The radical right has drag performers in its crosshair, absurdly charging that drag contributes to “grooming” — not their wigs, but children.
In a sweet contrast, photographer Sarah Bork has been celebrating the Austin drag community since 2018. I first saw her large-scale cinematic portraits when I visited Women & Their Work last spring. I was captivated by “Girls Gotta Eat”, Bork’s vibrant images of drag performers shopping for groceries. Next to each photo was their handwritten shopping lists.
Now, Bork unveils a new chapter of “Girls Gotta Eat” in an exhibition at the Dougherty Arts Center running through April 15.
How did this well-respected photographer of weddings, families, and children become transfixed by the world of drag performers?
“It was a perfect storm,” Bork says. “My eldest child was getting ready to graduate from high school. Trump had been elected and was beginning to wreak havoc. The #MeToo movement had gone viral.”
Then, thanks to a comment left on her Facebook page by a conservative female relative, Bork realized the national socio-political division had split her own family: “I knew I needed to make something or I was going to break something.”
But what would that “something” be? An answer came in April 2018 in the H-E-B grocery store on Far West Blvd.
“I saw a couple at the counter at the deli,” says Bork. “Some people just carry their atmosphere with them. This couple was all atmosphere — their clothing, sunglasses, tattoos, 4-inch long white stiletto nails, and the way they were bantering about cold cuts. I felt like I was in a bodega in New York in the 1980s watching this couple living their privateness in public.”
Initially she sneaked a photograph of the unsuspecting couple from behind her grocery cart, but then she decided to talk to them. After improvising a story about an assignment to take photos of couples in grocery stores, she found them willing to pose for a portrait. Eventually Sarah discovered that they were Rachel Mykels and Nadine Hughes, two of Austin’s most beloved drag performers.
“As I left the store that day I found myself wondering what else was in their cart?” Her prayers for a new project were beginning to take shape.
Not long after, Sarah learned of a farewell party at Highland Lounge for the terminally ill Austin Chronicle columnist fashionista Stephen Moser. She offered to set up a photo booth inside the legendary three-story LGBTQ nightclub. While that evening was somber for some, Sarah was delighted by four drag queens who saw her booth with its red velvet drapes and a pink sequined valance as their playground for the evening. The four returned to the booth throughout the evening in different outfits and wigs. It quickly became clear to Bork that her camera was her ticket to enter Austin’s drag community.
“Drag queens are fantastic subjects and I was ready to play. We were a perfect match!”
One of the queens invited Bork to a competition they were participating in at Bout Time 2, a now defunct gay bar in North Austin.
“Everything about that crusty old bar was thrilling to me,” Bork says. “I felt lucky to be witnessing the Austin Drag Battle Royale, hosted by Vegas Van Carter and Amber Nicole Davenport. The theatricality of the performances, the creativity of the elaborate costumes, the wigs that were so tall you couldn’t touch the top with your fully extended hand.
“I loved being in such a different, unfamiliar world. And I had my camera.”
Bork photographed the remaining weeks of the competition — never mind that the late night show “was upside down for my life as a mother.”
The experience led another drag competition at the gay dance club Rain on 4th hosted by Sabel Scities the beloved resident queen. Bork began taking pictures, learning more about drag and making friends in the community. “I would post the previous week’s pictures on my Instagram story as a way to promote the contestants and drum up excitement about it.”
There was an overwhelming response to her pictures from the community. “The queens felt very seen in a positive way and I was having the time of my life watching and learning as I was capturing their spectacular efforts.” To date nearly 2000 of those photos can be enjoyed on Bork’s Instagram, @borkster.
Thanks to Sabel Scities, Bork was hired as the photographer for the competitions and pageants held at Rain.
While amassing stunning images of these larger-than-life performers, Bork began to interview them for the project she was now calling “Girls Gotta Eat.” She had so many questions, some about food, and some about the explorations of gender that she was witnessing. How to use correct pronouns? Are all drag performers gay men? Can women do drag? What’s the difference between a transvestite and a trans person?
Bork admits some her question were naïve, but she continually refined her approach.
“I made a list of questions that ranged from asking them what was in their grocery carts every week to talking about self-care and refining their identities as drag performers and people. I wanted to find common ground.”
Bork explains: “I’ve always been fascinated by people and their stories. I have so much compassion for people in their struggle to be fully self-actualized and find personal peace.”
Inspired by the original H-E-B encounter (and a lifelong lover of grocery stores), Bork soon began going grocery shopping with the queens in drag.
“It has been a goldmine of visuals,” she says. By placing otherworldly-looking people in the most mundane of environments Bork encourages viewers to consider how “other is us.”
Bork first exhibited the “Girls Gotta Eat” series in 2019 at the Mohawk night club. Her show at Women & Their Work featured revelatory shots of 16 different drag performers shopping at H-E-B, Trader Joe’s, Target, and Wheatsville Food Co-op. The Dougherty exhibition premieres 21 brand new portraits, again displayed with quotes from the queens and their handwritten shopping lists. Eventually, Bork plans to publish a book based on her series and hopefully a documentary film.
“What seemed like a simple curiosity and a sort of rascally fun thing to do has resulted in a wonderful reveal of life outside the binary and I am happy to be encouraging acceptance of what exists in that space.”
“Girls Gotta Eat” is on view through April 15 at the Dougherty Arts Center, 1111 Barton Springs Road. Artist reception 6:30 to 9 p.m. March 8. Artist talk: 6:30 to 9 p.m. March 13. Admission is free. austintexas.gov/department/julia-c-butridge-gallery