A couple weekends ago I had the pleasure of attending drag night at the bar Coming Out by the Colosseum with my good friend Emily. We arrived early to grab seats, chat over pizza and observe the culture until the show began. The queen performing that night was Maruska Starr, who is known to MC for several drag nights around the city weekly. She chatted playfully in both Italian and English to her audience and then went on to sing “Skyfall” by Adele. I suppose I was expecting more performances of song and dance, or burlesque like I have seen in the US and Thailand. However I found this performance to be more about comedy than anything else. Every half an hour or so Maruska would ask a member of the audience to come up on her tiny stage and perform a task. My brave friend Emily volunteered first. She was blindfolded, told to reach into a box and guess what was inside. Lucky for her it was a chocolate truffle! As the night went on several people were asked to move tiny pieces of paper from a table on stage into plastic cups using only a straw with several incisions in it. Lastly a couple was asked to find an object hidden in a plate full of whipped cream using only their faces. Much to the audience’s glee she stopped the contestants several minutes in to tell them that there was no object to be found.
To anyone off the street this may sound like a bag full of cheap tricks, while to the LGBTQIA drag is heralded as a high art form. The hours of effort it takes a queen to transform, paired with the various talents, stage presence and money for all of their supplies shows just how intentional and cultivated this craft is. Beyond this, drag also creates a safe space for people to explore their gender and sexuality. It is the very essence of queering space. One might pose the question: “If drag is such an elevated art form, why are drag performances so often held in bars?” I would like to remind my readers that coming out is still a fairly new concept. Up until the American Stonewall riots of 1969 bars were very often the only places members of the LGBTQIA could congregate. As I discussed earlier in my blog post “Gay Culture in Rome: Taking Comfort in the Privacy of a Moment,” Italy is much further behind than the United States in as much as accepting anyone who is not a gay man. There are even notably less out gay women. I have yet to meet an Italian person who identifies as trans or genderqueer. So I say with confidence that even today, and especially in Italy, bars are one of the few places where gay and queer folks can let go and enjoy themselves in public. In a world that is terrified of deviating from the norm, gay and queer people aren’t privileged enough to have many safe spaces, so we go to bars for community and respite.