On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Sleep, work, drag. Sleep, work, drag.
That’s the schedule for a drag queen competing for the crown in the Imperial Court of Washington, a local philanthropic organization comprised of drag queens and drag kings.
Daniel Hays works for the U.S. Department of Labor by day. By night, he’s Muffy Blake Stephyns, a campy Southern Christian with hair that’s 36 inches tall. The new documentary “Queen of the Capital” follows Muffy’s year-long campaign for the title of “Empress IV,” the public face and lead fundraiser for the Court.
“Queen of the Capital” premieres on Saturday, June 29, 2019 as part of the Newseum exhibit, “Rise Up: Stonewall and the LGBTQ Rights Movement.”
We’ll talk about the Court, drag culture in the DMV and the exhibit.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
Watch the 'Queen of the Capital' trailer
MARC FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. High heels, royal gowns and 36-inch hair: that's what you'll see in "Queen of the Capital," a new documentary that follows one drag queen's campaign to win the crown. And we're going to talk in the remaining time this hour with Alex Glass. He's the director of photography for "Queen of the Capital." Welcome.
ALEX GLASSThank you, thank you.
FISHERAnd Daniel Hays, who performs as Drag Queen Muffy Blake Stephyns. She's the Empress IV of the Imperial Court of Washington and the subject of the documentary "Queen of the Capital." Welcome.
DANIEL HAYSNice to meet you. Thank you.
FISHERAnd this is what Daniel Hays is like in the film.
HAYSI'm Muffy Blake Stephyns. I'm a drag performer here in Washington, D.C. Metro area. And, for me, drag is, as opposed to being, for many, something that is done to pay bills, for me, it's a way of giving back to the community. The drag that I do is old school drag. I come from Northern Missouri, which is Southern, culturally. There's lots of reasons behind the big hair, for me.
FISHERAlex Glass, what is "Queen of the Capital" about, and who is the "Queen of the Capital?"
GLASS"Queen of the Capital" is the story of Muffy Blake Stephyns traveling from not being Queen of the Capital to being Queen of the Capital.
FISHERAnd Daniel Hays, that journey from not being queen to being queen, why did you take that journey?
HAYSI had first gotten involved with the local Imperial Court, the Imperial Court of Washington, DC about three years prior to actually running, and just fell in love with the organization. Every single dollar that we raise with the Imperial Court goes back to local charities. And having made some real connections with local nonprofits that do a lot in the community...
FISHER(overlapping) And we should say up front that no one gets sent to prison from that court.
HAYSAbsolutely, yes. No one goes -- no prison sentences.
FISHERSo, what is a -- and what is the Imperial Court, and why is it called that?
HAYSWe were founded -- next year actually will be the 55th anniversary of the Imperial Court system. It was founded by the founder, Jose Julio Sarria, in San Francisco, who is recently getting a shout-out from Whoopie Goldberg. She did the shout-out during their talk show, during the day. He was the first openly gay individual to run for public office, served as a veteran in World War II, and came back and led the fight, really, in San Francisco, where, much like what happened in Stonewall 50 years ago, similar things were happening in San Francisco.
HAYSAnd it was that the only way we were going to be able to do this was to confront them one-by-one. He's known for the saying divided we stand -- or united we stand, divided, they pick us off one by one. And his idea was we've got to get out there, put a face to it and make sure we fight for equality to ensure that we're all treated with equality, with all due respect and dignity.
FISHERAnd we should point out that although the title is quite impressive, it is not a fulltime job. You actually have a day job.
FISHERAnd that's with, of all places, the United States government.
FISHERWhat do you do?
HAYSI am a legislative analyst for the Department of Labor's Unemployment Insurance Office. So, when I leave here, I'll be going right back to my boss to check back in. We do conformity compliance reviews of all the state's unemployment insurance laws. I'm actually a supervisor of that team that does that.
FISHERAnd we should note, for those of you who haven't quite perfected the view into your radio, that Daniel is sitting here in shirt and tie, (laugh) and no 36-inch wig.
HAYSNo. That will be coming out on Saturday, though. I have a brand new wig and a brand new gown that's been done, ready for the premier on Saturday.
FISHERAnd take us through how you first became Muffy Stephyns. Where did that come about?
HAYSYears and years and years ago, back in Missouri, I had thought, well, maybe doing drag would be fun. So, I'd hung around some drag queens. And eventually some of them put me in drag one time, out of a complete camp joke, ran for a contest in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I literally looked like the -- what was the lady on Drew Cary Show with the blue...
HAYSYeah, Mimi. I literally -- Muffy's come a long way. I looked like Mimi back in the day. And, but then performed in Missouri before moving out here. When I moved to DC, though, in August of 2006, figured, there's a zillion queens in DC. I'll never do drag again. Got rid of all the drag. And then when I got out here, Ophelia Bottoms, one of my many drag mothers, learned I had done drag before, and it became kind of one of her many missions that she was going to put me back in a gown. And once I was, and it was kind of off and running.
FISHERAlex Glass, what drew you to this subject?
GLASSAt first, it was opportunity. So, Josh Davisburg, who directed and wrote the project, the story, came to myself and a couple other students at the University of Maryland and asked if we wanted to help. And I was graduating at the time, and I was going into production, just after graduating instead of going into news. And I was, like, oh well, this is a pretty good opportunity to get a hand-on experience in the production world.
FISHERAnd had you been familiar with the Imperial Court system or the drag community, or this was all new to you?
GLASSThis was -- yeah -- no, this was all new to me. I didn't know anything about the drag community, about the Imperial Court. Honestly, I didn't even know too much about DC, even though I grew up in Annapolis until Brandy Vincent, one of the co-producers of the show, did a short story and turned it in as a project for her Intro to Broadcast Journalism class for Josh.
FISHERAnd as you dived into this subculture, what did you learn about not only the drag scene, but sort of its import, what it does for the people who are part of it?
GLASSI was blown away at the philanthropic side of it. You know, you've seen drag queens on TV and movies, but you've never really seen the unbelievable amount of good that they can do.
FISHERAnd Daniel Hays, tell us about that good that you do. It's not just fun and games. It's not just a beauty contest. There's some substance here.
HAYSAbsolutely. That's, for me, what really was the lynchpin for me, with the Imperial Court system. Every single dollar we raise goes back into the community. During my year as empress, we raised a little over $60,000 that went to local charities. And it's one of the few things that you get to have absolute right as monarch, is to choose which charities you're going to raise money for. And that was one of the things that, really, I was, like, okay, these are the places I have really connections with.
HAYSAnd so to be able to have the ability at the end of the year to then present those checks back to those local charities and know that one dollar at a time is truly going to make huge, huge differences in some of these organizations' lives. Because traditionally, a lot of us pick organizations that don't have large grant funding. You know, they're truly your local-based nonprofits that every dollar means so, so much to them.
FISHERAnd although I'm sure, as empress of the court, you rule absolutely, as you mentioned (laugh), I would imagine that the...
HAYS(overlapping) The board of directors would say, yeah, that's not true. (laugh)
FISHERWell, then you can simply put them out of business. (laugh) I would imagine that some of the organizations that you're donating to may not have a lot of experience with the drag community.
FISHERSo, tell us about that experience.
HAYSWe pick what's called reign charities, and those are going to be the primary recipients during that next reign year. For me, I picked three. I wanted an HIV charity, but I wanted one that didn't receive all the traditional grant money. And so I picked an organization in Northwest DC called Joseph's House, and they provide in-house hospice care to individuals with HIV and late-term cancer. And, really, there was not prior to that been a real connection to them. I've actually since went back and had a drag brunch for them, for their residents, as well.
HAYSWe also then picked a youth charity, one in Richmond called Side By Side that does youth resources for LGBTQ teens. And then I wanted to bridge that gap. It was the first year we actually did a non-gay-based charity, was during my reign here, locally. And that was the Arlington Food Assistance Center. I wanted to make sure that we did something that would bring us altogether as a unified community. You can't spell community without the word unity in it.
FISHERRight. So, that's the one I'd want to focus on on this question, which is, so there you are, dealing with a non-gay charity. And you're saying, hey, we're a bunch of drag queens. We want to give you a bunch of money. Did they have questions? Do they seem standoffish? Were they...
HAYSThere were incredibly...
HAYS...incredibly welcoming. They're actually headed by an incredible individual, the executive director of AFAC is a gay individual. So, we already had that bridge kind of built into it, and I had worked with him on other organizations. But when myself -- and initially I had an emperor, he stepped aside. But when we went and had a meeting with them about what we would expect from them, as far as helping us distribute materials, get information out about the organization to the community, they were very welcoming and, you know, sure, this sounds great to us.
FISHERWe're going to take a short break, and when we return, we'll also be joined by Patty Rhule, the vice president of Content and Exhibit Development at the Newseum, where a new exhibit is taking a look at the legacy of the Stonewall uprising. That's after a short break. I'm Marc Fisher. We'll be back in a moment.
FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. And we are talking about drag culture in Washington and about a new exhibit at the Newseum called "Rise Up." And we're joined now by Patty Rhule, vice president of Content and Exhibit Development at the Newseum. And this is also where the film that we've been talking about, "Queen of the Capital," will be premiering this Saturday, June 29th, in conjunction with the new exhibit that looks at LGBT rights, including the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. And Patty Rhule, what's in that show?
PATTY RHULEWell, we tell the story of ordinary Americans who use their First Amendment freedoms to push back against prejudice and injustice and make the case for equality.
FISHERAnd what will we be seeing as far as artifacts and individual stories and...
RHULEWell, we tell the story of people like Frank Kameny, considered the father of the LGBTQ rights movement, Barbara Gittings, who focused her efforts on the American Psychiatric Association, which -- during the 1950s and '60s -- considered homosexuality a mental illness. People like Leonard Matlovich, who challenged the military's rules against having gay people be part of the military, and many, many others. We bring it all the way up to modern day, to the same-sex marriage ruling of 2015.
FISHERAnd the exhibit also highlights the specific part of the First Amendment. The right to assemble was crucial to the progress of the gay rights movement. Why was that? What was important about the assembly aspect of that movement?
RHULEWell, I think it was important that people were finally -- you know, for most of the first half of the 20th century, gay people lived lives of secrecy and fear. You know, you could lose your job for being gay. You could lose your family, your social connections. The medical community considered it to be an illness. You were considered to be a criminal. So, there were a lot of risks to being public about who you were. And so the people who did put their faces to the movement were really brave individuals who were fighting for civil rights.
FISHERHere's a Tweet from Richard, who says: I'm 70, gay and was very involved in the movement back in the '70s, '80s and '90s. I'd love to see the movie and Newseum exhibit but can't afford the huge entrance fee. And I'm sure that's a question that the Newseum has struggled with from its inception, given the number of free museums in this area. But what do you say to someone like Richard?
RHULEWell, I will say to Richard that on Saturday, it's actually Wells Fargo Day. So, if you are a person who has an account with Wells Fargo, you can bring your credit or debit card to the front desk, and you get in free. Or if you're an employee of Wells Fargo, you can get group ticket sales. But other than that, I would say, isn't the First Amendment worth spending a little bit of money for? And when we say that there are a lot of free museums in Washington, they actually get supported by your tax dollars. So, let's have a little perspective about that, but we appreciate that concern.
FISHERAnd Barry from Ashburn, Virginia emails: am I correct that not every man who likes to appear or perform in drag is necessarily gay? If so, are they a relatively small percentage of the drag scene? Daniel.
HAYSAs to the percentage, I don't know that I can really give a comment on that, but that's absolutely correct. One of the things that is great about the Imperial Court system, in particular, is we have gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, straight allies. The individual who succeeded me as empress, Empress V, was actually a straight ally, or is a straight ally. And she actually went on, she now currently serves on the international Imperial Court Council. So, we're very much a diverse group.
HAYSThere are individuals who are straight that are also biological female or biological male performers. We also have gays and lesbians that are biological female performers, as well. But, absolutely, we have the performers across all sexuality boundaries, you name it.
FISHERAnd your persona, Muffy Blake Stephyns, is not transexual.
HAYSNo. I am a comedic, campy version of a queen. No one's going to ever think that I'm actually a real woman. I once had someone in an audience try to give me a heckle in the middle of a show and tell me that I ought to get off the stage, because I wasn't fishy enough to be a drag queen, And I told them, well, I am fish. Mine just happens to be Orca. (laugh)
FISHERAnd tell us a little bit about how you navigate the personalities of Muffy and Daniel. Are there people in your life who know you only as Daniel or only as Muffy, or does everyone have a piece of both, or...
HAYSI wouldn't say that everyone has a piece of both. There's still a lot of people in this city that I -- I've lived here now 13 years, and there are people to this day who, it doesn't matter whether I'm dressed as Daniel, they only know me as Muffy. So, I've long since -- the pronoun usage and the whatevers, call me anything, just hopefully not late for dinner if it's going to be something good to eat.
FISHER(laugh) And here's Robert, in Silver Spring. Robert, you're on the air.
ROBERTHey, Daniel. Hi, it's Bob. Actually, I know Daniel. I've never met Muffy, but I'm kind of hoping I'll be able to go down and meet her tomorrow. I just wanted to say congratulations on the documentary being finished.
HAYSThank you, Bob.
ROBERTAnd kind of irritated that I'm not in it but, you know. (laugh) Anyhow, and congratulations, and congratulations on the supervisor job. So, I will talk to you later.
HAYSThank you, Bob.
FISHERSo, this is someone you work with.
HAYSHe recently retired. I actually, on Monday of this week, took a new job. I just became a supervisor at the office, and he held the position that I now am in. (laugh)
HAYSWhat he refers to as his work wife. though, Suzanne Simonetta, she is in the film.
FISHERDaniel Hays, you have a drag mom, a larger drag family. Is that common in drag culture here in the city, and what does the family do?
HAYSDC's definitely one of those cities that is a drag-based, drag-organized city. Some cities, the drag culture is not so much based by families. New York City is not really a family place. It's much more -- there's houses. But the whole idea of the drag family, they're there to help you improve your drag, learn the craft. They open doors to you. They introduce you into others. For me, the two big ones that have been by me have been Shelby Black Stephyns -- or actually, she's changed her name. She's Shelby Jewel Stephyns, and then Ophelia Bottoms.
HAYSThey both have had incredible influences on my life. And there's been times when my health would crash, and those are the individuals who are there for you. I mean, it's literally, they're your other -- they are your other family. And whether I was dong drag or not, they're going to still be there.
FISHERAnd Alex Glass, who was director of photography for the film "Queen of the Capital," what do you hope people will take away from this film when they see it on Saturday?
GLASSYou know what? It's just a new world that some people might've never seen before. And I hope it just opens up some eyes, and maybe some new perspectives for what you can do with any sort of talent or creativity or want in the world.
FISHERPatty Rhule from the Newseum, the exhibit also looks at Hollywood and television's impact on the queer community. How has the media shaped society's views?
RHULEWell, early on, the media largely reflected back a lot of attitudes that people had that weren't very flattering about the LGBTQ community. But the more -- in the '60s and '70s, when you saw more people being out, being open about their gender identity and their sexuality, the more you saw more complex and sympathetic portrayals. Vice President Joe Biden credited the TV sitcom "Will and Grace" with doing more to shape people's attitudes about same-sex marriage than anything else. And we do have a film that talks about that, and we interview people like George Takei, who's an octogenarian who's lived through the pre-Stonewall era to now, to see just exactly how much has been accomplished.
FISHERAnd the exhibit also looks at two local trans activists who made an impact in the region, Donika Rome (sounds like) and Gavin Grimm. Their stories, perhaps they're somewhat well-known, but you go into some depth on that?
RHULEWe do, a bit. You know, it's really important that we brought this topic which starts in history, but is certainly very vibrant today. I mean, we've just has two transgender women killed in the DC area in the past three months. And the transgender, sort of rights issues are sort of on the forefront of the movement right now. And we wanted to make that point really powerfully.
FISHERPatty Rhule is vice president of Content and Exhibit Development at the Newseum. We've also been talking to Alex Glass, director of photography for "Queen of the Capital," and Daniel Hays, who performs as drag queen Muffy Blake Stephyns. She's the Empress IV of the Imperial Court of Washington. This update -- this conversation about drag culture in the DC region was produced by Cydney Grannan. The update on the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival was produced by Mark Gunnery.
FISHERComing up tomorrow, from the basketball court to the soccer field and beyond, professional athletes are rising up to push for social causes. We'll hear from some of them. Plus, we'll mark the one-year anniversary of the Capital Gazette shooting. That's tomorrow, at noon. I'm Marc Fisher, sitting in for Kojo. Thanks for listening.
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