There is a new mural in one of the gayest neighborhoods in all of the Carolinas, according to the U.S. Census, featuring a new vision of the queen in the Queen City.
Not just a queen but a drag queen, the recently deceased Brandy Alexander to be exact, one of the South’s most prominent performers in her day and now a prominent symbol of strength and the ongoing struggle for LGBT equality.
Now that drag has gone mainstream, with its own successful, long-running TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race and drag queen personalities becoming household names, it is easy to forget that not long ago it was still underground and taboo. Especially in the South.
Alexander, known as Danny Leonard when out of drag, recounted in a 1988 article in Southern Exposure that while doing drag in Florida in the 1960s, she was beaten by police and arrested for wearing women s clothing. Female impersonators were required to wear at least three items of men’s clothing, so would wear three pairs of men’s briefs under their dresses.
In that same interview she estimated that she had been arrested a total of around 50 times for cross dressing.
Leonard was also well known for owning a gay bar in Jacksonville, N.C., called Friends Lounge, known in part as the only bar in the country that could get a Marine dishonorably discharged just by going in. The bar was frequently targeted by police.
Leonard’s work as a gay activist included helping to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for individuals living with HIV/AIDS.
While we may be tempted to take drag’s mainstream acceptance and other signs of progress, like the legalization of gay marriage, to mean that the LGBT community is finally accepted as equals, one needs to look no further than North Carolina and the passing of HB2 to know the LGBT community still has a long way to go.
That is the idea behind the mural, which highlights a key figure in the LGBT community s history while simultaneously spotlighting the current struggle for equality with a hopeful nod to a more progressive future yet to come.
The project was conceived of by musician and documentarian John Kennedy and artist Nick Napoletano, along with Manoj Kesavan, organizer of the BOOM Festival. It was then more fully fleshed out after bringing in community leader Shane Windmeyer, who also performs as a drag queen under the name Buff Faye. It was decided to launch the mural as part of the BOOM Festival, which ran from April 8-10.
Napoletano, who moved to Charlotte from New York City a year ago, enlisted the help of fellow artists Matt Hooker and Matt Moore. Hooker and Moore have worked together over the past few years on other murals in the city, such as on the uptown restaurant and bar The Local, as well as at the NC Music Factory.
Napoletano’s work can also be seen on a billboard in Plaza-Midwood as part of the ArtPop project. In fact, one can just barely make it out through the trees if looking left while standing in front of the mural, which is on the back of CLTCH, behind the parking lot across from Dish off Thomas Ave.
He says he was not planning on staying in Charlotte, which was just supposed to be a stop along the way to Charleston before he claims he got too attached to leave.
Snug Harbor, one of the bars around town that features drag performances, and which is just around the corner from the mural, played a part in his decision to stay. He says it made him realize that there were interesting things going on in Charlotte.
“I stumbled in there on break dance night and I thought, okay, so maybe Charlotte’s got some cultural game that s under the radar.” Which is kind of interwoven with her role, Napoletano says, gesturing to the mural, parts of Charlotte that are off the beaten path, or people who are affecting positive change in a way that’s not at the forefront.
Napoletano points out some of the hidden imagery within the painting, demonstrating how much planning, as well as playfulness, went into its creation.
He explains that her hand is blue and yellow to symbolize the Human Rights Campaign’s equal sign, which is also evident under her left eye.
“(The paint) is pulled from the Hand of Justice, up on the top of her scepter,” Napoletano explains. He continues, “There’s a handcuff down at the bottom, breaking off, as her bracelet and there’s Pat McCrory in the earrings. So it’s kind of a mash-up or reinterpretation of Queen Charlotte, but with this campaign of The Drag Queens of Queen City.”
Napoletano also shared that the mural, which was still in progress at the time, would also feature a couple more touches, such as a Lisa Frank unicorn on Alexander’s fingernail and a unisex bathroom sign on her necklace.
The initial plan was to have several legendary drag queens in the mural, such as Boom Boom LaTour, Toni Lenoir and Kasey King.
“We were originally going to focus on several queens, but then I said, What if we did something more commemorating for this first mural? It would be great if we could make this into a series,” Windmeyer recounts.
Mural sponsors are Chaser’s, The Bar at 316 and The Woodshed.
The IndieGoGo campaign set up to help fund the mural will continue to stay open and accept donations in order to make the other murals a reality. Those wishing to donate can do so at indiegogo.com/projects/the-drag-queens-of-queen-city-mural.