Twenty years have passed since Israel’s gay community had its big revolution. This revolution is what today enables the tens of thousands of tourists arriving in Tel Aviv this week to celebrate free of care and enjoy the freedom the community now has.
It happened in 1998, a little less than a month after transgender singer Dana International won her historic Eurovision victory with the song “Diva,” when several Tel Aviv drag queens gathered on the lawn in Tel Aviv’s Independence Park and staged “Wigstock,” a drag festival for the general public that drew several thousand revelers to the park.
Wigstock obtained its police permit in plenty of time, but when the evening arrived, just as the festivities were at their height, the policemen decided it was time to close it down and began to cut off the power. According to the police, the revelers were disturbing the neighbors’ sleep and desecrating the sanctity of Shabbat. According to members of the LGBT community, this was a gross violation of their rights.
Lesbian activist Michal Eden got up on stage that evening and urged the revelers not to give in, but to flood the streets in protest. And they did.
Some of the revelers who flooded the nearby streets were arrested by the police. The policemen, as if to pour fuel on the fire, used rubber gloves during the arrests. Unsurprisingly, this was seen as a display of hatred for the LGBT community and attracted considerable media attention.
This event, which to this day is considered one of the milestones in the fight against LGBTphobia in Israel, occurred about a month before Tel Aviv’s first ever Gay Pride parade. The young drag queens who appeared on the first Wigstock stage included Ziona Patriot (Yuval Edelman), who has since become Israel’s most famous drag artist, and Rama Rimming (Rami Gotthelf).
Twenty years later, they were asked to be the emcees of Wigstock 2018, which will be part of a campaign by Bela Doeget, the Israel AIDS Task Force’s educational outreach arm for the LGBT community. In addition to Patriot and Rimming, dozens of other drag queens were due to perform in Tel Aviv’s Meir Park on Wednesday, June 6 and try to charm the crowd with sequined dresses, exaggerated makeup and a lot of humor.
Feathers and velvet
“I recall that I wore a closed red velvet dress with black feathers and a wig and I sweated like an animal,” Patriot said of that formative evening 20 years ago. “Velvet and feathers, you get it? I wanted to die. To D-I-E. We didn’t even manage to get on stage and perform, because the police arrived just then.”
Rimming added, “Before Ziona and I became a duo, we were in our earliest infancy. This was the first time I was supposed to appear on a stage of this size, and it was very exciting.”
What was less exciting was the moment when it all went topsy-turvy, and the joyous party turned into a ruckus.
Patriot: “Because I was miserable in that velvet dress, I fled home very quickly. But I do remember Eden yelling that we should go out into the streets, and Laila Carry” – one of the best-known drag queens of that era – “getting stuck on some ladder, because her dress was caught on it. Everyone got on the stage and refused to get off. Shelly Gray, a transgender woman who sung opera, sang “Hatikva” about six times in a row. And then the audience began dispersing into the streets.”
Rimming: “The feeling was that the protest began with the drag queens. Something started on that stage, when we all sang together.”
When you began doing drag, it was much less popular. Today, you do bachelorette parties, which indicates a fairly high level of acceptance.
Patriot: “Drag at bachelorette parties is something Rama and I created. There was no such thing before us. Today, there’s a kind of feeling that anyone who puts on a dress and a wig is a drag artist, but for us, drag is a profession. It’s not, ‘I felt like appearing as a woman and performing.’ Every number we do involved a lot of thought. In my view, there should always be a story which accompanies the performance. We wouldn’t have survived for 20 years had we not taken this seriously.”
Once, drag carried a very heavy price in the gay community. People didn’t really want to go out with drag artists. To what degree has this changed?
Patriot: “The greatest drag phobia is within the community, even today.”
Rimming: “Before I met my current partner, I looked good, I was thin, and there was no shortage of men who started up with me. Each time I told Ziona ‘This is it,’ that I’d found the one and everything was wonderful – until I told him I did drag, or he discovered that I did drag, and there it ended. Some of them said openly that this whole story doesn’t sit right with them.”
Patriot: “I can say that this story continues even today. When people ask what I do, I say I’m an impresario, I don’t say drag. A drag queen is always seen as feminine, letting her hair grow, doing her eyebrows. I’m none of those things. Ziona and I are two completely different things. I often speak about her in the third person.”
Rimming: “Among the general public, there’s actually been a change. Once, they would call us ‘fairies.’ Today, even when I appear at bachelorette parties in remote areas, the experience is better.”
Patriot: “In Rishon Letzion they threw stones at me. On Carlebach Street in Tel Aviv, they spit at me on my way to a performance. And in Modi’in, someone started to act violently toward me – but then I chased him with my heels. I don’t give in to people who behave nastily.
“I had a regular retort I used to give in performances when some bastard would yell ‘Hey fairy’ at me. I would say, ‘I’m a gay fairy in women’s clothing, but you paid to come see me, so shut up.’ At that moment, I won his whole table. That person might have hated me at that moment, but his entire table fell in love with me. They won’t come out against you, they’ll laugh at him.”
Between wigs and politics
Drag, which takes femininity (or masculinity, in the case of drag kings) and exaggerates it to the point of grotesqueness, has been seen for decades as pure stage entertainment, both within the gay community and outside it. But beyond its entertainment value, history has seen drag performances as revolutionary acts of liberation that challenged LGBT-phobic establishments. That’s what happened in the Stonewall riots in New York in 1969, which became a global symbol of resistance to conservatism and governmental violence.
Nevertheless, Patriot and Rimming refuse to directly connect the personas they play with any clear political statement.
Patriot: “I personally don’t go there. The old definition, which I consider old-fashioned drag, was a man in women’s clothing. Gender studies scholar Ilana Berger once said that drag was meant for performances only. I saw Dame Edna” – a female character played by Australian comic Barry Humphries – “when I was a young boy and fell in love with it. I didn’t understand what it was, but it enthralled me. And then I saw Bnot Pesia here in Israel and I realized that I wanted to do drag. I didn’t want to be a woman; I don’t want to mount a challenge to sexuality. It simply enthralled me, and that’s what I wanted to do.”
Rimming: “Ultimately, drag is a tool in the gender game, because it interests and amuses the audience; some even get excited by it. It’s like the song ‘Al Rosh Habrosh’ which I did in the show. I’m a man who dresses like a woman for the sake of the performance, and suddenly, in the middle of the song, a penis emerges from between the legs of a large doll. I play with their minds. So I can connect with the fact that drag often cries out against political injustices, but we here in Israel haven’t learned to use it for this purpose. We’re not critical.”
Don’t you find this political viewpoint lacking when you perform in Israel?
Rimming: “I’m not certain I like the idea that drag should be the thing that represents political issues for the community. After all, in the end, it’s the easiest thing in the world to take ‘the naked and colorful’ and turn them into the community’s facade. And the whole country will say, ‘Look, that’s how a gay man looks.’ And I’m not crazy about that.”
Patriot: “I have to say something important: We, as drag artists, have it very easy. The way was paved for us. Gila Goldstein, Nancy Schnider, Efrat Tilma – when they performed, they used to get arrested all the time. They had to fight for every performance. Thanks to them, we can simply come and perform.”
Wigstock is a colorful, joyous event for the whole family on one hand, but on the other hand, you’ll be speaking there about HIV, a much more serious issue. How do you maneuver between these two things?
Patriot: “First of all, we bring drag queens to this event because they can say things that others really can’t. It’s true that this is an event for the whole family, but there are also messages from the Israel AIDS Task Force and we have to speak about penises and semen, because you get infected from semen. It’s important to raise consciousness. If we have to be a little crude so that people understand, then we’ll be crude.”
Rami, you’re a father with two children. How aware are they of your profession as a drag artist?
Rimming: “Completely aware. I make myself up at home, get dressed at home. I’m not in favor of concealment. Not about their surrogacy, not about the fact that they have no mother and not about my work. Why let them get it in the end from behind their backs and be walloped by it?”
Patriot: “My nephews often call me Ziona. My niece is convinced that I’m Netta Barzilai. My parents put one over on her, poor thing. A 5-year-old girl thinks her uncle is Netta. So my nieces and nephews also know who I am. Sometimes, between performances, I even come to their house in drag.”
Rimming: “That’s also how I raised my children. The first few times my son saw it, he asked me, “Daddy, are you a clown?’ So I told him yes. In time, this changed, and I explained everything to him. He also began to ask me why I talk like a woman to customers who invite me to perform. I explained that, too. It’s all completely okay.”