It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
In front of a digitized, sterile-white church interior, drag queen Saliva Godiva is a spiritual antithesis. She is dressed formally, but in a black coat and tie more fit for a funeral instead of your weekly worship. And despite being in the house of God, Mini charcoal horns jut out of Saliva's mostly bald head and her mouth salivates purple. True to drag, Saliva's face is expertly contoured with metallic makeup. Her dark, full beard seals the look.
Saliva lip syncs a sermon. She begins: "In the name of Jesus… I execute judgement on you COVID-19."
All photos courtesy of the Shed of Shame.
In the digital drag performance, entitled "Saliva Godiva's Salivation of Salvation," fellow queens Mavis Gary and Luna C. join in for the roles of Jesus and the COVID-19 virus. When piano sounds start to rise, Saliva raps up the sermon: "When mean, oppressive, nasty diseases attach His people, the Prince of Peace takes his place."
A techno "Our God is an Awesome God" plays full blast. Scenes of Saliva lip syncing the lyrics are interspersed by Jesus attacking COVID-19 with noogies and a pink, bloodied chainsaw. And though COVID-19 creeps back in at the very end, Jesus and Saliva rejoice through dance.
When I spoke with Saliva over Facetime a few months ago, she was still planning the performance. Inspiration struck when she heard of all the people still attending church despite stay-at-home orders across the country.
"A drag house is basically your family that you kind of get as a performer. A lot of LGBT people just do not have families."
Meet the Shed of Shame
Religion is a recurring theme in Saliva's drag. For one, her main character is based on Satan, who she views as a comical being. She doesn't see Satan as someone who is bad, but rather someone who exposes bad. Saliva is part of a Birmingham-based drag house called the Shed of Shame, which also includes queens Angel Fazce and Sister Milky Juicy.
"A drag house is basically your family that you kind of get as a performer. A lot of LGBT people just do not have families," she explains.
As alternative queens, the Shed of Shame is part of a subculture of drag that emphasizes artistry over glam. Their performances are all about storytelling, as opposed to entertainment.
"Angel always has a solid concept with her numbers. It's not just a cute outfit to a song," friend and frequent drag attendee Jeffrey Morgan explains. "Occasionally Angel Fazce is controversial to some people, especially to those who are really ingrained in old-fashioned drag."
The Alabama drag scene does not have as much space for alternative performers like those in the Shed of Shame. The overall Birmingham drag community is centered around a pageant-oriented system, characterized by show girl aesthetics and Top 40 music. With drag brunches becoming more popular, Morgan notes drag in Birmingham is more than "just a nightlife thing." Nonetheless, people are in the mindset, Morgan explains, that "drag is there for them to be entertained" instead of being seen as an art form.
A rocky foundation
Because the pageant system runs the Alabama drag world, the Shed of Shame and other alternative drag queens are limited to certain venues in Birmingham. Angel hosts a show at The Nick, a bar ripe with rock history, known as the city's "dirty little secret." After the closure of The Chapel, a fetish bar, the trio found a home in another bar just around the corner, called "Our Place."
"It's very hard to find something you like in a city where you've had to make your own community over and over again."
"We're not the stock that everyone else picks from, and that's kind of OK," Angel said.
Due to the limited landscape of Alabama drag culture, Saliva recently moved to Atlanta, where there is a bigger alternative scene. She has the opportunity for more bookings, but plans to continue performing in Alabama and uplift the alternative scene.
"People don't stay here [in Birmingham] unless they've stagnated," Angel says. "It's very hard to find something you like in a city where you've had to make your own community over and over again."
See also: Queering politics in Georgia
Life imitates art
Drag itself clashes with the cultural milieu of the Bible Belt. In recent years, drag queens faced public backlash in Alabama when the state had its first drag queen story hour. Last December, Tommy Tuberville, who is running for Senate, posted a photo of drag queens on Facebook, condemning their presence at a Christmas parade.
Whether for critique or aesthetic purposes, religion is a storytelling tool for the Shed of Shame. Over the winter holidays, the trio retold the Nativity story. The Christmas-themed number featured Saliva as Mary and Sister Milky as Joseph. It centered on the moment when Saliva "birthed" Jesus, played by Angel.
"I'm really fascinated by how people interact with religion," Angel says. "I've got a lot of friends who are Jewish, Catholic, pagan, [but] nothing seems to have the ritual and the stereotypes of Southern Christianity."
When Angel started performing in 2016, her initial intent was to satirize a white Southern Baptist woman. Instead, the character became less specific so she could play with religious themes more broadly. Her costumes range from horror-inspired to a nun's habit.
One of her performances tells the story of a married man who is having an affair. As the story reaches its climax, the wife, played by Angel, decides to have her own fling. The ethereal music shifts into heavy guitars. Angel kisses her paramour and blood spills out of their mouths.
"At the moment where [we're] solidifying the physical affair, blood is running down our mouths as if we've killed something," Angel says. "I consider infidelity to be a very biblical thing. Maybe that was just my upbringing."
Angel was raised Baptist. She doesn't remember much about life before church, but knows they started going when her mom stopped substance use. The music was nice and so were the stories, but Angel had a hard time believing.
In hindsight, Angel thinks it probably wasn't the best idea to bring books about magic to church. She also recalls Wednesday Bible study. After about 30 minutes of going over some worksheets, kids had free play.
"A lot of my drag is really just dealing with a lot of those nasty topics and allowing people to see it in at least a comical manner so that they can either process it or normalize [it.]"
"That is where I learned about a nasty boys' football game called smear the queer," Angel said.
It was hard to go through all the rituals, surrounded by sincere churchgoers and pretending to have genuine faith. By middle school, Angel went to her parents crying because she realized she doesn't believe in God. They kept going to church until Angel was 15.
Now 8 years later, Angel does not identify with any religion.
Saliva, who grew up "extremely Methodist," stopped going to church at 18. She points to witnessing exorcisms and waking up most mornings to the yells of abortion protesters. Her childhood home was right across the street from a reproductive health clinic.
"Telling humans that they're not allowed to be human is really just kind of what it felt like," Saliva says. "A lot of my drag is really just dealing with a lot of those nasty topics and allowing people to see it in at least a comical manner so that they can either process it or normalize [it.]"
Echoing Saliva's mission, Angel says, "My entire purpose for performing is to find people who like the things I do and maybe provide them some sort of humor that they otherwise didn't think about."
Sister Milky looks forward to when it's safe for bars to open back up.
"The alternative drag queens in Alabama are definitely underrated and people should keep their eye out for them," she said. "Once we get back," Sister Milky assured, "we'll just come back stronger than ever."