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Divisive Test Of Character

February 2, 2007
By VANESSA DE LA TORRE, Courant Staff Writer

Shirley Q. Liquor is a drag queen known across the nation for performing as a poor black Southern woman with 19 children, a welfare boozer who speaks in Ebonics. Her shows are usually packed to capacity, with audience members laughing in hysterics, many of them white. "How you durrin?" she greets them.

But without the housedress, the bright wig, dark cosmetics and orange lipstick, Shirley Q. is a white minister from Kentucky named Chuck Knipp.

Later this month, Knipp is scheduled to perform his blackface routine at the Chez Est in Hartford, drawing condemnation from some patrons who call the performance a modern-day minstrel show that has no place at the friendly neighborhood gay bar, especially during Black History Month.

The controversy threatens to splinter the gay community and raise debate over censorship and sensitivity. People who counted each other as allies in the fight against discrimination are suddenly accusing each other of being ignorant. Or, as Shirley Q. says in her show, "ignunt."

Knipp says influences on his character come from African American women he knew while growing up in the South, such as his family's housekeeper, who had 16 kids. He has denied accusations over the years that the skit is racist and misogynist, saying the stereotypes will push discussion among blacks, whites, gay and straight people, and that blackface drag "can actually help heal racism."

Kamora Herrington, mentoring program director for True Colors Inc., a statewide agency that gives support for young gays and lesbians, said she felt recent controversies in the area were examples of unconscious racism. But the Shirley Q. Liquor show, she said, is "overkill."

"We got a white woman running through Bushnell Park saying she got raped by a black man," Herrington said. "We got law students at UConn thinking it's OK to throw a `Bullets and Bubbly' party. And we have a bar in Hartford that thinks it's OK to bring blackface."

Herrington and other activists recently pleaded with Chez management to cancel the Feb. 23 event. They reproached blackface as a repulsive symbol of American racism since the 1800s, when white performers smeared burnt cork on their faces to imitate blacks in comedy routines.

Bryan Couzens, the club's manager for the past decade and the man who booked Shirley Q., was not persuaded.

"We're not looking to bring back the racist days of the Jim Crow era," Couzens said this week. "If they told me he's convicted of a felony for hate crimes, or is a Klan member, I'd cancel it in a second."

But Knipp's dissenters came at him with emotional reasons, Couzens said. While they may be offended and can choose to stay home, many patrons will think Shirley Q. is funny. On any given night, the Chez cannot cater to everyone's tastes, he said. In an informal poll on the club's MySpace.com site, Shirley Q. Liquor was one of the most highly requested performers.

Still, Couzens acknowledged that no other act has provoked as much anger and hurt in the 32-year history of the Chez - a home for people whom society has historically oppressed, with a bar that donates to progressive causes.

Regina Dyton, head of the city's commission on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, said that as a proud black lesbian in her 50s, she had long felt that the Chez belonged to her. Now, Dyton asked, must she choose a side, between being black and being gay?

"I feel so betrayed, so betrayed," Dyton said Wednesday.

Last week, a protest coalition successfully pressured club promoters in West Hollywood, Calif., to cancel a Shirley Q. Liquor performance set for this month. Two years ago, an emceeing gig planned in New York during Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend was also axed. Protesters shut down other events scheduled at New York and Boston nightclubs in 2002.

Couzens said it would compromise his integrity to censor a performer. "You give me a solid reason to cancel the show, and don't say, `Because a white man is doing blackface,'" he said. "Give me a solid reason."

"It may not be the best decision to bring that to his bar," said Kevin Brookman, president of the Connecticut Pride Center. "But it's his choice. ... It's not an act I would bring in. No matter how you perceive that, performing in blackface is something that should have gone out of style in the '50s.

"But again," Brookman said, "that's their decision."

In written messages to The Courant, Knipp describes himself as a longtime friend of African Americans, whom he counts as fans of Shirley Q.

When Knipp first started his blackface routine years ago, he says it was in black gay bars in Texas and Louisiana, where the drag queens "first painted me and taught me how to do African American lady makeup and found my routines hilarious."

"This is someone who has notoriety in the gay scene, in the gay circuit, and he's a funny, plus-sized drag queen," Couzens said.

As an ordained Quaker minister, Knipp said, he performed ceremonies for African American lesbian couples. In 2000, Knipp ran for Congress as a Libertarian candidate in Texas. He is now based in Lexington, Ky.

Shirley Q. has become a franchise, with a syndicated radio skit and an online store that sells comedy CDs with titles like "Queen of Dixie" and "Totally Ignunt." Some baby bibs read, "Who Is My Daddy?" and "INMATE." The website states: "Money from sales of my ignunce will help me feed my 19 chirrens."

Activist Jasmyne Cannick, Knipp's archenemy, led the West Hollywood show protest and is petitioning people on her Internet blog to boycott the Hartford event. Cannick, who is African American and a lesbian, says the skit is racist and that white gays are being hypocritical in supporting Shirley Q. Liquor or staying silent, when they recently rebuked black TV actor Isaiah Washington for using a homophobic slur on the "Grey's Anatomy" set.

"You're talking about a group of people who, like other groups of people, try to compare their struggle to that of African Americans," Cannick said. "I just think if you want to call out one injustice, you need to call out what's happening in your own backyard."

Herrington, of True Colors, said she did not want to make the Shirley Q. controversy a black vs. gay feud.

But Wednesday night, Herrington held a community action meeting to strategize. "We did it the nice way: sending our letters, expressing our concerns, and we went in to meet with [Couzens]," Herrington told several supporters gathered in her living room, the majority of them white.

"There's no part of me that can allow a minstrel show to happen in Hartford," Herrington said.

On Feb. 23, the night of the Shirley Q. performance, True Colors is holding a free counter-event with nationally known lesbian comedian Karen Williams, tentatively called "Laugh Him Out of Town." Until then, they plan to distribute leaflets, issue press releases and threaten to boycott the Chez Est unless the show is canceled.

In retrospect, Couzens said, the one thing he would do differently is not book Shirley Q. during Black History Month. "Being a 32-year-old white guy, Black History Month didn't pop into my head," Couzens said.

Meanwhile, on Shirley Q.'s MySpace page, the adulation continues. Knipp says some of his fans are racist, but that he hopes they leave his performance "at least scratching their heads."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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