Lady Bunny would make an excellent professor. This might seem crazy considering the drag legend rails against college campuses—where, as she put it in a recent phone interview, “we’re losing our minds with political correctness…you can’t say ‘you guys’ because that would be excluding women.” But Trans-Jester, her new delightfully filthy one-queen show, provides the kind of history lessons (in politics, in drag culture, in gender) and trenchant cultural analysis for which students regularly go into debt, all for the price of a show and a drink. Plus, does your favorite professor rock a platinum bouffant, heels, and a sequined minidress, all while performing an Adele parody featuring guest vocals from her ass? Probably not.
Until Bunny University becomes a reality, New Yorkers can attend class at the Stonewall Inn (through November 4th). In a 90 minute performance, Lady Bunny schools the audience on the evolution of how Gay and Lesbian became LGBT became LGBTQ became LGBTQIA, why it’s a problem that the Republican Caitlyn Jenner suddenly became the authority on all things trans (and why she’d like her to “transition out of the Republican party which seeks to destroy the rights of the LGBT community she is trying to join”), and the perils of trigger warnings (“it might” she gasps, “trigger an education!”).
In between her thoughts on our current culture, Bunny belts out song parodies, including the above-mentioned "Hello," as well as renditions of "Uptown Funk," "The Sound of Music," and show tunes from Gypsy to Company to Rent. There are also video appearances from the likes of Joan Rivers, and opening (fictional) quotes from RuPaul, who just happens to be Bunny’s former roommate when they were coming up in Atlanta and New York in the '80s. Back then, the two of them performed in East Village clubs alongside other prominent drag queens like Joey Arias, Lypsinka, Hedda Lettuce, and Linda Simpson. New York may have seemed grimy, but it was still affordable enough for an entire downtown drag scene.
Even in the dingiest basements, Bunny thrilled and challenged audiences with a combination of lip synching, singing, dancing, and raunchy one-liners. She also founded Wigstock, a drag festival that ran every Labor Day Weekend from the mid-1980s to the early 2000, first in Tompkins Square Park and then the Hudson River Piers. Debbie Harry, Dee Lite, Crystal Waters, RuPaul, and countless other luminaries showed up every year to catch the glamour. Bunny’s persona, performances, and sharp wit helped pave the way for drag’s explosion into the mainstream. While she doesn’t have a TV show of her own (yet) her work is a key part of why Americans ever came to embrace RuPaul’s Drag Race.
In fact, it was audiences’ reaction to Drag Race that was part of the inspiration for her show. Despite the show’s successes, some viewers (and writers) felt that Drag Race was insulting to trans women for whom being a woman is their identity, and not simply a costume they can take off. The reaction surprised Bunny, who considers trans women her sisters. She couldn't believe people would assume drag queens and trans women are enemies, because, as she explains, “I don't want to change my sex, but have worn women’s clothes to work for 30 years.” She wonders if some of these divisions are overblown; "It's like the media wants to pin us against each other,” though, she mused, "I wonder if [these articles] are sensational clickbait. I see a lot more harmony in real life."
Of course, Bunny is a white, cisgender man when she's out of drag, and she readily acknowledges the privileges that come with that. It’s become a tic for comedians, when faced with cries of racism and sexism, to claim they’re equal opportunity offenders, ready to attack anyone in the name of a laugh. Sometimes this comes off as a weak defense for older white men, distraught that they can’t delight in their favorite slurs. Maybe it’s the presentation, maybe it’s her perspective, but these arguments are more nuanced coming from Bunny, and she noted, she’s willing to consider the other side: "Even though what I am [white, male] colored my opinion...I am willing to try!" There’s too much at stake. For all of the progressive the country has made on gay marriage, there are what she calls “hate states” like her own home of North Carolina passing HB2. She continued, "We might have Ellen on TV, but outside New York, you don't walk hand in hand with your same sex lover or the bottle comes flying at you."
Bunny has been wary of sudden mainstream acceptance since the drag boom of the 1990s, when it seemed everyone was putting on a dress in movies like To Wong Foo, and Priscilla: Queen of The Desert. Wigstock also got a documentary. She and her contemporaries were suddenly out of the club basements and into America’s movie screens. Mainstream acceptance seemed just a song away. Bunny remembers thinking, after all of that attention, "this is it, the barrier is broken,” only to realize, “it was straight people [playing] drag queens…after Wesley Snipes and Patrick Swayze, the public lost interest.”
Fortunately, Bunny transcends trends. In addition to Trans-Jester, Lady Bunny performs and has regular DJ gigs in NYC and all over the world. Wigstock has even been revived as a cruise, a concession to age and the need for comfort. As she put it, "If you are old enough to remember the original Wigstock, you are over 35 and you do not mind having a boat with a bathroom.” She’s also in the beginning stages of developing a show about disco and club culture in general, one that she’s committed to preserving and fighting for.
You can get a taste of Trans-Jester in a video from the New Yorker here.
Ilana Novick is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in AlterNet, Brooklyn Based and Hyperallergic, among others. Follow her on Twitter @faintpraise.