Patrick Cash speaks to legendary drag queen Lavinia Co-op about gay liberation, performance and trans activist Marsha P Johnson. “Marsha did a show in a loft,” reminisces the softly spoken Lavinia Co-op, as he recalls early 80s New York. “It was by Jimmy Camicia from the Hot Peaches. Jimmy said: ‘Marsha, you go out there and introduce the show.’” 64-year-old Lavinia, grey-haired but sharp-eyed, smiles to himself in his flat full of vinyl records. “And Marsha had such a lovely way. She said to the crowd: ‘I’m glad you’ve come here, you must have had a hard day at work, but we’re going to try and do as best we can for you. And now, I’d like to welcome you to… Concentration Camp!’” The pause from 80s New York flows through to Hackney Downs 2015. “And Jimmy’s hissing: ‘It’s not Concentration Camp, it’s Concentrated Camp!’” Lavinia’s eye sparkles wickedly as he remembers. “And Marsha says: ‘Yeah, I said that! Concentrated Camp!’” We laugh together. “She could steal the show,” says Lavinia, as his smile fades. “She wasn’t a great performer, but she could be herself. She was very real.”
Marsha P Johnson was one of the most prominent New York drag queens. She’s renowned in LGBT history for fighting in the Stonewall riots of 1969, leading to gay liberation. Lavinia encountered her when his UK drag troupe Bloolips, lead by Bette Bourne, performed a 1981 stint in the US. “She was a pan-handler, a beggar,” says Lavinia, over a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit. “She’d go up to the flower market, get flowers and put them in her hair. People would come up to her and say: ‘have you got any money?’ And she’d give her money that she had, and she’d be asking you for spare change. She put it all in her sock.” Who did she give the money to? “She looked after street people, she was protective of other trans people. She found people places to live. You didn’t have mobiles, so Marsha would phone you. ‘Have you got any money?’ we’d ask. No, she didn’t have any money, so we’d say: ‘come on over.’ People looked after her, and gave her things.” I begin to feel the powerful sense of community amongst out and visible LGBT people at the time. “She was a very warm, black queen,” continues Lavinia. “She’d done a show in London with the Hot Peaches too.”
I ask Lavinia, also known as Vin, to tell me about himself. “I’m an actor, singer, dancer,” he muses. “Working-class, born in Hackney. I was working as a dresser in the theatre, and I went to go and be a teacher in a college and I couldn’t stand it. They all went: ‘you’re gay.’” This was 1971, a few years after the legalisation of homosexuality in the UK. “I had all this attitude,” he continues. “After about six weeks, I thought: ‘this isn’t worth it.’ Why not go to a drama school?” Vin ended up at the Martha Graham dance school, and Lavinia Co-op was born later that year in a friend’s rural Irish cottage. With none around them, the gay boys could explore new ways of being. “I thought Lavinia was too posh, so I put Co-op on the end. We went to the woods to make fire. You just got into playing character.” I ask Lavinia what is the best thing drag performance has given him? “One of the biggest things, for me, was being myself. Not having to be like something. You sort of discovered: you’re okay the way you are.” I nod.
Lavinia has many other stories to tell, including the tale of how the 1980s AIDS crisis changed the LGBT community. But our conversation’s ultimate reason is Marsha P Johnson. I ask for the end of Marsha’s story. “She drowned in the East River,” he says, rolling a cigarette, staring out the window where Hackney pulses below. “It’s just so weird. She knew that neighbourhood. Unless somebody pushed her in… You think: why did she die?” We spend a moment of silence, before I ask my final question. Why is our history as gay people important to us a community? Lavinia thinks. “You gotta know where you come from, and where you’re going to. Men in dresses goes way back. And it still is an issue… How come a man putting on a dress is still questioned, or people freak out?”
The Marsha P Johnson Film Club begins with a showing of the Marsha P Johnson documentary ‘Pay It No Mind’, with performances from Lavinia Co-op and prominent trans poets, at Vogue Fabrics, 66 Stoke Newington Road, N16 7XB on Tuesday 6th October. 7.30pm, £3 entry.