By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly
The Portland Eagle has cancelled a scheduled performance by controversial blackface drag queen Shirley Q. Liquor following a public outcry calling the performance racist.
“I am deeply sorry if anyone took any offense to this,” says Booking Manager Michael Talley. “That was absolutely not the intent of the Eagle.”
On Wednesday night, the Eagle posted a Facebook event announcing it was bringing the performer to Portland in March. By Thursday afternoon, the announcement began to elicit a powerful backlash that snowballed throughout the night.
“This is a hurt unique to my roots and experience as a severely marginalized person in American culture,” Leila Hofstein wrote. “It’s a violent slap in the face, a Tour de Force of every micro aggression I experience every single day, rolled up in a nice shiny package for the world to see. And then people laugh. They laugh at a mockery of my life. They laugh with those who do not see several folds of comedic irony: with every bully, with every older white man who still sees me as property in some way, they laugh with the skinheads who jumped me in middle school, they laugh with my oppressors. So there you are. This isn’t a tongue-in-cheek burlesque display. That sort of thing can’t exist yet, at least not the way Shirley is doing it.”
Hofstein’s was one of thousands of comments from queer people of color and their allies objecting to the performance. Before long, the online debate had drawn comments from the East Coast and even gotten the attention of people overseas. Talley says he got a call this morning from the bar’s Absolut representative saying that people in Sweden were asking about the event.
“I never in a million years thought that it was going to turn into something like this,” says Talley, who has seen Shirley Q. Liquor perform on multiple occasions and hoped the community would welcome her with open arms.
But after staying up until 4 a.m. following the ongoing online debate and talking to African American friends (who he says were divided on the issue), Talley decided this morning that no matter what he thought of the performer, it wasn’t worth hurting so many members of the community. The 100 or so people who had purchased pre-sale tickets will receive a refund.
“I feel like I’ve done something to hurt the community and that’s the last thing I ever wanted,” Talley says, adding that the Eagle is open to a continuing conversation about how the bar can be inclusive and respectful.
In addition to concerns about the act being racist, Talley says the discussion also brought up accusations that the North Portland bar is women-hating and anti-trans. Talley contested that claim — pointing out that the bar has a female bartender and a trans man on staff — though he readily acknowledged that the bar used to be misogynistic and transphobic.
“When I first started at the Eagle it was a completely different ball game,” Talley says. “It was old mentality. Since I’ve been working there we’ve been doing nothing but trying to change people’s perspective of what the Eagle is.”
To that end, Talley says he plans to save the date Shirley would have performed — March 15 — for a community conversation and fundraiser, possibly in collaboration with the Portland Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.
So who is this Shirley Q. Liquor anyway? The character of white drag performer Chuck Knipp is described as a “Welfare Queen” with 19 children. Knipp performs the role in blackface, acting out stereotypes of African American women.
Knipp doesn’t believe his act is blackface because he uses dark foundation instead of charcoal and claims he is celebrating black women, not denigrating them:
My comedy isn’t racist, nor am I. More than anything, my comedy makes fun of whites’ views of blacks. My comedy pokes fun at everything, including myself. That’s what comedy is about, making us escape form everyday life and seeing the funny side.
To decide for yourself, check out these videos below: