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Q&A: Performer talks ‘Split: Portrait of a Drag Queen’ ahead of The Archive’s screening

(Courtesy of “Split: Portrait of a Drag Queen”)

By John Arceno

April 29, 2021 3:17 p.m.

The light of legendary drag queen International Chrysis still emanates within the LGBTQ+ community despite her passing in the early ’90s.

To commemorate her legacy, the UCLA Film & Television Archive will hold a screening of the 1993 documentary “Split: Portrait of a Drag Queen” on Thursday. Available for streaming until May 13, the film explores the life of Chrysis and recounts her ascent to stardom in the New York nightclub scene all the way to her tragic death. A post-screening discussion will also be held with director Ellen Fisher Turk and entertainer Teri Paris as well as drag performer and wig-extraordinaire Steven “Perfidia” Kirkham.

Chrysis’ mentee Kirkham spoke with the Daily Bruin’s John Arceno about the legacy that his friend left behind as well as the relevance of “Split” in modern society, where the battle to bolster the rights of the LGBTQ+ community remains.

[Related link: UCLA Film & Television Archive honors Black cinematic pioneer Sarah Maldoror]

Daily Bruin: How does the film speak to the zeitgeist of the late 20th century where there was a lot of political and social unrest against the LGBTQ+ community?

Steven Kirkham: It was pretty profound. In a time when a lot of people didn’t understand trans or nonbinary stuff, (Chrysis) was someone that encouraged you to follow your dreams and follow your personal identity. It sends a very strong message, and although she went through waves of being troubled, … we all just loved her so much that it was a way to accept trans people as equals. They’re special, very special people.

DB: How do you think the film would resonate with audiences that might not particularly relate to the struggles of the LGBTQ+ community?

SK: It will be very informative, and it’s just a fascinating story about somebody that challenged the norms in an era when most trans people would get a full sex change and tried to go and live as women. She was one of the first to embrace having her dick – and that was fine. There’s a whole underlying scene called “chicks with dicks” that was born out of this scene of, “You don’t have to be a woman to be fulfilled, to be complete.” That was a pretty shocking thing in the ’70s when she started it and even in the ’80s, … because people did kind of put on trans people, “You’re a woman. … There’s no gray in between.” But there’s so much in between, and it’s nice that there’s acknowledgment of that.

[Related link: Alumna’s film details source of LA water supply, emphasizes Indigenous voices]

DB: What’s the importance behind bringing back this piece of work now, especially when some progress has been made to advance LGBTQ+ rights in the United States, keeping in mind that we still have a long way to go in achieving true equality?

SK: In some ways, a lot of things don’t change, and you just have to make your own families, your gay families. So that was a lot of what Chrysis was to many people that were marginalized, “If your parents don’t love you, I’m going to love you, and on top of that, I’m going to turn you into a nightclub celebrity.”

There’s one part in the movie where it says something about how she created Chrysis, and then she just lived it. Because once (she) had all that surgery, there was no really going back to being someone in the middle. That’s very interesting because that can be sad sometimes, when people become their persona and have to light up and be this character as opposed to being more true to themselves, because she hid a lot of her pain from people as performers do.

DB: What do you think people can learn from Chrysis’ life, and how can they honor her life today?

SK: I would suggest that people dive into LGBTQ+ history because it’s fascinating, especially the New York drag history that links us to the Warhol generation. Those were all friends of hers, and through her, I met Holly Woodlawn and all these incredible people and the queens that come in the movie ”The Queen.” That movie is amazing – it shook me because I love the ’60s so much.

And maybe “Split” will have the same effect on the kids that weren’t there. They always say, “Oh I wish I had been around at that time of the New York drag explosion.” It’s fun as a historical piece. In the end, most gay teenagers can relate to something there, and it will forever be a good story in that way.

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