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28 October 2009, 11:00 am 9 Comments

TNG TV: High Heel Race – Laughing With Us or Laughing At Us?

This post was submitted by Zack Rosen

Every year on the Tuesday before Halloween, onlookers both gay and straight descend upon 17th St., DC’s gay mecca, for the Dupont High Heel Race. What started 24 years ago as a couple drag queens racing down the street for the hell of it has turned into the second biggest gay event in DC. (Though this year the event is being thrown under a First Amendment permit, which designates it closer to a political rally than a block party.)

The actual race only lasts for a minute or so, and most of the event’s draw is the pageantry preceding it. I’ve always been slightly wary of this event – as I am of any reason for straight people to make a night of watching gay people parade around in crazy costumes – so I was wondering if the High Heel Race is just a ridiculous party or has a higher purpose to it. Michael and I shot the above video to try and answer that question.

(One quick note- the vast, vast majority of women I talked to at the event were straight. When I say in the video that I finally found lesbians to talk to, I mean it. It took a lot of trial and error. I wasn’t just be lazy or reductive.)

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  • Brian Muller said:

    Excellent reporting Zack!

  • Tom A. said:

    Nice video! I tried to see the race a couple of years ago, but it was too packed with college kids. And some of them are sent by their professors? Oy.

    I did appreciate the well thought out responses by the straight kids watching the race. Spectacle IS ok from time to time, but I’m not sure how watching the high heel race supports the gay community. I guess it sounds good on camera! And I’m sure there is a lot of residual economic impact from the gay bars being packed on a rainy tuesday evening- which does support the gay community to a degree!

  • Ed said:

    It hurts my heart that Zack was so genuinely surprised by the level of support we have among heterosexuals. The straight guy who went to the race, the march and to pride is not anomalous.

    Most of my male friends are hetero and would go to any of those events. One of them even went to “Wet/The Edge” with me years ago, tipped a dancer or two, and danced with me on the dance floor. He is happily married to one of my best female friends. They’ve been married for more than a decade, have two gorgeous daughters and support full equality for all people. Two years ago, a really good looking heterosexual friend of mine (I met him when I was shooting fashion photography), hung out with me at the now defunct Be:Bar. He had fun, met new people, and was completely comfortable as long as guys respected him when he said he was straight.

    To be a homosexual who is so isolated that you don’t know that tons of those guys exist is really unfortunate. I don’t say that in an arrogant or condescending way. I think it would help so many queer people feel less alone and give them more options if they knew how much support we have and how many people love us exactly the way we are.

    A few weeks ago, a TNG staff question asked, “What does equality look like?”
    The question I have is, “Why is it that the heterosexual people understood that the race was about fun, but the TNG man on the street didn’t? He went there looking for a “colorful minstrel show,” an analogy seething with internalized homophobia (who was it that threw the first bricks at Stonewall?), and found the face of equality. It may not be on the books yet, but real, lasting equality exists in people’s hearts, not at the voting booth or on bumper sticker and posters.

    “Equality” looks like heterosexual people being asked about marriage equality and, instead of offerings a few token words in the affirmative, launching into unrehearsed statements in support of our right to marry and recognizing that our families are just as equal and important as any other.

    Perhaps the most touching part of this video, given that, initially, the context was to challenge the idea that a bunch of men in drag could play any role in community building, was the heterosexual woman who referred to the DuPont area, which Zack described as “our gayborhood” as a part of DC where she could go to feel a sense of community.

    I would say to Zack, “Dude, don’t feel like a dick because you’ve consistently trashed men in dresses and dismissed our heterosexual supporters. I would encourage you to use this as a learning opportunity and to reexamine other potentially dickish views you might have based on your admittedly limited experience as an openly gay man.”

    Oh, and I hope you and your camera person thanked the people you interviewed for their support.

  • MarkDC said:

    @ Ed

    Like you my closest friends are also straight guys but I don’t feel free to generalize from personal experience and pretend all straights are cool. The same way my friends and I don’t pretend all Gays are ok.

    I think part of the reason many Gay men don’t know a lot of cool straight people is because they’re clustered in cities surrounded by other Gays and a claustrophobic subcultural infrastructure that is impermeable. It used to be Gays moved to cities to escape persecution. Now Gays move to cities to escape themselves and reality…or because they’re bored. Separating themselves into hermetically sealed urban Gay worlds where they are inculcated as official Gays and everyone pisses Kool Aid.

    Heterosexual people think the race is fun because they can. Didn’t see “tons” of them at the National Equality March though.

  • MarkDC said:

    I thought Zack did a good job and look forward to more video. I do think the phrase “alternative queer website for alterantive queer people” is a little verbose and redundant. I also find it uplifting and good that Zack did not find the judgmental straight people he was expecting.

    A couple of points:

    1) Straight people are not gonna admit to hating Gays (if they do) surrounded by a swelling crowd of drag queens and people who love them.

    2) Straight people attending a Gay drag race are already cool which distorts your sample of average straight people on the street and pretty much guarantees they’ll be accepting.

    I wish TNG had gone to the anti-Gay marriage protest last Sunday in Freedom Plaza. That would have been interesting.

  • Ed said:


    Please show me were I said anything resembling “all” straights are cool. A person who thinks an entire group of anyone is any one thing is an idiot. Agreed? What I said is that the LGBTQ community enjoys much wider support than many of us acknowledge. http://www.pollingreport.com/civil.htm Look beyond the “yes or no” polls on marriage equality. A majority of Americans support legal recognition for our relationships. The “yes or no” polls ignore that. Please don’t make any assumptions based on the way I characterized the polls here. I was trying to be brief.

    I don’t hide out in the gay ghettos and the idea that gay culture is “impermeable” is something I am going to need you to clarify. Does the high heel race demonstrate that idea is incorrect? Some people might think you are saying that gay men are too stupid to move and too limited in our thinking to consider living someplace that isn’t hyper-saturated by all things gay. But, I’m sure that’s not what you meant.

    “Heterosexual people think the race is fun because they can.” What does that mean? Gays & Lesbians are incapable of seeing the race as a fun, community building event? Gays don’t have the luxury of seeing the event as fun? It’s funny because Zack went there with the impression that it was going to be a “colorful minstrel show.” Doesn’t sound like he was expecting much fun to me, but in the end he seemed to change his mind. Did we watch the same video?

    “Didn’t see “tons” of them at the National Equality March though.” Really? How did you gauge the sexual orientation of the hundreds of thousands of participants? Did you include my heterosexual friends who were “gay for the day”? They could have thrown off some of your figures.

    I take what I said back. The thing that hurts my heart is when gay men are unwilling to even entertain the idea that we might have support outside of the open-minded straights who would go to a high heel race, and the ones who voiced support? They what? Really hated us but lied to the camera? Again, I would hate to think that’s what you mean because instead of focusing on building community and working with the people who support us, it seems like you would prefer to watch video of a handful of bigots who couldn’t even fill Freedom Plaza.

    What’s I’d love to see is all the people who were at the high heel race show up at the next anti-gay protest. Completely surround them and show the world what a tiny minority they actually are. Just a thought.

  • Christopher H said:

    Dear lord… how about this theory? It’s just something fun to do and to watch. Maybe, just maybe, this isn’t part of political expression and simply a fun little tradition for a neighborhood? The costumes are what people go to see! The group’s that run every year but come with different theme costumes! Seeing Princess Diana in a three way race against Wonder Woman and Mother Theresa!

    Jeez…can’t anything just be FUN in this bloody town? Is your fear of being not listened to so powerful that you can’t even enjoy something that (let’s face it) ONLY our community has been able to do?

    Calm down, guys. Have a cocktail and enjoy the show once in a bloody while.

  • Brian Levine said:

    Many gay social events seem to get more sexualized than a comparable straight event. Could you bring your children to this race? What do people with children who live in this neighborhood think?

    Some gay people I know moved into urban areas, work in the arts and pursue a flamboyant lifestyle. Others get into monogamous relationships move to the suburbs and try to blend in. To me, it is a somewhat open question as to the relationship of these two extremes. I think your piece is an attempt to explore this question.

    I’m 60 years old. I would have liked it if you interviewed some older people.

  • Juanita de Talmas said:

    A significant proportion of the drag queen runners are straight men.