Jake Weinraub

The Queen

Filed By Jake Weinraub | March 11, 2011 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Living
Tags: crystal labeija, frank simon, New York City, queer history, queer spaces

I was doing some sleuthing online and came across this clip from the 1968 documentary "The Queen" directed by Frank Simon, which features Flawless Sabrina preparing for a drag queen contest in New York City.

What strikes me most about this clip is the scene where the contestants gather in one of their apartments to go over some logistics. The camera continuously rolls, showing the queens enter the space and interact with one another.

When watching this clip I teared up. It felt like a home movie, like I was watching my friends and I hanging out. The rawness of seeing the men sitting, looking around, joking amongst themselves, and sharing everyday experiences allows me to place myself in the scene. Knowing how it is in my queer network, I can only guess at the intermingling relationships between the people sizing each other up in the room: who has slept with who, flirted with who, dated, just met, heard things about, etc.

I also think about how queer spaces were so limited at this time, so the some of the only safe places to meet would be in the tiny living room of someone's apartment. Public places existed but were often closed down. People moved from their apartments. Queer space was temporary and shifting, safe space often hard to come by.

Morsels of history such as this reveal to me the complex legacies of oppression, pain, resistance and triumph that lay the groundwork for my queer experience today. My agency has been built, brick by brick on the backs of queers past. This knowledge fills me with a richer sense of self, culture, new heroes, and most importantly an obligation to these queer pioneers who have paved the way to my current empowerment. It is even more satisfying because This is information that I've had to seek out on my own - it wasn't taught to me in middle school and high school.

I've tried to spend my time in school gathering knowledge, being critical of what I'm finding, and reclaiming queer history.

The following is a clip from later in the movie featuring the legendary Crystal LaBeija and her response to the most likely shady results of the contest. Never fuck with a drag queen.


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Kathy Padilla | March 11, 2011 4:11 PM

"The rawness of seeing the men"

It would be more accurate to call some of them women. Some did go on to have gender confirming surgery. Including the contest winner - who was very well known in Philly; having opened the first disco in the city and whose restaurant was one of the most famous in the town. Rachel Harlow.

The winner of the contest, Harlow (whether it was rigged or not, she was very pretty) was, about 7-8 years later, post-srs, in a relationship with Grace Kelley's older brother, Kell, a well-known politician. She also regularly appeared on the Mike Douglas Show (kind of like the Ellen show in the 60s-70s).

The Queen also has a brief glimpse of the late trans woman "International Chrysis" who became a well known iconic queer performer in NYC during the late 70s and 80s. She's one of the chorus 'boys' who hangs out with Harlow.

Another film of the same era (a few years earlier) is the recently restored documentary "Queens at Heart" which offers interviews with several trans woman at the time when being crossdressed in NYC was still technically illegal. It also features some amazing shots of the drag balls of that era. I have a story at my blog about it being shown at Outfest:

http://skipthemakeup.blogspot.com/2010/06/queens-at-heart-pre-stonewall-treasure_09.html

Kathy Padilla | March 12, 2011 2:28 AM

Kelly was a Councilman - an Olympian in crew. The main road along the Schuykill River is named Kelly Drive - where the Boat Houses are for all the rowing clubs. And where there's a statue of his father rowing.

He was running for Mayor when he and Harlow were a couple. His mother called the head of the Dem Party and threatened to take out billboards saying "do you want Harlow as first lady" if they didn't get him to drop out of the race.

And you think your family can be difficult....,

Regan DuCasse | March 12, 2011 3:27 PM

I think, as a person who has spent most of their professional life as a performer, I can appreciate the courage, and dedication to what is essentially being a walking example of 'dangerous art'.
On a few levels there's much in common drag has with say, clowns. That is to say, the face, the body language and high concept dramatics, pantomime or expression, are ambiguous to some or a source of fear for others.

It's the applied exaggeration of eyes, mouths, hair and physical features that's part of that commonality, if not also how an audience will respond.
With love, or hate...or oh well, whatever, just don't get too close.
It's about getting attention and daring anyone to make you quiet down. Yet, they are both a culture of mystery and the small intimate spaces of dressing rooms and overflowing costume trunks.

As someone who spent YEARS touring with a drag performer (as her backup singer), and as a Ringling Bros. dancer and clown groupie, I can attest they are both a traditional kind of performer through the ages, that I love and respect.

This is high art daring gravity. There are those with degrees of talent, or just plain chutzpah, but the socio/political ramifications obviously are in the court of drag queens and their place in society outside of the make up and dresses.
This is where the passion, and will to live out loud, full time and the rage not to be diminished separates them. And it's the drag queens to take greater pratfalls, and bear deeper scars against a tide of uncertainty.
Like the amazing drag queens of "Paris Is Burning", I wonder how many of these queens in this older film are not alive either.
What a legacy though...these films endure and should. The soul of a drag queen is the soul of a warrior, a lion's roar behind the lipstick.
Whatever fire in the belly is there, I hope never diminishes.

beautifully written.

are you still touring, or planning to tour again?

Regan DuCasse | March 13, 2011 3:17 AM

Hello Jake!
No, alas...I'm no longer performing in that way anymore.
I'm still VERY close to several drag performers, and many clowns. Our friendships have lasted decades. My circus work never became a career, really. I always returned to the theater, and toured with musicals.
But so much about being a show person is what the dreams of others are built on. Drag queens are such grand dreamers. Such intense investment in being pretty, showy, every moment an opportunity for 'ta DAH'!
And...applause.
Who WOULDN'T want that?
Sometimes I run into someone who knew me when. Some were CHILDREN then.
They ask me my secret, how I've stayed so young. I suppose it's all that time spent with the dreamers. There isn't THAT much behind us...yet.

Memories and dreams are so much the same aren't they? One is where we were, the other is possibility of where we're going, still.
We're teaching the younger ones now. They ARE our children...and WHAT dreamers they are...

Thank you for asking, you can see the new incarnation of what I do on crime shows like "Law and Order: Los Angeles, and "Southland."
I'm a crime scene photographer and forensic artist. My sketches are featured on these television shows.

Never one to stray too far from Hollywood and it's charms...

OMG they haven't changed in all these years. That's like an episode of Rupaul's Drag Race.