Small-town Drag

Portlane, Maine had a different smell in the air. It smelled floral, and salty, and fishy, and the air on my skin was wonderful. Every second business advertised lobster in some form or other, be it bisque or sandwich or roll. And, most surprising of all, there were Pride flags everywhere.

“God, I love these north-eastern towns, with their progressive, inclusive attitudes, and their fresh air. I swear, anytime I come to Vermont or Connecticut or Massachusetts, everywhere is perfectly lovely and being gay just isn’t a thing. I always forget what it feels like until I make it back here.”

My sister Sheri smiled. She lives in Massachusetts with her wife and has been out here for years. “It’s pretty great, isn’t it?”

We rounded the edge of Back Cove and headed into the downtown area of Portland. We’d been gabbing constantly, about family dramas and life changes. She and I connect on a deep level, having grown up together, and sharing the experiences of adolescence and life. We understand each other.

Sheri understands why I travel. I spend very little money, in the scheme of things. Plane tickets, lodging, and the ability to just walk the streets of a new place. It’s spiritual to me. It’ grounds me, quiets the demons, awakens my spirit. I write more. I find little pieces of myself. I make no plans, and instead just see what I find. Local coffee shops, hikes, restaurants, and bars. I watch people. I listen, think, center, and get inspired. It’s fantastic what I find what I didn’t realize was missing in the first place. And Portland was already teaching me things.

The night before, my best friend and I had delicious food while listening to amazing jazz music. Then, while he went off to a national forest for a day, I went into deep contemplation mode, something I hadn’t realized I’d needed. At a local coffee shop, I sat with a warm mug and a blank sheet of paper and I set goals. I looked backward and then forward. I watched the cute gay couple who owned the space interact with their customers. I saw a woman with a puppy in her lap seem so sad. I watched an elderly couple take turns sipping form the same mug as they read the newspaper side by side. The ocean air blew in and a falcon soared outside and it was all exactly what I needed.

Sheri and I wandered in and out of bookstores. We ordered mushroom ravioli. I had a nibble of an edible, and then we headed to the local gay club, a place called Blackstones. This was one of those old gay bars, one that had been around for decades, since the late 80s. In a place like Portland, gay people could go anywhere and just be integrated, part of the community. But back when this bar was built, it was a refuge for them, a place to meet other people like them. It had a crowded long bar, a small dance floor with a pool table, and two bathrooms. On this particular evening, they had pushed the pool table up against the wall and turned it into a stage for the drag queens to perform. The room was small but a few dozen people crowded in and I happily took my seat against the wall to watch them all.

2000 miles from home, and in a relatively small city, yet dozens of gay men and straight women (so far as I could tell) were here to watch campy local drag. There were young college guys, heavyset older men, nerds and jocks and yoga instructors, black and white, one man in a wheelchair. Some clutched drinks, some sat solo, some hooted and hollered while others watched the show silently. Many pulled out dollar bills to toss up on the stage when they wanted to show support.

The first performer was a drag queen that I gathered had been performing at this bar for literally decades. She called herself a transexual (a label that should only be used when the individual chooses to use it), and clearly had had breast implants. She held one arm to her side protectively, and as time went on I realized she had likely had a stroke of some kind and was performing her in spite of it. She was likely in her mid-60s, and she opened the show in a blonde bob wig and a sparkly dress, lip-synching belted out Barbra Streisand tunes as she strutted up and down the stage posing. She came back in a new dress and wig for a Lady Gaga medley, then later in a school girl outfit to sing Oops, I Did It Again, by Britney Spears. She was… adorable. Startling. And clearly having the time of her life.

“She is living her best life,”: I whispered and Sheri laughed and agreed. I can only hope to be living my truest self when I reach that stage in life.

Three other drag queens performed. One desperately needed help with her costuming and makeup, but my word could she sing. Another wore skimpy bathing suits as she did agile stunts across the floor. The last looked drunk and like she’d dressed with her eyes closed; she missed many words while lip-synching, then belched into the microphone when she was done. I winced, then laughed loudly. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Sheri and I walked the two miles back to our lodging afterwards. Tyler was already in bed, and Sheri and I were sleeping in the living room on mattresses against each wall, like we were kids having a sleepover. We talked idly in the dark, about how much the world had changed for each of us. She fell asleep with a fidget toy in her hand.

As I drifted off, I became aware of the rain on the roof. I fell asleep to the steady percussion, my heart lost in the unfamiliar.

Cat-calls and hate speak

At 9 am on Saturday morning, Mike and I were holding hands as we walked down the sidewalk. It was our third day in New Orleans, and we had grown relatively familiar with the city streets around where we were staying.

We walked past a few hotels, one so decked out in Christmas decorations that it looked like Santa had vomited all over it. Girls in fancy dresses walked on the sidewalk with their rich parents, on their way to something called ‘Teddy Bear Tea’. A high school team for some sport or another took up space, all of them on their phones as they stood there idly. And, as you find in any big city, we saw a few people asking for cash and handouts mixed among them.

A small group of teenage girls walked out of the hotel in front of us and turned the same corner we did. They must have been between 17 and 20 years old, and they were dressed in comfortable clothes, shorts and t-shirts, perhaps heading out on a quick coffee run. As we approached the corner, I noticed two men sitting on some steps in front of an entrance to an apartment walk-up. Both were African-American, one probably sixty years old, the other around forty. They were engaged in an animated conversation, then they looked up at the girls walking by.

“Ooooooh, girls girls girls!” The younger man said, cocking his head, making a few small whistling sounds as his friend cooed. “Girls!”

The older man turned his full body toward them, his hands on his legs. “My-my-my look at that!” His voice was full of enthusiasm. “What’s your hurry, young girls?”

My brow furrowed in disgust as I witnessed this. I whispered to Mike, “Good God, is this what girls deal with?”

Mike muttered, “Apparently.”

The last of the girls walked by, and the younger man gave another happy moan sound. “Look at that, a tall one! She must play volleyball! Girl, I’d like to spike you!” He spoke loudly and I saw the girl wince. The sixty year old gave his friend a high-five, and my eyes must have flashed fury as I walked by. I briefly considered something, but realized it wasn’t worth it in this context. I simply whispered a ‘Gross’ loud enough for Mike to hear.

The light was red at the end of the block, and we had to wait to cross the street. I was watching the girls, wondering if I should say something to them, when I heard the voice from behind me.

“Faggots!”

I craned my head back in shock, and the younger man looked at me with challenge in his eyes. My jaw dropped slightly. “What the fuck?” I said, loud enough for him to hear me, then the light turned green and Mike tugged on my hand as we walked across the street.

My heart was still thudding three blocks later. “I’ve never been called a faggot before!” I said. “Wait, that’s not true. Like, back in high school, guys would tease other guys and called them faggots. My step-dad called me names, but it was never ‘faggot’. I can’t believe that just happened!”

Ironically, the day before, Mike and I had had a small argument just a few blocks away. We’d seen a group of elderly Asian women with microphones standing on a busy street corner, all chanting out about how Jesus saves, demanding that everyone turn from sin. I’d wanted to hold his hand tightly, to show courage and bravery, and he’d felt nervous, not wanting any sort of uncomfortable confrontations. We’d made up quickly. And yet, here we were being called ‘faggots’ the very next day.

I usually feel safe in big cities. I stopped worrying a long time ago about holding hands with my boyfriend in Salt Lake City; the few ugly looks we got didn’t bother me at all. Most big cities have gay areas of town, kind of like “Chinatown” or “Little Italy”, districts where there were gay clubs and gay friendly businesses. In New Orleans, we were staying near the French Quarter, which was full of loud music, shops, and drunk people, and it was very gay friendly. I counted no less than eight (yes eight) gay clubs within a mile radius of where we were staying. It was the little towns, in places like Wyoming or central Utah, where I get nervous holding hands, or, in other words, being openly gay.

After being called a faggot, I wondered if I should perhaps be more worried, more careful. I’ve been assaulted and mugged on big city streets, not for begin gay, but still. I’ve talked about this in other blogs, but holding hands with a man while walking the streets kind of puts me on an autopilot of defensiveness. It makes me feel like everyone notices. People sometimes notice and then try to act like they didn’t, some act with derision or looks of disgust, and many go the opposite way and go out of their way to be friendly or complimentary. It felt rare to feel, well, not noticed.

The past few days in New Orleans, we’d had a lot of the third kind of experience, the cute looks, the friendly faces, people working hard to make us feel welcome or, perhaps, they are just genuinely happy to see a bit of diversity in their neighborhoods. One woman told us, “Ya’ll are cute!” when we walked by. A heavyset black woman practically stopped us on the street one morning, yelling us down. “Hey! Hey! I wanna hold ya’ll’s hands, too! I’ll go right in the center! Ya’ll need some chocolate in the middle of all that white!” Mike and I had both laughed heartily. And then perhaps the most delightful encounter, when we’d passed a group of college kids on the street, and a tall nerdy white guy with glasses, who was holding hands with his girlfriend, pointed at us as we walked by. “You guys. Whatever this is, I’m into it, I respect it, and I like it very much.”

We kept holding hands as we walked. No one else called us ‘faggots’, that day or any other. Perhaps those men didn’t realize the power of that word or what it represented. Perhaps they didn’t know how we were bullied growing up, forced to play a role in a closet so that we wouldn’t make those around us uncomfortable. Perhaps they didn’t know that during this trip, we visited the memorial of a mass murder right here in New Orleans, where forty years before dozens of gay men had been burned alive in a gay club in one of the country’s worst hate crimes ever. Perhaps he was just showing off for his friend. Maybe he didn’t know what it was like to be gay and holding hands on the street.

But then I remembered that he was black, and his experience being a black man in white racist America, while different than mine, must elicit some of the same reactions. I also remembered the way he talked to those young women. This was a man who didn’t care how others felt, who didn’t look outside of his own experiences. The world was full of wonderful people, but it was also full of bullies. And, I remembered, it only takes one man to hurt another.

And these realizations made me clutch Mike’s hand all the tighter.

Disney Divas!

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“This is not a family friendly show! We are chicks with dicks! So for those of you who came and expected not to get offended, I recommend you get over that real quick!”

The drag queen, dressed as Tinkerbell, paraded the stage with her microphone confidently, wearing thick make-up, a perfect green pixie dress, a pair of wings, and a huge yellow wig. She was hilarious, teasing various members of the audience with plenty of swag and sass. “Oh, hello there, Daddy,” she said to a man on the front row, then asked his girlfriend, “are you with him ’cause he’s got lots of money or a big dick?” She teased a girl on the other side, saying she’d be happy to give her make-up tips after the show.

Tinkerbell recounted how, back in the 1950s, she’d been approached by Walt Disney himself, who saw her as a real star, but in the end, he’d cut all of her dialogue from the show, and simply named it Peter Pan, not even using her name in the title. “He knew what he was getting into,” she explained, “so he couldn’t have been surprised when I used a bit of language on camera. All those girls going after my man. ‘Fuck you, Tiger Lilly! Fuck you, Wendy!’ just didn’t play well for the kids,” she explained.

And sitting on the raised seating on stage right, on my uncomfortable stool, I sipped on my gin-and-tonic and laughed my ass off. She really was very funny.

The show had opened with a robust and enthusiastic medley of Mary Poppins songs, a lengthy set of Step in Time, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, and Jolly Holiday, and I sang along with every word. The packed audience sang along, clapping, tossing dollar bills and the drag queens dressed as Mary, Burt, and the chimney sweeps. A girl across the stage and I made eye contact, as she sang along as well, and we shared a smile.

I’ve been to a lot of good drag shows over the past seven years. Drag shows, in my experience, tend to fall into one of four categories. (Well, the professional drag shows anyway, not the ones that are performed on random stages in parks or on Pride weekend). There’s the really amazing ‘female impersonator’ shows like this one, that run regularly, with seated audiences and food and drinks. There are the drag queens who host various tired events and seem to run out of material very quickly. And then there are the traveling drag queens, the late night crowds and dance floors, with long wait times and packed audiences, wall-to-wall drunk people all screaming for every move and shake.

This drag show, the Disney-themed one, was the first kind, the female impersonator show, with a regular cast, incredible costumes, and amazing lip sync performances. Shows like this require set design, painstaking costume design, choreographed routines, advertising, merchandising, themed drinks and bartenders, social media campaigning, state licensing certifications, and a hell of a lot of leadership and organization. I was damn impressed. I’d seen shows like this in San Francisco and Seattle, and to see one here in Salt Lake City running regularly, with changing themes and variable performances, was downright delightful. Just weeks before, we had seen this same cast performing as Dolly Parton, Cher, Katy Perry, Adele, and others, and it had been just as good.

The show continued with drag queens performing Disney songs from every era, with characters like RapunzelMoana, Cruella de Ville, Ariel, Ursula, and others, and the first act culminated in a very bold production of Snow White with all Seven Dwarves. As the second act continued, I was astounded by some of the choices, with songs from CoCo and Frozen. The girl across the stage knew a lot more words than I did at this point, and I gave her a mock bow, recognizing her Disney superiority.

My friends and I had an intermission discussion about which Disney character we most represented, and we had a good laugh as we made our decisions. One said he was Gaston, and I said his husband was likely King Louie. Another couple said they were Prince Phillip and Flynn Rider. I laughed with delight when someone compared my boyfriend to Hades from Hercules, then surprised myself by declaring that I was Prince John from Robin Hood. This was fun, I thought out loud, realizing a group of grown-ups was delighting at men dressed as Disney characters.

Getting sleepy after a few drinks, and a few hours of sitting, and after sitting for more than two hours, I stood back behind my table to stretch a bit and keep myself awake. (I’m always lame like this, getting sleepy anytime it’s past ten pm. It works wonders for my weekend social life). As I watched one of the drag queens perform, I turned my head to the side and saw someone pass through a curtain that gave a peek into the back stage area. I saw one of the performers sitting on a bench, his skirt pulled up over his knees, fanning himself as he waited to go on.

Shortly after that, Tinkerbell (the performer who also played Mary Poppins, Snow White, and Elsa) herself exited through the curtain, making another grand entrance, and gave me a quick hug as she rushed in. “HI!” she said with enthusiasm, recognizing me from social media (I presume). And as I leaned in to hug her, I noticed her thick layer of make-up, and inhaled a mouthful of Aqua Net. As Tinkerbell rushed the stage, I gagged on the hair spray, and couldn’t get the taste of it out of my mouth for several minutes.

The show ended, and for the rest of the evening, I contemplated the professionalism of these performers, giving their all to a crowd out of love for their craft, but I also couldn’t shake the image of that drag queen fanning herself on a bench, or the taste of the hair spray. These performers, like any other, must love what they do, entertaining a crowd. Love it enough to spend hours hand-sewing dresses and lining them up with sparkles, enough to learn the lyrics to long intricate songs while learning routines to go with them, enough to tape their genitals back while wearing contouring and shaping mechanisms before draping themselves in dresses and wigs, enough to spend hours applying and re-applying make-up before every show (and likely hours more taking it all off afterwards), enough to keep their equipment clean and laundered, enough to apply noxious amounts of hair spray to keep their wigs just perfect.

As the show ended, I stood up with the rest of the crowd and clapped heartily, a standing ovation for a show well done, for a group of performers who gave it their all.

Drag Queen Bingo

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“Guys, tonight, we are gonna play drag queen bingo.”

“What’s a drag queen?” one son asked.

“What’s bingo?” the other asked.

I sat down on the floor to explain that bingo was a game where someone called out numbers, and that you had to watch your card to get patterns of numbers, and that the first one to get it won prizes. With a visual demonstration, they quickly understood.

Explaining drag queens was a little trickier.

“You know how some of Dad’s friends are transgender?” The boys nodded, remembering what that meant. “And you know how last Christmas, your uncle dressed like a girl for Halloween, but he isn’t transgender and he’s not really a girl, right?”

“Right, of course.”

“Well, drag queens are kind of like that. They aren’t transgender. They are men who like to dress up like women, sometimes in pretty silly costumes, so they can perform. They are more like, well, like clowns. They usually wear big, big wigs, and lots of makeup, and silly dresses. Some of them have giant bras on with, like, decorations on them. And they are really silly and funny.”

The boys asked a few questions, but they swiftly understood the concept. My 9 year old, J, remembered a recent rerun of Pokemon he’d seen where the character Jigglypuff sings and puts everyone to sleep, then draws marker all over their faces. “What if Jigglypuff put everyone in this house to sleep and then turned them into silly drag queens before they woke up?” We all shared a laugh.

A few hours later, we walked up to the church cultural hall where the bingo event was being held. Several dozen people packed in around round tables. There were hugs and greetings exchanged around the room, people purchasing snacks and cards, and coats hung on the backs of chairs. As the event began, the announcer, over a microphone, welcomed four separate drag queens out on the floor. One had a floral dress, a bright wig, and a thick mustache. The most extravagant was Petunia Papsmear, who happened to be a friend of mine, wearing a large brassiere with fluorescent tassels spilling out of each breast, a giant cartoon-like wig that looked like flames, and huge plastic spectacles. My sons watched the queens with amusement, fascination, and confusion, as they paraded around explaining charitable donations, party fouls, and complex rules.

Over the following hour, the kids learned how to monitor their own bingo cards, to find the right numbers under each letter and how to check the board for marked off numbers, and how to listen for the rules for each round, regarding bingo, blackout, center square, etc. Petunia came over behind me at one point and asked quietly if the kids might enjoy getting a party foul, and I shook my head no, at least not yet. So as the night went on, other tables were fouled, for inane reasons such as sending a text messages or having their elbows on the table. Tables with party fouls moved to the center of the room, where they put on a large and frilly hat, then grabbed a butterfly net, dancing around the music plays to collect money from the other tables. All of the money collected goes toward a local charity of some kind. The entire set-up was elaborate and adorable.

About 20 minutes into the event, A, my younger son, age 6, grew a bit bored and wanted to be entertained. I pulled out a notebook full of scrap paper and a pen, items I had brought just for this eventuality. I gave him a few different drawing assignments, and he passed his bingo card to someone else as he drew pictures titled “the War of the Gorillas”, “the Healthy Vegetable Patch”, and “Spaceships Invade Earth!” A is a prolific artist, one who focuses on delightful details, taking the assignment he is given and embellishing it with elements all his own. In “the Healthy Vegetable Patch” for example, he drew a plot of dirt with growing vegetables, then drew an entire family of spiders who lived above the patch. As he showed me the drawing, he told me each of the spiders names. The spider family included two children, one who “always gets into trouble” and one who is “very boring”. I’m constantly delighted by his art.

Growing bored again, A wanted more assignments. I looked around, then smiled, giving him the assignment to draw “Drag Queen Bingo.” Sticking his tongue out slightly, he looked around the room, examine the different drag queens, and then he began sketching them in adorable detail. He drew four figures in two rows, each with arms and legs spread out, as if performing, singing and dancing perhaps or just posing. With four separate hairstyles and appearances, and each with long eyelashes, he detailed the four queens. One had shaggy hair and a thick mustache, her toes turned inward. One had on a skirt over pants, with enormous lashes and a stacked wig on her head. One had long flowing hair, a round stomach, and a large bra with tassels hanging from the tips. The last was impossibly skinny with a tiny head and long braids. While they weren’t direct reflections of the queens present, they were close enough, and as we passed the drawing around the table, we all began laughing in delight.

During the next bingo break, I walked the drawing up to Petunia, who held the microphone, and told her about it. She began laughing, and soon she held the picture up for the assembled crowd, laughing about it and telling others that it was perhaps just a bit too accurate.

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“Can the young man who drew this picture please stand up?”

A stood up on his chair and took a small bow as instructed.

“Such realism!” Petunia said. “How accurate! Whatever inspired you to draw such a thing?”

In his husky voice, A shouted back across the crowd, heard by all. “My dad made me do it!”

As the crowd erupted in laughter, I felt my cheeks turn pink with happy embarrassment. During the final break, my sons and I stood up and got a picture with the assembled queens, and during the drive home they laughed about how much fun they’d had.

For a brief moment, I thought back to my own youth. Even a decade earlier, if I had heard of something like ‘drag queen bingo’ I would have tsked, seeing it as something frivolous, sinful, and certainly not a family activity. Yet tonight, I’d sat with my sons in a room full of people in love with life and having an incredible time. We’d been happy, laughing, and entertained. And I celebrated these new moments that I get to share with my sons, even as men in jeweled bras and wigs ran around.