By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly
Three months ago, North Portland leather bar The Eagle publicized an upcoming performance by blackface drag queen Shirley Q. Liquor, an “ignunt” Southern Black mother on welfare portrayed by Chuck Knipp. Accusations of racism quickly followed.
The incident has exposed deep divides around race, the meaning of art, and approaches to accountability in the LGBTQ community.
Eagle booking manager Michael Talley cancelled the event within a day of announcing it, apologized for the booking, and said the bar would hold an “open forum about race” on March 27.
When that date came and went without a forum, or further public statement about the booking, a group called Queer Racial Justice PDX — formed in response to the incident — delivered a letter to the Eagle listing suggested actions the bar could take to demonstrate accountability to the surrounding (historically African-American) neighborhood and the larger community.
“We believe that booking this racist and misogynist event, as well as your poor handling of the outcry that resulted, has been painful and damaging to our community on the whole, to your North Portland neighbors, to African American women, and specifically to LGBTQI people of color,” QRJPDX wrote in the March 29 letter (available online at here).
While the letter encouraged the business to take the “opportunity” to “establish a process of restorative justice,” many who read it took issue with a tone perceived as demanding and were upset by a request for financial reparations.
Monica Lee Noé, a queer Asian Latina not affiliated with QRJPDX, thinks reparations are appropriate, whether the bar ultimately made money off of SQL’s act or not.
“I think it is enough that they planned on profiting from racism,” Noé says, “[and] that they didn’t even see it as a problem.”
The letter also suggested that the Eagle owner and staff attend anti-racism trainings and participate in a community dialogue about race. The group said it was open to other ideas and asked the Eagle to respond within 10 days.
The Eagle made no formal response to the letter’s requests. Owner Patrick Lanagan declined an interview, but gave a brief statement: “Eagle Portland is focusing on other issues at this time. Kudos to those most active in our fight for equality,” he said.
The Eagle may not have much to say, but community members certainly do. A few people shared their thoughts on the record; not everyone we asked was willing.
These interviews brought up a number of issues: Is blackface racist? If so, is anyone who supports or condones it a racist, too? How should LGBTQ communities respond to these actions and when is an apology enough?
Is it racist? Does it matter?
In online debates, a number of people defended SQL’s act and the Eagle’s decision to book it, arguing that blackface is “just comedy.” Some said that it is racist, but it doesn’t matter as long as it’s funny. Others said that “offensive” art makes people think and is therefore valuable.
“I want people to recognize there are humans attached to these stereotypes that Shirley Q. Liquor is performing,” says Equity Foundation Executive Director Karol Collymore. “My feelings are attached when a person says to me, ‘Blackface is artistic expression,’ and I have an actual black face.”
PQ sought an interview with Knipp through his booking agency Divas and DJs as well as via Twitter. The request sent to Knipp’s agent was denied. Knipp had not responded as of press time.
African-American drag queen Poison Waters says that once she realized SQL was a white man, she knew it wasn’t good.
“There isn’t — or shouldn’t be — one grown person who doesn’t know that white people painting on black face is just plain wrong. Period,” she says.
Fellow African-American drag queen Kourtni Capree Duv agrees and says she doesn’t buy Knipp’s claim that SQL is a celebration of the Black women he’s known in his life.
“It was like a white person calling me a nigger,” Duv says. “Shirley Q. Liquor wants to say that she is paying homage to her nanny? You disgrace my race, poke fun at our struggle, perpetuate stereotypes, start racial riots in communities, and call it art? I think not!”
Anthony Hudson, a Grande Ronde Indian who performs in drag as Carla Rossi and was scheduled to open for Shirley Q. Liquor at the Eagle, says that intention isn’t everything.
“Any good performer should go into a piece with a willingness to engage with whatever criticisms or consequences their work will incur,” Hudson says. “To reject criticism or consequence, or to simply defer to intention rather than acknowledging the actual effects of one’s work, regardless of intention, is bullshit — and the sign of a lazy artist.”
Hudson says he had planned to perform a number “lampooning whiteness and post-racial discourse” and hoped to meet Knipp and gain insight into racism he says “informs, if not drives” Knipp’s act. He pulled out of the show when he realized his participation was seen as condoning that racism.
Ripple effects and unintended consequences
Wesley Walton, who hosts the monthly dance night Maricón at the Eagle, says he was disappointed that Shirley Q Liquor was booked at a venue with which he is affiliated. Still, he thinks the continued criticism and shunning of the Eagle is undeserved and rejects claims that the bar is misogynistic or racist. He’s also frustrated by calls to boycott the Eagle.
“It’s pretty ridiculous that people claimed to be ‘supporting’ women and people of color by basically taking money out of mine and [Maricón DJ Misti Icenbice’s] pocket,” says Walton, who identifies as gay and Mexican. “Seriously community, let’s actually try to hear each other and stop trying to eat our own.”
Tobin Britton, a leather dyke of color and Eagle patron, says she is more bothered by the “dangerous” tone of the debate than the performer who sparked it. She also takes issue with the letter sent out by QRJPDX.
“The letter seems to be calling for forced apologies and economic sanctions on a business whose only crime seems to be having booked a controversial performer,” Britton says. “It is time we as beings take responsibility for ourselves and stop expecting the world to shelter us from everything. If something offends you, walk away. Being offended doesn’t affect your civil rights or harm you physically.”
“I felt that booking SQL was an injustice, and an attack on the [queer people of color] in our community,” Pearl says. “I want [the Eagle] to know that this affects the entire community, not just the people who go to their bar.”
Accountability: When is an apology enough?
“What is important is that the Eagle cancelled the event…. I don’t understand why there is still drama,” Walton says. “I have been the victim of so much racism in the queer community, and I really don’t know if people just sort of turn a blind eye to it until a situation like the SQL pops up, or what. I still don’t feel like the Q Center or the Eagle owes me a processing session.”
Hudson says a sincere apology is all that can be realistically expected. Restitution, on the other hand, is a trickier matter.
“Who makes restitution? The abstract entity of the business, the booking agent, Chuck Knipp, the employees, those working at the show, those who decided to buy a ticket, or those who resorted to blatant sexism and racism when engaging with protestors on Facebook, or all of the above?” Hudson asks. “It’s sometimes easier to criticize an abstraction — in this case, a bar — than individuals, but what does that achieve?”
Where do we go from here?
Keller Henry, a queer black woman and member of QRJPDX who identifies as working-poor, says she hopes that this incident will inspire a broader dialogue.
“I believe the group is seeking to start a genuine conversation about racism in this community and I hope that it expands the discussion to include how class and privilege also play a big part in why people like SQL find safe harbor in the mainstream gay community,” Henry says.
She signed the letter the group sent to the Eagle, but didn’t expect it to have a much impact.
“I truly don’t believe the hearts and minds of bigots will be changed through well-meaning and well-written words when there is nothing at stake,” Henry says. “I’m not sure how to bring people out of the shadows of their own bigotry to have real, honest conversations.”
Poison Waters hopes that the incident can be used as an opportunity to listen and learn from one another.
“If someone honestly knowingly booked that act and didn’t for one second think anything was ‘wrong’ with it,” she says, “that is an opportunity to address the current state of our community’s views on racial equality from all sides.”
Daniel Borgen contributed additional reporting to this story.