Columnist J.M. Sorrell: Not a drag

  • Hors D'oeuvres welcomes the audience to the Three County Fairgrounds and the entertainment portion of Northampton's Pride march on May 5, 2018, which included a performance by members of the Duffy Academy of Irish Dance. STAFF FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Published: 6/4/2019 7:00:23 PM

Misogyny is not normative in Northampton. We have a deep and rich feminist herstory.

Women own many of the city’s independent businesses. The state representative and senator ran their campaigns as progressive feminist activists. A majority of residents in Northampton and the surrounding towns trust and appreciate that empowered women contribute to a thriving community for all. Most of us recognize this is not commonplace throughout the country.

I came here in 1982 as a young lesbian and budding feminist, and I remain in awe of the women who established organizations and safe places long before I arrived. There are larger cities in the United States that are known as gay-friendly, yet Northampton is unique in its base as a lesbian feminist community. Gay men, bisexuals, and transgender people have benefited from and contributed to this configuration in recent decades.

Patriarchal tendencies have sometimes threatened our feminist foundation, and this has played out in the evolution of our annual LGBT pride event. There was the year that “bisexual” was added to “Lesbian and Gay Liberation March.” Passionate discussion ensued about the potential erasure of lesbian identity, and sure enough, there were no lesbian speakers or performers the first year the committee expanded the language.

Given that a large majority of the participants were lesbians, this did not go over well. Eventually bisexual and transgender were added, and there seemed to be a balance and understanding of inclusivity for years. Performers and speakers were chosen to ensure representation from each contingent.

In recent years, I have served as Noho Pride’s spokesperson. I know how hard key people work to organize this event, and I have much respect for the planning and implementation that is no small thing year after year. My loyalty is such that I have suggested to critics and fans alike that there is something for everyone at the annual Noho Pride event; however, I have a problem with men ridiculing women as sport.

I am not alone in my criticism of drag queen performance as misogyny. Younger feminists have written about it being akin to blackface. Why is it OK for men to exploit women with this narrow and damaging version of femininity? Why is it acceptable for men to liberate themselves from their toxic masculinity by making a mockery of women? Why did it dominate the stage on Noho Pride Day? How did we arrive here?

Upon entry to the city’s parking garage, visitors are greeted with the sign: Northampton: Where the coffee is strong and so are the women. It is not referring to cartoonish, negative stereotypes of women.

Allies and colleagues have told me the daylong drag show made them feel uncomfortable, and that if there had been one short segment, that would have been understandable. And what about drag kings? Is it the same thing? No. Men are the oppressor group, and in drag, they mock women who are subordinate under patriarchy.

Is it transphobic to criticize drag? No. Transgender people have expressed feeling objectified by this extreme form of misogyny. Drag does nothing to advance the cause of transgender people who identify with non-oppressive representations of either gender or who embrace fluidity and non-binary identity.

Mainstream members of our community may find this confusing. What I say is that it is never OK to engage in misogyny in a world rife with it. Gender expression should not be unleashed only to oppress women.

It is completely unacceptable to receive such excessive mockery of women by men as normative. The annual Noho Pride march/parade reflects our tapestry beautifully, and the entertainment and speakers should as well. Change and evolution are healthy. The march of 1982 does not resemble today’s amazing diverse event. We gather to both celebrate and support each other politically.

In previous years, the stage has had Pamela Means, the Raging Grannies, the Gay Men’s Chorus, the director of GLAD or MassEquality, lesbian emcees, transgender musicians, Melissa Ferrick, and elected official speakers — to name a few.

To be fair, it can be challenging to organize this. But we live between New York and Boston, where talent abounds. Plus we have a plethora of musicians and speakers in our region. Where is the Puerto Rican music? Given the large number of allies who attend, they should be represented as well. It is impossible to have every form of representation on the stage, but it is easy to see the expansion of participants and to try to complement it.

I should have spoken up sooner. What stopped me? Not wanting to be divisive or put Noho Pride in a difficult place publicly. I had been asked about drag in previous years when interviewed on the radio or for articles, and I would just skim past it. My feminist self knew better. Mea culpa.

J.M. Sorrell is a feminist first. She is a social justice and cultural competence trainer, a wedding officiant of 15 years, and a health care advocate. JM believes that the annual LGBTQ festival should be actively reflective of the feminist principles of the region.

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