For Needles and her fans, it’s part and parcel of an artistic approach built around being provocative and pushing boundaries.
For both sides, the conflict reveals deep divisions over race and identity within the LGBT community.
Apology, but not public
Passions ran high during Needles’ Atlanta appearance — for both critics and supporters. Two activists invited to meet with the drag star before the show stormed out after Needles refused to offer the public apology they wanted, though she did state that she would stop using the intensely controversial word.
But while they were supported by several other protesters who lined up outside the gay bar to challenge the show, inside the club, more than 300 people cheered Needles as she performed a provocative number to “Beautiful People” by Marilyn Manson that included tearing up a Bible, pouring vodka and dollar bills into a blender, churning them up, drinking the concoction and then spewing it into the crowd.
At the end of the show, most of the crowd also agreed to shout “Hail Satan” at Needles’ bequest.
Yet before the show ended, Needles donated more than $1,000 to Lost-n-Found, an Atlanta organization for homeless LGBT youth.
Prior to the show, Needles’ management asked for a meeting with protest organizers, attended by Enakai and Maura Ciseaux. The media was also invited to sit in.
Aaron Coady, aka Needles, said he has removed the racial slur from Sharon Needles’ vocabulary and personally apologized to the Ciseauxs. But when they asked for a public apology, perhaps in the form of a written statement, Coady refused, saying if he were to do so he would do it on his own terms.
Coady defended Sharon Needles as a “clown” who wants to shine light on the darkest parts of our society and then laugh at those dark parts of who we are so we are no longer afraid of them.
“If people educated themselves on the type of work I do and didn’t just judge it by my costume choices and simple screen shots on Tumblr and really investigated why I use the imagery I use, I’m really more on their side than they think,” Coady said after the Ciseauxs walked out of their meeting with him.
“Sharon is an example of current social anxieties who is designed wholeheartedly to put government to question, mock concept of wealth… We also do things that question power of language,” Coady said.
The character is intended “to mock these things [people] really are afraid of and mock these things that control our society…and try to put a comedic twist to it,” he said.
“But I understand it is not designed for everyone or isn’t consumed the way that I want it to,” Coady said. “I definitely understand how it can be misinterpreted. Sometimes I don’t even trust my own work. Sometimes I am not sure which direction [I am going] and I am constantly growing and evolving.”
Talking about racism
The recipient of the autographed photo of Needles is Catiriana Reyes of Philadelphia, who identifies as a queer radical faerie and is friends with several Atlanta LGBT people. She is helping organize a national boycott of Sharon Needles.
“A few years ago in Kentucky I led a protest against Shirley Q Liquor [a white drag performer who does blackface] and that really showed me how our community is divided on race,” Reyes said.
Reyes posted the photo of Sharon Needles on her Facebook page, asking her friends what to do. She also posted a note on the topic, stating in part, “Knowing how charged that word is and using it for shock value screams racism. The first thing that a racist says is that I am not a racist. We have all heard this before.”
In an interview, Reyes said she wasn’t prepared for the backlash she received for posting the photo of Needles.
“It’s difficult to see all the people saying bad things about me — that I forged it, it wasn’t her handwriting. They are trying to attack my character,” Reyes said.
But Reyes also said she felt empathy for Needles because the drag star has been a victim of violence by those who disagree with her persona.
“I don’t think acts of violence are helpful,” Reyes said.
“But this shows that for 20-30 years when we don’t talk about racism and just pretend it’s not there, things don’t get better. I’m glad our community is starting to talk about the racism inherent in our community so we can start to change it,” she added.
Brent Star, an Atlanta drag personality who went to the Sharon Needles show at Jungle, said he believes as Needles’ fame grows, she will have to realize the words she uses are more likely to grab attention.
“I don’t think that the ‘over-the-top, push-the-envelope’ artist Sharon Needles is racist nor prejudiced, but with her new fame, she’s learning how to curb her enthusiasm and I hope she’ll be a little more careful with her choice of words,” Star said.
“However, I’m more hurt and offended at just knowing that racism does exist within our own community. How do we expect to get support and respect from the straight world when we can’t love ourselves?” Star added.
Comments on the GA Voice Facebook page, website and YouTube page show a definite debate over what is over the top and what is art — although the comments are overwhelmingly in support of Sharon Needles.
“That guy [Enakai Ciseaux] is a complete idiot that does not understand anything about art or anything about how fucked up censorship is. He’s basically saying ‘Hey Sharon, some people don’t get it and are offended, so if you don’t change what you do then you’re an asshole.’
“Does he not understand that uptight church-folk have probably done the exact same thing to Madonna, and all his other little gay-pop-idols, for being too sexually provocative? Does he think they should have compromised their art over that?” wrote jksteiner1974 in the comment section of a video of the discussion between Needles and Ciseauxs.
Wrote Kathryn Whitmore of Texas on the GA Voice website: “I don’t know which is worse… having a prominent figure in a community be a terrible role model for her community by using harmful archaic language… or seeing a community divide itself yet again when its primary goal is spreading a message of love and support of one another.”
Drag drama impacts Atlanta Sisters
The drama over Needles’ appearance also punctured Atlanta’s local chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the drag nun community service troupe. A novice Sister and radical faerie who goes by Aroara Thunder was expelled from the chapter after voicing disappointment that Rick Westbrook appeared on stage as Sister Rapture Divine Cox to accept the $1,000 for Lost-n-Found Youth, where he serves as executive director.
Aroara Thunder, whose real name is Jonathan Hicks, was one of about 15 protesters outside. In an international email group for the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, he wrote of his dismay that the Atlanta chapter would be so willing to accept money despite the controversy surrounding Sharon Needles.
Sister Dixie Normous, real name John Lunsford, asked that Hicks apologize to Westbrook on the same Sister forum. When Hicks refused, he was expelled.
A portion of the exchange on the forum, dubbed DISH by the Sisters:
Sister Rapture Divine Cox/Rick Westbrook stated, “Ms. Needles has never claimed to be perfect but is an artist and tries to shine a light on some of the horrors that are in the world. Especially to the marginalized youth that feel there is no one that gets them, which most of us have felt at one time or another. Art is Art, some pretty a lot not…When an apology is offered, it should be accepted in good faith until proven otherwise — at least that is my belief.”
Responded Aroara Thunder/Jonathan Hicks, “Defending ‘art’ that oppresses people of color and minorities is just an assertion of cis-gendered male white privilege. If some straight man was making ‘art’ about oppressing queers, we would be screaming our fucking lungs out. I refuse to be silent when someone is harming people I love. Period. As a Radical Faerie and as a Sister, I believe whole-heartedly in practicing radical love. I will radically love Aaron Coady with every fiber of my loud, angry, faggoty, femme, fabulous fat body. This does not, and will NEVER mean, that I will show complacency when he is doing fucked up racist things.”
In an interview, John Lunsford, aka Sister Dixie Normous, who oversees the novice Sisters, said other chapters of Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence supported the Atlanta chapter in deciding to expel Hicks/Aroara Thunder after he did not apologize.
“He was removed from the organization because of the way he handled his comments [about Rapture Divine Cox],” Lunsford said. “He chastised that member in a very public forum and we have very specific rules regarding public speaking.”
Hicks said in an interview he did not believe a Sister email group was a public forum and that he did nothing wrong.
“A private Sister channel is not the public,” he said. “It’s very unfortunate. I’ve been with this organization for over a year and that they would decide to get rid of me so quickly was disappointing.”
Top photo: Sharon Needs performed June 27 at Atlanta’s Jungle night club. Though she avoided using racial slurs during her act, she tore up a Bible, saluted Satan and blended up a wad of tips with what appeared to be vodka. (by Bo Shell)