it's a sunny spring day in east london as my friend gareth and i stroll up and down the same block in dalston three times. 'where the hell is it?' i ask. 'i have no idea; i've only ever been here while drunk in the dark,' he replies.
finally, we manage to spot the narrow façade of dalston superstore and sheepishly dart inside. before my eyes can adjust, dr. sharon husbands swoops down on us, bending over - she's a full head and shoulders taller than anyone in the room even in flats - to give us each a hug. she's an hour into her second stint solving people's life problems over brunch in her new monthly live show, ask dr. shaz!
'this is my friend, gareth,' i say lamely (they've met). she booms out a frenetic greeting in her american accent, and shows us our options for seating. she's got the carrie bradshaw wig on with a kaftan, and she's in show-mode. we take our seats and she retreats back to a corner next to the bar where the duchess of pork is dj-ing.
we're hungover, but that seems to be the vibe; one of those lethargic, sunny sunday afternoons following a night in with friends. everyone has managed to make it out of the house, but probably couldn't manage much more - staff included. we order some of the special cocktails entitled 'spill the t,' which go down nicely.
the format becomes apparent quickly enough. patrons write their pressing questions on slips of paper that dr. shaz collects as she mingles and mosies amongst them. every half hour or so, she takes the questions she's collated and does her best to provide insight, often grouping the questions thematically. every now and then she does a 'rapid fire' round, in which she attempts to answer the queries in one word. the questions vary, covering everything from sex and love to death and shit. some are jokey ('how big is the biggest you've ever seen?') and some are deep ('if nothing is forever, how can we think of death as permanent?'), some are universal and some are private, but dr. sharon treats them all with the same earnest, probing curiosity and dry wit.
if one is enlightened about anything by the time one's finished one's eggs, it's that none of us have the foggiest about this thing called life.
afterwards, we had a chance to talk to shaz about answering questions and giving advice.
alex foley: what inspired you to take on the mantel of agony aunt? How did you decide to translate the forum into a live show?
dr. sharon husbands: i don’t shut up. that was sorta the start. and i’ve been a teacher now for about 13 years. and so you get used to having “an answer.” but really i was interested in the years i spent on doors in east london clubs, and the hundreds of people who would either use my presence as a sounding board. i listened to far too many break up tales and far too many sti scares and far too many ketamine laced fantasies. i got used to finding ways to listen and respond that a) actually was interaction with these folks (they needed it!), and b) was real advice.
that and i saw that fucking alanis morrissette got an advice column in the guardian last year and i was livid about it so had to make an event to deal with that.
doing a live event is always my answer to my issues and desires. i’ve been performing since i was 14 and i only know how to work things out in the space of performance.
plus i have a phd, so ya know, people can wank to the title.
af: i'm going to try and ignore that dig at alanis. with all due respect, who do you think you are to offer people advice about their lives?
sh: well, as i said i have the credentials.
'the real secret is that gay does not equal loneliness but that life is fucking hard. gay couldn’t index as such; it’s a new possibility in the matrix of human identity. human existence is fraught with abjection, it qualifies us our experience.'
but also, advice is about a certain framework that i’m really interested: asking better questions. learning to do performance or research or marriages etc is about asking new and better questions. freud got that bit right: listen closely and ask more questions. when someone asks me “what should I do?” i hear the request for associative thinking, for more to chew on, for the the thing they’re terrified to ask.
no one better to terrify you then a drag-thing like me.
af: there have been some interesting articles recently - i’m thinking specifically of the article by michael hobbes on gay loneliness - on mental health and coping strategies in queer people. what, in your opinion, are the challenges that cause many queer people to become maladapted?
sh: ya know, i remember watching a film called “green plaid shirt” when i was a young girl, just understanding the scope of my queerness. that film was the umpteenth film that i’d found about gay boys and i was trying to take them all in and learn what gay was and how i fit into that. i didn’t.
and the film made me angry. another film about how if you’re gay you will find love but it will be ripped away. and you’ll be a melancholic mess forever because love is only available at the sake of pure loss. that’s a “post-aids” narrative the homonormalisation, in its early forms heaped on young queers in the 80s and 90s. before the aids pandemic became a material reality for us all (and by us I mean every human on the planet, not just gays/lezzers/queers), the closet was homonormalistion. secrets!
the real secret is that gay does not equal loneliness but that life is fucking hard. gay couldn’t index as such; it’s a new possibility in the matrix of human identity. human existence is fraught with abjection, it qualifies us our experience.
everyone is fucked and everyone is fucked up and everyone wants to get fucked.
so if that’s the basis then fabulous. let’s find some glitter, some good music and have a party (do the uppers or downers of your choice – and trust me people are more downers than most of the class a’s i intake).
af: what moment stands out to you from your first show?
well, that’s harder to answer now that i’ve done my second one. what stands out from the second event was that nearly all the questions were the same flavor as the first event. people wanted to ask, publicly, about their desire to change their lives, their fear of sex, and their confusion about how to ask about feelings.
i think at the first event what stood out the most, then, is the person who asked me “how much is too much?” because, ya know, that question is fucking huge. how do we gauge our personal tipping points when we’re constantly regulated towards a norm that that is impossible to stabilize?
af: you and i are from the same very rural state in the us. do you think there’s a qualitative difference in the neuroses people exhibit in a place like maine compared to a metropolitan city like london, or are people pretty much the same the world around?
sh: people ask the same kind of questions but the scope is different – and different subjectively. some of my family has never left maine, or not for long enough to know difference; to have felt difference. I remember moving to boston and then nyc and loving those first four to six months in each city where i didn’t know anyone. it felt like i knew everyone and everyone knew me in maine. i like the anonymity of the cities that became my homes.
i got to approach my experience of feeling different, of feeling oblique to the norm – of understanding queerness – only after i left. that they may have not left is not to damn their relationship to their selfhood; it’s just to say that their relationship with otherness will be different.
we all need to understand our attachments; it’s just we take different paths. that's so wanky!
i’m trying to say what i already said: we ask the same questions.
af: drag has always struck me as a defence mechanism - a suit of armour for faggy kids to don that enables them to become temporarily impervious to the barbs of the prototypically masculine men that dominate gay culture. it also serves to neutralise some of the animus of straight men by making oneself less threatening. how has dr. shaz helped you cope and grow?
sh: sharon was, in her early days, one of a host of characters i played. sharon was more loveable, maybe. or more approachable than the others. she was the loudest version of me, she was the most honest version of me. when i moved to london i didn’t perform as sharon for a while. i didn’t think she’d translate. but i did the character, and people liked her. i started to do her 2-3 times a week, or more, and so the lines between sharon and me blurred. she is my schizoid lover; the voice in my head that says the cruelest things to me and the most loving things about others.
she isn’t interested in being armor for a faggot; she’s interested in being a vehicle for a voice that didn’t know its platform.
she screams when i'd whisper; she runs when i'd walk. she cries when i won’t.
af: i think in the current political climate there’s a definite fatigue amongst the political left. what tip do you have for queers trying to keep their sanity in the age of trump?
sh: in the trump/may terror-field i think my only advice is to create space for the kind of life-world that you need to keep going. what that doesn’t mean is believing your queer bubbles are real, safe or viable. they are precious and necessary and capable, but they can be destroyed. our queer bubbles never let us imagine that trump/may could take hold. so now that they have to be capable of a real queerness – of learning, gatherings and creating athwart that which would seek to dismantle difference.
af: what is a piece of advice you wish someone had given your younger self?
1) put the cake/booze/drugs down, sharon.
2) you make the best friends – just believe in their ability to sustain you.