For six years, director Gabrielle Burton followed drag performers of all genders in Columbus for her new documentary “Kings, Queens and In-Betweens." The film arrives at a critical moment in gender expression, both in Ohio and in the country at large.
In the documentary, performers don elaborate costumes, create choreographed dances to lip-synced rock songs and collect dollar bills from adoring fans on stage. Off stage, they grapple with the intersection of performance, identity and more.
“It’s so fun to get on stage and make people smile or make people forget that they’re dying of a disease or make people forget that ‘My family hates me because I’m gay,'" says one of the queens interviewed in the film. “You come here and you feel empowered."
Burton feels that message is particularly important in the middle of the country. One of the performers dubs Columbus the "crown jewel of drag in the Midwest."
That status, she says, warrants attention.
"If this is happening here, in the middle of the Midwest, clearly there is a lot more diversity everywhere," Burton says. "And that's not necessarily acknowledged."
She credits Columbus for highlighting that diversity.
"What is unique about Columbus is that the community here has embraced it, welcomed it and supported it," she says.
WOSU's Clare Roth caught up with Burton to discuss her film and the art of drag performance.
Clare Roth: So tell me what drew you to this subject. Why profile this scene?
Gabrielle Burton: I felt that drag is an excellent way to get into the conversation about the distinctions between biology, sexuality and gender. Because on stage, people are shaking all this up. They're there for whatever reasons, whether it's intentional or not, by presenting gender expression on stage in these different ways, it starts making us as audiences question what we take for granted.
Clare Roth: I think a lot of us have a conception of what a drag queen is: a man putting on a theatrical performance, often in clothes that are traditionally feminine. You know, from there we can understand what a drag king is: a woman doing the inverse. Help us understand the "in-between" of your title.
Gabrielle Burton: Well in-betweens can mean a lot of different things. And as with, actually, drag kings and queens as well, I say you ask, you know, a dozen drag performers what drag is or what it means to them and you'll get a dozen different answers. The diversity within the community, the performance community, is so vast that that's part of what the movie is about as well, is saying it's hard to, in some sense, define what these things are. So there is an in-between space in just saying, if we don't necessarily put hard, fast delineations, which typically are based on a binary scale, then we can allow people to just be human.
Clare Roth: There a great moment in the trailer, after you introduce all these performers and some of the intricacies of these issues, where bold text comes up on the screen and it says, "All in Columbus, Ohio. Really." It just made me laugh. How did our city become the "crown jewel of drag in the Midwest," as one of your performers put it?
Gabrielle Burton: I don't know how particularly it became that way. I think what's important about it is that it is, and there is a reflection on a larger scale of, basically, human diversity. That if this is happening here, in the middle of the Midwest, clearly there is a lot more diversity everywhere. And that's not necessarily acknowledged.
What is unique about Columbus is that the community here has embraced it, welcomed it and supported it. And I think that that also is something that you can see in the city itself, that it's a thriving, growing, open city that is doing better probably because it acknowledges the complexity of people in all their many colors.
Clare Roth: The question of gender expression is top of mind for a lot of people right now, President Trump rolling back protections for transgender students and schools. There's maybe never been this much national conversation about gender issues. How do you think drag performance contributes to that conversation?
Gabrielle Burton: Drag performers have always sort of been pushing the envelope of having people examine these roles while entertaining and providing a safe space for a lot of marginalized people. I think now this is a hopeful sign that people are talking about it, that they're educating themselves, that they're getting to know a lot more about the variations in human identity out there.
And drag's way of putting up onstage a huge rainbow of possibilities for the way people can be allows a space of accepting complexity more, which we need to understand and acknowledge, because it's not going to go away if we're not acknowledging it. It is there. And so we have to start understanding that and applying that in our legislation of equal rights for all people.