By Chuck Williamson
In ‘Kings, Queens, & In-Betweens’, documentarian Gabrielle Burton weaves together seven interconnecting stories of drag performers in Columbus, OH to investigate issues of gender fluidity, sexuality, and political activism. Her film seeks to jump-start a cultural conversation about gender expression and human identity. We discussed with Gabrielle the origins of this project and its potential to change hearts and minds.
Let’s begin by talking about the origins of Kings, Queens, & In-Betweens. What was the impetus for this project?
Well, it started because a friend of mine invited me to a drag show and said his husband was in it. I went and it turned out his husband was one of the main queens here in Columbus: Virginia West. The show was really fabulous, and I just saw these people up on stage who were questioning gender roles and the way that we accept and enforce them in our culture. It was kind of a lightbulb moment for me because I have a daughter and a son, who are now five and seven; I started this film three years ago, so they were two and four. And I just noticed how quickly they were being put into different gender categories and that things were sort of being decided for them. I thought, “You know, somebody’s gotta talk more about this.” Since Paris Is Burning, which was really groundbreaking, there hasn’t been a documentary to talk about all of the gender performers — drag kings, drag queens, and transgendered performers, together — and what they’re doing on a sort of meta-level about making us think about gender roles and expression.
In some respects, I think many documentarians who explore the world of drag performance use Paris Is Burning as a sort of originating point. Do you view Kings, Queens, & In-Betweens as a continuation of that work or possibly an amendment?
I hope it’s a continuation of the conversation Paris Is Burning started, because I think that… that was about queens in New York City. It was a very specific culture, and that was the first time on a large level people had looked at that subject. Now, obviously, there’s a lot of mainstreaming and people are very familiar with the idea of drag queens, say from RuPaul’s Drag Race. Certainly there are misconceptions people have about gender performance, but I think that people are a little more aware. And then I think also the issue of transgender/transitioning is something that people are more aware of. You know, there are tons of articles in Huffington Post all the time, or there are things that come out of the New York Times, that kind of thing, where people are aware that this is an issue. Joe Biden called it the civil rights issue of our time. On the flip side, I think people often conflate gender expression with gender identity, or transgender experience with drag. And that’s something that I wanted to explore and bring up in the context of not just one biological sex doing gender performance but both, covering the spectrum of gender and biological sex and how these things interplay.
Speaking of which, this is the first documentary on drag culture to include the entire gender spectrum of performers: kings, queens, and transgender performers. Why do you think this all-inclusiveness was important, not only for the documentary but also to substantiate your thesis on gender fluidity?
Well, I think that it’s something where you can’t just look at one aspect and say it’s universal. So one thing I’m trying to do in this film is to capture a lot of different people, and in that very diversity, hopefully help the audience then have that moment where you say, “Oh, if all these people are so different and they’re all doing this thing, I can’t really put people into boxes anymore.” You know, and that’s what we do with ourselves and that’s what we do with everybody on the street that we meet, we sort of size them up in that blink judgment. But when you start looking at how there are exceptions to all of these “rules” that we have, then you start thinking, “Okay, wait a minute. I am somebody who doesn’t fit into all those boxes, and my friend is someone who doesn’t fit into all those boxes necessarily, so why am I doing this in my daily life and why would I do that with children?” It’s definitely complicated in the editing — [laughs] — because I have seven main people. I’m in the middle of editing and it’s a challenge to juggle that many people and create a documentary that’s more thematically-based rather than something “happening.” You know, someone winning a spelling bee or someone dying or those kind of things that make a documentary really edge-of-your-seat as you’re following a particular story. In this, I really felt strongly starting it out that I wanted it to be both an homage to Paris Is Burning as a thematically-organized film and also to cover a community rather than an individual.
I particularly find that notion of community interesting, considering your choice to locate this film in the Columbus, OH drag scene. A film like Paris Is Burning obviously has a very specific milieu: the NYC ball culture of the ‘80s. And here we’re moving — [laughs] — we’re moving in what some might argue is a very different, very Mid-Western direction.[laughs] That was part of the point too. I think people expect drag in New York or Miami Beach or Los Angeles or San Francisco. I think what’s interesting is that people don’t expect it in the Mid-West and they sort of have this idea of these things as coastal or “big city.” But I think inherently that the drag scene here in Columbus is thriving so much and is so creative and also very collaborative, which I think is something that is unique. I think that in itself speaks very strongly about how gender fluidity is international — it’s universal. [laughs] And I love this town.
One thing I wanted to circle back to is the topic of trans representation in the media. We’re sort of in the midst of this larger cultural conversation about the visibility of trans people in film. I suppose this is a pertinent topic right now since we just saw Jared Leto, a cisgender man, win an Academy Award for playing a trans-woman… and this has caused some controversy. One of the things I find fascinating about your film is that it highlights transgender performers within the drag community. Was this a conscious decision on your part? And what are your thoughts on increased trans representation in the media?
Yeah, that’s a great question. I actually was — [sighs] I was very frustrated by that issue with Jared Leto, but I also feel like this is where progress begins. As a culture, often we’re unable to accept something straight on its surface… no pun intended. [laughs] But when you have someone who is sort of a heterosexual heartthrob and then he’s able to play this role… it’s great that it gets that attention and it’s great that he wins the Oscar, because that gives it more attention. I mean, I watched part of the Oscars with some people and they’d never heard of [Dallas Buyers Club], and now they have. So I think that is something that helps mainstream the issues and brings it up for people in their consciousness who would never potentially think of it otherwise. So that’s a way to open the door. And I think that I’m hoping that Kings, Queens, & In-Betweens also helps to open doors, raises some questions for people.
And the reason to include transgender performers as well is because it’s an obvious part of drag. There’s certainly people who do drag who are considering transitioning or exploring issues of their own gender identity or their gender expression. And I feel, in approaching the whole topic, that is an elemental distinction which has to be made, about the differences between gender expression and gender identity.
Let’s go back to Kings, Queens, & In-Betweens. What’s the current status of that project?
I’m just in the middle of editing. I mean, at the rough cut stage. Three times so far I’ve gotten forty minutes into it and then I’ve unravelled the whole thing because I don’t feel it’s working on that level. But now I’ve got a 98 minute rough cut that has really solid stuff happening. I have a lot more footage to put in — to just put it in perspective, I have about twenty-six more segments, ranging from 20 minutes to an hour and a half of thematic material that I’ve already edited, which need to fit into my overall goal of 100 minutes. So… [laughs] two minutes left to put in; about eight hours of footage that’s been edited already… it’s shaping up! The interesting thing when you’re far into this stage of the editing, some things have already been said, so it’s really choosing the pearl of how someone says something. And as with a domino game, you place one in and that’s going to affect the pattern for everyone following it. So that’s the rethinking that’s happening at this stage. As we’re placing a chunk on, for instance, describing the difference between one’s biological sex and one’s gender expression or one’s sexuality. Is that whole segment best placed in the front? Is it best placed in the end? That’s what’s happening at this point. So I would say I’m right in the middle of the editing process.
And after it’s finished? What’s the next step?
That would be getting it out to festivals and distributors and hopefully doing wide distribution. What I’d like to do is raise enough money to travel around the country for about a year and take this film to schools, political representatives, and communities and do audience engagement screenings. I’d like to have events with local groups that would be interested in having conversations with the community there; it might be parenting groups, it might be churches, it might be LGBTQ groups, it might be Rotary clubs. I did that with another film; we traveled on the road for about a year and a half and it was a really great experience to be able to meet with audiences and talk with them. It’s exhausting, but I know for this film it’ll really be worth it because Kings, Queens, & In-Betweens has that potential to help create some progress in the conversation.
Kings, Queens, & In-Betweens is currently in postproduction and should be released sometime next year. For more information click here for the film’s website, and follow Gabrielle’s Facebook and Twitter accounts.