The Virtue Of Queer Ridiculousness

The Queer Community is the ridiculousness to the Trump Administration’s wickedness

Amidst the Trump administration this Moliere quote comes to mind: “People have no objection to being considered wicked, but they are not willing to be considered ridiculous”.

The POTUS constantly tweets about his reputation, defending in particular his masculinity and intelligence in a desperate attempt to distance himself from all ridicule, while actively refusing to deny his cruelty or offer apology for copious instances of sexual assault, racism, ableism, homophobia, etc. Trump’s commitment to preserving his ego paired with his lack of empathy, particularly towards marginalized groups is indicative of toxic masculinity.

Amidst this political climate I’ve found myself reflecting on the virtue of queer ridiculousness. I used to view the word “ridiculous” as a pejorative adjective since it is human nature to avoid becoming a laughingstock, yet as I grew more aware of LGBTQ+ history and culture, I discovered multitudes of individuals who embraced eccentricities as a means for queer self-expression.

The most blatant example of adopting ridiculousness as an attribute to cultivate is the performing arts collective: The Ridiculous Theatre Company. This theatrical collective reveled in camp and queer sensibilities, reinterpreting classics such as The Lady of the Camellias. Their productions were informed by golden age Hollywood aesthetics, depicting characters as larger than life, thus subverting notions of societal structures including gender and sexuality, while elevating the emotion to a place many considered over the top.

(Charles Ludlam as Camille by Peter Hujar)

From this theatrical environment emerged their most radiant of stars, Ethyl Eichelberger. Eichelberger made a life for herself reinterpreting classical female roles from history in her own image. She subverted drag stereotypes of the time, interrupting her own performance of the heartbreakingly comedic Minnie The Maid with, “Oh, I’m afraid some of you came here expecting a classy drag act- I do not want you to go away disappointed, so here goes” then catapulting herself into a rapid-fire patter of oft-performed drag material from Monroe to Merman.

Ethyl straddled the metatheatrical line by acknowledging her show as a drag act, peppering in elements of autobiography, all the while imbuing the characters she played with greater depth than any cis female actor to embody the roles. She took pride in her work; legend has it that anytime anyone from “polite society” pointed out the residual glitter left from one of her leading lady makeups, Ethyl would respond indignantly with “That’s because I’m WORKING!”.

Ethyl Eichelberger as Minnie The Maid (Photo by Peter Hujar)

One of Ethyl Eichelberger’s contemporaries was Mother Flawless Sabrina. Flawless Sabrina not only deviated from the culture of respectability, but actively broke the law a multitude of times, often getting arrested for her self expression in a time when cross-dressing was illegal. Yet her commitment to honoring her identity and providing an example to the gender nonconforming people who looked up to her was a higher priority to her than her safety, thus in spite of being arrested, and in spite of being shot, Flawless Sabrina kept on representing herself in the most glamorously quirky way imaginable until the day she died.

Mother Flawless Sabrina In Her Apartment (Photo by Zackary Drucker)

Among Mother Flawless Sabrina’s notable accomplishments, the attribute Taylor Mac spent judy’s Christmas show highlighting was her strangeness. Mac regaled the audience with tales of her cosmetic routines which included using Sharpies to draw on her eyeliner and lipstick. The most delightfully disgusting detail judy shared about judy’s dead mentor was that she would hot-glue-gun her false nails on and only change them on two special occasions: Christmas, and after losing them inside the person she was having sex with. Taylor Mac recounted Flawless Sabrina’s eccentricities with the utmost reverence, respect, and admiration, without even a hint of a notion that telling these stories would be dishonoring her memory. This was the Sabrina judy knew and loved and the Sabrina judy wanted judy’s audience to fall in love with and go forth with knowledge of.

Mother Flawless Sabrina using Sharpie as lipstick (Photo by Zackary Drucker)

Taylor Mac ardently exemplifies Eichelberger and Sabrina’s legacy of ridiculousness as something one ought to embrace. The MacArthur genius grant award winner idolizes the aforementioned queer ancestors, dons extravagant drag “finery” (oftentimes designed by the brilliant Machine Dazzle), and says things like “Perfection is for assholes” and “I’m not trying to bite the hand that feeds me, I’m just trying to get a little lipstick on it”.

Mac has also taken on “judy” as a pronoun, which, in and of itself, is an act of subverting notions of propriety. Doing so inserts an air of confusion to otherwise straightforward grammar and embraces camp through both the reference to Judy Garland, and the way in which Mac chose the neopronoun to make fun of pronoun purists. Judy’s work, both in judy’s solo performance and more traditional plays acts to combat toxic masculinity and embrace whimsy, referring to judy’s most formidable show 24 Decade History of Popular Music as “a radical faerie realness ritual… SACRIFICE!!!”.

Taylor Mac in a promo for judy’s 24 Decade History of Popular Music (Photo by Little Fang)

Another noteworthy example of the notion of trading traditional masculinity for its opposite is Kenny Mellman who, upon realizing he was being mistaken for straight while touring with his band The Julie Ruin, actively asserted his queerness by embracing Lisa Frank as a go-to aesthetic since, as he says in an interview with Justin Sayre, it would be unlikely to find a straight guy who’d feel comfortable onstage in Lisa Frank all over print clothes. Kenny then used his regained visibility as a queer man to highlight LGBTQ+ issues often sidelined in feminist Riot Grrrl spaces, for instance encouraging fans to broaden language to include marginalized groups other than cis women who are equally deserving of a safe space. Thus Kenny used the fact that cishet men would reject something seen as girly and superficial as a marker of his own identity and a conversation piece to promote intersectionality!

Kenny Mellman playing with The Julie Ruin in 2016 (Painted Film Photo by Savana Ogburn)

My last example of this virtue, although there are certainly countless more, is the ever-eccentric beacon of warmth and positivity (Auntie) Kate Bornstein. She embodies the antithesis of the mindset Moliere described, in that she actively celebrates her strangeness and encourages others to celebrate what makes them “freaks”. Her work asserts that all expressions of one’s self are valid and deserving of respect as long as one doesn’t exert cruelty over anyone else. I, as well as many other LGBTQ+ people I know, live by Auntie Kate’s only rule: “Do whatever it takes to make your life more worth living. Anything at all. It can be illegal, immoral, unethical, self-destructive… anything at all if it makes your life more worth living. There’s only one rule to follow to make that kind of blanket permission work: Don’t be mean.” a rule that condones ridiculousness while condemning wickedness.

Kate Bornstein performing a one-person show at La MaMa

In conclusion, this ensemble of iconic LGBTQ+ people highlighted is merely a selection of examples; queer history and culture is teeming with a pantheon of patrons saints of ridiculousness who extol the virtue of rejecting respectability politics, especially as a way to connect to one’s queer identity.

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