“I really want us to go to this bar called New Beginnings,” my high school friend, Kay, said to me one day.
I was 16 years old growing up in Bristol, Tennessee in the early aughts, and truth be told, I didn’t realize it was a gay bar until we were almost at the venue. I freaked out, but looking back on it now, I was very lucky. It was the first time I saw queer people just being themselves. Until then, I only ever really saw a couple of gay guys at school, or maybe one that I had worked with previously, and they were consistently bullied. And I certainly didn’t want that.
After we showed our fake IDs and made our way into the bar, I sat down in the corner.
“What’s wrong?,” Kay asked. “Nothing. I just want to check it out,” I said nervously. Kay and I had previously had conversations circling around me being gay—those awkward conversations you tend to have when you’re young—but never got too deep about it. Now, here we were, in this gay bar, and I was terrified.
Suddenly, I heard a super flamboyant, loud voice coming over the speaker: “Welcome to the stage the amazing Jacqueline St. James”—and this big, beautiful woman with a high, brown ponytail, so much makeup, and big boobs walks out. As soon as she peeled the corner, she flung her giant coat, and the whole room filled with the smell of her Bob Mackie perfume. She stepped out on the stage, and as soon as the light hit her, I was just like, “What is that?” There was something so powerful about the confidence she had— the beauty and glamour. I never felt so seen and so safe to be myself. I thought, “If this person can do all of that, then I’m okay being me.” It was an overwhelming idea. In fact, Jacqueline later came out as trans and became my drag mother, as I began to do drag (and later, when I came out as trans myself). Drag queens, after all, have a way of sticking together.
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I grew up in a household with many women (my mother, my two sisters, and my grandmother), and from a very early age, I always felt different from the men in my family. I was hyper feminine but was taught to be ashamed of my femininity. I swished, sashayed, and was sassy before I even knew that that’s what I was doing. Above all, I loved glamour, and always looked to my mother for inspiration. She was my saving grace. Being a single mother, she worked 12-hours days, seven days a week sometimes, at a factory job. But when it was time for her to go out, she was very glamorous. My mother had very curly, poofy 80s hair, eye liner, and did glamour shots. And because we didn’t have a whole lot growing up, I loved all of that. I just loved how pretty it all was—how shiny, rich, and important. The only thing I didn’t understand is why everyone else didn’t want to be as pretty as I wanted to be.
After seeing Jacqueline perform, I started going out and transforming into a little queer kid. I was hanging out with all the drag queens at New Beginnings and was immediately backstage. I would take queens to their gigs and help them dress. If they wanted a ride to their next job and it was an hour away, I didn’t care. I needed to be as close to this as humanly possible.
When I was about 17, I expressed the interest in doing drag myself and Serena Nox, a queen from East Tennessee, offered to do my makeup and give me a little cocktail dress for my first show. I paid her $50 to do my makeup, and even though I wore a size 14-inch heel at the time, I found size 12 slingbacks and taped them with metallic silver duct tape from my feet all the way up to my thighs. It was like I had silver metallic boots on, but my heel was in the middle of my foot.
I felt gorgeous. I felt fierce, and you couldn’t tell me I wasn’t everything. It was almost like I had this artistic mask on and felt so brave, talking to people in a way I never knew I really could and being celebrated by everyone around me. I was obsessed; I just kept begging Serena to do it again, and after a while, she agreed to put me in her talent show.
I was so nervous. I walked out into the middle of the stage with a purse on my arm and stood in one spot and barely lip-synced. Even still, the whole crowd cheered so loudly saying, “You got it, Eureka!” I had never felt this way in my life. I had never felt so loved by the people around me. That was the first time I realized that I was a likable person— that people actually liked me for me.
It’s so important to feel seen and supported when you’re young and coming to terms with yourself. I speak from personal experience: I was so insecure with who I was because I just didn’t have anyone like me growing up. I always felt so traumatized by my existence because I was being taught, weekly, in church that I was going to burn in hell. The fear of that—on top of the people like my father, my uncles, my cousins, even my sister treating me like there’s something wrong with me—was very scarring. As much as I was lucky to find a place to express myself that early, that trauma stuck with me. I didn’t really know what it was then, but I felt I could have avoided it if there would have been more visibility or more people that I could have looked up to.
That’s why the proposed ban on public drag in Tennessee breaks my heart so much. When I first heard that Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee was signing the bill, I got so emotional that I cried. I thought back to the time when I went to my first Pride event in Roanoke, Virginia. There was outdoor drag—in public, out in the light, not just in this gay bar I was sneaking to in high school every night. I was performing at it too, and it was just so celebratory. Those events and moments are so important, especially for queer youth, because where else are they going to safely and legally experience the therapy and the beauty of seeing their community thriving in all their glory.
Queer youth need to see that they’re not alone, but often, don’t have anywhere to be in community with each other, or even spend time with their allies that are showing them that diversity exists. What’s even worse is that the parental decision to show the richness of queer culture is being taken away, too. Politicians like Lee are so busy demonizing and sexualizing our existence that they also instill fear in people that are actually trying to figure themselves out. It’s a scare tactic that is meant to erase us, not keep us safe.
Drag is not meant to be serious. But the false accusations of harm done to children and the blatant disregard for who we are is very serious. That’s why we do drag—it’s an expression and a statement of our existence. It serves as a constant reminder that, in spite of the old morality codes that tell us what we can’t be and the hardships that we have gone through for self-determination, we can still celebrate what makes us beautiful. That’s where the power lies.
– As told to Rachel Sonis
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