While the Mummers Parade had its struggles with racial sensitivity issues at last year’s iteration— blackface is never cute, friends—the annual event’s queer-friendliness factor certainly leapt to new heights. Philly’s 113-year-old tradition has often been considered a tired old boys party: a day for dads, sons, uncles and brothers to act a fool, paint their faces, drink like maniacs and pack colors and bells into crowded SEPTA trains. Indeed, most of that’s not changed. But now some of those local lads are taking the acting, painting and competing to wildly wonderful places—places where LGBT Philadelphians aren’t just welcomed but celebrated.
City Councilman Jim Kenney appealed last year to the LGBT community to get involved in the parade; it was a direct effort to make the traditional march more inclusive. “We believe that the more diverse the parade is, the stronger it gets,” Kenney said. “The more it’s able to be funded, the stronger it is, and the longer it lasts.” The city’s drag performers responded—and though there was a bit of trepidation in the air as a contingent of queens prepared to brave the hordes of revelers on Broad Street, any concerns they had about an on-the-spot, anti-gay backlash were quickly squashed. The response they received from the Mummers crowd was incredibly warm; in fact, they were embraced like family.
“The cheering was deafening. It was amazing,” recalls Ian Morrison, who performs as drag queen Brittany Lynn. “It was probably the best experience of my life.” People wanted their babies photographed alongside these pageant-painted queens; even the PPA got silly with it.
Everything old, it seems, is eventually made new again: The Mummers Parade actually used to have a judging category for female impersonation, as—since it wasn’t until the 1970s that women were permitted to march with the Mummers—men and boys regularly dressed as girls, women and wenches. Lady impersonation in Philadelphia, in other words, is a tradition that far predates the pop-culture image of drag queens today; Kenney notes that, before the impersonation category was stricken, fans of cross-dressing would come from miles around to witness the spectacle.
Now, for the second year in a row, Kenney and the rest of the city have officially invited the drag queens and kings to strut up Broad Street once again. Their recent press conference at the Mummers Museum was a sight to behold, as the councilman and half a dozen drag performers shared the stage with Mummers Parade director Leo Dignam; City Councilman Mark F. Squilla; and representatives from the Philadelphia Fancy Brigade Association, including its director of tourism, Scott Brown, and its vice president, Bill Burke.
This year, 11 men and women in drag will lead the Miss Fancy Brigade before competing against each other at the Convention Center for the title of Miss Fancy Brigade 2014. Here’s the breakdown: Karen Vosay for L2, Mary D’Knight for iCandy, Satine Harlow for Voyeur, Crystal Electra for Tavern On Camac, Tamia Gisele Mykles for Fire and Ice, Morgan Wells for Bob and Barbara’s, Omyra Lynn for Tabu Sports Bar & Lounge, Emily Valentine for the Bike Stop, Mistress M for Venture Inn, Mimi Imfurst as Miss Philly Pride and Mrs. Pinklewinkle as Miss Gayborhood.
You know what may be the best part of the whole thing? Morrison, one of the city’s leading queens, is explicitly inspired by a history of living around the Mummer tradition. “Philadelphia’s my home. I grew up on Two Street,” Morrison says. “I’ve always admired the costumes and pageantry. It made me the drag queen that I am today.”
One thing we don’t envy of these queens and kings? Getting all glammed up and out for a long, cold day mostly spent on their feet. Hopefully, some of them will work out a system (or simply carry a clever accessory) that allows them to slip on some flats in between those moments when they have to tiptoe in mile-high stilettos.
One of this week’s contestants, Mistress M, moved here from Venezuela 11 years ago. She’s honored to be a part of the longstanding tradition. “Since my first year, I have been a spectator without fail!” she says. “This is why it is personally an honor for me.” When pressed if she was nervous about the crowd’s reactions or how the queens would be received, M perfectly captures the Philly dichotomy of blue collar and open-minded social liberalism: “I doubt it. Philadelphians are really more inclusive than they let on.”
In addition to the queens and kings of Miss Fancy, the gay quotient in the 2014 Mummers Parade is getting a boost from the inaugural participation of the aptly-named Philadelphia Freedom Band, a group of LGBT musicians from around the country. So, not only is it incredibly heartwarming to see this city reaching out to its queer brothers and sisters, sincerely welcoming us to take part in—and be part of—a historic, 100-plus year tradition, but it’s heartening to see our everyday neighbors cheering on some Gayborhood heroes as they strut proudly. Yes, they’ll be marching for themselves, which is already amazing and wonderful, but they’ll also stand for the thousands of queers, in Philadelphia and elsewhere, who just want to be invited to the party like everyone else.