by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
It wouldn't be Pride in Seattle without controversy. Leading up to Pride weekend, it began like it always does. Some community members didn't like the Pride Parade theme. Others did not agree with Seattle Out & Proud's decision to raise the entrance fee for politicians to march in the parade. And, once again, the community found itself asking Space Needle officials to raise the Pride flag atop the Needle as a show of support for the LGBT community.
But then something magical always happens. I don't think anyone can quite describe it exactly. However, it is a tangible thing. Pride weekend arrives and we come together as a community and celebrate. There are more smiles, more hugs and kisses - more everything - all weekend long. It's fabulous. It's amazing. Pride is a party that is as much a part of our community as our quest for equality is. And no matter how much boo-hooing some spectators may do, annually we continue to celebrate all things LGBT, including people getting naked in the Seattle Center fountain, hot young men in their underwear - and, of course, drag queens.
Mama Tits is definitely a drag queen, but you could hardly describe her as 'one of those.' In fact, Seattle's Skyscraper Queen (Get it? She's tall!) will tell you that 2012 has been a banner year for her. She is, literally, here, there, and everywhere. She social-networks people to death and performs at events ranging from the parties and brunches she headlines to fundraising events and LGBT youth-focused events. In other words, when RuPaul told queens, 'You betta' weeerk!' Mama Tits heard him loud and clear. Work she does - and the crowds can't seem to get enough of Mama.
On Pride weekend, Mama Tits pulled off one of the smartest public relations moves I've ever seen. Dressed from head-to-toe as the iconic Seattle Space Needle, she was the single most photographed person of the weekend. Debuting the dress while performing her duties as a Pride Parade announcer, with the real Space Needle looming in the background bereft of the Pride flag, Mama Tits' Space Needle Dress proudly waved the rainbow-colored banner that has come to mean so much to LGBT people around the world. The imagery was striking. While it seems fitting that one of the tallest drag queens on the planet wore the dress (she tells SGN she's 6 feet, 6 inches out of drag, but add pumps and a wig and you're talking an 8-foot, in-your-face, out-and-extremely-Proud drag queen), it wasn't her height that had anything to do with it. What caused so many camera flashes, laughter, smiles and, in some cases, tears of joy, from people who saw her was the fact that Mama Tits was making the bold statement that the LGBT movement is alive and well and that entertainment and political or social statements can - and do - coincide.
The very moment Mama Tits put on that dress, she overshadowed the Space Needle and all of the bullshit that the 'will-they-or-won't-they-fly-the-flag' argument brought the community. Brilliant.
SGN spoke with Brian Daniel Peters, the man who created the Mama Tits character and who served the community for many years as Sister Stella Standing of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, The Abbey of Saint Joan, about the infamous dress, community service, and the campaign to Approve Referendum 74.
The first thing Peters wanted to tell SGN readers is that, although the dress was his concept, there were other people who deserve some of the credit for making the idea a reality.
'Jamie von Stratton built the frame out of PVC pipe and sewed the gown together,' Peters said. 'BenDeLaCreme created the wig, which lit up and had a lightening storm inside of it, a nod to the rain we experience in the Pacific Northwest.'
'It was a true collaboration,' he said proudly.
It doesn't take a genius to figure out that a dress - or art piece, depending on how you look at it - costs money: in this case, over $1,000. It is safe to say that in 2012, most people simply don't have that kind of cash set aside. So Peters explained that, with the intention of promoting something intrinsically Seattle while announcing the Pride parade, he reached out to the community for donations. Although he was clear about his request, some members of the Seattle drag community objected, saying what he was doing was inappropriate. The reaction caused Peters, a man who has devoted so much of his time and talent to raise awareness and funds for the LGBT equality movement and HIV/AIDS epidemic, to take a step back and reflect.
He reached out to friends, business owners, and community leaders for advice, and many of them, including me, told Peters to go for it. Peters set out on a mission and, through individual donations and a pledge by the Grill on Broadway to cover 25% of the cost, raised the money needed to pay for the construction of the Mama Tits Space Needle Dress.
Peters and I discussed why some people scoffed at the idea. After all, we are in the middle of a costly campaign to keep our state's marriage equality bill intact. And there is also that whole tired bitchy sniping thing that some drag queens feel obligated to do. At the end of the day, however, Peters told me that it was the positive reinforcement and words of encouragement from members of the same community as his detractors, that helped him come to the decision that, yeah, this wasn't going to be everyone's cup of tea - but it will make an impact.
It is important to note that Peters - whether in or out of face - is a vocal advocate for LGBT history and equal rights, and continually urges people to Approve Referendum 74 in November. The fact is entertainers like Peters help raise far more than $1,000 annually for the community. Whether or not you like the guy - or his character - is not the point. The community will always embrace those who work to support and fund it. In this case, because of the work he's done and continues to do, Peters got the dress made.
'The symbolism of the dress was to represent the city, which I love,' said Peters. 'The City of Seattle, from the mayor on down to the City Council members, is in support of marriage equality. Space Needle officials gave some lame-ass excuse as to why they wouldn't fly the flag and that really got to me. I get that the Needle is not owned by the city. But guess what? When you buy a city icon, ultimately it doesn't belong to you. The Space Needle will always belong to the people of Seattle, figuratively speaking. So I decided I would fly the flag on the next best thing - Mama Tits dressed up as the Space Needle!'
While Peters admits that he had no way of knowing beforehand that the Pride flag would not fly atop the Needle this year, once he learned that it would not, he knew Mama and her dress would become the talk of the town.
And not just the town: Mama Tits became the talk of social media. SGN photographer Nate Gowdy captured images of Mama during the Pride parade and the SGN Facebook page, where the images are posted, tells the story of a community that liked the dress more than Peters could have ever imagined. In all, Mama Tits and her dress got more 'likes' (nearly 1,000) than any other images throughout Pride weekend.
Peters takes his role as a drag queen seriously. 'Stonewall was the birth of our revolution and a drag queen had the balls to start it all,' he said. 'People love drag queens being a part of Pride. We have always been there. We are such an amazing part of Gay history.'
'Pride is a celebration that we can all take part in,' he continued. 'But, big picture, it isn't just for us who live in the Queer community of Emerald City. It is a show of support and love for all those people who travel to Seattle after sneaking away from places where they are afraid to come out of the closet and where discrimination against LGBT people is normal practice.'
Peters says these visitors want to 'come to the city to be over-the-top Gay. What is more over-the-top Gay than a drag queen?'
Pride is still a protest. It is maddening that so many in our community don't get that. Until we are no longer second-class citizens demanding equality, our very existence as a community remains a political protest. Armed with the knowledge of our past and motivated by the work that still needs to be done, Peters pledged that Mama Tits would impress upon Pride audiences that there has never been a better time to get actively engaged in our movement.
'My mantra is to entertain and educate,' he told SGN. 'We, as entertainers, have a responsibility to do good whenever we can. Our first and foremost job is to entertain - but right next to that is the obligation to use the microphone to help educate people on our cause.'
Peters reminds us, 'It can't always be fun and games.'
'There are people in this world who have been attacked, disfigured, and murdered because of who they are,' he said. 'There are LGBT people in jail, lives ruined, out of work. We cannot forget them and we must honor them by advancing our movement forward until we achieve full equality.'
Peters ended our interview, with his partner Daniel Jason (DJ) Klaudt at his side (they met 11 years ago at Pride, moved in together one month later, and have been a happy couple ever since), by allowing me to see a vulnerable, yet enduring, side of himself. 'The character Mama Tits and the Sister of Perpetual Indulgence, Stella Standing, are message characters. I really want people to know that. Through these manifestations I've grown to become a better person. It is not all about me. I worry incessantly about the perception some might have of me - that I am selfish because I entertain audiences and promote the events I am involved in.'
Peters admitted, 'I am HIV positive. The larger-than-life character that is Mama Tits, and the activism and community work she allows me to do while entertaining people, touches my soul. I have something to live for.'
'I look around and I see entertainers who only say, 'Look at me! Look at me!' and I don't understand that,' he said. 'Yes, I am going to entertain you, and audiences look at me, but my goal is to give them something. I say, 'Look at you.' People need to feel something and in today's society it's all go, go, go. I challenge people to look at yourself, look at the person next to you, because when we look at each other - and really, truly see each other - we can begin to have fun. Because we then recognize just how amazing our community is.'
Mama Tits is a part of a very robust drag community that exists in Seattle. For more information, visit www.PinkIsTheNewEVERYTHING.com, or catch her as the host of Elektro Pop! Thursday nights at the Baltic Room, and at the Grill on Broadway for Mimosas with Mama, Sunday afternoons from 2 to 4 p.m.
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