February 10, 2007
By VANESSA DE LA TORRE, Courant Staff Writer
A notorious drag queen show planned for the Chez Est nightclub this month has been canceled amid growing debate over the racial content of the act, which features a white man performing as an alcoholic, Ebonics-speaking, Southern black welfare mother with 19 kids.
Beneath the neon wig and dark cosmetics is Chuck Knipp, a white minister from Kentucky who has performed as Shirley Q. Liquor, drawing praise and protest across the country. In this case, his biggest opponents were black lesbians furious that Chez Est, long established as a safe haven for gays and an ally in the fight against bigotry, would bring a blackface act to Hartford during Black History Month.
Chez owner Gary Bechard said Friday afternoon that the Feb. 23 show, while certain to generate a packed house, was "not worth the possibility of dividing the Hartford gay community."
Bechard said in a statement that political pressure and media attention did not influence his decision. The Chez had received hundreds of e-mails and phone calls since the controversy was made public, many from Shirley Q. supporters who wanted the show to go on as planned.
"However," Bechard said, "those who were against the performance were very passionate with their views."
Since hearing about the event in late January, critics organized an alternative event for the same night called "Laugh Him Out of Town." They have denounced Knipp's act as a modern-day minstrel show that celebrates a blatant symbol of America's Jim Crow past, when white performers rubbed burnt cork on their faces to imitate blacks in comedy routines. And aside from anger, some long-time patrons of the Chez expressed this emotion: betrayal.
Bryan Couzens, the club's manager who booked the act, has said that he personally does not find blackface to be offensive and suggested that those who found no humor in Shirley Q. Liquor could choose to stay home. He said it was a matter of free speech.
Regina Dyton, head of the city's commission on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, told activists gathered for a recent strategy meeting that she had long considered the Chez her home. Now, she said, it felt like she was being forced to choose, between being black and being gay.
"Racism in the gay community is alive and well," said Kamora Herrington, a True Colors Inc. mentoring program director who organized the Hartford protest, which gathered steam through bulletins on MySpace.com.
Knipp has denied that his blackface act promotes hurtful images of African Americans, while admitting that some of his fans are in fact racist. He says his routine can bring blacks, whites, gay and straight people together, and that some should leave his show "at least scratching their heads." Knipp could not be reached Friday for comment.
Earlier this week, the national Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation group condemned Knipp's Shirley Q. character "for promoting and perpetuating ugly racial stereotypes."
"The gay community is small and should be using all its energy to educate and strengthen, not divide and battle," said Bechard, the Chez owner. He recognized that Knipp's act might generate "larger social unrest" among gays and African Americans.
Activist Jasmyne Cannick, Knipp's archenemy who has led a national boycott of his performances, including a show in West Hollywood, Calif., that was recently canceled, said the news from Hartford "elated" her.
"Now that people are aware of this hideous act, more people are beginning to see the light," Cannick said. "I hope this sends a clear message to other gay nightclub owners that, you know, if you book this act, we're going to come and talk to you about it."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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