JJML Lecture Series Featuring Drag Queen Naomi
By Mahreen Khan
John Jermain Memorial Library will be dressed in drag on Saturday, July 29, as part of its “With My Own Eyes” lecture series. Guest speaker and Sag Harbor resident Robert C. Kohnken will share his story with up to 70 people, as drag queen Naomi.
Saturday’s event was organized by JJML’s teen services librarian Mireille Stürmann, who attended high school with Mr. Khonken.
“Robert and I actually went to high school together, we’re both Pierson graduates,” Ms. Stürmann said. “I thought that it would be a good idea to start the ‘With My Own Eyes’ program up again, and I reached out to him to see if he might be the one to kick it off.”
The series’ first discussion was held in 2014, with guest speaker Ken Dorph, who discussed the history, misconceptions and politics of the Arab world during the inaugural lecture at Bay Street Theater. Despite the three-year hiatus, the staff at JJML plans to continue the series beyond Saturday’s lecture, on a bimonthly basis. Similar programs are being held at libraries across the country, Ms. Stürmann said, including a “Drag Queen Story Hour” just a few boroughs away in Brooklyn.
Mr. Kohnken, who has been in the performance and gender illusion industry for 10 years, and has worked as a makeup artist in Hollywood, first got his start in Orlando, Florida. Upon moving there for college, he experienced his first drag show and discovered that drag was much like the musical theater he was involved in as a child and in high school.
“It was almost more organic in my eyes,” Mr. Kohnken said, “where the people were interpreting the music how they saw it. How they wanted to portray their performance, how they wanted to look visually with what they were performing – it was something I had never experienced before.” With his interest piqued he decided to play the part, but quickly learned that drag is not cheap.
“It is such an art that you can really relate to being a starving artist,” Mr. Kohnken said. “It takes a lot of money to sort of transform yourself and to do it well and to do it professionally.”
As an aesthetician with his own skincare business, though, he learned how to take care of his own makeup and styling, and was able to forego outsourcing costs. His first show paved way for what would become a career in drag, including his position on the Pulse nightclub show cast.
“I’ve been an actor and a performer ever since I was very young, and I’m lucky that my family understands that I have sort of found my niche within the performance industry,” Mr. Kohnken said. “There are people whose families excommunicate them for reasons much less than this. For reasons of just being gay or just being themselves. When I told my family, it almost felt like I was coming out all over again. It had that same sort of nervous energy to it.”
Though Mr. Kohnken’s family and friend circles showed him support, not everyone is so accepting and willing to learn, which is a big reason Mr. Kohnken said he hopes people ask questions on Saturday.
“Unfortunately, in this world today, a lot of people do have this stigma against what drag queens are,” he said. “A lot of people think very negatively about them, and what I like to show is that this is art just like you’d see in a theater in New York or out in Hollywood.”
The existence of that stigma was made all too clear in the June 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, when a 29-year-old security guard killed 49 people and injured scores more. Mr. Kohnken was no longer working at the club during the shooting, but he knew people who were.
“That was probably one of the hardest experiences for me in my entire life,” he said. “Waking up that morning and finding out what had happened. My entire world came crashing down around me.”
During the lecture, Mr. Kohnken will not only discuss his own story, but also the history of the drag industry and its many subgenres, in an effort to tear down the barriers of hate. Going forward, he said he would like to get involved in similar, teen-specific programs, and possibly collaborate with Sag Harbor’s LGBT Network.
Mr. Kohnken and Ms. Stürmann said they would like to not only reach the older populations through this lecture, but also the impressionable, self-discovering young adult group.
“I’m a firm believer that teens are people now, but that they will also be adults one day,” Ms. Stürmann said. “I think that the more we can get used to each other and form a community, the better off we’re all going to be.”
The second discussion of the “With My Own Eyes” lecture series will take place on Saturday, July 29 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at John Jermain Memorial Library, 201 Main Street in Sag Harbor – Q&A session to follow. Seats are limited to 70 guests and registration is required. Call (631) 725-0049 or visit johnjermain.org for more information, or to register.