This January, nearly 750,000 people tuned in to watch up-and-coming drag queens duke it out in the most recent season premiere of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” But in the 1980s, drag was a largely underground movement—one controversial even within the gay community.
That started to change in the latter part of the decade, when legendary queens like RuPaul, Lady Bunny, and Tabboo! came to prominence at the Pyramid Club in New York’s Lower East Side. And Linda Simpson was there to document it all.
The drag queen, (also known as Les Simpson, per Artnet News’ William Van Meter) published many of her photographs of the culture’s raucous, campy coming of age in her zine, My Comrade. Thirty-five years after its first issue, the zine is getting its own exhibition at Howl! Happening in the East Village—and will debut its first new edition in 16 years.
On view through July 17, “My Comrade magazine: Happy 35th Gay Anniversary” features black-and-white images from the pioneering zine’s articles and photo spreads, as well as Simpson’s published color photos from the era. It also includes “never-before-seen images and artifacts documenting a revolutionary and seminal period in gay history,” per the Howl! website.
The new edition of the magazine will feature interviews with iconic queens from the ‘80s as well as newer performers along with the same kind of tongue-in-cheek reportage that made the magazine’s name decades ago, Simpson tells Dazed’s Miss Rosen.
Today, drag culture is out and proud. But in the 1980s, Simpson tells Dazed, it wasn’t widely accepted within the LGBTQ+ community due to the “rise of macho culture that came as a response to the horrors of AIDS.”
Things were different at the Pyramid Club. A Polish dive bar in its early days, it quickly became “a safe haven for freaks, geeks, weirdos, queers, and dreamers to come together and create,” Red Bull Music Academy’s Tricia Romano writes.
Hosting first performances of drag and music legends alike (the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Nirvana played early gigs there), the club drew prominent audience members like Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, Harvey Fierstein and Madonna, NBC’s Brian M. Sloan reports.
The Pyramid Club may have been joyous, but the HIV/AIDS crisis cast a gloom over New York’s gay community—ground zero for a pandemic that by 1990 had killed over 120,000 Americans, nearly twice as many as died in the Vietnam War.
“It felt like life and death circumstances back then—anybody could die,” Simpson tells Dazed. “… the times were so dark that I wanted to do something upbeat and defiant.”
Using a cut-and-paste method to assemble each zine, Simpson created a whimsical, quirky record of gay life in New York City. RuPaul and Tabboo! were cover stars, photo shoots included models in gender-non-conforming getups on New York rooftops, and a 1988 edition even featured a wistful fantasy of a gay marriage—one that would not have been recognized by state law for more than two decades. New York legalized LGBT and same-sex marriage in 2011.
Photographers Jack Pierson and David Armstrong also featured their photos in the zine, which was active between 1987 and 1994, with a short resurgence in 2004. Later versions were accompanied by a flip-side publication dedicated to lesbian culture and appropriately named Sister!
Simpson photographed the era prolifically—so much so that her pictures were recently released as a 250-page photo book called The Drag Explosion. The drag queen herself is still active on the scene and has found a new passion as one of New York City’s top Bingo hostesses. The Pyramid Club hasn’t been as long-lived: It closed in 2021 due to the pandemic after 41 years of operation, per Eater’s Luke Fortney.
Though the zine emerged from an underground movement among some of New York’s most marginalized, its modern embrace proves that drag has gone all but mainstream. Simpson’s own career is proof of that: Though she tells Artnet News her personal collection of photos are “precariously kept in shoeboxes in a closet,” she says the My Comrade archives are handled by an archival service.
“They sold my archives—get this— to Harvard,” she says. “So, I’m in the Ivy League, which is hysterical.”
“My Comrade magazine: Happy 35th Gay Anniversary” is on view at Howl! Happening in New York through July 17.