The Importance of Drag Brunch in NYC
The decades-old tradition helps expose crowds to the notion that gender is something that everyone expresses differently, says drag historian Joe E. Jeffreys.
When Brita Filter performs drag brunch, she has one mission: spread happiness while making everyone feel welcome. “But,” she said, “I always make sure that I put one number in there to make you think.”
Drag brunch is an event where queens, dressed extravagantly in glitter-adorned outfits and heels, dismantle gender norms with humor while performing Broadway-worthy numbers. “Through drag performance, we want people to enjoy brunch and escape their stressful lives,” said Holly Box-Springs, a NYC-based drag queen who appears on Fusion’s Shade: Queens of NYC. “It’s also a creative catharsis, where I can create a new experience every time I perform.”
Filter, a rising drag queen who also stars on Shade: Queens of NYC, works full-time as a performer in New York. She got her first taste of drag brunch about six years ago when she went to Lips NYC, a 20-year-old restaurant that not only showcases drag performances but also hires queens as servers and bartenders.
Over the past few years, talented queens have gained even more popularity in the restaurant industry—specifically, for events like drag brunch. In cities like New York City, Atlanta, Miami, Las Vegas, Quebec, and New Orleans, you can now find drag brunch at restaurants beyond LGBTQ bars and nightclubs.
While it’s hard to pinpoint where the first drag brunch took place, Joe E. Jeffreys, a multi-platform drag historian who teaches at New York University, attributes the phenomenon to venues that popped up in the 1950s through 1990s. Take, for instance, Lucky Cheng’s, Lips NYC, or Club 82, a New York City nightclub that was home to famous drag queens from 1953 to the early 1970s. In 1972, Hamburger Mary's, a "gay-themed" hamburger restaurant opened in San Francisco, and now there are locations in Chicago, Denver, Hollywood, Tampa, Houston, and beyond that do drag brunches. He says that currently, Brandon Voss, the founder of Voss Events, is known to be the single largest producer of drag performances with brunches in NYC, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Orlando, and Fire Island during the summer.
“These places bring drag to people that might not typically be exposed to it,” Jeffreys said.
Exposing drag to crowds that don’t frequent LGBTQ bars or clubs can open them up to the notion that gender isn’t fixed and is something that everyone expresses differently, Jeffreys explained.
“[People] are able to sit at drag brunch and have a lovely spinach frittata and Bloody Mary while learning this lesson through observation. They start to understand that gender and drag aren't these scary things,” he said. “It’s fun and festive like brunch can be.”
With lava lamp drinks and candy cigarettes, The Honeywell is a cocktail bar in Harlem that infuses nostalgia into the experience by playing old game shows from a black-and-white TV and offering '70s-inspired cocktails like the Disco Inferno. Since its opening in December 2016, the owners have prioritized giving a platform to the LGBTQ communities in New York City.
Lauren Brie Lynch, co-owner of The Honeywell, Harlem Public, and At The Wallace, started hosting RuPaul’s Drag Race at her apartment every Friday for her staff. She wanted to pay homage to the large number of her employees who identify as LGBTQ. One of The Honeywell's very own staff members, Rosé, won last year’s NYC’s The Lady Liberty Amateur Drag Competition, and Lagoona Bloo came in second. Rosé and Lagoona quickly became friends and started performing together and hosting The Honeywell's Drag Brunch. On the menu, you’ll find dishes like pork belly grits, a potato pancake breakfast sandwich, breakfast mac and cheese, and açai bowls.
"We want to create a wild atmosphere and bring a room full of people together to have a collective good time, while opening people's eyes to drag and the LGBT community," Lauren Brie Lynch said.
It’s true, when you see queens perform at drag brunch, you can’t help but feel happier—and it’s definitely not just the unlimited mimosas. In late February, I saw Ritzy Bitz host La Pulperia in Hell’s Kitchen with Gilda Wabbit. Ritzy Bitz loves the opportunity to entertain people of all backgrounds and believes that drag is about “having confidence, being yourself, and owning it.”
“When you have to go up to the counter at Starbucks to order and you're a little bit socially anxious and you muster up that courage, you're wearing drag,” she said. “You're putting on that face. Whatever it is that you do—whether it's delivering mail, mopping floors, or whatever—everybody has their own drag persona.”
Despite the frigid weather of NYC winter, La Pulperia, which recently celebrated its fourth anniversary of drag brunch, was packed with patrons of all ages, genders, and sexual orientations. Gilda Wabbit, Ritzy Bitz’s guest that afternoon, is popular for her appearance in the viral meme “The Future Liberals Want,” where she’s dressed in full drag and seated next to a Muslim woman wearing a niqab.
Both Gilda and Ritzi worked in harmony as the La Pulperia waitstaff served cocktails and appetizers. The queens danced, sang, and cracked jokes while patrons scarfed down milanesa sandwiches, ceviche, and Bloody Marys. Victor Medina, co-owner of La Pulperia, was inspired to launch drag brunch at the restaurant after a conversation with Brandon J. Fernandez, a promoter who believed the space would be perfect for high-kick performances from queens.
“Drag queens are amazing actresses and artists,” Medina said. “We’re happy to support them at our restaurant.”
In this moment, drag culture is soaring in popularity and acceptance thanks to the show RuPaul’s Drag Race, as well as tenacious LGBTQ activism. RuPaul’s Drag Race, a nine-year-old show, rallied almost one million viewers for its season. Linda Simpson, a high-profile New York City drag queen, documents how the culture has been booming, although sometimes underground, since the 1980s and early 1990s. After curating thousands of photos, she began hosting an educational and comedic show called the Drag Explosion.
“The drag scene exploded during that time and went from being an underground scene to being pop cultural phenomena that set the scene for today's drag resurgence,” she said. “RuPaul's Drag Race dominates the drag scene right now. It's incredible popularity has helped drag queens get more opportunities work-wise, but of course, it’s made it a lot less underground, too.”
Even though RuPaul’s Drag Race has made drag culture more visible, Ru Paul recently put boundaries on who is and isn’t permitted to perform drag. In March, he was under fire for saying that “he probably” wouldn’t have allowed Peppermint—a famous New York City performer who recently came out as trans and made the finals in season nine—on the show if she had already begun gender-affirming surgery. He added, “You can identify as a woman and say you’re transitioning, but it changes once you start changing your body.” After many former contestants and activists responded, and proclaimed their support for the trans community, RuPaul apologized, saying that he regrets the pain he caused, acknowledging that “the trans community are heroes of our shared LGBTQ movement.” (Peppermint graciously responded to the controversy by saying that “women have always been directly and indirectly contributing to the art form of drag” and mentioned that Ru Paul’s apology “shows all of us, there is room for growth, education, and I'm hoping a bit of evolution.”)
Decades before RuPaul’s Drag Race transformed drag culture into mainstream entertainment, trans activists and drag queens Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera risked their lives to be in the front lines of LGBTQ activism. In 1969, when New York City police officers frequently harrassed and criminalized LGBTQ people, Johnson and Rivera were at the forefront of the Stonewall uprising, which were confrontations that began that summer between police and LGBTQ rights activists outside the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. Sparked by trans drag queens, particularly those of color, the Stonewall riots became a catalyst for the international gay rights movement. A year later, Johnson and Rivera founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a group dedicated to helping homeless young drag queens and trans women of color.
That history is not forgotten by up-and-coming queens like Marti Gould Cummings, who founded the Hell’s Kitchen Democratic Club in New York City last year and has done drag brunch at restaurants like Intermezzo. She credits the burgeoning acceptance of drag culture to icons like Rivera and Johnson.
“When you see a movie like Stonewall, it erases that history and whitewashes the movement, and in reality, you had these beautiful people of color who fought for our rights. It's important to remember their names and the contributions they made,” she said about Johnson and Rivera.
Cummings believes that drag queens have always been leading the LGBTQ movement and fighting for marginalized communities. Brita Filter, who has been an activist for Gays Against Guns and trans communities, agrees, citing that drag queens tend to be the most visible figures.
“In the '80s, the only people talking about AIDS were drag queens and Elizabeth Taylor. When people need to raise money for an organization today, who they go to? Drag queens,” Cummings said. “Because they know that we will be loud, and we'll get people to reach into their purse and donate.”
In drag persona, Cummings has promoted awareness for LGBTQ non-profits including The Ali Forney Center, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, The Hetrick Martin Institute, and Bailey House. She’s currently co-producing and starring in “Shade: Queens of NYC” along with queens Holly Box-Springs, Brita Filter, and more.
Cummings hopes that the rise of drag brunch, especially in traditional non-LGBTQ venues, motivates restaurant/bar owners and patrons to be supportive of the community and their rights.
“Go support drag queens at drag brunch because they have to wake up really early to get ready and get into makeup,” she said. “It's in the day time, and they might've had a gig the night before, so they are powering through. Tip a little extra and be generous and just have fun. You're having eggs and drag queens, what's more exciting?”