by Kim Stowell
After having tried doing drag a couple of times, I had to tell you about it.
My wife Lisé and I were asked to make a cameo appearance in the Providence Gay Men’s Chorus (PGMC) holiday show last December. They needed two lesbians to dress up as gay men for a number they were planning. Naturally, we accepted! What followed was wildly fun. We practiced with them, sitting in on rehearsals and getting to know the members of the chorus. Someone sent away to San Francisco for fake moustaches for us, and someone else loaned me a gold lamé turtleneck to wear. A trip to a second-hand clothing store gave us the rest of the materials we needed for our costumes.
The performances were a gas. Because of the proximity of the seating, we were able to really interact with the audience. We hammed it up, making eye contact with many, using universal signs for “call me,” “is he too much?” and “you’re hot!” to engage them in our silly act. And they loved it! The response was powerful despite the lighthearted circumstances.
However, when we encountered the same people during intermission, Lisé and I both noticed that the reaction was much different. We were behind a table, selling fundraising items for various non-profits and couldn’t help noticing that people were avoiding eye contact – or even physical proximity – and completely ignoring our zany get-ups. Later, we went to a party, still dressed in our costumes (to promote the show’s next performance), and noticed the same thing. It was as though they did not know what to make of us. I found it very interesting and felt the need to speak with other drag performers about my experience.
I went right to the top, setting up an interview with Stephen Hartley, aka Miss Kitty Litter. Stephen has been playing Kitty for 15 years or more, beginning his career as a fill-in for another drag queen who had called in sick. He told me he is “totally different in drag. I could never get away as myself with the things I say and do in drag.” (Anyone who has had Miss Kitty take a bite of his or her meal during a show will attest to this.) When I asked him about the strange reactions I had experienced, he had to dig back in the memory banks, since, as he said, “everybody knows Kitty now. Gay, straight, I can’t walk down the street without everyone recognizing me.” But he remembered the feeling of people watching him from across the room, never approaching him. “I think people are intimidated,” he said. Just recently, he told me, a man approached him in a local club, saying, “I’ve seen you for years, but I never had the courage to talk to you.”
I decided to try the drag thing again, choosing an Imperial Court of Rhode Island (ICRI) event. It was an 80s theme, so I did the whole Don Johnson thing , and went to the party with my friend Jack, who has been doing drag for many years. Jack has a unique take on the concept, at least within the community I see around me in Providence — he does old lady drag, among other personas, and will even dress as a man sometimes, as he did that night, doing his impression of everyone’s seventh grade prom date. Just doing various characters sets him apart, since most drag performers seem to have chosen one persona.
My experience of being in drag was completely different this time — if you don’t count the walk from our car to the venue, during which I felt mildly, unsettlingly unsafe. Once we were inside, though, I was able to relax and got a real kick out of the whole experience.
The event was sponsored by the Prince and Princess of the ICRI, so I set up a time to talk to the Prince, Ryder Hard (Courtney Beliveau when she is not in drag) about the king experience. Ryder got his start at the infamous Puzzles in New Bedford, at a benefit for a children’s charity. Having been asked by close friends Mahogany Lite and Eric Pedro, he performed “Wake-up Call” by Maroon Five. “I was so nervous,” she said, “but as soon as I got off stage, I wanted to do it again.”
Ryder began to make more appearances, finding a home with the Rhode Island drag community and was honored to have been asked by legendary drag king Belle Pellegrino to step up and vie for the title of Prince of the ICRI.
Courtney echoed Stephen’s sentiments about the difference in personality. “I’m completely different,” she said. “Ryder’s me if I was a boy,” she went on, “but I’m much bolder. I walk taller, and I have a bit of a swagger.” However, because Ryder appears almost exclusively within and among the drag community, he has not experienced the negative reactions I encountered.
Courtney would love to be part of a drag king troupe and wants to spread the word about the Imperial Court system. “So many people don’t understand how important our work is,” she said. “Our whole reason for existing is to raise funds for non-profits.” She told me about the Court in Connecticut, where the family of a trans youth joined the court together in support of him. Almost like a gay Lions Club, the groups are all affiliated with a national system, and the RI group has done fundraisers for the Animal Rescue League, AIDS Care Ocean State, Louis E. Martinez House, the Gay Men’s Domestic Violence Project, The Trevor Project, Birthday Wishes and many others, including their own scholarship fund.
It’s hard for me to put my finger on what I like about doing drag. I asked Stephen about his motivation. I asked him if it was about the clothes, or feeling what it’s like to be a woman, which led us into a discussion about cross-dressers. “For them,” he said, “it is about dressing up, the clothes, the whole process,” adding that he routinely sees cross-dressers out in the gay clubs even though they are almost all straight. “They come to the gay bars because we accept them,” he said. A recent conversation with a cross-dresser brought home the difference for him. “This guy said, ‘Don’t you get sad when you have to go home and take it all off?’ Hell no, I thought! I am ready to get out of those clothes within about 15 minutes. Especially the shoes. That’s the real difference. Drag is like Halloween. Cross-dressing is something else.”
Jack and I have begun talking about our next foray into drag. We are thinking about a military theme. And my friend Sam has given me some tips on creating better facial hair. I had to laugh when Jack said that, to make a drag king, “you take a woman and make her better-looking.” So this is a warning to all you gay men out there: You’d better be careful about who you hit on. It might be me.