Local Drag Documentary Sells Out at The Wexner Center
A few years back, filmmaker Gabrielle Burton was invited to a drag show by a friend whose husband was performing.
“His husband is Virginia West,” she remembers. “He’s one of the headlining queens of Columbus. It was fantastic – just this explosion of creativity on stage.”
What began as a fun night out turned into Burton’s next film, Kings, Queens & In-Betweens, which screens this Tuesday and Wednesday, June 7 and 8, to sold out crowds at the Wexner Center for the Arts.
“It was the perfect timing for me,” she says. “I have a son and a daughter, and at the time they were very young and I was seeing how quickly they were being divided into binary camps of gender. The fact that you walk into a store and you’re supposed to shop on one side if you’re a boy and on the other side if you’re a girl and neither the tween shall meet was really disturbing to me.”
Though she realizes a culture of acceptance has come a long way since her own childhood, Burton does not remember the gender divide being so evident.
“It had not been like that when I was a kid. Within a short period of time there’s been amazing progress with gender roles, and yet, there’s been a similar movement to divide those into strict, non-overlapping boxes.”
Burton could see that these divides were linked with other concepts of personal identification.
“Along with those definitions come definitions of your biology and your sexuality,” she says. “The fact that I went to a drag show suddenly presented the ability to talk about these things in a way that would be entertaining, and also address these misconceptions and preconceptions.”
Her documentary explores gender performance as an avenue into definitions of sex, sexuality, and gender expression.
“Your sexuality isn’t automatically related to your gender expression, and none are automatically related to your biology,” she says. “If we could mentally separate those three things, we could allow people a lot more flexibility in being who they are.”
To emphasize the fluidity of these topics, and to simply showcase gender performance that has rarely been covered in a documentary, Burton filmed entertainers that run a gamut.
“I chose to focus on two different troupes of Columbus, and then through that explore how they use different types of gender performance in their shows,” she says.
Burton’s primary subjects were members of the West Family and the Royal Renegades, two of the longest running and most popular troupes in a vital local drag scene. Her hope was to celebrate the vibrant performances of entertainers including Virginia and Nina West, and draw attention to underseen work of kings and transgender performers with footage of Cool Ethan, JAC Stringer, The Rev and others.
“When you go to these shows you will see a wide variation,” she says. “I did know about varying types of gender expression and performance before, but I knew that it would be something most people didn’t know about. I felt strongly about making a film that would include drag queens, drag kings and transgender performance equally. It was a way of saying that no one – even within this drag world – can fit into a box or a certain definition.”
It also gave Burton a chance to showcase Columbus as the home to a dynamic drag scene.
“I was thinking, why here?” she says. “I think you’d expect to see a strong gender performance scene in a city like San Francisco or New York or Miami Beach, but the Midwest? Why has there been this incredible explosion in this city, and what is it about Columbus that presents this sense of safety and this LGBTQ warmth and acceptance? Granted, a lot more progress needs to happen, but there is at least a small area of the city where that does exist.”
Burton says the film was a great deal of fun to make, but she had an ultimate goal in mind.
“I hope it does move the needle on progress for LGBTQ rights, and for people to understand each other. That’s within even the LGBTQ community,” she says. “And then another part is just for people to see how fabulous Columbus is.
Burton and many of the performers featured in the film will be on hand for both screenings. For more information on the event, visit wexarts.org.
For more information, visit www.kingsqueensinbetweens.com.
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