You Should Know… Jill Raney



Photo Credit Jonna Huseman

Jill Raney, 34, grew up in the Bible Belt, occasionally going to church and singing with the congregation’s choir. But since attending the University of Virginia, they (Jill uses they/them pronouns) have become a self-described “mildly radical Southern queer Jewish feminist drag king dancin’ machine” and running Practice Makes Progress, a non-profit they started four years ago to teach anti-oppression skills.

What is Practice Makes Progress?

I worked with a lot of non-profit organizations. I did a lot of work with LGBT and female equity work in smaller non-profit organizations. After a terrible and short-lived experience with a non-profit organization undergoing a change in leadership, I decided to start my own.

Practice Makes Progress teaches digital strategy and anti-oppression skills to progress-minded people. In 2019, I’m focusing on massively expanding the number of people who participate in [one of my workshops], Anti-Awkward Anti-Harassment.

How many people work with you?

It’s just me. I kept it small on purpose. That way, when I do start hiring staff, I’ll be able to give them the income stability every one of us is looking for in a job. I’m [also] looking to expand it into a worker-based co-op so that it isn’t me and a bunch of underlings.

What was it like growing up as a Jewish, queer kid in the South?
It was not fun. My mom is Presbyterian, which still wasn’t Christian enough for some of the people there. I didn’t have much of the Jewish experience growing up. I figured out I was queer during college, and that’s also when I really started to embrace my Jewish identity.

What brought you to Washington?
D.C. was the closest city to where I went to college. I didn’t put much thought into [moving here.] But I’m really glad I moved here and it’s where I want to spend the rest of my life.

Does your Jewish identity influence your work?
Absolutely. A lot of my work is influenced by the Jewish practices of tikkun olam and teshuvah [repairing the world and repentance]. I grew up in the Bible Belt where there was this idea of absolute forgiveness, no matter what, which I didn’t really agree with.

I think that now my work is subliminally influenced by Jewish ideas. I don’t purposely put them into work, but they have been subconsciously embodied in my work for a long time.

What’s it like being a drag king?

There was a group of us who performed at UVA. We were the McPenis family. My stage name was Shawn McPenis. I was the only who kept that name [and continued performing.] I was once active with a group called the DC Kings but the last time I performed was in 2011, 2012.

There are things I learned from performing that I use in the way I lead now. It really helped me learn how to read a crowd. It [also] helped me explore my gender identity and roles. I’m neither a woman or a man. I’m non-binary.

How did you get into being a drag king?

I’ve always loved performing. [When I was younger] I was a theater kid and in choir, but there was always a religious bent to it. I still go out dancing, but I don’t perform.

How does a drag king differ from a drag queen?

Definitely a lot of the cultural stuff was different. Drag queens have to spend a lot more [time and money] into performing femininity; I didn’t have to do that as a drag king. I just had to throw on some clothes. n

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