judged by Lactacia. His eyes narrowing and his throat tense with emotion, he says, “She’s wonderful, and… she has the most amazing, supportive parents. Not all of us… not all of us were that lucky.” You can feel a lifetime of struggle in his tone of voice, and the wonderful release of hope that maybe the next generation won’t have to deal with the things he did. Maybe there is another way.
Eat your heart out, Eve Sedgwick.
By Eric Langberg
Drag Kids screened at NewFest 2019.Get tickets now for the 31st New York LGBTQ Film Festival, Oct. 23 – 29th, at http://www.NewFest.org