North Carolina Republican Candidate Pushes the Boundaries of Drag Art

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
May 5 2014 2:58 PM

Meet “Steve Wiles,” a Glimpse of the Drag Avant-Garde

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Steve Wiles (or "Steve Wiles"?)

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If any art form is an appropriate vehicle for satire, it’s drag. The best drag queens and kings are not merely gender illusionists; in fact, passing as the opposite gender is somewhat beside the point. The power of drag lies in its inherent ability to highlight and mock the absurdities and double standards that plague “normal” gender expression, so it’s only natural that truly talented drag artists would be just as skilled at applying their critical acumen to other areas—like the time I witnessed a favorite queen sneak a stage-blood-soaked critique of blood diamonds into a lip-synch to “Diamonds Are Forever”—as well.   

I begin with this little overture because it’s the context in which I insist on making sense of a bit of news that emerged from North Carolina over the weekend. The Winston-Salem Journal rummaged through the closet of Steve Wiles, a Republican state senate candidate and on-the-record supporter of the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, and found a few skeletons—skeletons who in Wiles’ case looked fabulous in an array of sequined gowns. As the paper reported, Wiles, now 34, was revealed by the owner and former staff member of a local gay bar to have spent part of his 20s working as the drag queen Mona Sinclair. Wiles has offered an arc of responses to the allegations over the past few days, ranging from initial vague denials to, more recently, apologies and talk of lessons learned. In any case, it's now clear that (in a maneuver seemingly lifted straight from The Birdcage) the would-be senator at some point decided to leave Mona behind in the pursuit of a more conservative, anti-gay lifestyle.

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It’s difficult to tell whether the primary voters in Wiles’ extremely conservative district will view this narrative as one of redemption or damnation; many on the outside are simply viewing it as a rank (or maybe sad) betrayal of the community that no doubt paid his rent in singles for years. But I’d like to offer a fourth, far more delightful interpretation: Mona is still with us, and she herself is doing a brilliant double drag act as “Steve Wiles,” the Republican politician!

I mean, think about it: The details of this story are too good NOT to be part of a genius act of performance art. “Wiles” is a “real-estate agent” who has changed his political affiliation twice since 2008—moves meant to solidify this persona’s biography, clearly. The Journal found evidence (since confirmed by Business Insider) that the real Wiles was once a promoter in the Miss Gay America drag pageant system, but he was suspended for “conduct unbecoming.” Perhaps his fellow queens saw the fresh, avant-garde directions Wiles’ work was taking in Mona-as-“Wiles” and couldn’t handle the competition; he wouldn’t be the first artist cast out of the Establishment for being ahead of his time. And then there’s this intriguing statement, recorded by the Journal:

“I do not condone the things I did when I was young,” Wiles said when asked about the amendment, declining to clarify what he had done.

Why not clarify? Because as any true creator knows, it is simply impossible to revisit art you have left behind. Mona-qua-Mona is in the past, practically forgotten, a little "embarrassing," and certainly no longer “condoned.” The artist’s present is fully occupied with realizing Wiles-cum-Mona-cum-“Wiles.” How else to explain “Wiles’ ” utter confusion—“Why is it even an issue?” he wondered in response to the Journal’s crude queries—at the very idea that “he” might have a past?

For my money, “Steve Wiles” is the most exciting, committed, boundary-pushing drag act I’ve seen in ages. I’m not sure if they’ve cast RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 7, but if not, I hope they offer a slot to this queen. The look she’s giving may not be glamour, exactly, but the mockery she’s making of the classic conservative hypocrite is just too gorgeous to ignore. 

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.

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