Excerpted from Cruising Utopia, reprinted here with the permission of New York University Press
This section’s subtitle is meant to connote a few things. I invoke the phrase “approaching Aviance” because I want to cast a picture from life, the scene of Aviance’s being approached. To travel through the gay world of New York City with Kevin Aviance is certainly to call attention to oneself. Aviance is six foot two, bald, black, and effeminate. In or out of his unique drag he is immediately recognizable to anyone who has seen his show. To walk the cityscape with him is to watch as strangers approach him and remark on one of his performances. They often gush enthusiastically and convey how much a particular performance or his body of performances means to them. One will hear such things as “I’ll always remember that one show you did before they shut the Palladium down” or “You turned it out at Roxy last week.” Kevin will be gracious and give back the love he has just received.
His work, his singing and his movement, is not the high art of Bill T. Jones or Mark Morris, but I would venture to say that more queer people see Aviance move than have witnessed Jones’s masterful productions. I do not mean to undermine the value of Jones’s work. I only want to properly frame the way in which Aviance’s nightlife performances matter. The gestures he performs matter worlds to the children who compose his audiences. Aviance is something of a beacon that displays and channels worlds of queer pain and pleasure. In his moves we see the suffering of being a gender outlaw, one who lives outside the dictates of heteronormativity. Furthermore, another story about being black in a predominantly white-supremacist gay world ruminates beneath his gestures. Some of his other gestures transmit and amplify the pleasures of queerness, the joys of gender dissidence, of willfully making one’s own way against the stream of a crushing heteronormative tide.
The strong influence of vogueing practice in his moves affirms the racialized ontology of the pier queen, a personage who is degraded in New York City’s aboveground gay culture. Often, one gesture will contain both positive and negative polarities simultaneously, because the pleasure and pain of queerness are not a strict binary. The conversations that ensue after his performances, the friends and strangers that approach him on the street, the ads in bar rags, the reviews in local papers, the occasional home-video documentation, and the hazy and often drug-tinged memories that remain after the actual live performances are the queer ephemera, that transmutation of the performance energy, that also function as a beacon for queer possibility and survival.
To understand the lure of Aviance’s performance it is useful to describe a performance from Montreal’s Red and Blue party. The Red and Blue is part of the circuit-party system. The circuit is just that, a loosely aligned social circuit of dance parties that happen throughout the year in major cities throughout North America. Aviance was invited to perform at Montreal. Another drag performer, a black queen in traditional illusionist drag, appears on stage and introduces the fierce and legendary Kevin Aviance. Aviance emerges from behind an ornate red curtain with gold trim. He is wearing a fantastical suit that features puffy, exaggerated purple shoulders that rise to the length of his ears.
As he sings his first club hit, his microphone emerges from his lapel, permitting his hands total freedom to move in gestures that are familiar to those conversant with vogueing and break-dancing styles. In the middle of the song his entire body becomes involved as he feigns cold robotic motions. The monster walks. He then sings his club hit “Cunty.” He sings, “Feeling like a lily / Feeling like a rose,” and as he stands in place, his body quivers with extravagant emotion. He stands center stage, and as he screams, he quivers with an emotional force that connotes the stigma of gender ostracism. His gender freakishness speaks to the audiences that surround him. His is an amplified and extreme queer body, a body in motion that rapidly deploys the signs, the gestures, of queer communication, Aviance eventually landed in New York City, where he first made a name for himself at the now legendary Sound Factory, a queer club that began as a predominantly Latino and black space. He distinguished himself on the dance floor, grabbing the attention of major DJs and nightlife promoters, and soon became a professional performer. Today he is one of a handful of New York drag performers who can distinguish himself as living solely off his performance. He forsook traditional drag and the world of wigs early in his career. His look is reminiscent of the legendary group of black soul divas called LaBelle, the group that wrote the almost perfect disco hit “Lady Marmalade.” I think of Aviance’s look when I study the album cover for LaBelle’s phenomenal 1974 album Nightbirds. All three women, dressed in metallic outfits, are portrayed as swirls of space-age Afro-glamour. LaBelle’s Afro-futurism was a strategic move to make the group look freakish and alien, to make blackness something otherworldly and uncanny.
Aviance, like LaBelle, reconstructs blackness as a mysterious Lost-in-Space aesthetic. Other comparisons can be drawn between the punk performance style of Klaus Nomi, the deranged disco divinity of Grace Jones, the insane and beautiful drag of Leigh Bowery, and the spaced-out elegance of the hip-hop artist Missy Misdemeanor Elliot. But Aviance’s look is definitely his own. I have seen him in many outfits, including fantastic gold lamé jumpsuits, sheer polka-dot minidresses, and leopard-skin body stockings. Although he does not wear wigs, he sometimes adorns his bald head with a hat.
Both his appearance and his performances are in no way attempting to imitate a woman. He is instead interested in approximating a notion of femininity. Queer theory has made one lesson explicitly clear: the set of behaviors and codes of conduct that we refer to as feminine or masculine are not slaves to the biological. Women, straight and gay, perform and live masculinity in the same way as many a biological man inhabits femininity. Sometimes technology aligns people’s gender identity and their biological self. Others relish the antinormative disjuncture between their biological gender and their performed or lived gender. Aviance’s masculinity, partially informed by his biological maleness, is never hidden—he wears no wig, and he does not tuck (conceal or hide the male genital bulge while in drag). Indeed, in his performance we see a unique cohabitation of traditional female and male traits.
To perform such a hybrid gender is not only to be queer but to defy troubling gender logics within gay spaces. Bollen’s chapter on queer performativity and the dance floor catalogs different dancing styles—such as girly poofter (Australian slang for campy and feminine male dancing) and the standard macho style of dancing that dominates many gay dance venues. Bollen notes but does not delve into the femmephobia apparent on many queer dance floors, where those who break the gay-clone edict to act like a man are de-eroticized and demoted to second-class citizenship.
I observe that tension when I find myself at the Roxy, the sceniest place to be for a certain stratum of New York gay men. I am overwhelmed by the throngs of shirtless dancers with gym-crafted bodies. Their dance style is aggressive yet rigid; the moves they make are meant to show off the rewards of hours of gym workouts. They do not spread out but instead dance closely together, almost in packs. They are often awash in the effects of club drugs, such as Ecstasy and Special K, and huddle together as they dance. For the most part, they do not let themselves flow and keep close to one another, enjoying the ways in which their gym-sculpted muscles rub up against those of the next clonish dance-floor compatriot.
Through the mist of the smoke machine I watch Aviance elevate himself above the crowd. He is dancing on a small platform that is about five feet high, the kind of ministage usually occupied by a gym-built go-go boy. Go-go boys mostly just bump and grind. There is not much room for steps, and Aviance does not need them. This particular dance is about his hands. His hands move in jerky, mechanical spasms. They frame his face and his outfit. He dances to the house music that the DJ is playing especially for him. He is elevated from the dance floor but also surrounded by dancers who are now dancing with him. He is both onstage and one of the throng, one with the music. It makes sense that he is elevated. He is there not because he is simply a better dancer than the other club goers around him (he is) but because he is the bridge between quotidian nightlife dancing and theatrical performance. He defies the codes of masculinity that saturate the dance floor. His gestures are unapologetically femme. His fingers swiftly minister to his face, as though applying invisible makeup. His movements are coded as masculine (strong abrupt motions), feminine (smooth flowing moves), and, above all, robotic (precise mechanical movements).
What does it mean that in this space, where codes of masculinity dominate, Aviance is a local deity? What work does his performance do in this venue? Furthermore, what about his blackness in this space that is overrun by sweaty and shirtless white torsos? One response would be that he is a fetish in this space, a magic juju that lets white and effeminate gay men be fabulous while not being progressive around gender, race, and sexuality. Such a reading would miss the point. Aviance is extremely aware of the audience, and when the time comes to play the race man/woman, he will certainly do so. I have seen it occur onstage on many occasions. At La Nueva Esculeita, a Latino queer space in midtown, I have seen him convert the dance club’s stage to a pulpit between musical numbers and have witnessed him denouncing the fascist regime of the city’s mayor and his racist police force. Aviance speaks out regularly at venues both white and racialized. He has also read the racism of New York’s privileged gay community. Aviance is conscious about the ways in which he can be made into a fetish, but he disidentifies with such a role in very particular ways.
Marxism tells us the story of the commodity fetish, the object that alienates us from the conditions of possibility that brought whatever commodity into being, The fetish, in its Marxian dimensions, is about occlusion, displacement, concealment, and illusion. Some drag artists prefer the gender title of illusionist. Aviance does not work in illusion; he becomes many things at once. His performance labors to index a fantastic female glamour, but his masculinity is never eclipsed. If the fetish is about illusion, Aviance disidentifies with the standard notion of the fetish and makes it about a certain demystification.
When he is on that stage, he performs gestures that few others can perform. His gestures are not allowed in the strict codes of masculinity followed by the habitués of most commercial queer dance spaces. Paul Franklin’s chapter on Charlie Chaplin’s gestures speaks to the fear of effeminacy that has haunted the history of the male dancer in the West. The same arguments are lucidly conveyed in Ramsay Burt’s writing on the Male Dancer. This antieffeminate bias has, ironically, resurfaced in many gay male dance spaces. As an icon, a beacon above the dance floor, Aviance uses gestures that permit the dancers to see and experience the feelings they do not permit themselves to let in. He and the gestures he performs are beacons for all the emotions that the throng is not allowed to feel.
These pumped-up gym queens started out, in most cases, as pudgy or skinny sissy boys who attempted to hide their gestures. Many of them, like the I from my earlier autobiographical account, attempted to walk like men and hide the telltale queer gesture. This culture needs to be critiqued for the normative gender paradigms to which it subscribes as well as for the exclusionary logics it applies to people who do not make its normative (often white and decidedly masculine) cut. Nonetheless, though this symbolic violence is not justifiable, one can certainly understand this desire to be masculine. These men did not stop at straightening out the swish of their walk; they worked on their bodies and approximated a hypermasculine ideal.
I do not want to extend energy in moralizing against this route to survival in a heteronormative world. It makes sense, especially when we consider that these men came into masculinity as they were surrounded by the specter of the AIDS pandemic. The AIDS catastrophe provides a lot of reasons to build up the body. But imagine how hard it must be to try to look and act so butch all the time. Indeed, these men become their own fetish of masculinity in that they hide the conditions of possibility that lead to their becoming butch. Aviance reveals these conditions. That is the function of the counterfetish. He performs the powerful interface between femininity and masculinity that is active in any gender, especially queer ones. In this fashion he is once again a counterfetish, elucidating the real material conditions of our gender and desire.
Imagine the relief these gym queens feel as Aviance lets himself be both masculine and feminine, as his fabulous and strange gestures connote the worlds of queer suffering that these huddled men attempt to block out but cannot escape, and the pleasures of being swish and queeny that they cannot admit to in their quotidian lives. Furthermore, imagine that his performance is something that is instructive, that recodifies signs of abjection in mainstream queer spaces—blackness, femininity/effeminacy—and makes them not only desirable but something to be desired. Imagine how some of those men on the dance floor might come around to accepting and embracing the queer gesture through Aviance’s exemplary performance. More important, imagine what his performance means to those on the margins of the crowd, those who have not devoted their lives to daily gym visits and this hypermasculine ideal, those whose race or appearance does not conform to rigid schematics of what might be hot. Those on the margins can get extreme pleasure in seeing Aviance rise from the muscled masses, elevated and luminous.
For the racialized cognoscenti, his gestures function like the sorrow songs of W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk. In that paradigm-shifting text Du Bois meditates on the power of Negro music and the embedded and syncretic meaning found in these testaments to the culture of slavery.
What are these songs, and what do they mean? I know little of music and can say nothing in technical phrases, but I know something of men. Knowing them, I know that these songs are the articulate message of the slave to the world. They tell us that life was joyous to the black slave, careless and happy. I can easily believe this of some, of many. The Old South cannot deny the heart-touching witness of these songs. They are the music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways.
I risk sounding a bit overdramatic by using this analogy. I nonetheless invoke this classic text in African American letters for the express purpose of calling attention to the pathos that underlies some of these gestures. Vogueing, for instance, is too often considered a simplistic celebration of black queer culture. It is seen as a simple appropriation of high fashion or other aspects of commodity culture. I am proposing that we might see something other than a celebration in these moves—the strong trace of black and queer racialized survival, the way in which children need to imagine becoming Other in the face of conspiring cultural logics of white supremacy and heteronormativity. The gesture contains an articulate message for all to read, in this case a message of fabulousness and fantastical becoming. It also contains another message, one less articulated and more ephemeral but equally relevant to any understanding of queer gestures, gestures that, as I have argued, are often double- or multivalenced. So while the short-sighted viewer of Aviance’s vogueing might see only the approximation of high-fashion glamour as he moves and gestures on the stage, others see/hear another tune, one of racialized self-enactment in the face of overarching opposition.