Voices: What Lily Savage’s legacy means to drag queens like me

Voices: What Lily Savage’s legacy means to drag queens like me

Lily Savage – aka Paul O’Grady – has left a legacy and a deep imprint on both the drag scene in the UK and mainstream culture. My drag began on the cabaret circuit in London, given opportunities and advice from older generations of queens. These queens worked with legends and would often tell stories of Adrella, Regina Fong and, of course, Lily Savage.

Fellow drag performer, Myra DuBois, posted a story about Lily on Instagram this morning. On the night of a police raid of the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in south London, a scene that was common in the 1980s during the height of the Aids epidemic, Lily was arrested and taken to the police station. When asked for her name by officers, she replied “Lily Savage”.

When prompted for her real name, she replied “Lily Mae Veronica Savage”. A story that we on the cabaret scene have heard many times, but one that speaks to her as a strong-willed activist, who stood up for our community during the most difficult times. In the current political climate, we could take a lot of inspiration from her ability to resist and speak up for what she believed in.

As her fame grew, Lily became a staple of British television and allowed people to see drag, biting humour and queer culture beamed onto television sets and into the living rooms of families across the UK.

Having access to queer culture through drag and through Lily was invaluable to so many young LGBT+ people – and paved the way for more freedom of expression on mainstream television. Her legacy will continue to live on through the queer programming we watch today, through drag performers across the UK, and through those who watched and were entertained by her.

At this point in time, it feels like we’re at a crossroads regarding public opinion on queer artistry and drag. People seem to have forgotten, or choose to wilfully neglect, the fact that drag has been an intrinsic part of British culture for decades, if not centuries.

Lily was a focal point for the modern era of British drag performers and the acceptance of drag. In recent times, events such as Drag Queen Story Hour have been targeted by people using it as a Trojan horse to attack queer people, exposing the homophobia and transphobia that still blights our society.

The issue is not – and has not ever been – with drag, exemplified by Lily herself fighting for her community and still becoming a beloved staple in households across the country. Right-wing accusations of drag being problematic, predatory or perverse are contemporary thoughts; whereas drag artistry itself is historical and well-founded. The sad passing of Lily/Paul highlights this.

For me, Lily’s passing feels very personal, as my own drag mothers, aunts and family were contemporaries of hers. I think of Rose Garden, Lola Lasagne, Mrs Moore (among others) who have all told me stories of Lily performing at venues such as the Royal Vauxhall Tavern and the Two Brewers, where I first began performing myself.

Much of queer history is passed down by people in the community simply telling stories to the generations who come after that. Lily Savage is not just a part of British queer history, but a firm part of British entertainment history. She will remain an icon.

Tia Kofi is a drag queen from south London