TAPS Workshop Presents: Mori Reithmayr, “Identity as Liberatory Practice: José Sarria’s Performance Archive, and the Making of Nelly Queens, 1953-1963”


 Co-coordinators: Jamie Lee & Jennifer Williams

Faculty Advisors: Professors Jessica Baker & Julia Rhoads 


Identity as Liberatory Practice: José Sarria’s performance archive, and the making of Nelly Queen, 1953-1963”


Mori Reithmayr, Post-Doc, Oxford University 

Respondent: Fabien Maltais-Bayan

December 5th, 2023 | 1:30p-3p

This paper offers a revised account of Latino female impersonator and gay activist icon José Sarria’s celebrated Black Cat operas (1958-1963). Using Sarria’s neglected performance archive – recordings of opera revivals which included routines, songs, and speeches from the original performances – I argue that Sarria’s operas did not simply assemble a ready-made gay audience as often assumed. They were productive events where a gay audience had to first be encouraged, sung, and ridiculed into being before it could then be mobilized as homophile activists. Recovering Sarria’s role as a key contributor to the process of mid-century gay identity formation underlines the capacity of gay activists to bend identity toward liberatory goals and broadens our vision of the available activist tools beyond the frequent focus on print media to performance-related tools. It also complicates common historical narratives about the smooth transition from a gender performance-based to a sexual partner choice-based system of homoeroticism, and helps us see the contingency, open-endedness, and instability of this historical process.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *