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"Lessons in Drag" with LaWhore Vagistan

On February 8, LaWhore Vagistan, the drag alter-ego of professor and researcher Dr. Kareem Khubchandani, graced Georgetown with her presence. Claiming to put the “‘whore’ back in Lahore”—the capital of Pakistan—LaWhore was invited to the Hilltop as a part of Georgetown’s South Asia Speaker Series for a performance lecture entitled “Lessons in Drag.” Having only ever witnessed drag on the dance floor of an Adams Morgan gay bar, Pride parade floats, or binges of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, I was unprepared for what her performance lecture would bring. That is, until LaWhore appeared in a whorl of leopard print and neon, center-stage in Georgetown’s Devine Studio black-box theater.

LaWhore’s performance lecture drew on her patented “Critical Aunty Studies.” She interlaced critical theory, quoting “the renowned scholar Dr. Khubchandani,” with more traditional drag lip synching, with her own personal stories, family histories, and aunty-isms. This cross-discipline approach challenged my understanding of knowledge-seeking as a learning process. Traditionally, we’re taught that meaningful learning only happens within the confines of a classroom, by memorizing the names of long-dead white men and taking their theories as bible (sometimes with the asterisk that they were a misogynist or racist, and undoubtedly homophobic). But, we’re rarely taught to question, to dig deeper, or to seek other truths. With her performance, LaWhore subverted this notion. She tackled questions of queer identity, neo-colonialism, islamophobia, and so much more, while continually emphasizing the importance of finding joy and community. 

The highlight of the night was when LaWhore referenced their work “Ishtyle: Accenting Gay Indian Nightlife,” to enlighten the audience about the intersection between queerness and global racial capitalism. She framed this through the lens of Indian call centers, where workers are taught to accent their voices, mannerisms, references, and even senses of humor to cater to their American clientele. She likened this to the form of accenting that occurs in nightclubs, through which queer people of color, especially immigrants, assimilate themselves into American queer culture—accenting the way they speak, dress, groom themselves, and even dance. This lesson came to a boiling point when LaWhore donned a bejeweled call center headset in time with the ringing of a phone through the speakers overhead. We were then treated to a performance of a medley of songs including “Telephone” by Lady Gaga and Beyonce, “Hotline Bling” by Drake, and “Hello” by Adele, spliced with real-life clips from call center workers. This moment encapsulated what made LaWhore such an incredible. . . performer? lecturer? artist? speaker?—all of the above. She constantly kept the audience on their toes. As she described it, in a world where we are only “allowed to perform the most mainstream version of ourselves,” LaWhore takes the world’s assumptions of her, flips them on their head, and turns them camp. 

Speaking with LaWhore after the show, she instilled in me the importance of drag as not only an art form, but also “as an everyday, embodied practice,” a form of resistance, a source of community, and a type of play. It was never lost upon the audience that the art we were witnessing came in the face of decades of oppression of queer people, especially those from the Global South. LaWhore created an active community with the audience, inviting us into their world of joy in response to, not just in spite of, these oppressive conditions. LaWhore explained that “drag artists are literally feeding and housing each other.” This act of care is, in itself, an act of resistance. Forming a community allows drag, and drag artists, to survive in the face of restrictive legislation, discrimination, forced assimilation, and active cultural destruction. 

Speaking to the political nature of drag communities, LaWhore explained how the act of drag itself interrogates the capitalist conditions of our societies: 

“There’s the performance, sure, and there’s all the examples you saw of what I did to talk about politics. . . but there’s also the everyday life of being an artist where people are taking care of each other. And that, to me, is one of the most interesting things about drag worlds and communities. Lending each other wigs and makeup and clothes; and not just lending, but giving them away.”

Drag, as a form of queer knowledge, leads us to question the traditional forms of knowledge-seeking, of protest, and of community-building. LaWhore highlighted the way that queer knowledge is inherently queer—as in outside the ordinary. It is a form of rebellion and  creating community out of societal rejection. It draws from histories that are kept outside the mainstream, treating gossip and genealogies as valid forms of historical preservation. 

Gossip, specifically, is vital for communities that have historically been excluded from the canon. For women, most notably those in immigrant communities, gossip is a means of survival, helping them withstand unstable and restrictive circumstances. This is also true for drag communities, as LaWhore noted: 

“And gossip. Also to know who are the club promoters who actually pay well, who pay on time. Who are the creeps who show up to shows. You need to know those things….It’s lifesaving and it’s a distribution of capital, which is as important. A redistribution of material resources that I think is really amazing.”

It was especially revolutionary to see this space of community and resistance on Georgetown’s campus. Georgetown has a history of erasing queer history, of denying queer people a place on this campus, and of, in LaWhore’s words, “marginalizing queer joy.” The LGBTQ+ Center at Georgetown—albeit the first of its kind to be university-funded at a Jesuit institution—was the result of years of protest by queer students and allies, speaking out against the culture of intolerance and very real hate crimes that had gone uninvestigated by the university. Even as the tide seems to have changed in recent years, Georgetown still has work to do to protect and validate trans and non-binary students, and especially to uplift queer students of color. LaWhore explained the importance of drag on campus as not only the creation of “campus spaces that uplift all kinds of minoritarian voices and create safer spaces, but also spaces for play.” Queer joy is inherently revolutionary and giving both drag performance and queer knowledge spaces on Georgetown’s campus is essential to empowering queer students. 

LaWhore echoed what I know I and many of my peers have been feeling as artists, as students, and as humans in general. When witnessing non-stop oppression and marginalization, as the genocide of the Palestinian people passes its 150th day, art can feel insignificant. When 30,000+ people have been murdered at the hands of a US-backed colonial regime, art doesn’t feel like a valid form of protest. When cultural relics, spaces, and histories are being wiped off the face of the earth, our artmaking feels trite. But, as LaWhore demonstrated, it is still important. It is the community that art creates that allows us to continue to push back as hard as we can against the institutions around us complicit in genocide. LaWhore’s performance to a Sufi praise song, sitting on stage and looking into each of our eyes with a cacophony of watermelons projected on the screen behind her, offered a tiny bit of validation, a tiny push to keep going. She reminded us that all systems of oppression are interconnected, and so the liberation of queer people and the uplifting of marginalized voices cannot exist without the liberation of all people under colonial oppression. Art is a tool we must use to demand an end to the occupation of Palestine.

Follow LaWhore Vagistan on Instagram @lawhorevagistan.


Micaeli is a sophomore in the SFS studying Culture and Politics. She's co-commentary editor for the Indy.


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