Gender Vertigo

Photo by Liezel RubinIt's about identity. It's about gender. It's about performance. It's about culture. It's about sex. And in some ways, it's about Nazi bondage babes and nipple torture. "Drag" is a potent and provocative peek at the blurry intersections between gender and sex executed with humor, grace and plenty of scorching style. How potent and provocative, you ask? Someone already spit all over Long Beach photographer and artist Liezel Rubin's "King Hitler" on opening night (no biggie; we'll wipe it off and install a sneeze guard), and if that's not a sign that this is art you don't fuck around with . . . well, then we don't know spit. Call it gooey testament to the show's challenging and seductive character: one way or another, "Drag" will make you drool.

It's not so much the drag queens—not that we want to slight the drag queens. And we also don't want to slight accomplished photographer Tom Zimmerman's laff-a-minute series featuring vamping drag queens at what must have been one helluva street shindig: fake boobs, real fun, and campy excess enough to choke Divine if he wasn't already dead. It's just that "Drag" really goes full-throttle with Rubin and award-winning San Francisco photographer Erin O'Neill's explorations of the drag king, a subculture that exhibit curator (and exclamation-point aficionado) Joe Flazh! admits is "still mysterious even within the homosexual world." Perhaps decades of hack British comedy have somehow inured us to the idea of the queen, but these stomp-and-swagger women with breasts bound and dildos taped tastefully against their thighs (fun fact: it's called "packing heat") still have the frisson of the unknown.

"In society, drag queens have always been around. You see 'em in parades; they come out to clubs and stuff. But I'd never seen drag kings before," says Rubin, though she once donned male drag herself to sneak into a no-women-allowed porno theater ("It was very entertaining," she remembers). "I see a lot of potential for a lot more to happen with drag kings. It hasn't been overdone."

That's because the "drag king explosion" is still exploding, says O'Neill, whose piece in "Drag" is part of a larger work chronicling the drag kings of America. Though the idea of kinging has been around for years, the first coherent wave of organized performing troupes didn't really hit until the early to mid-'90s. New York and flashy king Mo B. Dick like to claim all the credit, but O'Neill says San Francisco was the first city to really suit up.

"You know how New Yorkers are," she says. "They wanna be in the movies, be famous, whoop it all up and say they invented it."

Just intercoastal gender-bending rivalry? Maybe—but San Francisco did have a whole space-tacular, sci-fi drag king musical before New Yorkers began tucking plastic penises in their pants, she says. And on a cross-country trip through several king cabarets (including incongruous hotbeds of gender bending in Ohio and Kentucky), O'Neill was able to shoot a series documenting this developing transformation nation, a portrait of a culture that won't stand still long enough to be pinned down.

So who is the drag king? The flip side of the queen, with sass and flash corresponding to Zimmerman's photos of the SLUT-BITCH-WHORE cheerleaders from hell? Or, as some theorists so staidly theorize, something subtler, a re-projection of an idealized masculinity, more refined than the gleeful Madonna/ Tina Turner/Andrews Sisters caricatures Zimmerman presents? Peck out a thesis on your own; the kings of "Drag" are both and neither.

"All the subjects that I took pictures of were performers," says O'Neill. "But drag kings come in all flavors of masculinity—not everybody does over-the-top masculine expression."

Naturally, you've got your sailors (just how did the Navy get so campy, anyway?) and your leather-sporting, grease-monkey, macho types with enough blue-collar-bro credibility to sling beers at the biker bar any night of the week. But O'Neill also shot king skaters, mods, scumballs, gangstas and more, all captured in tightly focused vignettes humming with personality and implicit narrative. Augmented by the different vehicles with which they're posing ("Kings of the Road," see?), O'Neill's photos are of personas as much as people, and of a sexuality more powerful for its subtle ambiguity.

And then there's Liezel Rubin and her Nazi bondage nipple torture—you knew we were gonna make you wait for this, right? Unlike O'Neill, who photographed kings who had independently created characters for themselves, Rubin already had her gender-warping ideas in mind when she started hauling out the arm bands, fake mustaches and clothespins and calling her models. Already on a friendly first-name basis with controversy (a recent show was banned in Beverly Hills, she reports), Rubin's "King Hitler" and "crissXcross" present kings and queens from a much more stylized and spicier position.

"I wanted to do something totally different and touch on something that hadn't been done," she says. "I could have gone out and found women who were masculine and fit them into the roles of the man, but I wanted to take women who were beautiful and take them out of what is normal and comfortable to them—take them over the other side."

Sound scary? And intriguing? It should. While "crissXcross" is more comic and camp (a bar pickup between a queen and a king; a fake boob popped during shooting, says Rubin), "Hitler" is uncomfortably mesmerizing, pounding taboo after taboo into a wicked whole. The malleability of gender is fascinating: where O'Neill's kings offer a new (or sometimes almost traditional) form of masculinity, Rubin's bare-breasted Nazi king is something like nega-feminine, metamorphosed by careful context out of the constraints of biology and society.

For an instant, it's gender vertigo—a primally unsettling effect capping a piece that snaps from smirks to screams to breathless sexuality. (Note to Mom and Dad: yeah, I'm a pervert. Sorry you had to find out here.) Don't get all wanky over the swastika-waving: if it'll calm you down, Rubin's parents were Holocaust survivors, so hold the spit next time.

"Had [the spitters] asked me about it, they might have been a little more enlightened," she says. "But it was a reaction, and any reaction is a good reaction."

It's that kind of vertigo (and that kind of pull-no-punches aesthetic) at the throbbing heart of "Drag" that keeps the dynamism of the drag king intact: Rubin, O'Neill and Zimmerman's subjects all have a certain energy, but the kings have something like an outlaw streak (appropriate that O'Neill shot a Harley-straddling cowboy). Maybe it's because they're performing and existing on the frontier: it's unexplored territory, something sleek and strong and still growing. And that's why it works, says Rubin.

"If you take a woman that beautiful and put her out there, you give her power with just her form and figure; it strikes people, to look and pay attention," she says. "But make her into a man, and it's totally different in how it works. You're still giving her power but in a completely different way."

"Drag" at Coffeehaven Coffeehouse & Art Gallery, 1708 E. Broadway, Long Beach, (562) 437-3785. Call for hours. Through June 23. Free.


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