Growing up, I had a very limiting an idea of what drag is, thanks to the way the scene has seemingly been in New Orleans my entire life. I can’t claim to be a New Orleans drag historian or anything, but the city’s drag aesthetic has always struck me as a deliberately tacky, old-fashioned affair that skipped over the weirdo high fashion & ball culture innovation of cities like New York & San Francisco to maintain what’s now referred to as a “pageant queen” tradition. (The documentary The Sons of Tennessee Williams is a great snapshot of the aesthetic I’m describing here.) That Southern drag pageant tradition can be a blast on its own merits; if nothing else, The Gay Easter Parade where local drag queens dress like Metairie Moms in Springtime is one of the more absurd highlights of my calendar year. I do have to admit, though, that it’s been a welcome eye-opener to have fresh influences like the local arrival of the Vinsantos-run New Orleans Drag Workshop & the national popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race expand my understanding of what drag is as an artform in recent years. Part of that is looking beyond the pageant & comedy queen acts I’ve long been familiar with to more high-fashion and avant-garde interpretations of the artform. More importantly, I’ve come to better understand what the artform of femme drag itself is: a heightened subversion of gender performance that even cisgender women can participate in (though, the genuinely-accepted term for that, “faux queen,” does have a kind of dismissive tone to it). It’s like when you first realize that punk is an ethos & not a sound; you start seeing it everywhere: bounce music is punk, Agnès Varda is punk, drag is punk, and so on. If I had first watched the microbudget musical Isle of Lesbos a few years ago I likely would have still gotten kick out of it, but I wouldn’t have seen it for what it is: women doing femme drag at top volume and not caring who doesn’t get it. It’s also, not coincidentally, punk as fuck.
Isle of Lesbos is a politically angry, deliberately offensive, post-John Waters, queer as fuck movie musical with deep roots in drag & cabaret traditions. Its (extremely limited) press materials posit the film as “Rocky Horror Picture Show meets Oklahoma,” perhaps as a warning to the audience that there will be musical theatre-style song & dance, but I found the film to be more of a grimy, Desperate Living meets The Wizard of Oz proposition. Like the matriarchal shanty town Mortville in Desperate Living, the titular lesbian utopia in this makeshift production design spectacle is a mean, lurid immersion in femme grime & glamour. The intensely apparent artificiality of the hand-built sets is much closer to the low -budget staging of the sci-fi drag gem Vegas in Space than the magical illusion of Oz, but its titular utopia’s dichotomous opposition to the fictional small town of Bumfuck, Arkansas could not be more clearly modeled after the Technicolor classic (likely as a sly “friends of Dorothy” hat-tip). Like most drag, the movie is more than a little offensive, especially in its gleeful use of racist iconography & homophobic slurs; its tagline even boasts that it has “A little something to offend just about everyone!” The targets of its racial & sexual satire are always the oppressors, not the oppressed, though. Race & sexuality are performed in the film, just like how gender is performed in drag at large. They’re also clashed against the intolerant Evil of straight, white, Christian Southerners who’ve made the existence of a separate, locked-away realm for homosexual women vitally necessary. For all its inherent fun as a vulgar, queer musical, Isle of Lesbos is also a deeply sad fantasy where persecuted people live on after being raped, murdered, executed, or driven to suicide by a society that condemns their sexual orientation. It’s also no coincidence that the evil town of Bumfuck was geographically located in Arkansas, home of the frequently-referenced Clintons, who were then on the wrong side of queer history thanks to political policies like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
A young Arkansan bride finds herself at the altar with a man she has zero sexual or romantic chemistry with. Scared, she runs away home to lock herself in her bedroom— her parents & fiancée beating at the door, demanding to be let it. Rather than face their scorn, she puts a revolver in her mouth and commits suicide. This act transports her through the mirror to the mythical Isle of Lesbos (as opposed to the geographical one), where she’s made to feel comfortable with admitting to herself (and her family, via interdimensional letters home) that she is, in fact, a lala-lala-lesbian. Her new, queer community of fellow straight-world exiles welcome her with chants of “A land without lesbians is no land for us,” and allow her the first opportunity in her life to seek true love. Folks back home in the “one-horse, God-fearing town” of Bumfuck, Arkansas don’t take this transgression lightly and spend the remainder of the film trying to bring her back through the mirror and declaring all-out war on the Sapphic realm that “stole” her. The contrast between the vibrant passion of queer sex in the Lesbos realm and the repressed sexual violence & racial persecution back in Bumfuck, Arkansas is a damning political screed seething with bottomless, justifiable anger. It’s also communicated through the earnest joy of musical theatre, typified in lines like “Arkansas just ain’t the place to sit on a pretty face” and “I don’t need a man to call my own; The Isle of Lesbos is my home.” That’s not to say that the Isle of Lesbos doesn’t have its own internal shortcomings to deal with; its horrific mistreatment of a single male, effeminate-homosexual slave kept around as an all-purpose janitor is deliberately reminiscent of the fascist oppression that drove the protagonist out of Bumfuck, Arkansas in the first place. Still, that problematic indulgence in oppression is small fries in comparison to the more empowered, Christian communities who made the existence of a segregated lesbian utopia necessary.
Director Jeff B. Harmon has a fascinating resume, if only because Isle of Lesbos is such an anomaly among his extensive documentary work on war atrocities. There’s an anti-war message shoehorned into Isle of Lesbos’s third act, but you’d have to squint hard to see how this brash, crass musical fits into his filmography otherwise. It’s a political film, sure, but its politics are expressed through a Michael Jackson impersonator being terrorized by the KKK, straight married home life being interpreted as a joyless nightmare, femme arm pit air & mud wrestling being interpreted as natural & wholesome, etc. Isle of Lesbos is political in the way all drag is political; it mocks the social institutions that restrict expressions of gender & sexuality by flagrantly disregarding their rules as loud & as glitterful as possible. If I had seen the film before I better understood drag I might have read it as a musical theatre version of Desperate Living (one of my all-time favorite films, so no shame there), but as it stands I see both works as unconventional participation in a larger drag tradition. There’s currently no greater threat to the social institution of a gender binary than the democratization of modern drag, which explains gender as performance & a boundary worth challenging. This gleefully vulgar, D.I.Y. punk, ramshackle, queer as fuck movie musical is a great snapshot of what that threat looked like two decades ago. As the tagline promises, it does have “a little something to offend just about everyone,” but it’s also an open invitation to laugh in the face of oppressors and then leave them behind in Bumfuck, Nowhere as you seek out more welcoming communities of your own. That’s the kind of call-to-arms that will always steal my trash-gobbling heart.