Philly’s Black drag queens pay it forward with show supporting Black Lives Matter

Performers say it’s still important to celebrate Pride.

VinChelle is putting on a virtual show for Philly Pride

VinChelle is putting on a virtual show for Philly Pride

Facebook / VinChelle
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A lot is going on in Philly right now, and that’s an understatement. But none of it will stop 26 local Black queer performers from celebrating Pride this month.

The 30th annual Pride Day Parade was canceled this year due to the pandemic. And the mood is somber because of recent police killings around the country, which have sparked protests nationwide.

Still, Philadelphia Drag Wars champion VinChelle will be putting on a show.

Called Revolutions, the virtual extravaganza is set for Saturday, June 13. Broadcast on VinChelle’s Facebook page, it will feature two dozen Black drag queens, kings and nonbinary performers — and a portion of the tips they receive will be donated to Black Lives Matter.

It’s an opportunity to feel joy in a nationwide moment of unrest and come together as a community for a good cause, the longtime performer said.

“I pulled every single Black entertainer that I could. It was already planned, and then this all happened,” said VinChelle, whose given name is Vincent Leggett. “During this time, I didn’t know if I wanted to do it or not. But all the performers said, ‘We need to do this.'”

Racism has been well-documented in Philly’s queer community. People of color have been repeatedly denied entry to Gayborhood bars based on vague dress codes. In 2016, video surfaced of the white owner of iCandy using the n-word.

Paula Deen-White, a Black drag queen who lives in Francisville, first started performing in 2015.

She had trouble coming up in Philly’s drag scene. Almost all the shows featured all white performers, and subtle racism was a constant, she said. By the time she became a pro, Deen-White was already in her mid-20s, and doing her own makeup didn’t come naturally. Often, she’d ask fellow performers for tips, and they’d just shrug her off.

“A majority of the queens are white,” said Deen-White, whose given name is Timothy Toler. “I’m very dark. So if you don’t look white, it’s not that they’re saying, ‘Oh, we won’t help you,’ but they are saying, ‘Oh, we don’t know how to help you with makeup.'”

The lack of built-in support makes it hard for Black performers in Philly to flourish.

VinChelle’s felt it too. As long as she’s been popular, she’s felt tokenized in Philly’s drag community — often the only Black performer at an otherwise all-white show. At a holiday drag performance a few years back, she was told that the Kwanzaa-themed costume she wore was “too ethnic.”

Last year, she realized: If she wanted a community of Black queer performers, she’d have to build it herself.

Making Black drag a regular thing for gay Philadelphia

In February 2019, VinChelle started Black Girl Magic, a drag series that features Black entertainers. In the last year, it got so popular that Gayborhood bars like Woody’s and Voyeur asked the group to perform monthly.

With that, VinChelle brought Philly’s Black drag community into the mainstream.

“I know I’m good, but I know there are also other Black entertainers in the city that are good and don’t get utilized,” she said. “It was time for me to use my platform to showcase the people. The Black queer community in Philadelphia is tremendously amazing, and now we’re binded in a great union.”

With the pandemic putting a stranglehold on the city’s nightlife, VinChelle has pivoted to virtual shows. As thousands watch on Facebook Live, she posts Venmo or Cash App usernames of performers so viewers can give tips.

VinChelle had been planning a virtual Pride show for months.

But after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, and Philly was flooded with days-long protests, she knew the event needed to offer support.

All of her tips from the “Revolutions” show will be donated to Black Lives Matter, VinChelle said. The other performers can opt to donate, too, or keep the tips if they need them. Deen-White said she plans to donate a portion of her tips to one of Philly’s bail funds.

Dean-White admits that performing virtually is hard.

There’s no back-and-forth with the crowd, which usually energizes her while she performs. Plus, it takes a lot more prep to create a set in your own home and edit together a high-quality video.

Still, she said, the performance is a positive thing. When she struggled to develop as an entertainer, VinChelle became Deen-White’s drag mom, teaching her to paint her face and become performance ready.

With the Black Girl Magic shows, she’ll pay it forward.

“I know that there are Black performers just starting out who will get to see me and other performers and say, ‘There are people like me doing this,'” Deen-White said. “I never got to see anything like that. It makes me feel good that I can help someone else potentially, and be an inspiration.”

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