Faced with an onslaught of protest, Junior Vasquez cancelled a performance by Chuck Knipp, a white man who was to appear in blackface as Shirley Q. Liquor on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day at Club Spirit in Chelsea.
About 30 demonstrators braved subfreezing temperatures Monday to picket the club at 537 W. 27th St. over its hosting of Knipp who “plays a black woman who is a welfare recipient with 19 children,” the Audre Lorde Project, a sponsor of the action said in a release. The community center for queer people of color, located in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, “awarded” Knipp the “Jesse Helms Award for Profiting from Racism and Misogyny on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.”
Colin Robinson, director of the New York State Black Gay Network, another co-sponsor of the protest, said, “This is absolutely not a free-speech issue. Part of the legacy of Dr. King is understanding that just because something is legal, doesn’t make it right. Slavery? Segregation? Homophobia? The right to say some things doesn’t change the way those words inflict violence on black women.”
“Shirley Q. Liquor’s not a cabaret act,” the protestors chanted, “It’s a racist, classist, misogynistic attack.”
Within minutes of the start of the demonstration, club manager Corey Lane, a white man, came outside to say that the action was “all in vain” because Vasquez, one of the nation’s most prominent nightclub promoters, had already cancelled Knipp’s performance. Lane had no comment on Knipp’s act, saying he had never seen him perform.
Kenyon Farrow, an African-American writer who participated in the action, said that on Club Spirit’s online bulletin board, more than 400 responses to the appearance of Knipp had been posted.
“I don’t believe they didn’t know how offensive this act was ahead of time,” he said.
Jerome Farely, the white manager of Junior Vasquez Music, also addressed the demonstrators, claiming he, too, did not know about the nature of Knipp’s act. He said that RuPaul, the African-American cross-dressing star and a supporter of Shirley Q. Liquor, had brought Knipp in to do a remix on one of his songs.
Kevin Williams, who is African American, is the director of marketing for Vasquez. “Junior tends to trust RuPaul,” but cancelled Knipp “out of respect for his base of gay people of color,” he said. Later, Williams pulled this reporter aside and said, “I don’t get it. No one protested the Wayans brothers when they did a movie as white women. Dame Edna is mocking white women. I think it’s comedy.”
Farrow said, “Drag has a lot to answer for in terms of sexism and misogyny,” noting that “gay men can be racist and sexist.”
Clarence Patton, the executive director of the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Projects, said after the demonstration that “Shirley Q. Liquor’s base is white frat boys and, sadly, white gay men.”
Performances by Knipp in 2002 were cancelled by a Boston venue after protests and closed at New York’s The View gay bar after picketers showed up. When he appeared at the Marquee in New York in 2004, activists “disturbed” a performance according to a release.
In 2002, the National Association of Black and White Men Together issued a statement saying, “We find the Shirley Q. Liquor performance objectionable on three fronts. First, this performance resurrects distorted racist caricatures common to the blackface performances that became popular in 19th-century American vaudeville. Second, the Shirley Q. Liquor character is constructed on a negative and degrading image of women. Third, the character is based on the classist stereotype that people who need public assistance are fundamentally lazy. On all three counts, this act offends current sensibilities of what is appropriate.”
Knipp, a Mississippi native, is scheduled to appear again at the gay Southern Decadence festival in New Orleans in September. In a recent interview on the festival’s Web site, he insisted, “My comedy isn’t racist, nor am I. More than anything, my comedy makes fun of whites’ views of blacks. My comedy pokes fun at everything, including myself. That’s what comedy is about, making us escape form everyday life and seeing the funny side.” Knipp’s work is syndicated by the American Comedy Network and played in more than 300 radio markets.
RuPaul has resolutely defended Knipp’s act, telling Southern Decadence, “Critics who think that Shirley Q. Liquor is offensive are idiots. Listen, I’ve been discriminated against by everybody in the world: gay people, black people, whatever. I know discrimination, I know racism, I know it very intimately. She’s not racist, and if she were, she wouldn’t be on my new CD.”
RuPaul came to Knipp’s defense as early as 2002, when New Yorkers first mobilized against his appearance here.
“RuPaul has been on the wrong side of this issue for years,” said Robinson.
Trishala Deb of Audre Lorde told the demonstrators, “I think we won. Junior Vasquez and Club Spirit recognized the errors of using Shirley Q. Liquor for business and for the LGBT community.”