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Queens United, From The Ashes of Burkharts

On Feb. 15, Park Tavern next to Piedmont Park held a drag show sponsored by GAY GA, a local movement to preserve the LGBT history in Atlanta. Photo by Unique Rodriguez | The Signal

A famous Atlanta drag bar, Burkharts, has closed after an organized resignation by the entertainers following an allegedly racist Facebook post by the owner, Palmer Marsh. This, coupled with the closing of the gay nightclub Jungle, a frequent venue for drag performance, has the potential to change the face of drag in Atlanta. Some say that change will be for the better.

The closing of Burkharts underscores a demand for better treatment on the part of the entertainers. Atlanta drag performer Phoenix was the entertainment director of Burkharts and Jungle, and has 15 years of experience performing and producing drag in venues all over Atlanta. Doubling as a producer and an entertainer can be stressful but according to her, almost always rewarding.

To her, Burkharts was different, and not in a good way. Phoenix’s choices as producer and director were given more scrutiny than at other venues. She felt stifled artistically, believing that the owner’s insistence made Burkharts’ shows less than they could have been.

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“I work best when left on my own,” Phoenix said. “Other clubs, there’s more trust, [at Burkharts] I felt some resistance.”

It wasn’t just artistic differences that led to her dissatisfaction. Phoenix claims the entertainers didn’t receive the respect they deserved. Burkharts demanded shows at lengths that far exceeded the industry norm.

“They wanted shows to last three hours,” Phoenix said. “That’s a long drag show.”

She said the relationship struck her as ironic. The shows were made so long because her show, Fantasy Girls, was such a draw for business. The bar filled more seats and sold more drinks when the girls were on. In retrospect, Phoenix wonders if they brought so much money in, why didn’t that garner them more respect? It was, after all, without Fantasy Girls that Burkharts was forced to close.

“Not to overstate things, but we basically closed them down,” Phoenix said.

Due to this hostility, Phoenix had considered quitting Burkharts for some time. However, she felt compelled to stay with the bar out of responsibility for the Fantasy Girls. Drag culture can have a reputation for petty rivalry, but for Phoenix, her girls mean a lot.

“Once I hire you, we become family very quickly,” Phoenix said.

But that changed with word of Marsh’s post. For Fantasy Girls, that was a step too far. After that, Phoenix and the girls met to decide collectively how to respond.

“The racism was just the cherry on top for me. This was a long time coming,” Phoenix said.

Adjusting after the mass resignation, Phoenix has moved Fantasy Girls to the nightclub Ten Atlanta. The show includes many of the former Burkharts entertainers, such as Extasy Grey, Destiny Brooks, Alissah Brooks and CiCi Coutour Black. The show of support from nightclubs like Ten Atlanta and My Sisters Room impressed Phoenix.

“Ten Atlanta isn’t even meant to be a drag bar, but they really stepped up. My Sisters Room too,” Phoenix said.

QUEENS UNITED

All of this set the stage for Queens United, what may become an official union of Drag Queens.

Founded by former Burkhart’s performers like Alissah Brooks, Queens United is ambitious, but dedicated. Brooks believes queens offer more to venues than they have received in return. Through collective action, mentorship and solidarity, Queens United believe drag queens can demand better conditions.

“We want Queens all over to know how much we’re worth, because by us knowing how much we’re worth, we’re acknowledging how much a business is making off of us,” Brooks said. “We have to all be in the know.”

The feelings of exploitation by Burkharts has informed Brooks and Queens United’s advocacy. She wants venues to be more transparent.

“They claimed that all that money that was coming through the door at Burkharts was for the entertainers,” Brooks said. “We never saw any of that.”

The response from other venues after their resignation has been proof to Brooks of success to come for Queens United. She said the girls at Burkharts had the following to be demanding much more than they were given.

“A lot of these girls, like Shawna Brooks, and Shavonna and Destiney and Phoenix, these are all high demand name entertainers in Atlanta” Brooks said. “When those kinds of entertainers become free on a Saturday night, of course people are gonna jump up to take on that booking because they know that they have a big following.”

As soon as Queens United was founded, they began doing benefit shows for a variety of charitable causes in Atlanta. These series of performances got word out about the new union, and demonstrated the financial clout the queens could wield as a collective as well.

Next for Queens United is finding a permanent space to operate. Brooks doesn’t just want the union to perform advocacy, but also provide space to educate new comers about the craft.

“Our goal is to ultimately find a space to open up monthly workshops on everything drag for beginners that to be honest now have nowhere to go because Burkharts housed two of the city’s main open nights.”

Once a permanent space is found, Queens United would be able to host a variety of workshops on a range of subjects Brooks believes are vital to creating a culture of business savvy entertainers who are able to advocate for their needs. That means classes on “how to sew, how to do makeup, how to be financially stable, how to make a budget for becoming a business and a brand, how to go on social media and put out good content.”

Beyond that, Brooks wants to see Queens United in other cities with large drag followings. She believes drag has been disparate and disorganized for too long. That needs to change.

“Ultimately branch it out into other cities, Queens United New York, Queens United Los Angeles, etc,” Brooks said. “The country is ready to bring together the one million drag queens we have this country.”

A CITY AND A SCENE

But to Brooks, Atlanta in particular has more reason than other cities to improve the representation of drag queens. The city has drag history, and is the home of many of today’s big names. Atlanta was where even RuPaul first took the stage.

“I feel like Atlanta’s its own world,” Brooks said. “[Atlanta’s] always been the standard, so many greats are from here.”

The city had such a reputation that when she was new to drag, Brooks dreamed of being here.

“I used to live in Panama City and that was our big goal. That just seemed so untouchable to me back then”

From Atlanta’s past to now, the makeup of the drag scene has changed a lot. Bars that would never have been venues for drag 20 years ago now host some of the largest shows. It took a lot to wear away that prejudice.

“Back in the day the day, they really didn’t let women go in there,” Brooks said. “Feminine type of things that go up in there, it was just not something that they wanted there.”

These changes in the makeup of Atlanta’s drag scene might hint at changing perceptions of the craft, or businesses might be starting see drag money as too good to pass up. Brooks believes the latter.

“Now places are opening up to adding on shows because they see the value in it,” Brooks said.

A REAL UNION

This interest is exactly why drag entertainers need the protection of a union. As it stands, drag entertainers only have standards for fair compensation based on word of mouth. And working conditions are at the discretion of venues. Brooks said drag artists deserve representation similar to other performance industries.

“Right now, we’re just independent contractors,” Brooks said. “When you have crews of people that work in the music industry, there’s a union for that. And, when you have actors, there’s a union for that and all forms of entertainment.”

Brooks is tired of waiting. Drag performance has received more attention in film and television and has become a quintessential part of Atlanta nightlife. She thinks it deserves distinct representation.

“We just feel there’s more than plenty of us in this country to start a big union of some kind and now is the time.”

The future of Queens United is uncertain but exciting to Brook. She has high hopes for the girls that join her.

“I’m hoping it will bring everyone together and realize the bigger picture of housing a place for entertainers to go and learn and progress is a good way for all of us to change and grow together and set a standard”.

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