It’s a warm Saturday night in Santa Rosa. A hundred or so people are crowded into the back yard at the Whiskey Tip, a venerable bro bar on this old California farm town’s west side. It’s cabaret night, with a lineup of local bands and comics on a makeshift stage and three hours in the drinking vibe has gotten loud and blurry.
Moments after a particularly naughty jokeslinger has exited to loud applause, the MC steps to the mic and quickly announces, “Gay Henry!” There are titters as a strapping six-foot-plus fellow walks onstage in a shirt blouse, black tights, and cherry red stilettos, a demure Coach purse dangling from one shoulder. His powdered white face absorbs the spotlight. "Hey everybody," he waves goofily. "I just wanted to talk about why online dating sucks.” Abruptly that voice switches to another, twinkishly earnest. He begins to deliver a kind of New Age soliloquy that eventually concludes with, “I do take you, precious moment, to be my moment… I… am yours.” The crowd’s laughter couldn’t be more awkward, as now the voice of a small girl appears, dolefully advising among other things that “the reason we play sports is because we do not have suspense in our lives.” It’s slowly dawning on the audience that Gay Henry isn’t speaking, he’s lip-syncing.
The performance hits a gallop, a precisely mouthed collage of contradictory observations, dumb boasts, and weirdly channeled gestures and facial expressions. One long section, a pained male voice ranting at men who wear skinny jeans and “share lipstick with their girlfriends”, never loses the audience. In fact the degree to which all these party people are riveted to the stage is a little startling. Fifteen minutes later, Gay Henry climaxes with a show-stopping acid vision of Judy Garland belting ‘The Man That Got Away’, and they’re roaring, the biggest ovation of the night.
Gay Henry is Guy Henry Mueller, a twenty-nine-year-old musician from the nearby hamlet of Guerneville. Populated by equal parts LGBT folks, old-guard hippies, and working-class descendants of its pioneer loggers, tiny Guerneville is a model of Northern California tolerance. Guy grew up there. His mother, Laura, and a shifting scene of community characters were his family, watching and encouraging through years of dance lessons and music making. In his teens he formed and joined a succession of punk and indie bands, admired for his abilities with drums, guitars, keyboards, songwriting, what have you. “He was an absurdly talented kid,” says a family friend.
In this progressive hothouse he was also accustomed to the theatrics of local drag queens. These included the River Sisters, a genderfuck contingent of Guernevillians who regularly appear in public as glittered-up, slutty nuns. They’re town heroes for both their cracked humor and relentless fundraising for local causes. Guy refers to his home town approvingly as “definitely a place for freaks”.
Along the way a side project took shape. “Simply from me being bored with always doing rock ’n’ roll, I started making experimental sound collage,” he says. “That turned into performing to them, with video projected onto myself moving around, kind of Butoh-esque.” Eventually the collages grew speaking voices, bits sampled from Youtube videos that he lip-synced precisely in the performances, to both funny and unsettling effect.
One night with friends at an Oakland bar that featured drag shows, he was handed an idea. “The queens weren’t lip-syncing very well and my friends all started telling me, ‘You should do this, Guy. You’d be way more entertaining.’” He quickly saw how drag held possibilities to frame the voices that he was collaging. Something clicked. Soon enough face powder and peculiar combinations of feminine attire worked their way in. Classic drag hand gestures and sass began flickering across an otherwise masculine surface. Guy Henry, who years earlier kids had teased as “Gay Henry”, took on the intended slur as his performance name.
Many are surprised to find that Gay Henry is heterosexual, though he paradoxically considers himself anything but straight. “My upbringing was very queer, in every sense of the word. I was raised by a wild pack of lesbians, my mom and her friends. When I came into my own I realized that I did not identify with very many straight people, even some who were close to me. I found myself constantly challenging what they had to say.”
Sampling vlogs, infomercials, how-to videos, and tv dialog, his performances are an antennae for the peculiar textual churn of the internet. From youtube he sampled a video of a little boy on a swing singing “The Rainbow Connection”, his dad just out of frame on piano, mom videotaping it while prompting the kid with whispered lyrics. “I lip-synced the whispering,” he laughs. “That was at a hip-hop show. I was the only non-rapper there.”
Indeed the venues for such odd work are surprising, an example of queer culture making inroads. At first he simply bombed punk shows, showing up and asking if he could perform. “I didn’t really have any art contacts, just punk contacts. But I provided a change from their usual format. It became four bands of white dudes rocking out on guitars, and suddenly in the middle came me lip-syncing about sex and culture.” It’s punk in that it laughs at and embraces the egregious, the stupid, the human. Audiences saw what Gay Henry was aiming for, and now his name gets on the flyer too.
A lot of women have been responsive to his dislocating sense of style. “That’s the interesting thing about stepping away from traditional drag, which is kind of I’m-presenting-as-a-real-woman-hence-aren’t-I-so-funny misogyny. Women have been made fun of enough.” Others have accused him of that current bugaboo, cultural appropriation. “Some people even question whether or not I’m allowed to be Gay Henry at all. I’m not sure that’s their place. The work itself is a reflection of what other people say, strewn together in a narrative to create my own message. What that message is, however, I may still be trying to figure out. Who am I? I’m not quite so sure. Growing up in a somewhat difficult childhood, I’ve always mimicked people as a way of survival, a way to teach myself how to live. Gay Henry feels like a continuation of that process. There’s definitely an opportunity to express things as Gay Henry that wouldn’t otherwise be taken seriously if it were just coming from Guy.
In a post-RuPaul world, he says, his generation has moved past old notions of crossdressing. “There are so many new drag subcultures. They’re nothing to do with what you’re seeing on television, which is being sold as the template still, but is really just driving old archetypes into the ground. There’s so much more to be said now.” For example? “Gay Henry started as a mere form of raw expression without knowing the exact message of what was being said about myself or the world. But as I continue to work through lulls and general process, criticism and introspection, naturally Gay Henry is going to show Guy Henry some things about himself. Maybe Gay Henry is a public way of talking to Guy Henry, regurgitating other peoples’ words as backhanded advice to myself of how or how not to act.
Guy has now relocated eastward to Minneapolis. It appears to have been a smooth transition for Gay Henry as well.
“I think that I was pretty lucky in being able to come here and find Gay Henry fitting in with the queer punk scene. It was an easier transition than I anticipated. But lately people know what to expect so there’s less of a shock value. It’s inspired me to branch out. More of the shows now use male voices. I’m in drag, but not so much female-presenting. At a recent show I had bleached slicked-back hair, leather jacket and boots, velour pants and a chiffon shirt. Greaser goth. But I also did a piece where I wore high heels and a skirt. I had a little kid’s piano that I bought at a thrift shop. I beat the shit out of it until it was nothing, then started the show. Not conforming to what’s expected of a drag queen.”