Arts Issue - Art, sex, and the fluidity of gender

‘Reality is a playground. Gender is a playground.’

Poke and prod commonly held assumptions about gender, sex, and sexuality and endless opportunities for creative expression will reveal themselves. In his 20s, Jared Dawson went from being a pastor-in-training to coming out and creating the drag queen persona Lavonia Elberton. Sunni Johnson curates the art porn site Cum Manifesto, and its associated print zines, with her partner, B. Here, they discuss upending common tropes surrounding gender and sexuality through their art, how the South influences their work, and the importance of more people contributing to this ongoing conversation in Atlanta.

On self-identity and creative identity:

Jared Dawson: The are a couple of points I want to hit with this, the first being presentation of femininity because I think, especially in drag culture, you sort of have this minstrel show of femininity; this buffoonery of the feminine, where gay men appropriate the space of the female body and usually essentialize it down to, “I’m a bitch” or “I’m a slut,” and we get these very narrow views of what is possible for feminine expression. One of the things that is super important for me is to remember to honor the space that I am taking up as a male-bodied person who’s assuming this female-bodied space. Is what I’m presenting furthering a cause, or is it just insulting to what it is for the spectrum of femininity?

... One of the ways that I aspire to be different is music choices. I steer away from racially insensitive language. I call people witches instead of bitches. Lavonia is a witch. She’s like the ever-woken, charged to walk this earth and remind everyone that they are light and love and intrinsic magic, here to have fun. I bring my poetry practice into it. ... I like to call it high camp. It’s still lowbrow, but it’s like high-grade lowbrow.

Sunni Johnson: That’s why I really like what you do. ... There are very few drag queens here actually breaking that mold. I feel like in other cities they’re more aware of how to be respectful of people and for it to be more an expression of art.

On body image and cultural norms:

S.J.: Sex positivity definitely is a big part of her projects. We do sometimes do retro porn for the paper zines that are kind of weird just because the set-up is strangely artistic, but it wasn’t trying to be, like raver porn from the ’90s or space porn from the ’80s. The people that we’ve been working with directly are part of a community that is body positive, that doesn’t see sex as being shameful. ... There’s very normative hetero and gay porn and sometimes not enough in between, I feel like.

J.D.: One of the things that I tend to access in the performances I do is the creation of a third gender space. Most queens attempt to look like women as much as they can. ... I leave all my body hair on. I perform with a beard and stripping down to just a jock strap is a pretty regular Lavonia thing. ... I love nothing more than performing on Edgewood, and I leave the venue and I’m walking away and there’ll be a group of men behind me and they start to catcall and holler and I’ll be like whips his body around “Yeeees?” and they’re like “Fuck! What is that?” I just started being like, “You wanted to fuck me a second ago but here’s the whole picture.” Reality is a playground. Gender is a playground. You can be sexy as a man, you can be sexy as a woman, you can be sexy as some combination of the two or some space completely outside of that binary.

On religion, sex, sexuality, and spirituality:

J.D.: I grew up in the church the son of a pastor. I didn’t come out until I was 21. I went to Christian school my entire life. I went to Bible college. I was going to become a pastor. As I got more and more aware of the fact that I was gay, it only heightened my religious fervor. I assumed that this was god’s test of my faith. So, needless to say, that created some tricky psychological spaces for me to negotiate as I left the church, as I left my understanding of God, as I left really my entire life expectancy, as I grieved everything that I thought Jared would become and floundered for a good couple of years.

S.J.: The thing about growing up in the South in regard to feminist issues, specifically, is the Christian input of trying to repress female sexuality, which is also kind of strange because there’s also the whole mother/whore thing that’s expected in a strange way. Men want their wives to fulfill them, but they also want them to be saints at the same time. They go to strip clubs all the time, but they would never actually date a stripper, and it’s like, why not?

J.D.: You obviously like it.

S.J.: I think a lot of it is punishment mentality — I’m going to use you up and make you feel like shit as a way to deal with my own guilt in regards to sexuality.

J.D.: There’s nothing more sexual to me than the whole daddy/son relationship between god the father and god the son, with the subservience of the humans beneath them and all the kneeling and the taking of the body ... I dunno. I think growing up Christian just turned me into a really kinky sex freak. ... If you get outside of the rules it’s just really sexy, and I don’t think they meant for it to be. Christianity borrows so much from pagan traditions. Sex played such a role in other systems of worship that it’s just sort of like you try to get the sex out of it but you can’t. It’s impossible.

S.J.: Sex magic.

J.D.: Sex magic! So much fun. Everyone should be having sex magic.

On Atlanta and the South:

J.D.: I would say that being Southern factors in to a) my aesthetic, b) my subject matter, and not necessarily what I try to confront but to hold the mirrors up against. ... One of the things I appreciate about the South is there is just a different articulation and understanding of the gothic and the grotesque in the South that I don’t really find other places. You go to cities in the North, and it’s like it’s all set up on a grid and everyone’s taking their money and walking really quickly and talking really loud, and you go to the South and it sprawls and spills and takes up space.

S.J.: Atlanta is a stepping-stone for a lot of people.

J.D.: I hate that. I understand and feel it for my own career, but it’s like there’s work to be done here. Atlanta has this fantastic malleability to it. I’ve gotten more stage time here than I would have anywhere else because Atlanta is hungry. Atlanta needs these things to happen. It needs people to stay here and see this work through.

S.J.: There are things about Atlanta that you won’t find anywhere else. It is a smaller community, and it is easy to grow here if you want to.

J.D.: ... I don’t think I would’ve ended up a drag queen if I hadn’t grown up conscious of the fact of how weird I was to the people I was around. ... I have a lot of hope for what’s coming out of the South artistically because not only is it an attempt to create and add to an existing national and international dialogue, but it’s an attempt to heal a region of America.

This interview has been edited and condensed.