Oaklash 2021: Ingenuity, inclusion at Bay Area drag festival

Illustration of the Bay Bridge with Oaklash Oakland drag festival aesthetic
Armaan Mumtaz/Senior Staff

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To kick off Pride Month with a bang, there is truly nothing better than a weekend full of the nonstop queer festivities that composed Oaklash 2021, “the Bay Area’s drag and queer performance festival.” With the bulk of the festival’s programming running from May 28-30, Oaklash seamlessly pivoted to the needs of the pandemic with ease, streaming the entire weekend’s programming over Twitch. In all ways, the festival was a stellar success, showcasing queer artists’ ingenuity in adapting to whatever medium possible, keeping the essence of drag intact.

As part of its virtual format, Oaklash championed accessibility throughout the weekend. Providing ASL interpreters for every event and closed captions for all the prerecorded content, the festival’s organizers made sure the event was as comfortable as possible for all audiences. While this should be the case at every virtual event, enforcing the idea that queer spaces, in particular, should be inclusive is essential, especially in regard to those with accessibility needs. The entire festival was also financially equitable with a highly suggested donation of $10 in addition to tips for the individual performers, making it entirely accessible to all audiences watching from their homes, while still ensuring the artists and organizers were equitably compensated for their time. 

Featuring a mix of local names, such as Freddie, as well as national names such as “Ru Paul’s Drag Race” competitors The Vixen and Alaska Thunderfuck 5000, the festival skillfully balanced out-of-town and local talent to provide a whirlwind weekend of outstanding performances. All of the performers made sure to make innovative use of the festival’s virtual setting; there was no absence of spectacle in the livestream format. 

With performers utilizing green screens, extravagant costumes, creative makeup styles and engaging choreography, the virtual platform allowed all performers to shine and showcase the elements of their unique drag styles, pushing the boundaries of drag as an art form even from the artists’ own spaces. Masterfully balancing hilarity with information, the hosts for the mainstage events excelled at casually keeping the energy going between acts. With audience participation through Twitch’s comments feature, the active participation of the queer community essential to a festival such as Oaklash was never absent and uplifted everyone in attendance. 

While drag would be nothing without its performances, Oaklash has a necessary emphasis on uplifting the queer community, especially Black transgender women, through educational programming focusing on the Bay Area’s housing crisis, systemic racism and growing economic inequality. In alignment with this mission, the festival hosted a myriad of educational workshops and presentations throughout the weekend, including the “Drag and Disability: A Dialogue and Showcase” hosted by LOTUS BOY; “Harm Reduction is Fundamental” hosted by Kochina Rude and Charles Hawthorne; “Gentrifuck My Drag! History, Hijinx and Housing” hosted by Mason and Diego Gomez; and “Digital Activism and Community Building” hosted by Mocha Fapalatte.

The “Gentrifuck My Drag!” seminar in particular emphasized the oppressive nature of the gender binary in an informative look at the historical notions of queerness. The seminar commented on the need to decolonize and demystify drag history in its present form, especially as drag becomes more mainstream and prone to whitewashing and depoliticization. As the revisionist history of gender is also one uplifted by white supremacy, the seminar noted, anti-racist action is especially necessary in queer spaces. As a learning tool for further queer organizing in the coming month, these events excelled in energizing and informing queer people to go forth and do work after the festival’s end for the good of the community. 

The festival also made sure to shine a light on Black queer performers in particular with the “Reparations” lineup Friday night, hosted by Nicki Jizz. The festival recognized the blatant appropriation of Black culture by the queer community at large, especially in its language and aesthetics, hoping to provide a tangible space for social change as well as material gain for Black artists. The festival’s stance that drag and queerness are inherently political acts is incredibly notable, especially as the festival emphasized the necessity of queer liberation in opposition to simply queer acceptance, an especially important focus during Pride Month. 

Oaklash’s 2021 offerings reaffirm that anyone can do drag, anytime, anywhere and in any format, no matter the circumstances. There is truly nowhere better to celebrate queerness than Oaklash, as the festival is focused entirely on the unyielding empowerment of the queer community and the local artists it encompasses. 

Contact Caitlin Keller at [email protected]. Tweet her at @caitlinkeller20.