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.

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Calgary Loft 3

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In America, I’m often asked if I’m really from Canada

There is something about the way certain words leave my mouth

The mix of Missouri and Idaho on my tongue

“See you ta-mohr-ow” or “hey, I’m soar-y”

Seem unfamiliar

 

And now I’m in Calgary and they sound nothing like me

 

It’s strange here, in a good way

Everything is the same, but slightly altered

Like looking at my world through a different lens

 

Cinnamon tastes a little different

And the air breathes a little cleaner

Product labels bear the same names with different words and designs

And things seem to cost a little more but actually cost a little less

I don’t speak metric or Celsius, I don’t know how to measure in kilometers

And the trending fashions seem like something out of 1995

 

Last night, a drag queen yelled, 

“Anyone here from the East Coast?”

And she meant Halifax and Charlottetown, not New York and Boston

 

I think perhaps I’m suited for these colder climates. 

I feel at home in my flannel and jeans, my knitted hat with the floppy strings

Conversation comes easily, and people laugh at my jokes

 

It doesn’t feel upside down, just a little tilted

Slightly sideways

 

Yesterday, I drove through a nearby national forest

And had to lurch my car to a sudden stop

When a large grey wolf ambled out into the road

She wasn’t in a hurry

She trotted across the highway, as if she were out for a stroll

And disappeared into the trees

I sat stunned, blocking the cars behind me

But no one honked impatiently

They simply waited for me to gather myself

And then continue driving

Into the trees

Ones that smell just a bit differently than the ones I’m used to

 

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.

Dolly

“Find out who you are. And do it on purpose.”

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I find this to be one of the most inspirational quotes I have ever heard, and it comes from the inestimable Dolly Parton, who did exactly that.

A lot surprised me as I read about Dolly. I have always admired her without ever knowing much about her. I didn’t own any of her albums, and I had probably only seen a few clips of her in movies. I knew some of her most famous songs, like Jolene and I Will Always Love You.

I was baffled by her carefully constructed image. A woman who painted her face, wore thick wigs, and made herself known for her enormous breasts, which she definitely accentuated in her dress, a woman who compared herself to drag queens in style… yet somehow she cultivated a family friendly, down-home, comfortable around the kids personality. She embraced both gays and Christians, men and women, families of all kinds.

Dolly took her talents as a storyteller and a songwriter, her incredible and unique country voice, her savvy business sense, and her talent at drawing people into her as an icon, and she slowly and carefully built an empire up around herself. CDs, radio hits, albums, sheet music, concert tours, television appearances, movie deals, book deals, her own television show, and her own theme park. Dolly managed to make everyone who watched her feel as if they knew her, feel safe with her, while keeping her private life and politics and beliefs incredibly private at the same time.

As a kid, Dolly learned she liked being the center of attention. With nearly a dozen brothers and sisters running around in a rural Tennessee house, and between her dad’s affairs and her mom’s strict rules, she discovered she loved make-up and she loved boys and she loved people looking at her and she loved to sing. In the 1960s, when she went to the big city for the first time to find her fame, Dolly met Carl Dean when he noticed her exposed midriff at a laundromat and flirted with him. They married, and they have stayed married for decades, striking a seemingly perfect balance of having separate lives and careers, a lot of time for each other, and a whole lot of respect for each other. Carl stays out of photographs and interviews, and Dolly respects his privacy.

Dolly never had children. She made a career for herself working endless hours on tours, after years of concerts and radio performances. I watched some of her television interviews over the years and saw the grace at which she handled inappropriateness and invasiveness. When David Letterman said he’d give a year’s salary to see her naked breasts, she laughed it off, and she did the same when he said she was a pretty thing and that he’d like to see her all sweaty. She carefully balanced the ability to be objectified by men and seen as a sex symbol, yet stand for fidelity and morals at the same time.

Dolly cultivated this in her movies as well. In her two most famous films, she combined sexiness with feminism, career aspirations with family values. In 9 to 5, she played the sexy secretary who wore tight clothes and big hair to work, who stayed faithful to her husband, resisted the advances of her boss, and longed for the camaraderie of her female coworkers, hurt when she realized there were rumors about her. And in the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, she played the owner and operator of a whorehouse, a smart and savvy businesswoman who donated to local charities and stayed faithful and local to her boyfriend, the local sheriff.

One paragraph in the book highlighted how Dolly had the ability to be on a car in the middle of a crowded parade in Dollywood. She would wave and smile, wave and smile, wave and smile, and every once in a while she would choose a stranger in the crowd and get a bright smile on her face as she eagerly waved, as if she had seen a long-lost friend. This wave endeared everyone watching to her, making them feel safe with her, like she was their personal acquaintance. This, combined with her down-home country tales and her high-pitched laugh and her grace, has made her an incredible empress of her own little empire.

Perhaps the single fact that endears Dolly to me more than any other has been her ability to succeed in a man’s world with the odds stacked against her, on her own terms. When she “fails”, she learns her lesson and stands back up to fight. She has been unflinching as she has dedicated herself to the hard work it takes to build a name, slowly and carefully over years, and then to keep that name alive for decades. She is a household name, an unforgettable presence.

Dolly tells a story of once entering a “Dolly Parton lookalike contest” among drag queens who dressed as her. She dressed as a caricature of herself, and lost the contest. She tells this story with great delight. When asked about being a ‘gay icon’, she smiles and says she loves all people, and she speaks about everyone should be just who they are and never let anyone stop them.

Sound advice from a woman who has done just that.