What do you expect when you come to a drag show? What I don’t expect to see is a drag queen getting arrested. But that’s what happened this past Saturday when the police came to the DuPont Underground and arrested an entertainer for alleged sexual assault on stage. Fortunately, the charges were dropped, but that doesn’t mean harm wasn’t done. The trauma and pain caused this past weekend runs deep, especially now during Pride month which was started out of our community rising up against police brutality.
As someone who does drag to entertain, to spread love, and to spread joy, I would never want someone to feel uncomfortable. The whole point of drag is to make those of us who have spent our lives feeling uncomfortable in the straight, cis, heteronormative world, finally feel like we’re free to be the gayest version of ourselves. But if someone does feel uncomfortable, there are ways to address it that don’t do deeper harm or cause more trauma to the people in the space. None of that took place this past weekend. There are paths toward restorative justice, and routes toward pain. And this past Saturday, a patron chose pain.
Drag shows always include guest interaction during the performances. For us that is how we have fun and bring the experience to all that watch. Unfortunately we had a guest, whom I’ll call Karen, who did not enjoy the performance or her voluntary participation in the show. The first action taken was to leave the venue, call the cops and report she was sexually assaulted.
The restorative thing for Karen to do would have been what a Karen does best and to ask to speak to a manager. There were amazing staff from the DuPont Underground, people like myself who are well known in the space, and plenty of other official people who could have helped with a resolution to the situation. It’s also worth noting that the patron was white and female-presenting. White women using their tears to inflict pain on black people has been happening for centuries. But unfortunately, it takes acts like catching Amy Cooper in Central Park on camera for people to realize that this display is weaponized against black and brown communities — often knowingly and intentionally.
This past Saturday, the tears were out in force when the cops were around, but it was all laughs and smiles when the cops weren’t. I don’t know what was in this woman’s soul, but having seen videos of people like Amy Cooper in Central Park and knowing that no one would believe you if you said Amy was making up the tears, I can tell you that white woman need to understand the power of their tears and the pain it causes to so many black and brown people.
The result was another member of our community spending the weekend in jail. Even though the charges were dropped against the performer, the humiliation of being arrested sticks. The conditions of being in jail caused her contacts to fail, and she (“he” in real life) now has an eye infection. And the quickly dropped accusation of sexual assault against him brought back real and painful memories of sexual assault in his own life. None of these things were necessary, and all were preventable by engaging in a process that doesn’t involve bringing in the same force that we fought to keep out when we started pride. Someone who has such a disregard for not only our community’s history but for the harm that can be caused by having someone sent to jail has no place in queer spaces.
As an entertainer who has had the pleasure of sharing the art of drag with hundreds of thousands of people of all colors and all backgrounds, my ask of the community is this: if you come into our spaces, know our history and know our pain. That responsibility comes with your $12 ticket.
For resources on community mediation, please visit communitymediationdc.org
Jerry VanHook is best known as drag performer Shi-Queeta Lee.