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What is ‘radical drag’ and who were Bloolips?

What is ‘radical drag’ and who were Bloolips?

The Bloolips theatre company on stage

London’s radical drag theatre company, Bloolips, is remembered this week with an exhibition at Platform Southwark.

Bloolips were the creation of a drag commune that formed in London in the early 1970s. Its members were closely involved with the fledgling Gay Liberation Front (GLF) which formed at the beginning of the 70s in the UK capital.

A flyer for the new Bloolips exhibition in London
A flyer for the new Bloolips exhibition in London (Courtesy Dan de la Motte)

Stuart (Gretel) Feather

‘Bloolips came out of the radical queens group of the Gay Liberation Front 1970-1974, a bunch of pro-feminist men from the GLF Notting Hill drag queen commune that included Bette Bourne, Gretel Feather, and Lavinia Co-op,’ remembers former member Stuart Feather (aka, Gretel).

‘It was a time when Radical Feminism was being taken up by young lesbians challenging the Marxist Socialist gay women.

‘The Maoist men were also experimenting with radical feminism, but it proved too exhausting for them, putting on the make-up and nail varnish, so they denounced it and labelled us, the men in frocks, the radical femmes instead.

‘We queens said “No, we’re not femmes,” but accepted the radical element and called ourselves radical queens.

‘We rather challenged the gay men in gay lib because they wore a badge saying Gay Liberation Front, while we chose to dress as men in frocks. No falsies, no pretending to be woman.

‘We wanted to be seen from the other side of the street for what we were. So radical drag can be defined as drag which clearly reveals it is worn by a man who is not parodying woman.

‘A few years later after finding our way back into the capitalist system, Bette [Bourne] was inspired by a record he found on one of the junk stalls on Portobello Market of Jean Metcalfe reading (in her very best BBC voice) the story of the Ugly Duckling.

‘It was the perfect Coming Out story, and thus Bloolips was borne.’

A flyer for a Bloolips show
A flyer for a Bloolips show (Image: Courtesy Bloolips Archive, Bishopsgate Institute)

Bette Bourne and the birth of Bloolips

Hackney-born Bette Bourne trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama. He enjoyed a career in theatre, playing opposite Ian McKellen in the late 1960s, among others.

Bourne became more involved with the cabaret scene in the 1970s. He toured Europe with US gay cabaret group Hot Peaches in the mid-70s, before launching Bloolips.

‘We premiered at the Tabernacle in Powis Square in August, 1978 and were a sensation,’ remembers Feather.

‘Bloolips celebrated gay life and earned its money and reputation by touring Europe.

‘Two years later we went to New York and opened in the off-off Broadway Theatre of the New City. We became the darlings of the East Village, moved to the off Broadway Orpheum Theatre with a run which extended to June 1981 and won the off Broadway OBIE award.’

A two-month season in San Francisco followed their New York City success.

‘We continued touring Europe the USA and Canada until the last show in 1998.’

Bloolips drag theatre troupe
Image: Bloolips Archive, Bishopsgate Institute

Bloolips remembered

Queer history-lover, Dan de la Motte, put together this new London exhibition.

In a statement, he said he was, ‘honored to be presenting the work of the legendary performers.’

‘I hope the exhibition gives a flavor and a sense of their humor, skill, flair and politics as artists on this continent and in America.’

The exhibition is part of a wider Queerseum project which is curating and archiving queer history.

‘Our pop-up exhibition is proof that we can tell our own stories and curate queer histories in spaces with a grass roots spirit; celebrating Bloolips and radical drag,’ Queerseum founder Damien Arness-Dalton told GSN.

‘The beauty of this show comes from the heart of storytelling from the Bloolips themselves from their personal and collective archives and memories laid bare for us to revel in, and to applaud their contribution to our rich queer heritage.’

Bloolips and Radical Drag: Making an Exhibition of Ourselves, runs until 26 July (between 3-9pm). Find it at Platform Southwark, 1 Joan Street, London SE1 8BS. Members of Bloolips will be on had throughout to talk with visitors.

See also

What were the Stonewall riots?

The Gay Liberation Front are back and this is what they want