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This instance of drag is not about becoming woman but about becoming bird.

My feature article “Gay Is the Thing with Feathers” explores the role of feathers in LGBT+ culture, addressing the topic with joy and delight, longing and desire, and utmost seriousness. Why, I had wondered, did feathers undergo a twentieth-century shift from serving the aesthetics (and hats) of well-to-do cisgender women to sitting squarely in the realm of camp – and, as I asked one of my informants, “at what point did gay men look at these showgirls with their feathers and say, ‘That’s what I want?’” These initial questions spurred me on to interviews with burlesque performers, a theatre maker, a costume designer, a performance curator, and a bird-loving biologist, all of whom were generous and brilliant in helping me formulate answers. But we also addressed further twenty-first-century shifts that have begun: ethical questions about cultural appropriation, gender performativity, and animal welfare might change feathers’ status as costumes and props in the queer community and beyond.

In selecting imagery for the publication of this story in Orion (in print and online, Winter 2023), I decided to embrace the transition that some performers are making from the reliance on animal products to the use of alternatives, be they artificial plumes or other materials that evoke the sensuality we associate with feathers. As performance artist Rudy Jeevanjee had mesmerised me with their carmine-coloured raffia headdress that I first mistook for ostrich plumes, I knew a portrait of them would serve as my visual cornerstone. From there, I didn’t have to look far from home, as theatre and dance photographer (and my partner) Helen Maybanks has masterfully captured iconic feathery looks on the LGBT+ stage: her production photos from Angels in America at the National Theatre and Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake at Sadler’s Wells were powerful and perfect. They helped convey just the right tone, that tension between spectacle and gravity underpinned by yearning.

“Gay Is the Thing with Feathers” was part of Orion’s first self-proclaimed love issue, Courting Desire: Romance in the Climate Crisis. The issue was sponsored by the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), whose editorial committee contributed truly invaluable feedback on the draft of my piece.

Main image above: Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Part Two: Perestroika, by Tony Kushner. National Theatre, London, 2017. (Photograph by Helen Maybanks)

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