A recently announced show at Seattle’s Queer/Bar, featuring RuPaul’s Drag Race winner Sharon Needles, has stirred up a firestorm with claims that Needles is both racist and transphobic. Dozens of posters on the event’s Facebook page, in light of the newly opened establishment’s claims that it is “an inclusive gathering space for the LGBTQIA community and strives to have a team, ownership, and clientele reflect the diversity of the city,” have asked that the show be cancelled.
One commenter wrote that they are “[not] interested in supporting someone that has unapologetically called members of OUR community racial slurs. Take responsibility for yourselves “Queer” Bar.” Another added that this show is “[not] the way to win the trust of a community that is already skeptical.”
“This is seriously wrong,” wrote another commenter, “and days before trans day of remembrance. You have Queer in your name. Queer is a politicized identity that is against bigots. Inviting a known unaccountable racist and transphobic person whose name makes fun of drug users does NOT create a Queer space. I am so very sad that this is how Seattle is now appropriating the Queer identity to promote this bigot.”
All of this controversy comes on the heels of a September show at the Star Theater in Portland that was cancelled due to similar outrage.
Bar owner Joey Burgess responded to the criticism of the event in a lengthy Facebook post. Burgess stated that “[when] Robbie Turner, our Entertainment Director at Queer/Bar, booked Sharon Needles, I didn’t know much about the performer other than the fact the she won season 4 of RuPaul’s Drag Race.” After taking some time to research Needles, Burgess said they “have discussed this situation at length with our staff, that which I proudly say represents a broad spectrum of the LGBTQIA community including PoC. Their feedback was crucial in our decision making process.”
For Burgess, it seems to come down to art. “Sharon is an artist,” he writes, “and as such she incorporates the world around her in her art, even the darkest and grossest parts.”
What Burgess and Needles’ detractors may be referring to are appearances by Needles in blackface, or wearing a swastika. Needles has also been known to use racial slurs and make transphobic comments both while performing and while interacting with fans.
“I understand the trauma and harm caused by these performances,” writes Burgess. “That noted, she has recognized that some of the specific performances that myself, commentators, fans and detractors alike have raised issues around have pushed the envelope too far and I am relieved that they have been abandoned by Sharon.”
That’s apparently good enough for Burgess and the Queer/Bar staff. While “Queer/Bar does not and will not ever condone racist or transphobic behavior,” Burgess states that it is also “is a place that looks forward, allows redemption, and creates spaces for artists- controversial or not,” and that it “won’t be a space to condemn those who are working to become better people.”
It remains to be seen, however, just how well Burgess, Turner, and the staff at Queer/Bar really do understand the trauma and harm caused by Needles’ antics because, if the comments on the event post are any indicator, the queer community just isn’t having it. It may also be telling that, so far, despite the establishment’s claims of inclusion, every performer at Queer/Bar has been white.
As one commenter put it, it may be time for Queer/Bar to “read the fucking room here.”