When drag queen Shirley Q. Liquor takes the spotlight at this weekend's Exxxotica convention in Miami Beach, she will say something like this to her audience: "I'm gonna burn me up some chitlins and put some ketchup on there and aks Jesus to forgive my sins."
The muumuu-clad, garishly made-up queen might also make references to "Kmark," "Egg McMuffmans," her "gynechiatrist," and "goin' to the store for some collard greens, ham hocks, and cheese." And she'll likely purr her trademark greeting — "How you durrrin'?" — and sing a song called "Who Is My Baby Daddy?"
Here's the thing: Shirley Q. Liquor is a black character played by a gay white man — in blackface paint — named Charles Knipp. African-American activists throughout the nation have protested the modern-day minstrel act, and performances have been canceled in Hollywood, Atlanta, Boston, Hartford, and New York. More than 1,000 people have signed an online petition, at www.banshirleyqliquor.typepad.com, demanding that Knipp cease his stage show for good.
"I just don't think it's appropriate for him to be making fun ... of someone's race," says Jasmyne Cannick, a Los Angeles-based writer and blogger who started the petition. "When I look at that character, I see grandmothers, great-grandmothers who struggled."
So far there's been little buzz in Miami. Exxxotica spokesman Woody Graber refused to answer questions regarding Knipp's act. He says the convention will "showcase a wide variety of exhibitors, seminars, and attendees who embrace alternative lifestyles and ... enjoy a multitude of personal pleasures. Although all may not be of one mind, at Exxxotica we all agree to not pass judgment."
But when New Times told Liberty City activist Rev. Richard Dunn about the upcoming show and e-mailed him video clips of Knipp's act, he hatched a plan to mobilize protesters and bring it up on a Tuesday radio show he cohosts with Bishop Victor T. Curry on WMBM-AM (1490) at 9:30 a.m. "It shows that unfortunately racism is alive and well in America," Dunn says. "It shows that we are not serious or sensitive enough about the rights of everyone."
Knipp, who is 46 years old and lives in Kentucky, would not comment for this story. He grew up in Texas near the Louisiana border and is in many ways a typical rural Southern white boy; his classes were integrated when he was 11 years old, which is when he "fell in love with black people," he told the Lexington Herald Leader in March 2007. He's a registered nurse who volunteers at hospices and an ordained Quaker minister who performs same-sex marriages. He's also a donor to both the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center, and he claims not to be a racist. "I don't think that black people should be exempt from parody," he told the paper. "We should act like nothing is funny about any of them? That's a form of racism in itself."
He created the Shirley Q. Liquor character in the early Nineties, drawing on the speech patterns of his childhood nanny, who was African-American. He said the performance is an homage to strong black women and a way to break through the race barrier. "There are so many pent-up things that black people want to say to white people and vice versa, but we're all scared to death of offending each other," he said. He adds that many black people love his show.
Never mind that the character is on welfare, loves malt liquor, and has 19 "chirren" with names such as Cheeto, Orangello, Chlamydia, and Kmartina — Knipp insists he created Shirley "out of love." And possibly money. He told Rolling Stone in 2007 that he makes between $70,000 and $90,000 a year through stage shows and merchandise sales (a popular item: baby bibs that read "Inmate" or "Who is my daddy?")
Knipp's core audience is gay white men — the stage show was born in small Southern gay clubs. Locally the show is scheduled at the Miami Beach Convention Center on Friday at 6:30 p.m. and Saturday at 1 p.m. The drag performance will be sandwiched between the "pillow fight league" act and the "screaming orgasm" contest.
Shirley Q. Liquor even has some well-known fans: CSI: Miami hired Knipp to perform the drag show for its wrap party, while hosts of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy frequently used Liquor's trademark query, "How you durrrin'?" on-air. "People really need to take a chill pill," singer and fellow drag queen RuPaul wrote on her blog. "Shirley Q. Liquor is so clearly coming from a place of love."
Unsurprisingly, black activists don't buy Knipp's — or his fans' — naiveté. Cannick is considering traveling to Miami Beach to protest Knipp's Exxxotica performance. She and other LA activists shut down one of Knipp's shows at a gay club in Hollywood in 2007. Around that time, CNN asked the pair to appear on television together. Cannick said Knipp refused to debate her. "If you have the balls to do what you do, why don't you have the nerve to debate a real black woman?" she fumes.
Mel Reeves, a black Miami activist, was insulted when shown a video clip of Shirley Q. Liquor portraying a stewardess for "Ebonics Airlines," in which the black-owned plane crashed from ineptitude. "That insinuates that black people can't run successful businesses. The fact that this person has a receptive audience is revealing. This wasn't funny to me."
E-mail protests have recently flowed into the offices of the City of Miami Beach, Exxxotica organizers, and the NAACP. A woman named Mercedes Davis wrote February 29: "Considering Miami's diverse culture, it's very shameful for you to allow someone like Mr. Charles Knipp to perform in the city. His stereotypical performance of a black woman is hurtful and, by my opinion, not funny. I really enjoy my vacations in Miami and I would hope the city is prepared to lose out on a lot of commerce if this man is allowed to display his lack of theatrical skill."
A person named ChrisT wrote, "I ... would like to add my voice to the others asking you to please not promote racism by allowing [Shirley Q. Liquor] to perform." And a woman named Tracy added, "In the year 2008, it is ridiculous to allow a white gay man to dress as a black woman and perpetuate these stereotypes. I am disappointed in the wake of what has happened with Don Imus and the Rutgers women's basketball team. I am asking you to cancel this show. An apology after the fact is not acceptable."