Interview with Dr. Cavalcante (Ella)

Interviewed Dr. Andre Cavalcante on 10/1/2020 at 3pm. The handwritten transcript is below. I also have the entire recorded interview video file on Google Drive.

List of Questions:

  • What top 3 things do you think have allowed for the acceptance of gay rights in modern society?
  • Do you view drag as an art form, entertainment, or a form of identity? Why?
  • From the academic perspective, how do you think drag culture has impacted LGBT+ rights?
  • What images/symbols/events/people come to mind when you think about drag culture?
  • Would you be able to argue that as art and writing has given a platform to other civil rights, drag allows room for gay rights?
  • How would you define queer history?
  • What event do you think stands out the most in queer history?
  • How is drag culture taught in queer history?
  • What do you think is the most common reaction to drag queens among mainstream society? Among LGBTQ+ society?

Dr. Cavalcante Interview Transcript

ELLA: What top 3 things do you think have allowed for the acceptance of gay rights in modern society?

CAVALCANTE: That’s a really good question. I think when you look at things like social change and public opinion when you look at peoples’ attitude that’s evolved over time it tends to be slow, it tends to be incremental and it tends to be a variety of forces that account for this kind of change. Anyone who says “oh this one factor or oh these two factors has contributed to the advancement of gay rights/civil rights/ public opinion about queerness” is wrong because of a variety of factors that come into play. I think a big thing was the move from thinking about homosexuality as a mental illness, as a pathology. In the early 20th century, the predominant understanding about homosexuality is that there was something wrong with you, even physically or mentally if you were gay or lesbian or transgender. Throughout the 2oth century we’ve moved away from that idea and it’s a dangerous idea and nevertheless we still have that idea with us today. Some people still think that being gay is somehow a pathology or mental illness, when of course we know that’s not the case, but I think the move away from that understanding and the ways in which the medical community, the psychological community and psychiatrists have overwhelming said that this isn’t the case. That is something that has definitely led to more acceptance. Now we can also look at cultural factors- things like media representations and our culture. We’ve seen gay people increasingly included in things like film, television, comic books, novels, throughout the 20th century and that also plays a role in the ways people feel comfortable with other queer people. Studies have shown that if you watch a television show with queer people in it, you are more likely to be comfortable to advocate for queer rights. I think we also have some cultural factors that play into the mix. Also the way that religion is no longer the master narrative for morality is also important. Unfortunately, not all religions, but some have been pretty hostile towards queer people and I think that religion is no longer such a central part of tht conversation is really important. Those are some factors I think are important- and then, of course, the legal rights/battles that have allowed that have outlawed laws against sodomy, that have passed laws for gay marriage for example, and finally the gay rights movement! We have queer people to thank themselves who started, in the 1950s, we had the first gay rights organizations that started advocating on the behalf of gay people. They also put up a good fight throughout the 50s/60s/70s/80s- all through the AIDS crisis, so gay and queer activisim has a central role in pushing the ball forward.

ELLA: Thank you … I know personally having more exposure to queer people in TV shows has made me more accepting, and has allowed me to view the world a bit differently.

CAVALCANTE: Whats really exciting too is the way things like the internet and social media have allowed queer people to gather and affirm ourselves/our identities and collectively speak with one voice and learn from each other. I think that’s another important piece here- representational media but also social/interactive media which allows us to create really vibrant queer communities.

ELLA: Do you view drag as an art form, entertainment, or a form of identity? Why?

CAVALCANTE: It’s all of those things- drag is all of that and more. Drag is very much a performance, drag queens I think are some of the most compelling and interesting artists we have right now in the public sphere. RuPaul’s Drag Race memes are some of the most popular memes that circulate online and its not just queer people who use it- it’s also straight people who use them as a way of expressing themselves. Drag is very much an art form, political statement for some, and an identity for some people as well. Drag is all of that and more.

Drag is one of the oldest queer art forms. We were having drag balls in New York and Chicago in the late 1800s and early 1900s and these were big events. Drag and the gay bar are two of the oldest queer institutions we have in this country.

ELLA: From the academic perspective, how do you think drag culture has impacted LGBT+ rights?

CAVALCANTE: LEt’s look at the moments throughout the 50s and 60s, particularly the 60s,where we see queer resistance, and I’ll talk about two. We have, what everyone knows of course, is Stonewall that gets all the street cred for being the site of queer resistance in the beginning of the gay rights movement. At stonewall it was drag queens on the frontlines fighting with the police. Stonewall was about police brutality. It was about the police continually raiding gay bars and locking people up in jail, abusing them while they were in jail, and then they would publish their names in the newspapers to publicly out and shame them. Drag queens had had enough so drag queens had always been on the frontlines of  gay liberations. There’s another moment that doesn’t get enough attention. In California, in Compton, it is call the Compton Cafeteria Riots in the Tenderloin district in San Francisco.–There’s a wonderful movie by the way if you’re interested- it is called “Screaming Queens”, and you can see it on youtube, its wonderfully done, it’s done by a transgender scholar who investigated this moment.– You have the same thing happening, drag queens, who at the time were likely involved in sex work because that was the only job they could get in order to survive. They would hang out at this diner and the police would routinely raid this diner and arrest the drag queens and they fought back one day, just like they did in stonewall. Drag queens have always been on the forefront of gay liberation, and we are finally coming around to acknowledge this history.

Particularly our transgender brothers and sisters, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, these are women who at the time- in the 50s and 60s drag and transgender were blurry concepts, some people used the word gay, some people used the word drag, some people used the word queen, some people used the word transvestite or transsexual. I’m not saying that Sylvia Rivera was a drag queen but she was a part of this gender non conforming community. That community has always been on the front lines of gay liberation, and I think they’ll continue to be. In the activist groups that I’ve been in touch with and that I’ve studied, it’s generally at the helm are trans people, and specifically trans people of color, in the south especially, because they have a lot to advocate for. So I would definitely say that drag, trans folks, that gender non conforming group has always been on the forefront for fighting for gay rights.

During things like Stonewall and Compton’s Cafeteria, they [drag queens] had nothing to lose. They were street kids and they had enough with these run ins and the constant abuse by the police.

ELLA: What images/symbols/events/people come to mind when you think about drag culture?

CAVALCANTE: I don’t know if you know anything about Divine, but she was probably the first mega drag queen. Her and John Waters- John Waters was this cult classic film creator, he’s the one who did Hairspray- had this wonderful lustrous career together doing underground independent cinema. Divine really emerges as one of the first mega drag queens. So if you’re looking for a few touchstones in terms of figures- Divine, Holly Woodlawn, Andy Warhol. He [Warhol] hung out with a lot of drag queens and trans folks and they gained some popularity in underground cinema. People like Candy Darling, of course Divine. In the 90s you have RuPaul who makes a big splash, who brings drag into the mainstream. I think she was the first drag queen to get a contract with MAC cosmetics or a cosmetics deal. She had a television show, she had a music career, she was in NYC, she had a morning show she would talk on, and of course, up to today she has an institution which is drag race. I would say those three figures- the folks hanging out with Warhol, Divine, and RuPaul who are touchstones in terms of drag.

If you’re interested, there’s a wonderful documentary on Netflix about Divine, and it’s all about her life and career, and it’s wonderful.

ELLA: Would you be able to argue that as art and writing has given a platform to other civil rights, drag allows room for gay rights?

CAVALCANTE: Oh, sure! Every civil rights movement has its artistic expression that goes along with it and all of the creativity that emerges out of the movement. Like I said, drag is one of the oldest queer art forms or modes of gay expression/entertainment. Going back to the question you asked before- is it an identity, performance, or art? It’s all of those things. I have seen drag queens who are deeply political and are on the front lines of the movement and there are also drag queens who just like to perform and entertain audiences, and that’s fine too. Drag really is a diverse phenomenon. To say that it directly causes gay acceptance- that is very difficult to argue. It is hard to say, “because of drag, gay/gender non-conforming people are more accepted.” It might be part of the equation/acceptance, but there are so many other factors into why we see attitude changes and acceptance increased for queer people. Drag is just a part. I think what’s interesting to me is the way that drag has become mainstreamed through drag race. Scholars debate what are the effects of that- so on the one hand, it’s wonderful. There’s visibility, people are seeing drag, they are exposed to the art form, they’re respecting the work that drag queens put into their craft and more exposure leads to greater visibility and that’s one argument for advocating for the mainstreaming of drag. The other argument is what gets taken away when everyone starts loving drag. Do you lose a part of your gay subculture when your art form, something you had in your own culture, hits the mainstream? Then what you have is certain kinds of drag becoming mainstream while other types become marginalized. RuPaul certainly advocates the kind of “Glamazon”, glamorous, conventional beauty kind of drag. Now they also celebrate other kinds of drag queens but RuPaul likes a good “glamazon” so people come to expect that out of drag queens. With the mainstreaming of drag you have a lot of consequences, potentially positive, but mostly does the art form get watered down? Is it no longer part of just the queer community? So, those are important questions.

ELLA: (Here I bring up the idea of gay/gender non conforming people being called “drag queens” since drag queens are such iconic figures of the queer community)

CAVALCANTE: That’s a good and valid concern. Gay people have often been conflated with drag queens and this goes back to like the late 1800s/1900s where they thought gay people were “inverts”, They thought the a gay man had a female soul, and the woman was gay because she had a male soul. This conflation of gender and sexuality of gay people and performance and sexual identity has a rich history. But at the same time, you can’t control what other people think and if they think that I’m a drag queen, you know, it’s fine.

ELLA: It’s not an insult- it’s a compliment.

CAVALCANTE: Exactly.

ELLA: How would you define queer history?

CAVALCANTE: I’m not going to define queer history- that’s such a big question. What I can say about queer history is that we have a history. I teach a class, when I teach my LGBTQ classes at UVA, one of the things that my students love the most is history. Most people think history- “oh it’s so boring, it’s in the past…”- these kids love it because they’ve never been taught that they’ve had one. They’ve never been taught where they came from, what their history was, and so I think the most important thing for young queer people to understand is that you have a history. There is a history. Many different people have written that history. But it is very challenging because very many people never thought of it good enough to write down. You don’t learn it in high school or elementary school. It seems as too marginal, too controversial, and I think that does a lt of harm to queer people. When they get into my classes they’re like “I never knew this, I never knew this happened, I can’t believe this happened, how was I never taught this in High School?” I think queer history is so important for young people to understand and appreciate. They’re often thinking that they’re the only ones going through something and that their struggles are new and queer history gives you role models, mentors, people to look up to and to respect and admire who share your identity and I think that’s really important.

It’s something that historians have overlooked. It’s only recently that we have queer historians looking back and writing our history. It’s hard because how do you write history? YOu have to find evidence of people’s culture and what people did. So it’s an exciting enterprise but it’s also very difficult. 

It’s really enlightening for students when they get to learn their history, and it gives them a sense of empowerment and purpose.

ELLA: What event do you think stands out the most in queer history?

CAVALCANTE: This is a highly personal answer but I think it would be the AIDS crisis, the AIDS epidemic of the early 80s and 90s, because for one it is something I lived through. I was born in 1980 so the time I was a teenager first getting out into the world and coming out and dating and meeting people, we were scared. Especially in NYC where I spent a lot of my time a lot of my friends had contracted HIV, at the time there was medicine but it was really harsh on your body and we didn’t have the kind of sophisticated cocktails they have today that allow you to live with AIDS/HIV. It’s almost undetectable with the kinds of advances they’ve made in treating the disease. The HIV crisis decimated gay male communities. There’s almost a whole generation of men that were wiped out from this thing. It was a pandemic. Right now we’re going through coronavirus but AIDS was a pandemic that decimated the gay community. A lot of gay organizations started during that time because we had to take care of ourselves. Charities like Gay Man’s Health Crisis started to help us to take care of ourselves. A lot of gay activism comes out of that moment, like Queer Nation and Act Up. They were some of the most creative and in your face gay organizations that come out of the early 90s to bring awareness to this disease. Queer theory, what I teach, emerges out of this moment. For me, it would be the HIV/AIDS crisis that stands out the most for me in terms of history.

It was scary because especially in the beginning of the disease there were so many rumors about how it spread. There was talk about putting AIDS patients in quarantine, doctors didn’t want to touch or treat them, there was so much fear and hatred directed at the gay community. People thought the gay community deserved to die from this disease because they were queer. It was a really ugly time and ugly disease and in terms of queer history, it is definitely up there.

ELLA: How is drag culture taught in queer history?

CAVALCANTE: I can tell you how I teach it.

ELLA: Yeah that would work!!

CAVALCANTE: I mean drag, I don’t think you can teach queer history without talking about drag because the drag balls, particularly Harlem in NYC, (he grew up there), — these things were huge. Thousands of people would go to these drag balls- even straight people would go to check out what those crazy queers were doing because it was so exciting. You have this tradition of the drag ball being a space for people who were kicked out of their homes or of their families. In the queer community, we talk a lot about chosen family. If you’re not accepted by your biological family, you make a family of your choice. Dag balls and houses that come out of those are spaces where people created chosen families and were able to survive and thrive. You have to talk about drag if you talk about queer history, especially if you tak about queer media history, and the history of queer performance and entertainment- drag is essential to that.

ELLA: What do you think is the most common reaction to drag queens among mainstream society? Among LGBTQ+ society?

CAVALCANTE: If you would’ve asked me that like 20 years ago, my answer would be different. What we’ve seen is the mainstreaming of a certain kind of drag culture, and I think in terms of mainstream society they are definitely more exposed to it. It is definitely a greater part of the entertainment industry right now. This has everything to do with RuPaul’s Drag Race because it created this platform for these queens who are on the show, but after the show to develop public personas and develop careers. That combined with digital communications, their ability to generate a fan base on social media, it really changes the game and has offered a new kind of exposure to drag to mainstream society. How people understand that is an interesting question- there’s no one answer to that. Some people appreciate it for its art form, some people don’t. Even though it’s being mainstreamed, it doesn’t necessarily always lead to acceptance in everyday life. This is something I try to talk about in my LGBTQ class, that there is a difference between loving drag queens on television and sitting next to one in the subway who’s maybe struggling and poor. Those are two different things. Just because somethings in the media, doesn’t mean it’s going to translate into rights or acceptance. Media has distance. The answer to your question is “we’ll see”, I don’t know of any studies that have looked at how straight people make sense of drag. It’s an interesting question. 

In terms of its role in gay communities, it has always had a central role. Even male drag, which gets left out a lot, had also been central to their subculture. We focus a lot on female drag, but there are so many interesting drag kings, not necessarily queens, that go overlooked.

ELLA: Thank you so much!

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