To say that Milwaukee has a race problem is an understatement, and the statistics about Milwaukee are horrifying if you are black. Ranked in the top five worst cities for African Americans for the last three years (ranked first in 2019), one of the top 20 most segregated cities in the country, ranked the worst place to raise black children—I could go on and on about the statistics, but that’s what google is for. The cause: systemic racism. And if you think that doesn’t trickle down to your local gay bar, drag scene, or even your group of friends, you’re wrong.
In Milwaukee the LGBTQ bars have few black or latinx employees (I can count them all on two hands), bar owners and managers police hip-hop or rap music, show promoters and directors have discouraged black entertainers from performing hip-hop or rap songs or from having shows with all-black casts. And because the queer nightlife mostly consists of Cis-gender white gay men, misogyny is big problem with trans and non-binary people being constantly pushed to the margins.
When it comes to drag, and specifically the Milwaukee drag community, there are a lot of covertly racist things that have been said and done that make me and other black entertainers uncomfortable. When we have spoken up about these things, we get branded as starting drama or accused of doing it for attention. Accusing queens of “starting drama” is coded language that is often used toward queer entertainers of color when we speak up about racism, discrimination, or mistreatment. After I, and others, spoke up about a white queen for her cultural appropriation by wearing a wig with box braids and performing music by Nicki Minaj with the N-word, we were accused of “starting drama” and looking for attention.
After we released the Milwaukee Drag Alliance demand letter, it was mostly met with praise, but again we were accused of starting drama. Others claimed we were on a witch hunt or we were being dishonest. This is because we are used to a power structure with white men at the top of the pyramid and anything that disrupts that paradigm is met with pushback. However, part of the reason I think we got less backlash from the letter is because of the climate of the country.
After the deaths of Ahmaud Aubrey, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor caused mass protests against police brutality and racial injustice, many people and businesses were forced to take a closer look at their actions and beliefs. Racism is an inescapable part of every person living in the United States because it shapes our history and the present. There is not a single white person who has transcended racism, and I know this because I, as a black person, still have to unlearn and be conscious of my own internalized racism and negative views I have of my own race.
How It All Started
The virtual Town Hall that the Chicago Black Drag Council live-streamed in late June made headlines for the racist remarks that white Chicago queen T Rex said to RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars Winner, Shea Coulee, and the fall-out after the town hall made drag performers all around the country take a closer look at themselves and the problems within their own local drag communities. Milwaukee was no exception. A lot of us were having private and public conversations about the injustice, discrimination, mistreatment and micro-aggressions we’ve faced and the lack of accountability for certain members in our community. So we, like many other QTPOC communities across the country, started organizing.
How I got involved
I guess it all started with a tweet. Around June 22, not long after the fallout in Chicago, Tempest Heat-Stratton tweeted, “Now when Milw ready to talk about [D.I.X. Milwaukee] and Jonathan W. …lemme know.” I replied to her tweet, saying, “[This Is It] got some issues that need to be addressed too,” which led to one of the owners of This Is It, Michael Fisher, responding to my tweet with “my DMs are always open & I am more than willing to listen and learn.” Not long after that I had a conversation with Tempest, which led to a meeting with Michael Fisher, This Is It General Manager Chad Harrington, Tempest Heat and Iconika Strange. By the end of the meeting we came to an agreement about changes This Is It would make and agreed that they should publicly hold themselves accountable in a statement. After the meeting almost two weeks passed, and nothing happened.
Out of frustration, I began to make a long post on Facebook about the racism within the gay community and the drag community and demand that we as a community hold our bars and entertainers accountable. After I made the first draft, I reached out to my closest friends in the drag community to see if there was a better way to go about this. That was the seed that grew into the Milwaukee Drag Alliance. It started with a group of maybe seven queens and grew into roughly 40 drag entertainers almost overnight. We decided that a simple post wasn’t enough, and it would be more effective if it was a letter addressed to each of the individual bars. Over the course of about seven days, we finished the letters and put them on social media.
In the letters, we asked for accountability and more diversity and inclusion and we received quick responses from the bars named in the letter, but the work can’t end there. We asked for private virtual meetings with This Is It, D.I.X. Milwaukee, and Hamburger Mary’s, and as of right now we are in talks with This Is It and D.I.X. to schedule those meetings. It’s taking longer than expected to get these meetings off the ground because I think some of the bar owners and managers are afraid that they could become Milwaukee’s T-Rex. We decided to have private virtual meetings but that doesn’t remove the fear of being “cancelled” if they say the wrong thing.
Why you shouldn’t discredit us
I’ve heard the criticism: That we are young queens who haven’t worked in the scene long enough, and we are just stirring up drama, or that some of the newer queens in our group are just doing this because they want more bookings. For us, it’s bigger than a booking. Just because some of the queens involved haven’t been doing drag for decades doesn’t mean that they don’t have the right to speak up against discrimination. In fact I think some of the older, established queens may be complacent with the status quo, and if a moment like this arose early in their career maybe they wouldn’t have been as reluctant to speak up.
Our goal is to create a larger pool of booked queens that are more diverse, along with more diversity in bar staff in race and gender, and an overall more welcoming environment that doesn’t just cater to cis white gay men. More transparency in bars’ booking policies and payment, and more power given to BIPOC and Trans Entertainers rather than bar managers, owners or non-performers in general. We want a community that listens to our concerns and participates in the conversation. We want to create an environment in queer nightlife that encourages and listens to POC and Trans voices when they speak up about mistreatment—and doesn’t shout “Drama” when we speak about our experiences. Our group is an eclectic group of diverse performers, and we want our goals to reflect that, because it’s more than a race issue, it’s a Trans, AFAB, and other non-traditional entertainer issue, too.
How you can help
We welcome anyone who wants to be a part of our organization, especially QTBIPOC performers. If you are a cis white gay person and you want to help, show up for us financially, vocally, physically, and emotionally.
The potential for the future
While we work on our current goals, I think with more support we can help other marginalized groups in our community. I see MDA acting as a safeguard to prevent future transgressions against the marginalized. After we released the initial letter, John Wanke, a disabled performer, brought to light the discrimination he has experienced and the inaccessibility that most of the establishments have in Milwaukee. I see the future of MDA advocating for changes that help people like him and to be a strong voice to help the smaller voices that may be overlooked.