On the 13th February Sussex DragSoc held their grand opening event, the first event ever hosted by the new society, and the results were dramatic, theatrical and outrageously hilarious. Made up of various acts which included dance, lip-syncing and comedy skits, each act embodied its own uniqueness, character and identity. Made up of a combination of society members and outside drag king and queens, variety and surprises filled the whole evening. We met two members of the Sussex Drag Society, Spike Parker and AJ Selfridge – perhaps now better known by their drag names, Goldie Gravestone and Robert from Finance – the next morning, to discuss not only the event, but the importance of such societies and performances. With an entry fee of only £3, and advertised only through word of mouth and over Facebook, the turn out was unanimous.
The society started through an LGBTQ meet up as Spike and AJ explained – when asking how the society began, Spike explained how the question ‘why is there not a drag society at Sussex?’ was clear, with many people having expressed an interest, and with Brighton acting as such a vast and eclectic cultural centre. ‘In three hours, we came up with the society and we were all on the computer’, AJ expands. Indeed, the event held by the society reflected this immensely, with Room 76 of Falmer House being packed with over 150 people. The audience – which was in itself hugely diverse – were laughing and cheering throughout, and the atmosphere of both the event and the society could not have been more welcoming, inviting and entertaining. Particularly, the performance of Goldie Gravestone – Spike’s drag queen persona – was something Ru Paul himself would be envious of, with the lip sync to ‘Bleeding Love’ being a hysterical, ketchup-smothered masterpiece.
It seems surprising therefore, that this is the first university drag society in the UK, with Bournemouth University following suit approximately a month after Sussex. As Spike explains, the society has big plans – ‘we’re planning on doing film screenings, more shows, more events like last night, makeup and drag tutorials, conversations – anything to do with drag for people that love it and people that do it, to have a good time’. With the growing number of people being exposed and interested in drag through shows like ‘Ru Paul’s Drag Race’ entering the mainstream, the events the society aim to create not only create great humour, but also a space for experimenting and learning about drag. ‘We’re not professionals’, AJ assures, ‘none of us. Our first performances were yesterday, the first time ever performing. And people were like ‘oh you guys are so good and I wanna do it but I’ve never done it’ – well do what we did, just jump into it – we’ll teach you how to do it’. While the event was executed with every inch of professionalism and natural ability, the society appears a space where everyone can learn and experience drag together. Ally – who hosted the event alongside AJ – is the society’s president, has worked in the same drag houses as renowned drag kings such as Sammy Silver, and is known amongst the society as ‘a pair of safe hands’ as Spike explains, with her expertise providing a strong point of reference.
The mixed audience of the grand opening seemed to reflect the ethos of the society, and of drag as a whole. A broad and eclectic mix, a sense of inclusiveness was created. Drag after all is first and foremost an free expression and performance. ‘I think its an example of a form of inclusivity’, AJ continues, ‘so many people came up to me and said i wanna do drag’. The event also highlighted how varied the nature of drag can be. AJ discusses the nature of drag in relation to her character of Robert from Finance for example- ‘I’ve never looked at drag as ‘I’m gonna start pretending to be a man’ , its more like ‘I’m gonna start pretending to be Robert, who’s a character- and its a great way of channeling an ego’.
These elements of the show made it as enlightening as it was entertaining. Shows such as ‘Ru Paul’s Drag Race’ are brilliantly successful at placing drag queens into the spotlight for example, but not so much in recognising the other forms of drag available. ‘I think also people don’t know about bio-queens which is when women dress up as women – or also bio-kings, men who dress up as men’, Spike highlights, and prior to their openings I was certainly not familiar with all the variety of drag. ‘Anyone can do anything in drag thats kind of what we’re selling – we’re here to help you make it’.
The creation of the society holds a particular resonance amongst the political climate of Trump and his hostility towards the LGBTQ community. Amongst all the cheers and enthusiasm of the event was a shared awareness of the anti-LGBTQ feeling of Trump and his government, with some of the jokes referencing to this. The amount of people queuing outside of the sold out opening event of the society showed not only the success of the event but also a sense of defiance in the current political and social environment. ‘Last night there were so many straight people there – the audience were so mixed’, Spike reflects, ‘I loved it because i was kind of expecting that we’d just get the LGBTQ section of Sussex which is a bit more closed off…there was a crazy mix of people who were there, like I saw a hippie with dreadlocks , and people who you would not expect to come to a drag show all fucking loving it’. ‘Drag is a way of bringing people together because they came to us’, AJ continues, ‘they can see what we’re doing and now they see us on campus and they can talk to us if they want to , they can ask about makeup , they’ll wanna come to the next tutorial, the screening… its already created a community and in this climate everyone needs a little bit of love right now’. This is hard to disagree with, with the memory of the large anti-Trump demo still fresh in the minds of many. Love was certainly delivered – people were danced on, Spicegirls was playing, awards were given out, and a Britney Spears impersonator closed the show with all the dramatics one would hope for.