Laurie A. Greene nicely sets up her newly published Rutgers University Press book, “Drag Queens and Beauty Queens: Contesting Femininity in the World’s Playground,” with the following: “This book describes a process of evolving community identity in Atlantic City, New Jersey, by examining the dynamic relationship between a pair of spectacles, the iconic Miss America Pageant, and its drag counterpart, the Miss’d America Pageant, both important to gay life in the once vibrant and now abandoned New York Avenue gayborhood.”
Greene, an anthropology professor at Stockton University, located just outside Atlantic City — hyperbolically dubbed the “playground” in the early 20th century — intriguingly continues with, “The Miss America Pageant has been described locally as the ‘gay holy grail’ despite its reputation as antiquated and irrelevant in most urban environments. The Miss America Pageant’s connection to Atlantic City and the gay community there run deep along both economic and social lines. The Miss America Pageant is admired by the gay community in Atlantic City, and the gay male and drag community in particular, because of its long social and economic impact on the area, and because the pageant is understood by gays as essentially a camp performance.”
The anthropologist then quickly explains the idea of “camp” as “a complex and much debated phenomenon that includes parody, irony, humor, contradiction, and theatricality. In addition, camp is a decidedly gay sensibility, but more particularly, a gay male sensibility with strong influences on gay male identity in Atlantic City.”
And while one may take up that debate with Green on that final point, that is part of the spirit of her 232-page book — one that offers some fresh ideas in the current discussions regarding gender while focusing in on an overlooked side of Atlantic City — the history of the city’s former gay epicenter, New York Avenue.
As one chapter title says, it’s the place where “the party began.”
My interest in the subject is simple. I’m a former Atlantic City resident who lived in a hotel a block away from New York Avenue during the district’s heyday. So, I would often get an eyeful from both the flamboyant life on the avenue and the Miss America Festivities on the boardwalk. And since the book focuses on a quintessential New Jersey icon, I wanted to learn more.
My only concern was the book was going to be a polemic and top weighted with theory.
However, that wasn’t the case. Greene is an interesting and unpedantic guide — one willing to spend the time to explore concepts of a sense of place and to provide the history to make it come alive.
As our guide to the city’s history, Greene sets up the scene nicely: “New York Avenue, and the gay scene in Atlantic City, existed well before the historical period relevant to this study (figure early 1970s to late 1980s). In the first half of the 20th century, as Atlantic City sought to market itself as a premier resort destination, gay life occurred by and large in the shadows, and gays experienced harassment, incarceration, and violence. Gay bars and clubs were raided; liquor licenses were revoked by the ABC (the New Jersey liquor control board); and bar owners were fined or occasionally jailed.”
Greene notes that in 1967 the owner of Val’s Bar on New York Avenue challenged the liquor board’s closing of the bar because of the “presumed presence of gay men and women on licensed premises,” and support from the Homosexual Law Reform Society sued the state and won — two years before the more famous Stonewall suit in New York City.
The result, reports Greene, is that New York Avenue “turned gay” and “exploded.”
Then she focuses on one of the street’s main epochs, around the time I would see broad-shouldered men in gowns and stoles sashaying down the boardwalk and onto the avenue: “In the 1970s, New York Avenue was becoming an epicenter of a vibrant gay scene. In its heyday, it boasted 11 packed clubs on one block and a cabaret presenting drag shows and other entertainment. New York Avenue was the place to be seen, the promised land for many gay people.”
Meanwhile, as she puts it, New York Avenue “shook, boogied, and rocked” while “the rest of the city rotted away from neglect” during a limbo-like period of time when the city was no longer a desired vacation destination and the casinos were a dream. (To get a feeling for the era take a look at the film “King of Marvin Gardens” filmed in Atlantic City in 1972).
Interestingly, casinos, which failed to rebuild Atlantic City’s minority neighborhoods, also played a role in ending New York Avenue’s nightlife. As Greene writes, “The first casinos in Atlantic City opened in 1978, and New York Avenue was tagged as a casino development zone. Business owners on New York Avenue cashed in on development schemes, but developers and investors failed to follow through with plans, leaving torn-down buildings and empty, trash-filled lots in the placer of popular clubs and board houses. After tearing down all the properties on New York and St. James Avenue, the Mint Group reneged on the development deal, and to this day the lots remain vacant.”
What remains is the impact of the Miss America on Atlantic City’s gay community and the annual Miss’d America Festival — which contributes funds to LGBT charities and causes.
It’s here Greene delves deeper into the social uses of beauty pageants and the psychology of men who perform as women and offers some interesting and unexpected insights.
Noting that traditional beauty pageants related to the performance of gender are not about femininity or beauty but an “enactment of cultural values,” Greene argues that drag pageants, “through the use of parody, bring into harsh focus the heteronormative values by which conventional notions of gender are upheld and alternatives to these conventions are expressed.”
She adds that the ritual character of beauty pageants allow the questioning of conventional beliefs and behavior in an accessible and nonthreatening context. And that “it is through the evolution of these rituals of pageantry and the acceptable enactment of alternative roles and identities that we can witness culture change and observe mechanisms of power, and strive to create and maintain values, beliefs, and practices.”
Using research, including references to noted gender theorists Judith Butler and Michel Foucault, and the contest as a lightning rod for feminist activism, Greene notes some interesting aspects of the Miss America contests.
One is that the contest used the popular stage to promote tolerance by opening the contest to religious and racial minorities, open lesbians, and women with disabilities — all of whom had been crowned.
Another examines the idea of the pageant as a process that promotes social manipulation, allowing the contestants themselves to weigh in — as one says, “We’re up there because we want to be up there.”
Contestants, continues Greene, “claim elements of liberal feminist discourse as part of their self-presentation, with statements about self-confidence, assertiveness, the importance of careers, and perhaps most importantly, the agency contestants possess.”
Likewise, despite the camp and theatricality of drag performances and pageants, Greene connects pageantry to a venue for accessing power. And that through the competitions process “queens vie for power and status (symbolic capital).” The result is that the winner acquires “great status and prestige through the meaning expressed in ritual performance and competition as champions of homosexuality. Rather than losing power, as one might presume, by identifying as female, drag queens gain power through successful performance, and in this sense construct their symbolic masculinity.”
Additionally she allows the drag performers to share attitudes and views of the practice that go against some common perceptions. For example, one performer refutes the idea that drag queens mock women. Another sees it a starting point for discussing gender. Another refutes the idea that they went to be women — or that all drag performers are gay. And finally one goes against the idea of adopting social constructs: “The way that I act on state of present myself on stage, when I get dressed, put on things, it just takes over instinctively. The costume draws something out of me, which is already there. It is natural. My male persona is more of a performance.”
Tying the history of Atlantic City, and its gay community, to the history of Miss America, Greene concludes the book with looking at the city’s current cultural life and the impact that the contest’s move from the “World’s Playground” has affected its cultural life — best summed up in a quote by an Atlantic City Press writer, “Taking the pageant out of Atlantic city was like taking the Packers out of Green Bay or taking the Mummers out of Philadelphia. It means more to us. It’s part of our local identity.”
Yet as Greene demonstrates, part of that identity is more than skin deep.
“Drag Queens and Beauty Queens: Contesting Femininity in the World’s Playground,” 232 pages, $24.95 paperback, Rutgers University Press.