“We were what we were—indefinable.”
Donning colorful makeup, an auburn headdress, and a feathered-top black dress with sewn-in severed heads and torsos of (seemingly prewar) baby dolls, artist Fayette Hauser stepped on stage one late-October evening and began a two-part multimedia discussion of the Cockettes. The Cockettes, of which Hauser was a member, were a psychedelic performance troupe and community in San Francisco during the late 1960s and early 1970s. They comprised male, female, white, black, American Indian, straight, queer, and cis and trans members, and their outfits and performances routinely pushed the norms and limits of gender and sexuality. These gender-bending and sexually transgressive practices not only became highly popular during the late 1960s/early 1970s, but also remain extremely influential today. Janis Joplin, Truman Capote, John Waters, Divine, and Andy Warhol were notable fans; disco legend Sylvester was a member; artist Martin Wong was a collaborator; and contemporary fashion designers like Marc Jacobs have listed the Cockettes as inspirations. And yet, the Cockettes’ short-lived existence (they disbanded by 1972), less-than-well-received opening night performance at the Anderson Theater in New York City, and the untimely deaths of former members due to drugs and complications from AIDS have largely obscured what we know about and how we remember the Cockettes and their importance. And so it’s Hauser’s presentation, an extension of the Cockettes inclusion in the Walker Art Center’s exhibition, Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia, that joins documentaries like The Cockettes and memoirs like Midnight at the Palace: My Life as a Fabulous Cockette in providing new, but in no way exhaustive, insight into the workings and significance of this counterculture group.
“Doing it perfectly was hardly our concern.”
The event opened with Hauser, in front of a packed audience including men and women in their best Cockette drag, moving through and discussing a series of personal Cockette-related photographs (Hauser is in the process of publishing a Cockettes photo book). Each photograph came with a unique story that allowed Hauser to narrate the formation and aesthetics of the Cockettes, her own entry into and position within the group, and the group’s legacy in contemporary popular culture. As her outfit and photographs suggested, fashion was of prime importance for the Cockettes, whether on stage or in their everyday lives (and for troupe members, such a distinction barely existed, if it did at all). The Cockettes shopped and/or sewed for hours every day, either working on a costume for an upcoming performance or for their own enjoyment. Men and women wore bright and glittery makeup, colorful accessories of necklaces and bracelets, and hand-sewn or second/third hand store (pre-vintage chic) purchased dresses. As one might imagine, the outfits were dramatic and over the top. Indeed, as Hauser remarked during her lecture: “For the Cockettes, too much was not enough.”
But it would be a mistake to see such a perspective on fashion as depoliticized and decontextualized, a simple reveling in excess for the hell of it. Rather, such an aesthetic vision was an extension of the Cockettes’ participation in the culture of “acid drag.” Many members of the counterculture movement dropped acid as a means to imagine life beyond the limits of the late 1960s and early 1970s. For the Cockettes, as Hauser’s presentation and outfit intimated, the move toward excess in dress sought to interrogate and remake the body. It was an attempt to provide and articulate a “different feeling of the body,” and one that broke free of the sartorial, gender, and sexual norms of the time. Instead, the Cockettes, through acid drag, developed a non-linear approach to their fashion and lives. They loved the popular culture fashions of the 1920s and 1930s—not only was the Cockettes a take on the Rockettes, but, as Hauser explained “[Marlene] Dietrich was our idol.” And so when MGM opened their early Hollywood vault, the Cockettes procured many of the outfits and modified them in ways that gave them new meaning. Such gesturing back to the past to speak to the present, what queer scholars have called “temporal drag,” worked to figuratively and literally fashion new identities and to imagine what could be corporally and sartorially possible for men and women during the 1960s and 1970s.
And yet, it must be emphasized that this terrain of acid and temporal drag was complex in its cultural manifestations. Indeed, the Cockettes also found inspiration in Asian American actress Anna May Wong, and with it came engagements with Chinoiserie (notable Cockette performances included Madame Butterfly and Pearls of Shanghai). These Asian-centered cultural drag acts were not particular to the Cockettes or new practices in US popular culture; they tapped into “New Women” appropriative practices of the early twentieth century as well as larger counterculture practices of the time (think: the Beatles). In both, predominantly white men and women used Asian culture and style commodities in order to develop new expressions of north American manhood, womanhood, sexuality, and kinship. The Cockettes’ dress and performances extended this cultural and political tradition and further illustrated, as queer black writer and activist James Baldwin remarked, how the historical and on-going legacies of race in San Francisco complicate its 1960s (and even contemporary) progressive image.
“We were all freaks.”
Following the photograph discussion, Hauser screened rare footage of two Cockettes performances that further explored the Cockettes’ engagements with gender, sexuality, and the body: Palace and Tricia’s Wedding. Palace, directed by Syd Dutton and Scott Runyon, was a 1970 film documenting the behind-the-scenes and onstage Cockettes’ live Halloween performance of Les Ghouls at the Palace Theater. The Les Ghouls performance featured dancing tombstones and multiple takes on the Bride of Frankenstein (film and character). Importantly, Les Ghouls, through the costuming of famed characters like the Frankenstein’s monster, captured and further highlighted what Hauser and other members of the Cockettes articulated about themselves and their bond: “We were all freaks.” The term freak has a long history in the US, especially in relation to queer and disabled communities who were a part of the sideshow spectacles of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Cockettes spoke to this history. Many members not only received Aid to the Permanently and Totally Disabled (Goldie Glitters suffered an epileptic seizure prior to the Les Ghouls performance), but their gender nonconformity also resonated to the “bearded lady” and other historical sideshow figures. Yet, the Cockettes reframed the freak narrative. They, as activist and writer Eli Clare would later demand of contemporary queer and disabled communities, took pride in being freaks. They reveled in their nonnormativity, their freakdom. Moreover, the Cockettes routinely broke the “fourth wall” in their performances, interacting with the audience. As sideshows predominantly relied on an imagined divide between the active audience member who looks at the passive freak object, the Cockette’s breaking of the fourth wall challenged this historical dehumanizing practice; they refused to simply be looked at, but instead looked back.
These subversive acts manifested in Tricia’s Wedding, a satirical take on the wedding of Richard Nixon’s daughter. Tricia’s Wedding featured the Cockettes as President Richard Nixon, Mamie Eisenhower, Patricia Nixon, Edward Finch Cox, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson, Mahalia Jackson, Coretta Scott King (Sylvester played both Jackson and King), Eartha Kitt, and many others. Shot prior to Tricia Nixon’s marriage to Edward Cox (and released on their wedding day), the Cockettes used the film to critique the conservative nature of the Nixon administration as well as the heterosexist institution of marriage. For example, during the exchange of vows, the wedding officiant asks an avowedly chaste Tricia Nixon to promise to remain faithful to her husband even though he was not a virgin and refused to reciprocate such romantic exclusivity. The film ends with Eartha Kitt—who the FBI and CIA famously surveilled and who the White House blacklisted for her anti-war stance—spiking the wedding punch with LSD. Soon after, the entire wedding reception turns into an orgy, not only keeping in line with the famous saying that the first thing to go after dropping acid were you clothes, but also critiquing the Nixon administration’s (and the “silent majority’s”) aim to reinstitute middle-class norms of gender, sex, and sexuality in the US.
“People would see us as a way out.”
Hauser concluded the two-part event with a question-and-answer session. At its outset, one audience member asked Hauser about the political nature of the Cockettes. Interestingly, she replied that Tricia’s Wedding was “about as political as we got.” While the film definitely is political in the ways it uses humor as a form of social critique, I want to suggest that the Cockettes should be remembered as decidedly political, even if they did not see themselves as such. If we place the Cockettes within the larger sociohistorical and sociopolitical terrain of the late 1960s and early 1970s, we can glean the ways in which the lives and stage performances of the Cockettes engaged in politics, in struggles of and over power, in a different way. Through dress, humor, sex, and household rituals, the Cockettes participated in informal actions that exceeded the realms of, but were still very much in conversation with, formal, explicit, and conventional understandings of political engagement like voting or formal protest. And yet, these everyday acts still spoke (back) to power, and in particular to the normative strictures and structures of gender, sexuality, and kinship in the US—scholar James Scott refers to these informal, non-legible, and often unintentional acts of political participation as “infrapolitics.” Through the photographs and film footage, acid drag and freak pride, Fayette Hauser highlighted the infrapolitical actions of the Cockettes. The Cockettes, their lives and performances, provided a way out for old and new audiences. They provided a map, however complex and at times contradictory, that detailed how we might develop, how we might enact, alternative ways of living and being in the world.