Bastille Day on the Wild Side is a big drag for the queens

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Wander the canyons of New York on a Sunday in summer and chances are that somewhere you will stumble on a street festival. Probably it will be an ethnic celebration, in honour perhaps of a Puerto Rican holiday or an Italian saint. What I found last Sunday was a block party with Bastille Day as the theme.

As I penetrate the crowds on Gansevoort Street in the meatpacking district in Manhattan's lower West Side, something tells me that this fair is going to be a touch different from most others. The fact that we are already 20 July - six days after Bastille Day itself - is not the only thing that is unusual here.

Pardon me, but that striking lady on stage there in the twenties flapper's dress - with biceps like that, doesn't she have to be, um, a guy?

Mais oui, ma cherie. This afternoon and night of frivolity and general ooh-la-la is most certainly not sponsored by the French consulate.

Rather, now in its eighth year, this has become an excuse for a coming together not just of the city's large gay population but especially of its drag queens.

Almost instantly, I am accosted by a 6ft girl with with dark, Paula Jones hair, false boobs that are not quite on the horizontal and a five o'clock shadow. She demands to know if I have yet recovered from our recent hot night in Monte Carlo. I had, I told her.

No sooner do I extricate myself from her than somebody else, not in costume, thrusts a flyer in my hand decrying Mayor Giuliani for allegedly shutting down "queer New York" with club closures and arrests of men in the World Trade Center lavatories. "THIS IS A SEX PANIC!" it screams, inviting me to seek further information on the Internet at sexpanic@geocities.com.

The mayor, who has made a political career out of sanitising the city, would not have cared for the entertainment that unfolds over eight hours on the stage erected at the cobbled street's western end. The boy-girl in the flapper dress is Sybil Bruncheon, mistress of ceremonies.

With torrents of innuendo, she introduces the myriad acts and conducts periodic raffle-ticket draws. Someone wins a case of strawberries from a shop called The Fruit Exchange. "No darlings, that is not a place to buy homosexuals wholesale!"

With trestle tables arranged in front of the stage with both lunch and dinner served to 500 people in two servings, Ms Bruncheon gets most mileage from jokes about the grand prize - a trip for two to Miami Beach. Accommodation, of course, will be in the hotel suite occupied by Andrew Cunanan before he allegedly murdered Gianni Versace. "Did you hear?" Sybil asks. "The police say Cunanan may be disguising himself as a woman. That doesn't seem so strange".

It is hours before the culmination of the day's events, held to benefit Housing Works, a charity offering shelter to homeless Aids victims in the city. At 9.30 the drag-costume competition begins, with Marie Antoinette as the appropriate theme. The material is mostly pornographic, but the fashions being worn are world-class. Being modelled on the likes of Girlina and Candis Cayne are creations donated by such designer notables as Yves Saint Laurent, Isaac Mizrahi and Oscar de la Renta. Ms Cayne is especially diverting in her all-leather bodice, cowboy hat and ancienne regime bloomers.

At the tables, the bourgeoisie have the best view of the stage, but we, the peasant rabble filling every cobbled inch of the rest of the street, get to choose the competition's winner by volume of applause. By 10.30pm we have a tie. Sharing the trophy - a guillotine in Perspex - are Chuiquita, who sang with astonishing clarity an aria from Catalani's La Wally and Mona Foot. Mona, black, six foot six and wearing a towering tri-colour wig, all but strips before us while lip-synching rap lyrics that would have sent Jesse Helms into paroxysms. Entitled "Let them eat pussy!", the song details Mona's preference for fellatio over penetration. With the show over, the mostly male, and mostly shirtless, multitudes stream into the Hell nightclub, also on Gansevoort. Suddenly, the name meatpacking district begins to assume new meanings in my head and I decide that it is time that I wind up my Sunday afternoon constitutional on the West Side. Make that Wild Side.

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