Scarlet Oh! is the drag name of Joan Van Ness, a woman who held the title of the 1994 Homecoming Queen in the predominantly Gay community of Cherry Grove, Fire Island. Van Ness became the first female to win the title, which had traditionally been held by a male. The election of Van Ness as the reigning drag queen, which in her case meant a woman dressed as a man dressed as a woman, subverted established categories for who can take on what gendered identity-performances.
The Homecoming Ball
Each year at the Homecoming Ball in Cherry Grove, a Homecoming Queen is selected to represent the Grovers (citizens of Cherry Grove) at various community events, including the Invasion of the Pines, which takes place each July 4th weekend in conjunction with a neighboring resort town, Fire Island Pines.
On May 30, volunteer firefighter Joan Van Ness and two male companions decided to honor a male friend of hers who died of AIDS by dressing Van Ness up as a drag queen and entered the contest. After trying out a few different ensembles, they decided upon a sleek, scarlet-colored gown. Her friends noted that Joan lacked an appropriate drag name, her response to which was a flabbergasted “Oh!” so she decided to call herself “Scarlet Oh!” When Scarlet Oh! arrived at the ball, she made her way to the stage and was chosen to be the new Homecoming Queen.
Tensions Between Lesbians and Gay Males
In the history of Cherry Grove’s Homecoming Queen competition, the Queen had never been female. Joan Van Ness’ victory brought out tensions simmering between Gay male and Lesbian factions within the community.
From the 1930s until the 1970s, Lesbian presence in the community shifted from constituting a small affluent group of “ladies” to more working class “dykes” and “femmes.” Gay culture during the latter part of this time focused on Gay men, thereby excluding Lesbians from most aspects of Grove festive performance. During the 1970s and 1980s, however, Lesbians became increasingly visible in the community as they began owning more property and became actively involved in various social forums, in part due to the rising death toll in the Gay male community due to AIDS in the 1980s. Yet Gay men still dominated in numbers and influence, and Lesbians were sometimes subject to discrimination.
By the late 1980s, the growing Lesbian presence was met with outright hostility by some men who felt women were beginning to take up too much room in what the men considered to be their public space. During the Homecoming Queen competition in 1994, these tensions resulted in controversy. Although many people supported Joan being Queen (applause at the ball indicated the crowd’s favor alongside support given to her in the local newspaper, The Fire Island Tide), Scarlet Oh!’s appearance and victory in a formerly all-male drag competition was seen by some men as a serious challenge to Gay male dominance in the community.
When Scarlet Oh! assumed her queenly responsibilities, there were hateful slurs and threats of community event boycotts. The local newspaper contained scathing reviews, charging Joan and other women with an attempted takeover of the Grove, and perhaps the most vitriolic accusation, that women were exploiting the AIDS crisis by scavenging the homes and traditions left by the men who had died. But Thom “Panzi” Hansen, the Grove’s first Homecoming Queen, defended Van Ness.
Scarlet Oh! and Gender Subversion
Even though Van Ness won the pageant, anthropologist Esther Newton says the victory nevertheless represented indirect acquiescence to male power. Lesbians had to either choose not to participate in the event, or to participate on the terms that were defined by men. Wedges were driven between Lesbians in the Grove as well as between Lesbians and Gay men. Despite Joan Van Ness’ protests that her decision to enter the contest was never meant to be political, Queen Scarlet Oh! brought gender issues to the foreground. The controversy initially split the community, but it also forced factions in the population to engage with each other.
The Invasion of the Pines is an annual July 4 event that commemorates the time in 1976 when a male Cherry Grove resident in drag was refused service in a Pines establishment. In response, a group of drag queens and women in macho leather outfits caught a water taxi to the Pines to protest. The protesters arrived singing “God Bless America.” Stunned bar patrons, who were delighted with the impromptu pageantry, welcomed them to the bar and bought them drinks.
On July 4, 1994, Van Ness played the traditional role of Homecoming Queen in that year’s re-enactment of the Invasion, and once again challenged assumptions of what constitutes proper dress. Thousands of cross-dressing women and men gathered at the Ice Palace in Cherry Grove and the pier at the Fire Island Pines for the annual Invasion of the Pines, which would begin with a ferryboat ride that transported hundreds of drag queens, drag kings, and their fans from Cherry Grove to the Pines pier. Queen Scarlet Oh! was escorted by three women, one in an elegant white tuxedo while the other two were dressed in formal naval officer’s gear. The general sense of hilarity (and the pageantry of Scarlett Oh! And her escorts) minimized remnants of animosity.
Awards and Fundraising
Over a decade later, on August 28, 2008, the Cherry Grove Community Association, Inc. (CGCAI) presented Joan Van Ness with a Community Service Award for her work on behalf of Grove organizations, including CGCAI, the Arts Project of Cherry Grove, the Fire Department, the Dunes Fund, and the Doctor’s Fund.
Van Ness has also contributed a recipe for Drag Queens Can Cook—Recipes You Can Sync Your Lips Into, a book written to raise money for the Doctor’s Fund that features recipes from renowned Grove/Pines drag queens. The book itself is patterned after an evening of entertainment, with “Pre Show” (appetizers), “Main Stage” (main courses), and “After Party” (desserts). Van Ness’ recipe is for “Queen Scarlet Oh!’s Brownies,” bringing to mind Lesbian icon Alice B. Toklas’ famous recipe for haschish fudge (also known as the Alice B. Toklas brownie).
The story of Scarlet Oh! is outlined in Esther Newton’s book, Margaret Mead Made Me Gay. Without Newton’s research, this article would not have been possible.
Gelbert, Bruce-Michael. “CGCAI Honors Joan Van Ness, Frank Santoro & Pierre Galarneau.” Fire Island Q News. Aug. 2008. http://www.fireislandqnews.com/2008/08/cgcaiHonors/437.html.
Lee, John. “Joan Van Ness Speaks Out.” Fire Island Tides. 1 Jul. 1994: 13, 17.
Newton, Esther. Margaret Mead Made Me Gay: Personal Essays, Public Ideas. Durham: Duke University, 2000.
Schwartz, Helen R. “Homecoming Queen Is A Woman.” Letter to the Editor. Fire Island Tides. 1 Jul. 1994: 13.