It’s a chilly Saturday night. 9:30 p.m. Miss Kitty’s is nearly empty. The bar doesn’t fill up until right before 11pm, when the show starts. That’s actually a joke. 11 p.m., drag time. Which means the show actually starts between 11:15 p.m. and 11:30 p.m.. Everyone blames the Kings and Queens, but when you’re working only for tips, you want to wait until the bar is jam-packed. Usually by 11:15 p.m.
I park in my usual spot, right across the street. Pull out my duffel bag, with shoes, belts, duct tape, etc., and grab my garment bag, packed with tonight’s costumes. I am not a drag queen, so no wigs and wig stand to worry about. Technically, I’m not even a drag king — although that is how I started out. These days, I’m just a performer. I transitioned. I had my top surgery last summer. But please don’t get me wrong. Most performers have no intention of ever transitioning. They enjoy performing. And the drag scene gives them ample opportunity.
The sign over Miss Kitty’s is hard to see. Most folks in the gay community know where it is. No need for bright lights. Jennie greets me at the door. Everyone else calls her Mama Jennie. But, she’s younger than me, and I flirt with her every single time I go in. So, it’s just Jennie. Hard to flirt with your mom. Even though my hands are loaded, we hug anyway. You can’t get past the door without giving Jennie a hug. She’s just like that. Everyone loves her. As I walk back to the dressing room, several people hail me. I holler right back. I don’t even drink, yet this has become my second home. I know everyone here, and they all know me. We’re like one big family.
Gigi and Veronica are already in the dressing room, “painting.” Painting is applying drag make-up. It takes the guys a lot longer to look like women than it does for the women to look like men. Veronica and Gigi are experts at painting. I greet them both warmly. They are two of my best friends. We have been performing together, the three of us, for a couple of years now. I know more about them, and they know more about me, than probably most anyone. We give each other air kisses. With all that make-up, there is no way to actually kiss without getting make-up all over your clothes.
Since they have their hands full of make-up, I put my stuff away and ask them what they want to drink. Veronica wants her usual, a Veronica (a non-alcoholic concoction especially made for her), Gigi wants a bourbon and Coke. It is very important to make sure there are straws in all the drinks. Without a straw, there’s no way to drink once your “face” is on. I walk to the bar, and Dustin already has a Coke with lime ready for me. I tell him Gigi and Veronica’s order, leave him a dollar and head back to the dressing room. The bar owner can’t afford to pay the entertainment, but we do get all of our drinks free.
The topic of conversation tonight, as it is most nights, is our love lives, or lack thereof. When you work full time, and spend most of your weekend nights performing, there isn’t much time for a love life. Gigi says she met a cute boy. Veronica and I huddle around her phone to see a picture. He is cute. Gigi says he might show up tonight. We promise to be on good behavior. Gigi knows that’s a lie. But, it’s all in good fun.
Gigi means grandmother, and at the young age of 32, she is a drag grandmother and mother to many other younger queens. Taking on a drag daughter or son means helping them with the art form. Teaching them how to apply makeup, how to properly lip sync so it looks like you are really singing, how to move, how to flirt to get tips, how to dress, etc. Veronica is also a drag mother to many. I refer all young and upcoming drag kings to Marco Del Gatto. He’s the state MI (male impersonator) promoter.
As I said, I’m not really a king. And at my older age, I would much rather counsel young folks in life choices, not drag choices. I’ve been a part of the Little Rock gay community for many years, and know most of the resources for help. Having made every mistake possible that a young person can make, I pretty much know where to direct them in my old age.
The other performers for the night begin to pile in, and the dressing room starts to get pretty lively. Everyone’s dreamboat is there, Abs Hart. All the gay boys wish he was a gay man. Instead, he prefers women, and has a very nice girlfriend.
Duct tape is a drag person’s best friend. Drag queens use it to pull their chest in, so it looks like they have cleavage. Drag kings use it to pull their breasts to the side, under their arms. Make up, duct tape, corsets, all start to fly everywhere. The chatter builds. We are all getting ready, yet helping each other out at the same time. It always seems like the family getting ready for church back there. Everyone wants to look their finest. I always ask Veronica to put a fake five o’clock shadow on me. I don’t want any facial hair anymore, and Veronica is the best make-up artist I know.
When we see each other in real life, we address each other by the proper pronoun. But backstage, drag kings are he and drag queens are she. So the words, “girl” and “boy” are thrown around a lot. For example, “Boy, you are looking hot in those leather pants! Where did you get them?” Or, “Girl, that wig is ferocious! Who did it for you?” In the beginning, when we were all new to Miss Kitty’s, there was a lot of “drag drama.” But we worked through it all, and truly do act like grown up brothers and sisters.
The process continues. The kings put on compression shirts and shorts to pull in any “girl” fat. Abs applies hair and make up on his chest and tapes a shirt open before performing. The queens put on hip pads and breast plates. To avoid shaving their legs, queens will also put on three or four pairs of panty hose, so that any leg hair is not visible. None of us have eaten since noon. Bouncing around on stage with all of that compression everywhere can make you pretty sick to your stomach if you have eaten recently. So, at this point, the IHOP or Waffle House after the show discussion begins. We’re all thinking about food.
At 10 p.m., Gigi starts the line-up. Everyone has prepared three numbers. We try to do an opening production number. It doesn’t always happen, but we do try to find time during the week to iron it out beforehand. The DJ gets everyone’s music, the lineup is done, and one of us grabs a microphone and greets the crowd, coaxing them to go get some drinks and letting them know we’ll be starting soon. Final preparations are made. Gigi needs help with a zipper. My opening number is a country and western number. Someone helps me get my chaps on.
The show begins. Gigi, Veronica, or I usually end up on the microphone sharing the emceeing. One of us always goes first, so after our number we can stand out there and introduce the others as they come on. Sometimes being on the microphone means killing time while the next performer puts on something last minute. I usually tell one of my airport stories. I have issues with airports.
Veronica and Gigi will tease any straight folks in the audience. Mainly to make them feel special, if it’s their first trip to a gay bar. Abs and Veronica do a lot of dancing on stage. Gigi does a lot of comedy flirting numbers. I normally do country and western comedy, with one serious number of some sort. At this point, the crowd knows what to expect from all of us. Tonight, Gigi starts and really has the crowd riled up for the rest of us.
None of us perform for the tips. No one can tip us enough to compensate for all of the make up, clothes, etc. If you ask any drag performer, they will tell you they do it for the crowd. To see the crowd really get into a number, to sing along with you, to clap and dance, it’s a high that can’t be fully described. It’s something you have to feel.
Tonight, it’s a benefit for eleven couples suing the state for marriage rights. Everyone is into the whole show. It’s an important to cause for many. And none of us are keeping the tips, anyway. We donate them to the benefit recipients. The crowd is really appreciative and very rowdy. It’s a fun night. A good night. Over the years, I have discovered that the most giving group in the gay community is the drag community. Every time someone needs a benefit, we band together and just get it done. AIDS Care, PFlag, Lucie’s Place (a place for displaced young folks who came out to their parents and were thrown out), etc. Tonight is really special. We raise $615.
We all hang out for a few minutes after the show, chatting with the crowd and refilling our drinks. Veronica and Gigi decide to head over to Discovery, because they’re open until 5 a.m. I decide that I’m old, and stop by the MacDonald’s drive through and head on home. Abs goes home with his girlfriend.
I can’t get to sleep, once I get home. My mind is all over the place. Miss Kitty’s is closing. We all know the era of drag shows is slowly coming to an end. We’ve found another bar, but it’s only a matter of time. The need for gay bars is going away. As we begin to feel more and more comfortable being out to everyone, the need for that safety net is slowly disappearing. But disappearing with it, is an art form and a community that will someday no longer have a place to be as one. Some of us are old enough to remember being harassed by the police and the public. Fighting for our place in the world. Fighting together, as a community. As I finally drift off to sleep, I realize that mostly, it’s a good thing to no longer have to be afraid. But I wonder, will future generations ever know that we were once a community that laughed, cried, fought, and loved together? I guess time will tell.