Lisa DeCory, a Lakota woman, was out with two other Native friends at LUSH for #DragRevolution when Crystal Belle, a white drag artist, performed to Cher’s “Song for the Lonely” dressed in dream catchers and feathers as the crowd laughed and handed her money.
“My heart dropped, and I just sat and watched,” DeCory says of her experience at the northeast Minneapolis gay bar. “After the performance, I immediately got up and asked to speak to management. I was told that the performer was given permission from a Native friend.”
Upset about the act, especially in an LGBTQ space, DeCory posted her thoughts on Facebook.
By the next morning, both Belle and LUSH management had issued public statements.
“[The performance] was in poor taste and does not reflect the values of LUSH, our owner-operators, our staff and our producers and entertainers,” LUSH’s post reads.
The statement also lists the steps they plan to take to remedy the situation, including mandatory training for their entire staff and in-house entertainers, donations to the Native community, and working to update contracts and performer guidelines to make sure racism and cultural appropriation doesn’t happen again.
Crystal Belle, whom we could not reach, posted a statement on Facebook. In the apology, the performer references her upbringing in Sioux Valley of Iowa.
“Although I would never claim Native American status, I have small but significant amount of Native American ancestry; it was a much-cherished part of my home life and upbringing,” she writes. “Although it was not my intention in any way, my dress was indeed offensive to an entire culture. I should have been more socially and culturally aware and sensitive to the hurt caused by such cultural appropriation. I wasn’t and for that I am genuinely sorry.”
Marcel Michelle-Mobama, a black trans Twin Cities artist who runs queer variety show Daddy Mpls, believes that what happened at LUSH was not an isolated incident.
“What we are talking about is systematic,” she says. “What we are talking about is a culture that seems to breed these sorts of behavior.”
While drag and burlesque have a long history of appropriation, Michelle-Mobama believes there is room for change.
“It is inherently an appropriative art form,” she says. “It is something that is born of exoticism. We have to acknowledge that and navigate that through queerness… It can be done.”
“I wish people would stop trying to be Natives,” says Jase Roe, a member of the Northern Cheyenne nation and the Minnesota Two Spirit Society. “Stop with the feathers. Stop with the turquoise, the jewelry, the headdresses -- all of it. We don’t dress like that.”
The Minnesota Two Spirit Society met with Crystal Belle late last week, and believe the conversation they had was a positive one.
"We all left feeling like we connected and understood," the group states via their Facebook page. "Also, she donated a portion of her tips from a Flip Phone performance to the Minnesota Two Spirit Society to help us with outreach and programming to help our community. The support from the community has been truly touching and a step in the right direction. There is work to be done though, we cannot deny that."
Roe says that one of the managers reached out to him right away after the incident happened, wanting to express his regret. While he found LUSH’s apology statement “genuine and heartfelt,” what happened speaks to deep-rooted problems. “We don’t feel like we have a spot in the queer community,” Roe says. “It’s my personal feeling that Indigenous people get thought of last.”
“We are more in listening mode right now,” says James Nelson, one of the co-owners of LUSH, on post-scandal plans. He notes that there will be a public meeting organized by members of the BIPOC community, which he, producers, and staff plan attend.
Showrunner Victoria DeVille, who was in Seattle during the performance, says she would have not approved the act had she been on site. “I was upset. I was disappointed,” she says.
DeVille plans to to attend the upcoming listening session and LUSH trainings. “I think it’s been a great opportunity to fully hear concerns that possibly haven’t been addressed, that should have been addressed earlier,” she says.
DeVille says that besides being upset by the performance, she’s disappointed by comments from the queer community online. “This is not a small thing to me and it’s not a small thing to LUSH, or to the people harmed by it,” she says. “To see local performers pushing back, suggesting that people need to toughen up or move on and accept that this is what drag is… it’s sad. It’s not what drag is supposed to be. It’s time to stop being defensive as performers and start listening.”
For her part, DeCory says she feels confident that the fast response was due to her post going viral. “I know people are still angry and I know when things like this happen it leaves a lot of hurt. I truly hope this was not the performer’s intent. It is lack of education and understanding,” she says. “This is why we need to collaborate and work together as a community. The diversity within the LGBTQ community is one of our greatest strengths.”