Drag Performers Champion Anti-Racism, Disability Justice at Oaklash

SNJV performs at Oaklash in 2019. This year's event is going virtual on Twitch Sept. 4–6.  (JP Lor/Oaklash)

For drag performers, the pandemic has brought canceled gigs, shuttered bars and financial hardships—but also an important pause to imagine a more sustainable and inclusive way forward for queer nightlife once we’re able to gather again.

That’s the mindset of the producers of Oaklash, the drag festival that spotlights performers of different genders, generations, cultures and styles—glitzy, campy and avant-garde alike. If this were a normal year, hundreds of fans would have packed the backyard of Classic Cars West to see Peaches Christ’s macabre antics, RuPaul’s Drag Race Thailand champion Angele Anang and the playful, provocative Nicki Jizz. Instead, the festival will take place as a digital drag extravaganza on Twitch during Oakland Pride weekend, Sept. 4–6.

“Part of the sensibility of the Bay Area is that diversity, and we hope we can build more stages for that,” says Mama Celeste, who co-founded Oaklash with fellow drag performer Beatrix LaHaine in 2018. The duo has spent weeks putting together a lineup that unites performers from popular online drag shows such as Digital Drag, hosted by Biqtch Puddin, and The Stud’s Drag Alive. At Oaklash, some of the segments will be self-produced by the artists at home, and others will be shot at San Francisco club Oasis, with a multi-camera set-up and special effects.

With Oaklash coming to fans’ living rooms, there’s a new opportunity to have intimate conversations that would have been difficult in a packed club. Saturday includes a slate of panels about disability justice, anti-racism and the future of drag after COVID-19. These conversations are already happening among drag performers and show producers; now, they have the chance to call in their audiences and rally them to action.

The Black Lives Matter movement has inspired many realms of the arts to take stock of their complicity in racism, and the queer nightlife community is no exception. In late July, drag performers Militia and Afrika America, who are both part of Saturday’s Oaklash anti-racism panel along with Lucy Stoole, participated in a town hall about racism and safety in LGBTQ+ nightlife after a survey from the Bay Area Queer Nightlife Coalition revealed histories of racism and transphobia at several of San Francisco’s most popular gay bars.

A drag performer wearing lace, faux fur and a garter belt collects a tip from a fan.
Drag performer Militia of the Queer Nightlife Coalition will be part of an anti-racism panel at Oaklash on Sept. 5. (Courtesy of Militia)

Similar town halls about race and equity in queer nightlife have taken place in Chicago and Philadelphia, and Oaklash presents an opportunity to continue the conversation. “All of us have really been talking about the same things: it’s tokenization and equitable treatment,” says Militia, describing a culture of booking one Black drag queen per show to “fill a quota,” unequal pay and lack of promotion for Black performers.

“For me, the bar owners who have the most issues—I don’t know that they’re actually doing the work right now besides waiting for it to blow over,” she says. “Which is fine, because the community is now watching them as well.”

San Francisco’s gay bar scene has a decades-long history of catering to cis, white men, and excluding people of color, gender non-conforming people and women (or those who fall into all three categories). In the 1970s, the Castro was known as the land of mustaches, pale skin and biceps, and, while that image has shifted, discrimination continues. Part of the challenge of addressing it is denial, Militia says. In her experience, white bar owners and party-goers often shut down conversations about racism before they begin because they go into defensive mode, afraid of being called a racist. She hopes Saturday’s panel can encourage more openness.

“Everybody has levels of racism within them, everybody has levels of xenophobia within them. It is up to you to continue to do the work,” she says. “I think it would help if people realize that being anti-racist isn’t something you achieve and then you’re done. ... Especially when we’re just starting the conversation.”

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Another Oaklash panel invites the queer and trans community to “Spill the Disabili-tea” on accessibility for people with disabilities. Led by advocate Alex Locust, who sometimes goes by Glamputee, the panel invites BIPOC drag performers and nightlife professionals with disabilities to discuss what Locust describes as a joyful vision of true inclusivity—one that takes access to physical spaces, vision and hearing accommodations and mental health into account. (The speaker lineup includes George Kaplan, Mizi Samuels-Waithe, Gabe Taylor, Robin Wilson-Beatti and Lola Ursula, and there will be closed captioning for the Oaklash panels on Twitch.)

Four smiling friends pose at a Pride celebration.
Alex Locust (far right) leads workshops on accessibility and will host the “Spill the Disabili-TEA” panel at Oaklash on Sept. 5 on Twitch. (Courtesy of Alex Locust)

“Accessibility practices for disabled folks within the queer community are attended to sporadically,” says Locust. People with disabilities often have to do prep work to make sure that bars and clubs they want to visit are accessible—which takes the fun and spontaneity out of going out. But deeper than that, it alienates them from the places where LGBTQ+ people build community.

“What is the emotional and mental toll of advocating that spaces are available to you?” Locust wonders. “If this is your community, to feel like you have to fight or champion just so you can get in the door, or just to feel that you are welcome in that space and your body and your mind were thought of, rather than feeling like a burden.”

At this stage of the pandemic, digital event producers are grappling with how to hold audiences’ attention as streaming fatigue sets in and unofficial gatherings crop up outdoors. But at Oaklash, there’s clearly momentum around the creative possibilities and opportunities for discussion the new medium has brought.

“I’m super excited to see how it translates to the festival, and I’m super excited to see how it translates to drag post-COVID, post-quarantine,” says Militia. “I don’t think drag is ever really gonna be the same.”

Oaklash is streaming on Twitch Sept. 4–6. Details here.

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