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Queering the City

Drag King Practices in France: A Conversation with Isabelle Salem Diego Sentis and Louise de Ville

Claire Finch, Isabelle Salem Diego Sentis et Louise de Ville

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Isabelle Salem Diego Sentis combines drag, activism, queer research, and feminist self-defense in their performances and workshops. For nearly 20 years, they have performed as Sister Salem and as Diego the drag king. As Sister Salem of the ardent tongue (Sœur Salem de la langue ardente), they are part of the Couvent du Nord, the Lille-based chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an activist street performance organization that was central to early mobilizations against sexual intolerance and the HIV/AIDS crisis. Sister Salem has participated in a number of actions that are central to the history of queer practice in France, such as the 2011 exhibition IM/MUNE curated by Emmetrop and Paul B. Preciado, and the Museum of Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean’s (Mucem) “Histoire et mémoire des luttes contre le sida” (History and Memory of Activism Against AIDS).1 As Diego, they explore, transmit, and archive drag king history and practices in the context of their workshops. Diego recently organized workshops at the Sororales festival at the national art center Magasin des Horizons, and on-line during the 2020 lockdowns.

Louise de Ville is an actress, burlesque performer, and author. She began her theater career in the United States before coming to France, where her performances drawing on and questioning gender codes established her as a pioneering voice in queer neo-burlesque and drag king performance. In the mid-2010s, her weekly burlesque production Pretty Propaganda introduced audiences to a style of queer burlesque that drew heavily on humor as a subversive tool. In 2005, she started the Drag King Fem Show with Wendy Delorme and Mister Mister, one of the foundational moments in the transmission of drag king practices in France in the later 2000s. In 2013, the strongly mediatized drag king workshops that De Ville co-organized with Camille Delalande brought drag king to the French mainstream.

The conversation with Isabelle Salem Diego Sentis was conducted by video, in French—and subsequently translated into English—by Claire Finch on December 10th, 2020. The conversation with Louise de Ville was conducted by video, in English by Claire Finch on January 13th, 2021.

A Conversation with Isabelle Salem Diego Sentis

Claire Finch: To begin, can you introduce yourself, as well as your history as a drag king and a facilitator of drag king workshops?

Isabelle Salem Diego Sentis: That’s a big question! If we’re talking about drag kings according to a definition of intentionality to perform masculinities, raise awareness, and also connect to a history of drag kings, then for me it goes back to 2003. I went to Paris (I was in Lille at the time), and I bought The Drag King Book by Del LaGrace Volcano and J. Jack Halberstam. Since the 2000s, I’ve had this book with me, I bring it to all my workshops and performances. It’s important to refer to this transatlantic history, since Halberstam is American and Del LaGrace accompanied and documented drag king groups in Europe. My imagination was really nourished by these dialogues, and by the friendships formed between generations.

Around that same time, I went to a drag king workshop led by a German choreographer, programmed at the Brussels LGBT film festival Pink Screens, with a group of trans activists from Brussels. I was already an activist and knew these groups from doing a lot of AIDS actions in Belgium. In Lille, people often cross the border to go to parties, take part in the nightlife scene, and have new sexual experiences. This border-crossing dynamic is quite common across different generations and groups.

The workshop was very energizing, very empowering, and I wanted to share it with my LGBT center in Lille. It was something that was not necessarily accepted by the lesbians and bisexuals in my group. But things changed. I met people who, at the time, were theorizing and introducing these cultures in France, and gradually, these feminist and LGBT encounters made it possible for me to organize workshops and give performances. It was a very rich time, people were interested in the intellectual aspects, but also wanted to invent an embodied practice of activism.

Claire Finch: Has the cartography of these encounters changed since your experiences in the early 2000s?

Isabelle Sentis: The workshops are about making a journey. I use this vocabulary on purpose; the concept of the journey is quite anchored in my practice. It conveys the idea that we are going to travel as much in our imaginaries as in our bodies, and that our bodies are situated in a social space that is built on relationships of domination. I also use the metaphor of the checkpoint, in order to raise awareness that each person will have different checkpoints to cross. I try, through this metaphor, to explain what we are doing together, and how, and in what kind of social space. I’ve always been very careful, over the past nearly twenty years, to position my workshops in cities where it’s possible for participants to arrive by public transportation: for example between France and Belgium or Switzerland, or between Paris and other French cities. For the past ten years, I’ve worked to have my workshops on university campuses that are non-central areas. It’s only in the past five years or so that I’ve been intervening in central cultural spaces, but I’m always mindful of the edges of urban space.

The point is also to fight against the gentrification of the imaginary. As American lesbian author Sarah Schulman explains in The Gentrification of the Mind, the gentrification of urban space is also the gentrification of our imaginations. To be a drag king is to resist all of that.

For the last few years, I have also been a self-defense instructor, and I try to make the link with drag kinging. Doing drag king is a way to develop tools in preparation for what can happen in urban space, or in the different spaces in which we live. It’s a way of incorporating the knowledge of physical and psychological self-defense. For me, drag king has really been a practice of community care, and even a practice of self-care for the community itself.

Claire Finch: In a previous conversation, you mentioned that at the end of the workshop, the final step is to go outside, into a space external to the workshop. Can you talk about this “going out”?

Isabelle Sentis: I find this relationship to the outside very valuable, and at the same time I try to think about what we are going to do in this outside space. What meaning can it have? [...] Going out into public space with this enormous king energy: what do we want to do with it, what sense do we want to make of it? How do we not put ourselves in danger? Danger is very important, and it changes depending on which city we’re in, which neighborhood. But I like very much being in the street and troubling the urban space with my king friends. I also like to go into spaces and create visibility, or at least, create an encounter in which the rules of the space are changed by our presence. That’s what really interests me.

Claire Finch: You are also a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence. Can we draw a link between the practice of drag king workshops and AIDS activism, or the history of the organization of urban space following AIDS-related policies?

  • 2 “Zap” describes a direct action against an institution or other public entity. This form of action (...)

Isabelle Sentis: Regarding AIDS-related activism, when I was an activist with ACT UP-Lille, I was very angry, and this anger led me to have a very particular relationship with public spaces. It made me behave in a way that was “deviant” in relation to my gender and the codes of society. With ACT UP we used to do happenings, “zaps.”2 These were actions of symbolic violence to create collective resistance to the heteronormative city. It was urban guerrilla warfare with our bodies as weapons, and with sites, institutions, and the materiality of buildings as battleground. We were creating a history that was both individual and shared by activists, whether drag kings or AIDS activists. When you are gendered as feminine in your social construction, drag kinging can deconstruct gendered imperatives, and activate other social and political postures, as I was able to do in ACT UP. I could shout, stand before the police, get beaten, or project my body against powerful objects or powerful people. All this is related to a register of masculinities. As feminists in ACT UP, we talked about how activism was a specific training against the social coding imposed on our bodies.

Claire Finch: I wanted to come back to this question of the “transatlantic.” We hear a lot of this narrative in which queer theories and practices were invented in the United States and then imported into France in a wave in the late 1990s or early 2000s. And often we talk about drag king workshops as belonging to that wave of importation. Is there a kind of counter-history or another, completely different history?

Isabelle Sentis: Yes, I think there is definitely this American importation. But I have a relationship with the United States that can be conflictual with respect to American imperialism. I don’t see it as just American imperialism, because it’s also part of my imaginary. And part of the history of activism; it’s linked to counter-cultures. It’s not just that all of this comes from the United States; we also go to the United States. We go live and fuck in the United States. It’s a two-way street.

But I do think there’s another history. When I transmit drag king, when I do workshops or when I contribute to performances, or when, as a Sister, I bless the kings, we both create and are nourished by drag king history in Europe. Claude Cahun, for example, is very important to me—lesbians and other women who by cross-dressing, were able to survive the gestapo and the Nazi regime, and then decided to keep this so-called masculine clothing because they felt in sync with it. There are other European stories of women who have made the journey of performing masculinities, either to survive persecution or for artistic and cultural creation.

The LGBT archives in Belgium were recently named after Suzan Daniel, the lesbian who founded the first Belgian LGBT association. This was not her legal name, it was the name she chose. This is another story that I tell, because, for me, it is part of the history of drag king, even if Suzan Daniel was definitely not a drag king! When I bring up stories about German women, or French women, or English women, or people who don’t identify as women, I am telling a European history and position the workshops within a genealogy of drag kinging that is quite open. It’s also important to talk about the present, and to project our future drag kings and our future spaces in a post-capitalistic world.

A Conversation with Louise de Ville

Claire Finch: There tends to be an idea of queer practices and theory being something that’s imported from the United States. I’m curious about how you feel like your experience of doing drag king workshops either feeds into, or goes against this logic of importation.

Louise de Ville: I think I am an embodiment, actually, of this importation. I had done gender studies in the United States, so I had been exposed to Foucault and Butler and a sort of academic “queerness,” as well as having started my own exploration of queer performance as early as 2000, at university. I arrived in France in 2005, and met Wendy Delorme and Mister Mister, queer writers who had just participated in One Night Stand, the queer porno by Emilie Jouvet. The three of us liked going to parties dressed as drag kings, but wanted to do more, so together we started a trio [the Drag King Femme Show], really putting into practice sex-positive queer gender performance.

Interestingly, our shows caused a lot of tension and actually we received a lot of backlash, from the lesbian community and from the feminist community. I would have to say, from my own experience, that there was a lag between a field of thought that, within queer theory, had reached levels of established academia to the point that I could have studied it, and what was being so . . . misinterpreted, and seen as nouveau here in France.

Which is probably the reason I’m here. Why I’ve made my life in France. It was really exciting to be in the avant-vague, at the forefront of a movement—to be able to bring that social theory to the stage, as well as to workshops. So while I do think there was a ten-year lag in queer theory, I do think that France has caught up academically and is making progress socially. What I will say from my experience, and what was shown in the documentary Paroles de King by Chriss Lag, is that at least through drag performance, France does have its own history.

At the same time, it’s very exciting for me, an émigrée américaine, to participate in the current dialogue and really foster aspects of it. I’m known as the parrain, or the godfather of drag kings for this generation, but there were others before me. In the 1990s, Preciado gave drag king workshops questioning gender. The musical performance troupe of drag kings Les Kings de Berry existed in the 1990s and very early 2000s.

In the last five years, drag kings in France have really flourished and it’s not only a metropolitan, Parisian party thing anymore, it’s definitely spread out. Maybe it’s the popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race on television. I know that there has been some crossover with les sœurs de la perpétuelle indulgence, with people who weren’t cisgender men but wanted to do drag as nuns. It was an inspiration for queer drag. Jésus La Vidange, one of the leading figures of the Parisian drag king scene, comes from that background and has gone on to found a drag family in that style, House de la Vidange. The kinging now is very different from the naturalistic style that I have, and that was common in my generation of kings. It’s been amazing to see the drag king community evolve and grow.

Claire Finch: Can you talk about some of the first drag king shows that you did?

Louise de Ville: In 2005, I started the collaboration Drag King Femme Show, DKFS. We were performing in soirées, mostly organized by the lesbian party association Barbi(e)turix. Back then the parties had a different name; “Très très méchante fille” was one of them. We tried to perform at Cinéffable, the all-women film festival, which caused a big backlash from second-wave feminists. There were pamphlets circulating against what we were doing! People were really upset that we were using dildos on stage, i.e., tools of the patriarchy. “What did this have to do with feminism?” Our performances were willingly misinterpreted, I think, and “queer entertainment” itself was challenged. What we were doing was humoristic and glittery and funny, we simulated sex as zombies with dicks . . . We were trying to make fun of the patriarchy and at the time, there just wasn’t a lot of performance art that had serious themes but didn’t take itself too seriously. It’s my great joy that drag king and queerlesque as an art form have become almost mainstream in queer nightlife now, with stripping and silly dildo fights. We were really fondatrices in that moment. It’s been really exciting to watch the evolution of what I would consider the second wave meeting third wave and going into the fourth wave. Queerlesque didn’t exist when we were doing it, so it was really fun to be the drag grandfathers of that.

Claire Finch: It seems like at that particular time, around 2005, when you started the DKFS collaboration, there was an explosion of that type of feminism. Could you reflect on what that energy was about, where it came from, and why it might be historically specific?

  • 3 A lesbian club that opened in 1997 and closed in 2007. It was known as the center of a certain Pari (...)

Louise de Ville: Yeah, thank you for saying that. As someone who had studied queer theory, I came to France and suddenly I was living it, in this very visceral way that felt like it had an impact in the current culture I was in. Because when I first came to France, I was shocked at how sectarian the lesbian scene and the feminist scene were. I mean, you couldn’t be trans, and you weren’t a real feminist or a lesbian if you wore lipstick. Things felt very codified and sort of antiquated, and certainly not queer in any way. We were a few, but a mighty few, who felt like that needed to change in the climate that existed in 2005. What’s really sad is that a lot of the lesbian bars that existed then, in 2005, have since closed. But in those lesbian bars you couldn’t go with your trans partner comfortably. Or going to the Pulp3 and being asked, “vous vous êtes trompée de lieu?” and saying, “no, I know where I am!” All because I wasn’t presenting in this really specific way: skinny jeans, printed T-shirt, short hair with bangs known as “gouine-à-mèche. And I thought it was really silly to be a minority within a minority. I mean it was ridiculous. So with Emilie Jouvet, Judy Minx, and Wendy Delorme, we created La Fem Menace, which was a small collective of like-minded third-wave/pro-sex feminists, who wanted to support not only our own deconstructed, re-constructed, exaggerated, hyper-sexualized, but very conscientious femininity, but also our trans and butch lovers and friends. During that time, we used our multi-disciplinary talents and collaborated on “Fem is Fabulous” and “Butch is Beautiful,” soirées that were about claiming space for masculine women and fems, as well as trans and FTM allies. There was no space for them in lesbian culture, so we were making that space for them, and for ourselves. It was a really exciting time, which I think we’ve moved past. Now I go to events that are much more queer, fourth-wave feminist, and even a whole new realm, which is really exciting.

Claire Finch: How did these movements interact with the spaces that were available in the city at the time? In 2005, for example, during that explosion of activity, was it linked to the availability of more space, or of different types of spaces? Or even to practices of appropriating, or taking over, existing space?

  • 4 A historic gay bar and club, located at 13 rue au Maire, in Paris’s third arrondissement, which ope (...)
  • 5 As De Ville points out, Les Souffleurs is one of the few bars in Paris’s Marais neighborhood that h (...)
  • 6 Rag is a DJ and artistic programmer who works with the lesbian nightlife and cultural collective Ba (...)

Louise de Ville: I want to give a shout out to the Tango,4 a gay club, which is one of the first spaces that invited us drag kings to perform. The reason drag kings are less known and hardly visible is that a lot of nightlife for the LGBT scene is still in gay spaces. Drag queens are much more visible, because it’s not our home turf. So I really want to extend my gratitude to the Tango, as a space that created room for us, which was unusual at the time. Otherwise we needed to create our own space. One of the more notable events was called “Punk à Paillettes,” a really big party in a defunct factory that we squatted. It was sort of a tongue-in-cheek response to the critics who were saying that what we were doing was too glittery, too entertaining to be activism. We wanted to embrace it, to say, “this is our kind of activism and queerness, and it’s funny, full of glitter and sparkling dildos.” Again, because there wasn’t a home for what we were doing, or for who we were as this burgeoning queer community, we had to create it. One of the new bars at the time, which still exists and is still hosting drag king events, is Les Souffleurs,5 which had a very queer staff. At the time it was still unusual to have a mixed gay-trans-lesbian space. I have to really thank people like Rag,6 who from the beginning supported this kind of performance art, even when back then, not everyone was in on the joke. Now it’s become totally acceptable and more mainstream in our Parisian nightlife.

Claire Finch: You practice both workshops and drag king performance: is there a difference in the kind of transformation that happens in a workshop, versus a performance?

Louise de Ville: Yes, I would say that my performances tend to have more humor than my “Be a Man” workshop, which is really just feminist propaganda. I get people in thinking, “Oh this is going to be hilarious!” and actually, they’ve gone through four hours of condensed queer theory, embodying it without necessarily realizing it. While my workshop is fun, it’s also a deeper transformative experience than my drag entertainment.

My specific style of drag king is quite realistic. I’m very interested in expressing the masculine side of myself, trying to see how little I need to do to reveal the man in me. As well as trying to exorcise the particular male macho influences I had growing up with the sort of cowboy, macho example of masculinity I received in Kentucky; that’s my reference. My performances are really about the masculinity that I experienced personally, and the workshop is about the masculinity that has been wielded against us as a weapon. The workshop is about guiding women through an experience that enables them to recognize how the codes of power are associated with, and reserved for, men and masculinity. And then teaching how to dis-associate those codes of power, to make them tools available for women in their real lives.

Claire Finch: Yes, within the universe of drag king, you can see some of the different tools that we use, now, to talk about gender identity more generally.

Louise de Ville: I believe that every woman should participate in one of these types of workshops. To really question patriarchy, and then experience the behaviors associated with high status in your own body. Recognizing when the codes of power are being used against you, and instead learning to use those same tools of confidence to your gain, is extremely important. I want women to walk proud and to make their voices heard in the bedroom, boardroom, and streets. Some participants have been inspired to be artists and to keep contributing in their own way, whether through writing or stage performance. And a few people went through it and afterwards came out as trans, the experience having impacted them in a very personal way. I’m very honored to be a part of people’s journeys.

Claire Finch: Are we the drag king generation? Literally everyone I know has done a drag king workshop. Do you think that you’ve worked with, like, hundreds of drag kings?

Louise de Ville: I think over 15 years I’ve done thousands. I’m really proud of that work. We started out preaching to the choir in lesbian and feminist spaces, and then moved into academic spaces, and then suddenly around 2015, we hit this zeitgeist in French culture when mainstream media briefly got curious about drag kings. Thanks to that blip and all the groundwork before it, the underground movement remains today and drag king culture is growing.

Photo courtesy Isabelle Salem Diego Sentis. A selection from Isabelle Salem Diego Sentis’s drag king archives, including photos of drag kings posing together, photos from the film Parole de King !, and a publication by Isabelle Salem Diego Sentis, Ode à la moustache de Frida Kahlo, created as a book in 2004 and part of an exhibition in 2016 at the Centre LGBTI in Lyon.

Photo courtesy Isabelle Salem Diego Sentis. More drag king archives from Isabelle Salem Diego Sentis, including a photo of Diego, and a photo of a king cutting hair to use as facial hair. The archives were presented during a drag king workshop in Geneva.

Photo courtesy Isabelle Salem Diego Sentis. Sœur Salem de la langue ardente with the drag king Robin des Doigts, Montpellier Pride 2019.

Photo courtesy Louise de Ville. A scene from the Drag King Fem Show, with (from left) Louise de Ville, Mister Mister, and Wendy Delorme. Berlin, 2008.

Photo courtesy Louise de Ville. Mister Mister peforming in the Drag King Fem Show. Berlin, 2008.

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Bibliographie

CHANTRAINE, Renaud, and Isabelle SENTIS. “Lutte contre le sida. Les Sœurs de la perpétuelle indulgence fêtent leur 40 ans !” Mucem. www.mucem.org/lutte-contre-le-sida-les-soeurs-de-la-perpetuelle-indulgence-fetent-leurs-40-ans. Accessed 28 June 2021.

HALBERSTAM, J. Jack, and Del LaGrace VOLCANO. The Drag King Book. London: Serpent’s Tail, 1999.

PEUPLE QUI MANQUE (Le). “IM/MUNE – Présentation générale.” www.lepeuplequimanque.org/en/immune/generale. Accessed 28 June 2021.

SŒUR SALEM. “Récits subjectifs d’objets vivants.” www.mucem.org/lutte-contre-le-sida-les-soeurs-de-la-perpetuelle-indulgence-fetent-leurs-40-ans. Accessed 28 June 2021.

SCHULMAN, Sarah. The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.

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Notes

1 A text presenting the 2011 IM/MUNE exhibition can be found on the website of Le Peuple Qui Manque, a French curatorial project created by the artists Kantuta Quiros and Aliocha Imhoff, who collaborated with Emmetrop, the ENSA Bourges, and Paul B. Preciado. An interview with Sister Salem by Renaud Chantraine accompanied by an archive of objects and images can be found on the Mucem’s website.

2 “Zap” describes a direct action against an institution or other public entity. This form of action has been used since the 1980s by ACT UP in the context of AIDS activism, but is a reactivation of earlier gay liberationist tactics from the 1970s.

3 A lesbian club that opened in 1997 and closed in 2007. It was known as the center of a certain Parisian lesbian nightlife and music culture, programming DJs like SexToy or Chloé. It was located at 25 boulevard Poissonnière, in Paris’s second arrondissement.

4 A historic gay bar and club, located at 13 rue au Maire, in Paris’s third arrondissement, which opened its doors to lesbians with the “Tea Dance” 5’o-clock Sunday events co-organized with various associations such as Cineffable, Bi-Cause, or Le7e genre.

5 As De Ville points out, Les Souffleurs is one of the few bars in Paris’s Marais neighborhood that has historically welcomed a mixed queer and trans crowd. It is located at 7 rue de la Verrerie, in Paris’s fourth arrondissement.

6 Rag is a DJ and artistic programmer who works with the lesbian nightlife and cultural collective Barbi(e)turix.

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Table des illustrations

Crédits Photo courtesy Isabelle Salem Diego Sentis. A selection from Isabelle Salem Diego Sentis’s drag king archives, including photos of drag kings posing together, photos from the film Parole de King !, and a publication by Isabelle Salem Diego Sentis, Ode à la moustache de Frida Kahlo, created as a book in 2004 and part of an exhibition in 2016 at the Centre LGBTI in Lyon.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/docannexe/image/22059/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 184k
Crédits Photo courtesy Isabelle Salem Diego Sentis. More drag king archives from Isabelle Salem Diego Sentis, including a photo of Diego, and a photo of a king cutting hair to use as facial hair. The archives were presented during a drag king workshop in Geneva.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/docannexe/image/22059/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 143k
Crédits Photo courtesy Isabelle Salem Diego Sentis. Sœur Salem de la langue ardente with the drag king Robin des Doigts, Montpellier Pride 2019.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/docannexe/image/22059/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 99k
Crédits Photo courtesy Louise de Ville. A scene from the Drag King Fem Show, with (from left) Louise de Ville, Mister Mister, and Wendy Delorme. Berlin, 2008.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/docannexe/image/22059/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,3M
Crédits Photo courtesy Louise de Ville. Mister Mister peforming in the Drag King Fem Show. Berlin, 2008.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/docannexe/image/22059/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,5M
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Claire Finch, Isabelle Salem Diego Sentis et Louise de Ville, « Drag King Practices in France: A Conversation with Isabelle Salem Diego Sentis and Louise de Ville »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2023, consulté le 22 février 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/22059 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/transatlantica.22059

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Auteurs

Claire Finch

Université Paris 8, LEGS

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Isabelle Salem Diego Sentis

Louise de Ville

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