This podcast was created for my CULT 400N course, Drag and Popular Culture. In this short podcast, I explore some of the main ideas from the chapter “The ‘Queens'” from Esther Newton’s foundational book Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America. I talk about my reservations with anthropological work from the twentieth century and introduce Newton’s main informant, Skip Arnold. The transcript is posted below.
I have the pleasure of sharing with you Esther Newton’s chapter “The ‘Queens'” from her book Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America. Before we begin, I wanted to mention that I had a bit of a rollercoaster affair with this text. First, I would say I have a healthy skepticism of anthropological approaches from the 20th century. There is a deep discomfort in reading texts that attempt to make someone coded as the other intelligible for outsiders. The attempted god-like and impersonal position taken in anthropology can objectify, fetishize, and patronize the groups they study. As this is an anthropological text, there were times that I felt the text was doing this. Newton was working within this anthropological tradition, so I felt this discomfort coming up. The language (both in outdated and perhaps offensive slang and in anthropological discourse) had me, at times, questioning the value of this piece. But as I began to investigate and learn more about Esther Newton, her informants, and the context of the text itself, I began to see a different sort of relationship taking place.
At the time of writing this piece, Newton was a semi-closeted butch lesbian. Using her language from the text, she would have been considered a covert homosexual. She maintained an appearance of heterosexuality in her professional life. In more recent work, she notes that she was studying herself in many ways while writing this book. As a closeted butch lesbian attempting to conform to heteronormative restrictions required from women, she said that she often felt like a female impersonator herself. In her 2018 memoir My Butch Career, she explains that, quote, “I share a double gender-consciousness with drag queens and with transgender people who choose to end the discrepancy between their bodies’ sex and the gender they deem themselves to be, and I know how strong and indelible is the sense that one’s socially ordained gender is a performance that feels put on” (8).
The chapter we read for this week, “The ‘Queens,'” is an anthropological ethnography of what Newton calls the “Gay World” anchored by drag queens and female impersonators in the late sixties. In this chapter, Newton outlines the different categories of belonging in the queer community, focusing primarily on gay men. Of course, I felt a little suspicious of her argument that gay men are the curators of gay life. Queer women have long and meaningful histories that often get brushed over because of patriarchal assertions that men create and direct culture. While there are brief mentions of queer women in this chapter, I feel like it goes unsaid that perhaps the reason why gay men seemed like they set the overall tone of gay life was that she was in spaces curated by and for gay men.
Despite this, I found many of her observations to be quite interesting. I found myself tracing the similarities and disconnects of current queer life as I read this text. For example, her statement that, quote, “one is not a “homosexual” but that one “lives homosexuality”” (21) feels entirely different than how we understand queerness today. We feel insulted at the insinuation that queerness is a lifestyle. We are queer. It is not a way of living – it is who we are. Her text also emphasizes the deviant nature that stigmatized queer people. This deviance was inseparable from their identity. Newton explained that drag queens were seen as one the most deviant of queer men because of their supposed obviousness in a culture that demanded discretion. Anti-sodomy laws in Chicago, where a significant portion of Newton’s work took place, had only been repealed a few years before her fieldwork. So legality was precarious and social stigmatization was intense. Many queer men who perform drag today still note the prejudice they face as drag queens. Even with the apparent celebration of drag in the mainstream, many accounts shared across the internet note the hostility drag queens face within the community. I wonder if Newton’s argument that covert homosexuals view drag queens with “mixed proportions of disapproval, envy, and delight” (30) holds true for queer people today less comfortable with expansive expressions of gender.
Another interesting parallel is her mention that gay men recognized that they “can’t afford” to be prejudiced against Black people (28). Her informants mentioned that they “should know better” (28). These statements were said despite the racist undertones she noticed in the community. In many ways, I feel like these sentiments are still expressed today. The white cis male face of the queer community often fails to recognize how it perpetuates racism within and outside our community.
I also appreciated her footnote on page twenty-one, where she writes, “gay life is rather like the early Christian Church: it exists wherever and whenever two gay people gather together.” Even today, people outside the queer community struggle to conceptualize what or where the queer community is. Sometimes I feel like people imagine the queer community
as one specific space where all the queer people come together. My straight friends have often mentioned their desperate desire to go and be a part of these spaces. They feel excluded from this imaginary grand gay space. People outside of the queer community fail to recognize that the queer community is as much our kitchen tables as it is the local gay bar.
As I was tracing these similarities and differences of 60s queer life and now, I also thought about what an anthropological ethnography of today’s queer life in American cities would look like. Would overt and covert queer people still be the most dividing factor? I feel like there is still a division between queer people who live socially, familially, and professionally in the queer world and in the heterosexual world. However, this position in the heterosexual world is framed more as acceptance rather than fear of discrimination. Or are the divisions between these worlds blurring? The origins of a drag queen also become an exciting consideration in a modern-day ethnography. Does Newton’s statement that approval is achieved through a paying gig ring true when our world is dictated by likes and follows? Is the audience still an audience when it is imaginary? Is the acceptance process still the same when drag queens can become drag queens through YouTube tutorials and TikToks? Perhaps never having met another drag queen in person? Does this expand or narrow the culture of drag?
Even though I found all of these thought-provoking statements in the text, my knee-jerk reaction to this chapter as a whole was, “why is Newton sharing this?” Why was she sharing these intimate details of the gay community? Why was she dissecting their lives and putting their bodies on display for the world? It felt invasive and distancing. However, as I learnt more about Newton, this chapter began to make sense. This is the writing of a closeted queer person who loved the people she wrote about. This was a butch lesbian working through the same struggles of stigmatization, fear, and apprehension as the men she wrote about. It was a love letter – an attempt to show queer people as something outside the standard narrative of mentally ill and immoral. She wanted to honour their lives and their community. This text was the first of its kind, and it was risky. In her memoir, Newton explains that her mentor encouraged her to take on this ethnography, which diverted immensely from the anthropological tradition at the time. She explains that, quote, “what he imparted to me, more in his office or his home than in the classroom, was that female impersonators … were a group of human beings and so necessarily had a culture worth studying. The insight that gays were not just a category of sick isolates but a group, so had culture, was a breathtaking leap whose daring is hard to recapture now” (113-14). She never approached her informants with psychological accusations. Instead, she wanted to share their lives as they knew them.
I wanted to mention Newton’s primary informant, Skip Arnold. While Skip is only featured in a photograph in the chapter we read, I felt that I needed to share this person’s history because Newton’s work could not have been done without him. As a note, Newton writes about Skip with he/him pronouns, so that is the pronouns I will use here. Later in Newton’s book, she transcribes an entire evening of Skip’s performances in a Chicago bar she names The Shed. Newton spares no details from the show. I quickly learned that Skip Arnold is my favourite kind of drag queen. One that lovingly bites at his captivated audience and fellow queens. He saturates every word, posture, and facial expression with comedy. He is quick-witted, genuine, and charming. It all came out so clearly in Newton’s retelling of this evening. In Newton’s memoir, she wrote about Arnold in a reverent way. She recognized the power and magic in his performances. You can tell that she loved, adored, and respected him. It was Skip who introduced Newton to performers and gave her credibility in queer spaces so she could do this work. This support shows the deep trust they had in their relationship. Unfortunately, there isn’t much shared about Skip Arnold outside of Newton’s work. One thing I did find was a twelve-minute audio recording of one of Skip’s performances. This performance highlights our previous conversations on camp and appropriation as one of Skip’s recurring bits is queering fairytales. Skip takes the stories that everyone knows and makes them vulgar, which juxtaposes the innocent appearance Disney has curated of the princesses. This recording brings life to the person Newton writes about. Decades later, Skip’s jokes still land.
This text is fascinating because of its history. Newton’s book laid the groundwork for Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (Newton My Butch Career 1). Even though this book was initially published to no acclaim and got Newton fired from her job, it later became a foundational text for developing gender and queer studies (ibid.). The last thing I want to leave you with is a quote from the preface to the second edition of Mother Camp. She writes, “the men whom I knew in Kansas City and Chicago were tough; they knew how to fight and suffer with comic grace. They had the simple dignity of those who have nothing else but their refusal to be crushed. I bid them farewell with a bittersweet regret, and leave it to others to carry on the work of illuminating their past and chronicling their future” (XIV).
Newton, Esther. Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America. The University of Chicago Press, 1979. https://archive.org/details/mothercampfemale0000newt/page/n5/mode/2up?view=theater
— My Butch Career: A Memoir. Duke University Press, 2018.