Monday, July 17, 2023

The Drag Show

A photographer’s takeaway...

Were you one of those kids like me when told not to do something it made you want to do it even more? Whenever I was told something was bad, or not to do it, it made me more curious about it. Oh it’s bad? Well then it’s probably pretty cool and I should find out more about it and maybe do it. Even as a kid I wouldn’t trust someone else’s opinion, I had to find out for myself. It may be a kid thing but I still think that way today.Nowadays there’s plenty of people in positions of power, authority and influence admonishing us not to do certain things they’ve declared ‘bad.’ I look at those as suggestions and put them at the top of my to-do list. 

One thing that really stuck with me after last year’s midterm elections was a certain Arizona Gubernatorial candidate who really brought the idea of Drag Shows to the forefront. That candidate ran an anti-drag queen campaign. It’s ironic but I never really thought about Drag Shows much until it was brought to my attention by a certain person on TV who wanted to ban them.If you were to believe the advertising you’d of thought drag queens were the bane of civilization as we know it --worse than terrorism, inflation, Covid-19 etc. That’s right, flamboyantly dressed men wearing wigs and high heels, singing and dancing are the four queers of the apocalypse and if you didn’t elect that one candidate to stop them we’re all doomed. Passively watching this vitriol stream out of my giant flat-screen TV I was left with but one thought:

I gotta go see a drag show! 

Over the span of nearly fifty years I’ve done hundreds of magazine and newspaper photo-assignments that have taken me all over the country to photograph all sorts of things. I’ve photographed Governors and Presidents, serial killers and CEOs, fashion models and freaks, but I’ve never photographed a Drag Show. So I offer a Big Thanks to that drag-hating candidate for calling my attention to Drag Shows because the next time I see one advertised, I’m going to photograph it. 

My Drag Show photo-op came in June of 2023 when I saw advertising for “Drag Time” right here in Prescott. I called up the producer of the show and offered my services as Official Photographer. Cool! They’d get the use of my photos, I’d get free admission and access to “The Queens.” Booking the assignment was quick and easy but we did have to have one rather unusual discussion. Towards the end of our conversation I had to ask, apologetically but necessary, “Given the, um, the times we’re living in, uh,how’s your security for this event?” I was assured they were cognizant (woke, to use the correct definition of the term) of current societal biases and there would be extra security with more Bouncers and other Security Personnel. All of us, from the audience to the performers would be safe. The Friday and Saturday night performances would be at The Federal (upstairs in the downtown post office) which could already be considered a “secure” site. The Sunday performance which would include a fundraiser for an HIV clinic would be at The Raven. This concerned me somewhat as it is street-level with a lot of windows and not quite a secure-able as The Federal. Talking with a Raven bartender before the show he mentioned that the restaurant had received threats of protests. With that in mind I photographed the show with one eye looking through the viewfinder and the other eye on the door. I really hoped not to photograph something horrible. Fortunately (and what should be normal) no protests or violence occurred at any of the shows and everything went off problem-free. I think it’s kind of sad that we even have to think about this stuff but that’s the country we’ve created for ourselves. We should be better. 

Waiting for the first show to begin I noticed the audience was older than I expected. I was looking for the young, hipster crowd but I saw a lot of retirement-age folks. Yikes! People my age! Then it dawned on me, these are the Woodstock Generation people, the ones dropping acid and listening to Jimi Hendrix live. So it’s not really a surprise they’d come to a Drag Show! 

The show ran about ninety minutes. There were four performers or “Queens.” A drag show is essentially this: A man, or a trans person, or sometimes a woman, dressed in the most outrageous, extreme, sparkly, shiny outfits you can imagine comes out on stage, dances and lip-syncs a disco standard. While dancing and singing they “work the room” and conclude with some jokes and banter with the audience. They exit, the next Queen comes out and does their song. They sing/dance multiple songs and there’s a costume change for each one. The Queens are fun, irreverent, and bring an amazingly high level of energy into the room. They’ve got the moves, the comedy is good (more bawdy in the later evening shows) and it’s a lot of fun. I can’t imagine a Drag Queen has ever said, “Don’t look at me!” 

One thing I did not know about involved “working the room.” Unbeknownst to me, Drag Queens work for tips. (This seems to be a strictly American ‘tipping economy’ thing. In the videos I’ve seen from Drag Shows in other countries the Queens are on stage and not out in the audience grabbing cash.) People hold out dollar bills and the Queens dance through the room and pick up the cash. I’m not sure they make a lot of money but I doubt there are any billionaire Drag Queens. This is an overlap with strippers who also work for tips, leaving the stage with cash tucked into their garters. I can imagine this “stripper overlap” could cause the person who is predisposed to dislike Drag to make an unfair comparison with strippers and perceive a Drag Show as over-sexualized. Of course this is wrong but there are those who cannot be dissuaded from their false opinions no matter what. Those people should probably go bowling instead of to a Drag Show. 

Drag Shows aren’t especially sexual and these shows were restricted to ages over 21. You’ve got to figure if a person is old enough to fight in a war and witness all the associated horrors, they’re probably not going to be traumatized by a guy in a dress. Sure, there may be some dirty jokes or a few suggestive dance moves but nobody is “grooming” anyone or “turning them gay” or any of the things the angry and uninformed accuse them of doing. For those vocal anti-Dragsters who rant about “protecting the children,” they’re not. First, as mentioned, there aren’t any children in the audience. And secondly it’s important to remember that those who are most adamant about “protecting children” are really “protecting” themselves from people who are simply slightly different than they are. I’ve seen more provocative dance moves made by NFL cheerleaders, and that’s considered “family friendly” entertainment. Being completely serious, if my eight-year-old self had gone to a Drag Show my biggest takeaway would have likely been, “Whoa! Those ladies are tall!” Little me may have been mesmerized but definitely not traumatized. 

That person who lost (but said they won) the race for Governor advocated for banning Drag Shows. Banning stuff is actually anti-freedom. If someone doesn’t like Drag they have the freedom not to go to a show the same as others have the freedom to go. And thank goodness Drag hasn’t (yet) been banned because I had a really fun time at the three “Drag Time” shows I attended and photographed. Drag is niche entertainment, not for everybody, and that’s fine. We’ll know our society has really made some diversity-progress when we see Drag as halftime entertainment at the Superbowl. 

Dale with the Drag Queens