Interviewed by C. Tepper
One of the best parts of living in New York City is the amount of drag available at your fingertips any night of the week. Great for audiences, but it makes it harder for queens to stand out and make a name for themselves amongst the sea of fabulosity.
As someone who goes to more drag shows on a weekly basis than I can count, it takes a lot for a queen to be both authentic and memorable, especially if they’re new to New York.
One queen who has caught both my eye and full attention has been the Tallahassee-based and Brooklyn-bound Martyr.
Martyr (pronounced Mar-Tear) has become synonymous with Christ-like imagery and thought-provoking performances that have tackled subjects ranging from the harrowing like the AIDS epidemic and sexual assault to the more light-hearted and upbeat Freddie Mercury impersonations.
I caught up with Martyr on the High Line in Chelsea to talk about the Brooklyn drag scene, the inability to grow a beard, weeping in public, and the legacy of Keith Haring.
C. Tepper: How did you get your drag name? I always feel like there’s a very interesting story behind drag names.
Martyr: Oh, oh my God, that’s such a sad story. So when I was seventeen I was sexually assaulted, and one of the first people I told was during an argument, and they called me a “martyr” because of it and [said] basically I was trying to get attention. So I took that and flipped it, and was like “Sure, I’ll be your martyr. I’ll be your MAR-TEAR, bitch!”
I was raised Catholic but not super upheld to it, but I thought the idea of martyrdom – it comes from Christianity, so being called “Martyr” and doing Catholic religious themes in drag would be interesting. At the time I didn’t know people who did that. There’s a few queens in Brooklyn who do that like Qhrist With A Q, God Complex too to an extent, Virgin Xtravaganzah – they’re in the U.K.
My whole thing was going to be doing martyred figures on stage. My first performance was to Patti Lupone‘s [version of] Rose’s Turn. I’ve been told you have to earn that song, and granted – I looked like a brick when I performed that song and I still got third place. If I didn’t earn my place with that song, I definitely proved it. I still do martyred figures but I’ve slowly turned it into introspective pieces on Christianity, religion, faith, and making it gay.
CT: You consider yourself a Brooklyn queen. What is the best part of working in Brooklyn?
M: There’s so many different types of drag that I don’t feel like I see anywhere else. Like I’ve worked in Manhattan a little bit, I started in Manhattan technically last year, but there’s more burlesque, there’s more drag kings, there’s more nonbinary folk, AFAB [Assigned Female At Birth] gender spectrum performers in Brooklyn. They’re generally more accepted and more included in the scene and I think that’s great.
People try different things. I feel like Brooklyn’s not necessarily inclined to look pretty, which I think is kind of rad. I feel like you can try more things and still have feedback on them. I always joke that I cry onstage for money, and honestly, I kind of do.
CT: So what is the hardest parts of working in Brooklyn?
M: Definitely because of the inclusivity it’s harder to get noticed when you first start out. I’m barely in a year [in Brooklyn] and it’s frustrating. I don’t want to be like “I’m on a different level than some people” but I’ve been performing for a little bit and I feel somewhat embarrassed that I’m not as frequent as some people or working as much as other people.
But it’s also like I’m busy, I go to school full time, I also have an internship, and boys to take care of. So [it’s hard] balancing work and trying to get noticed. I feel like I’ve made a good impression on people that have noticed me and that’s good, but I also want to work more and be respected more and not just seen as the weird sad freak of Brooklyn.
Martyr at Untitled Queen’s “The Brooklyn Ball” charity fundraiser benefiting Callen-Lorde Community Health.
CT: Have any drag performers inspired your drag?
M: I love Untitled Queen, it’s not a hidden fact. I’ve definitely adopted some of her performance tactics. When I saw her at Bushwig last year for the first time she did You Keep Your Name. I was in the front row, slowly during the night I kept creeping closer and at the time it was the only queen I recognized besides the Ru girls, because I think I saw her at Nightgowns a couple months prior and she was also featured on Hey Qween‘s Brooklyn “Qweens Around The Country” episode.
CT: Oh my God! I helped produce that! That is so funny! I’m glad that made an impact because those episodes are a lot of work. I had just seen her at Metropolitan’s Straight Acting and knew she was a hot name in Brooklyn, so thought we should feature her.
M: Yeah so I definitely knew about her from Nightgowns and Hey Qween, and like “Ugh, her mind.” I love her to death.
CT: Let’s talk about being a bearded queen.
M: No one ever asks me about the beard, everyone assumes it’s normal, I don’t know why. I do the beard because I can’t grow one and I sort of have gender dysphoria in a way that I don’t see myself as presenting as too masculine. So it’s kind of weird, kind of confusing. I wasn’t really comfortable in my masculinity, and I feel like beards are the most masculine thing a man can have. Which isn’t technically true. But I started doing a beard for that reason, and my beard technique has improved since I started. I guess masc4masc men have inspired my drag.
CT: You’ve said you’re inspired by art, religion, other drag artists. What else has inspired your very unique performances?
M: Oh, sadness. My personal pain. I don’t want to say I give permission, but it’s like I weep with other people so you can cry if you need to. I want to give that permission to people. Otherwise, it’s literally me onstage crying for money.
I think the queer community in general, I’ve talked about this before, we’re always told to be proud, and happy, and celebrating ourselves and I think that’s really important and very valid to do, but girl, we need time to weep! We’ve been through shit!
As a community and as individuals we have seen some shit and it’s okay to cry. I know this whole bullshit of “men can’t cry” and I’m not saying just men here either, we’re told not to be sad in public.
CT: Since we’re talking about crying, as you know I saw your very touching number about AIDS, and you’re wearing a shirt talking about AIDS awareness now, and Keith Haring is clearly a huge influence on you.
You are very young, why is this issue so important to you personally? I feel like most young people today don’t even think about it, and they have no reference to it in their daily lives.
M: Growing up, I don’t know when I first heard the term gay or AIDS, but I knew they were synonymous with each other. In the way that “if you’re gay, you get AIDS.” And obviously, that’s not true. But it terrified me being a little queer kid thinking, “Oh my God! I’m going to get AIDS.”
One of my first sexual experiences, for months I thought I had AIDS, just because it was a gay sexual experience. I would look up symptoms and stuff, it was terrifying. Super not healthy to do and super stigmatizing.
I think it was on Tumblr where I first saw Keith Haring’s art, he died in his thirties. His art had a lot of youthful energy, like queer youthful energy, and he was taken away so quickly.
CT: He was almost a martyred figure too.
M: Yeah, honestly. I guess I’ve been sort of attracted to martyred figures. So I got interested [about AIDS] through Keith Haring. I still have a lot of stigma that I’m trying to get over – like internalized more so, and less externalized. Through the work, and performing.
That number was very much about my angst about AIDS. Even though PrEP’s a thing now, and PrEP culture is a thing, people forget why we need that. I still think they act a little irresponsible. Not to slut shame anybody, this is a touchy subject and I don’t want to shame anybody. You just can have one bad night and it affects your life for the rest of your life.
I think you can still be sex positive while advocating for safe sex. I prefer not to call anybody a slut or a whore, and I don’t let anybody call me that either, but I’ll call myself that.
I have a second [drag] title, I call myself “The Whore of Babylon” a lot. I heard that through a Christian video game. “The Whore of Baylon” is just basically a figure of Satan. When I was sexually assaulted I didn’t recognize it for a year and a half. I just thought I made a bad mistake, it was my fault, I put all the blame on me. Through that, I called myself a slut and a whore. Feeling bad about myself. So adopting the religious title “Whore of Babylon” it’s like the devil’s temptation kind of thing vs. a martyr.
So I’m kind of exploring that, I’m trying to break out of the club scene into more performance art type stuff. I want to explore those characters more. I have a whole doctrine I’m working on.
I want to talk about AIDS a lot because I feel like my generation is forgetting it. That’s what I’m also working on my thesis right now, talking about AIDS and how it’s represented in museums. It’s a big important issue to me. I’m (HIV) negative but I feel like I should still be an advocate for information.
Some people, when I do my HIV number, it’s called Ignorance because it’s about my own ignorance, I take a pill of Truvada on stage, and people are like “Oh my God! You’re taking AIDS medication” but it’s like, “Girl, it’s one pill.” But sometimes I feel like it’s lost in translation, and some people don’t get it. I’m not shaming them, I’m more advocating for people to get informed. I even have a segment about why people aren’t talking about this, they have fear stigma and all that stuff. So I try to get other outside perspectives. I’m attached to it in a third person sense.
CT: I feel like with a lot of drag performers they have a lot of demons in their past. Has drag healed you in any way?
M: Absolutely. I’m still very shy. Still, in clubs, I’m like, “I’m not going to talk to you unless you talk to me.” It’s more of “I don’t want to bother you” which people read as “I’m better than you.” So in that way, I’ve gained some self-confidence.
I got some gender performative stuff re-affirmed. I also get to talk about tragedy in public. I love after a performance people being like, “Thank you for that.” That means the world to me. Like if I do it for a competition and the judges hate it, that’s whatever. But if someone in the audience is like, “Thank you.” I’m like, “No, thank you.”
I never expect applause or like people screaming during my performances. Honestly, I feel like I’m doing something wrong. But afterward, if I don’t get a comment I’m like, “What happened?” I usually leave people a little silent, which I’m such a fan of. I love it. It’s just expected at this point for people to not have a reaction. For some performances like my AIDS performance, and my performance called Birth which I talk about how I got my name, people have told me afterward, “I cried.”
Being open about personal pain is always good. I feel like I don’t really fit in the gay community, I’m the artsy weirdo. I feel like I’m the pariah of the pariahs. I love being not pretty, not being considered it.
CT: Where do you see your drag in the future?
M: I definitely want to do more performance art either in public spaces, museums, galleries, and all that jazz. Film I’m interested in – but also spoken word and bringing every element of modern art into it. I want to be a walking art piece. I feel like I have a really good story and mythology behind me, so I’m building that up.
I have a lot of public art ideas. I have done drag at The Whitney before, just to invade that sort of space. I would like to take a big group and do it. I feel like [drag] is an art form but it’s not respected as an art form. A lot of queens have told me I’m not a “queen,” I usually call myself drag adjacent. I usually just say that I’m a performance artist. I don’t want to say I want to break away from the club scene, but I definitely want to break into more art spaces. I think we deserve to be there.
About C. Tepper: C. Tepper is an active member of NYC nightlife, and has co-written the book The State Of Drag where she interviewed one hundred and seventy five drag performers with diverse backgrounds from around the world, while noting the history and future of drag culture. The State Of Drag is now available on Amazon.com.