Sensory Fragments of Today with Legendary Drag Queen and Editor Linda Simpson

by Răzvan Ion

 Linda Simpson, a legend of New York, has been the editor of the punk queer zine, My Comrade, since 1987. A key figure in the ’80s and ’90s drag scene in New York, Simpson’s lens captured over 5,000 performers, their vibrant personalities immortalized in an exhibition and a slide projection. Her acclaimed book, “The Drag Explosion,” is a testament to this era, a collection of these photographs that echo the energy and spirit of the time. Simpson’s influence extends beyond print, as she was featured in the documentary “Wig,” which chronicles Wigstock, the annual New York Drag festival that began in the ’80s. Today, we sit down with Simpson to discuss the evolution of this world and her/his perspective on the changes that have unfolded. In an NPR interview Linda clarified the use of pronoun: “99% of the time or 95% of the time, I’m, you know, just a regular guy or regular gay guy. When I’m in drag, I prefer she and her.”. She/he looks fabulous and prepares a new exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in New York.

Linda Simpson, photographed by Whitney Mallett for Interview magazine in her/his apartment in Times Square, New York. Courtesy Interview magazine. December 2023.

Răzvan Ion: In 1987, My Comrade emerged in the vibrant underground scene of New York City, serving as a punk gay publication. During that period, the city streets were teeming with iconic figures such as RuPaul, Grace Jones, Keith Haring, and Allen Ginsberg. Reflecting on this era, which was both fabulous and fraught with challenges, how do you perceive the role of My Comradeas a conveyer of significant messages amid the fight for visibility and the loss of friends?

Linda Simpson: The late 1980s were definitely a vibrant and creative era, but it was also extremely sad and scary because of AIDS. I created My Comrade, which was an underground gay magazine, to cheer people up and offer a defiant and revolutionary message of gay pride, love and camaraderie. The format was campy and often tongue-in-cheek, but still very sincere. I don’t think of the magazine as punk per se, but it did have a rebellious and energetic punk-rock spirit.

The contemporary landscape seems to move at an accelerated pace, with social media dominating the representation of events. In adapting to this fast-paced environment, how has your experience been navigating the shallower depths of the present compared to the profound nature of the past?

I’m fairly active on my own personal Instagram page (Instagram.com/lindasimpson), and in some ways, we’re all citizen journalists these days, but none of us are getting paid! I try to balance the shallowness of social media by reading books. I think it’s unfortunate that so many people scorn book reading nowadays when it’s so good for the mind and the soul.

My Comrade continues to periodically release issues, maintaining a print presence that seems almost like a deliberate act of remembrance. What specific messages or aspects of the past do you hope people will not forget, and what motivates the magazine to persist in this form?

For the most part, My Comrade is a historical publication, with a rich history in the 1980s and ‘90s. But the magazine has always had an irregular publishing schedule, and over the years there has been several revivals. I think it’s a way of keeping things fresh and reaching out to a new audience who can appreciate the magazine.

Spread from the last issue of My Comrade. Courtesy of Linda Simpson.

As a legendary figure in New York and a prominent drag queen, your perspective on Paul O’Grady’s critique of “Drag Race” holds particular significance. O’Grady expressed disdain, stating, “It’s all about shading and contouring your face and being like supermodels.” Given your extensive experience, how do you interpret O’Grady’s sentiments, especially about the political dimensions of drag that he suggested are missing today? 

I understand where O’Grady is coming from, but I think we also have to remember that drag is a very wide umbrella. There’s room for comedic drag, supermodel drag and many other forms of expression. The immense popularity of “Drag Race” is a bit of double-edged sword. Drag loses its bite and political edge when it’s a mainstream sensation, but its current success also provides a lot of people with jobs and the opportunity to make decent money.

The intersection of gender non-conformity and political correctness is a complex and evolving terrain. From your vantage point as a drag queen and editor, how do you view the political implications embedded in adhering to or challenging gender norms?

That’s a complicated question! I think the bottom line is just to try and be respectful to all people and how they choose to express themselves. For instance, I’m older and it hasn’t always been easy using “they” pronouns. However, I realize in a changing world, that I need to adapt. It’s counterproductive to argue and not go with the flow.

Considering the current political climate marked by figures like Trump and the rise of the far-right in the West, how do you envision the political future? Given your unique perspective, how do these global developments impact the LGBT+ community, both in New York and abroad?

 Maybe I’m being naïve, but I think gay rights are established enough in the U.S. that it would be very difficult to take them away. I’m much more worried about income inequality, lack of public healthcare and the expansion of our military—issues that affect all people. Also, I’m very concerned about the plight of gay people in Russia, Uganda and other repressive countries.

Photo session for Gayletter in 2023. Linda wears dress by Todd Oldham, duster Paco Rabanne, stole Saga Furs. Hair by Chiquitita. All clothing courtesy of Gabriel Held Vintage. Photography by Ian Lewandowski. Courtesy of Gayletter magazine.

Drag performance, for many in my generation, represents a political statement, resistance, and a powerful expression of queer theory. How do you see the evolving role of drag in activism and its impact on societal perceptions?

I think drag’s political ramifications have been watered down. However, for many people who live in conservative small towns and rural areas, mounting a drag show can still be controversial. So in that way, drag still has the power to shock and awe.

Emphasising the natural approach to drag performance, how do you believe this contrasts with the more stylized and contoured representations often associated with mainstream drag culture?

Compared to when I started drag in the late 1980s, drag is much more careerist these days. Back in my day, there really weren’t very many opportunities to expand one’s drag career. So most drag queens back did it just for fun and the love of performing. Now, I think a lot of people start doing drag with the thought that it can lead to a stable career. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, but the passion is different.

Within the realm of academia, queer political theory has expanded to encompass various aspects of identity and expression. Considering the evolving landscape, how do you see the intersection of queer theory and artificial intelligence shaping discussions around identity, representation, and inclusivity? Specifically, in the context of queer AI, what challenges and opportunities do you envision for the LGBTQ+ community, and how might this influence broader societal perceptions of identity in the digital age?

I can barely turn on a computer and you’re asking me about AI? I think whatever technological advances come about, there will be a queer aspect. Gay people are good at adapting to changes in society and adding their own unique spin. As far as AI, I’m sure the possibilities include new means of sexual pleasure. You know, how gays love having sex!

Linda Simpson and Glenda Orgasm in 1992, New York.

The last collectable issue of My Comrade zine can be ordered from the website mycomrade.org. The Drag Explosion book is available on thedragexplosion.com. The personal website of Linda Simpson is lindasimpson.org

Răzvan Ion is the founder of GAY45. A professor of curatorial studies and critical thinking in Vienna, he is passionate about comic books, technology, the stock market, art, alternative indie music, movies, literature, drag queen shows, and artificial intelligence.

Cover image: Little Whitney and Juan at ‘My Comrade’ magazine photo shoot, 1989. Courtesy of Linda Simpson.

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