When Portland, Oregonâ€™s venerable drag king troupe, DK PDX, broke up earlier this year, some performersâ€”like the charismatic Johnny Mozzarellaâ€”took their acts solo while others still ponder their next creative endeavor. Though drag kings didnâ€™t originate in the Northwest, there has been a long and influential presence there, which was documented in Third Antenna: The Radical Nature of Drag. DK PDX married Third Antennaâ€™s radical gender play with feminist political activism.
The final member to join the now defunct troupe, R.E. Szego who plays Benny Brucha, says that it was watching Third Antenna and DK PDXâ€™s political messages that drew her to drag performance.
â€śI see drag performance as part of a larger movement to dismantle the binary gender system,â€ť Szego explains. â€śEven drag that doesnâ€™t seem to be overtly political is a part of the process of social change in as much as it creates the space for broader conceptualizations of gender. Drag exposes possibilities of gender and pushes people to think about how masculinity and femininity are constructedâ€”if weâ€™re creating these constraints, we can change them and create something new, and hopefully, more liberating.â€ť
In this sense, Szego says, drag kings are doing what feminists have always done: using their identities and their bodies, as a basis for social change.
For Maryanne Cassera, the woman behind drag personality Johnny Mozzarella (www.johnnymozzarella.com), politics was an after thought; she joined DK PDX because she liked to sing karaoke. But in the four years since Johnnyâ€”who Cassera sees as an alter egoâ€”has developed an international following and Cassera has become a political activist.
â€śI wasnâ€™t thinking I was going to be in this political activist role but itâ€™s just come naturally to me. I find it empowering to be able to explore my feminine and masculine sides on stage and to be able to utilize drag as a tool to teach, inspire and mentor. Iâ€™ve become an advocate for trans kids.â€ť
Cassera works with groups like Portlandâ€™s Sexual Minorities Resource Center and harnesses Johnnyâ€™s superstar status in service of trans causes. As a minority, Cassera is also deeply concerned with issues of race and class and the Filipino-Italian thinks Johnny is breaking racial stereotypes.
â€śFirst and foremost I want to challenge the notions of gender and masculinity. Asian menâ€”how they are viewed in mainstream societyâ€”is theyâ€™re either this effeminate asexual character or theyâ€™re this martial arts character. I want to see Asian men in a positive light. And I want my character to come across asâ€”this is Johnny Mozzarella, heâ€™s Asian looking and he is sexy. I like that he appeals to both gay men and women.â€ť
Cassera will be speaking on â€śAsian Masculinity and Drag King Performanceâ€ť at this yearâ€™s International Drag King Extravaganza (www.idkeaustin.com)â€”a four day conference with drag performances, how-to instructionals and scholarly presentationsâ€”held in Austin, Texas this October.
Cassera may not be transgender herself, but Johnny is, and she doesnâ€™t mind being mistaken for her drag persona.
â€śJohnny, heâ€™s definitelyâ€”when I say fluidâ€”heâ€™s very fluid. He goes back and forth. Heâ€™s genderqueer. I do a lot of performances where I start out as Johnny and I do a strip tease or I evolve into a more feminine character and I still have, of course, my sideburns and maybe Iâ€™m wearing a swimsuit top for example. Iâ€™m kind of just blurring the lines of gender and how it comes across on stage. I like to keep it fluid and I donâ€™t want to be kept in this box that this is what Johnnyâ€™s all about. I refer to him as he. And I also get referred to by other people, they call me Johnny or they call me he. I respond either way. I love that.â€ť
Trans writer Jacob Anderson-Minshall can be reached at at email@example.com