WHICH BRINGS US to Chuck Knipp’s Shirley Q. Liquor. Is it offensive à la Danson and Goldberg, or does it work à la Bernhard? It’s difficult to say, since I haven’t seen the show. Knipp — who is a religious Quaker and works as a nurse — has said in interviews (he declined to speak with the Phoenix) that he began doing the Shirley Q. Liquor voice while in the band at the University of Mississippi, an unlikely enclave of anti-racist artistic performance. As to the charge of using blackface, Knipp is no less unambiguous. He told New York’s Gay City News: "Some people ask if I do blackface. I don’t think that’s it. I use regular African-American-lady brown foundation and all kinds of eye shadows." Knipp is being serious here, but is there really much of a difference between cosmetic makeup and greasepaint? Well, yes and no, I suppose. Thanks to the protesters in New York and Boston, I’m not likely to get the opportunity to find out.
Knipp claims to have a large African-American audience — yet he mainly plays white-dominated gay-male clubs, and he has a following in country-music circles. Political commentators such as cartoonist Tom Tomorrow (www.thismodernworld.com/weblog/archive/2002_05_05_bloggera.html) have attacked him for being racist, but certainly Knipp has his African-American supporters as well, notably RuPaul Charles. On his Web site (www.rupaul.com), Charles offers a stirring defense of Knipp’s character. "A group of unsophisticated barbarians with misguided rage are protesting and calling for the boycott of one of my favorite entertainers, Shirley Q. Liquor," writes Charles. "These fascists believe that Mr. Knipp ‘not only makes fun of black women, but re-enforces every racist stereotype.’ That argument was valid 40 years ago, before there were black media moguls who make fun of black women and reinforce racist stereotypes. I guess the rap and hip-hop community is exempt because they appear to be black. Chuck Knipp is an easy target, as easy as yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. When Chuck performs as Shirley Q., it’s very clear to me that he is paying a loving homage to the southern black women that he obviously grew up around."
Sue Hyde, who is a seasoned organizer of nearly three decades — and probably the one person in town who did the most to get the ball rolling in the anti-Knipp protests — voices some uncertainty about the situation. "I have some ambivalent feelings about people not having seen the show," she says. "I do think there is value in the expression of even repugnant opinion and points of view. On the other hand, people I know and trust in New York were saying this show created for them a sense of vulnerability in their own community. Half of the activists I spoke to here were African-American, and they were upset that this show was coming to Boston. As discussion moved forward, I felt I was hearing clearly that they most wanted for it not to happen. I had to take seriously what I was hearing. I thought about the riskiness of shutting down discussion versus people saying that they felt vulnerable from within their own community — where their lives, feelings, and opinions mattered."
Hyde certainly knows the downside of censorship. She was one of the leaders of the Feminist Task Force Against Censorship (FACT), a group that helped defeat a 1985 anti-pornography law that was up for referendum in Cambridge. But anyone with a current knowledge of contemporary gay and lesbian politics and culture knows that the language and the tactics used by the anti-Knipp protestors are used all the time by the religious and political right to silence and defame queer art. In 2000, Catholic protestors tried to close down — and almost did, until there was a huge outcry from the theater world — the 1998 Manhattan Theater Club’s opening of Terrence McNally’s play Corpus Christi because it portrayed Christ as a gay man. Most of these people (several of whom phoned in bomb threats) were seriously disturbed by the very idea of this play being in New York and saw it as a vile, pernicious attack on the Christian faith and the public good. Similar attacks have been launched on Moises Kaufman’s play The Laramie Project, which examines the death of Matthew Shepard. In both cases, it is safe to say that the protestors had not seen or read the plays but were reacting simply because the productions were scheduled to take place in "their own community — where their lives, feelings, and opinions mattered."
American culture has changed enormously during the past century — thanks in part to the work of on-the-edge black artists such as Spike Lee, performers such as Richard Pryor, and shows like In Living Color, all of which have wrestled with racism and the permissible limits of public discussion of race in the US. But in America, race is never not an issue. Racism is inextricably woven into our cultural heritage and traditions — and certainly all aspects of contemporary life — in ways that are deeply harmful and invariably hurtful. It is not a surprise that anyone, black or white, would be suspicious of a white, Southern gay man doing a drag act in blackface. Is Knipp just recycling overtly racist stereotypes of African-American women? Or is he moving satire to a new — and edgier — place? It’s impossible to say without seeing his performance, but one thing is certain: we all lost out when his show was simply shut down.
Michael Bronski is the author of The Pleasure Principle: Sex, Backlash, and the Struggle for Gay Freedom (St. Martin’s, 1998). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org