The Shape of Our Dignity: Life is a Drag, Live it!

Posted inCreative Voices

The sound of the emcee, muffled, as if the space I stood in warped into a different dimension. Fear rushed in. Stomach churned; heart pumping in excitement. The room filled with strangers, hidden behind a glaring wall of light so bright, I felt its heat. I hear my cue… welcome to the stage…

The crowd screamed. The music I’d listened to religiously for nearly two weeks on repeat began rattling through the house system. The stage vibrated, and the bass of my selection created a contact high with my body, my mind, my heart, and…

The courage to step out on that floor, wearing my costume of hypermasculine drag, set in motion a life I never thought possible. A dream to entertain, be among people like me, and share moments like this with others, turned this moment into over two decades of drag life; filled with continued purpose.

I had read about drag kings in the 90s; usually female identified people donning masculine clothing and makeup to impersonate a male persona. I studied the names and history, anything I could get my hands on. The likes of Mo B. Dick, Murray Hill, Ken Vegas, Cody Vegas, Dante DiFranco and so many more. Idols to look to for inspiration and courage about finding my own place in the king community.

I didn’t know other drag kings in Salt Lake, save for the few that got dressed once a year for the annual Drag King competition, naming a new “king” of the Papermoon, and a group of older friends who’d had a performance here and there; calling themselves something I can’t remember to this day. They were occasional affairs, and I wanted more; more chances to create magic on the stage with others who dressed opposite our drag queen counterparts.

I had just turned 21, having grown my craft just a little bit in the underage club; doing drag each week with the house cast, not getting much opportunity to perform. I was still very new to the scene in the LGBTQ+ community, a baby lesbian if you will.

I had come out a few short years prior, and only a year before my outing, a high school junior; mostly scared that I was a lesbian. Afraid to face the fact that I really did not belong in the community I was in. Religion I lived. Holding the hand of the man I loved; hiding this truth. Hiding the first step of my truth.

I hadn’t even come out to my mom yet, for fear that I would be ostracized even further.

It’s a funny thing though; coming out to my mother as a lesbian. It was much smoother and more accepting than it was when I told her I was transgender. To this day it hurts that she’d accept and support me for being a lesbian but not acknowledge her son.

The cursor on the screen blinked at me, timid and eager to display the words I wanted to scream into the halls of the Yahoo chat rooms. The message on my mind, is there anyone in here who might be interested in performing as a drag king? The room fell silent, and then a familiar handle chimed in, you should reach out to Club Casanova Kings. They aren’t in Utah, but Mo might be able to give you some advice.

Freaked out that someone new a name I knew, I left but with more purpose. I’d open a Yahoo Group called Drag Kings of Salt Lake City, and then place an advertisement at the Gay and Lesbian Center of Utah. I made a flyer that read, “Do you like to dress in drag, and maybe want to get together with other lesbians who do too?” Small twigs of tearable paper, labeled with contact info and how to connect online, cut like chunky fringe, beaconed interested party.

Intimidated and shy, I recognized the barista behind the counter as a king from the drag king contest; Oliver Klozoff. I slowly handed the flyer to the quite confident smiling older woman, as she greeted me with her flirtatious charm. She loved my gumption, and said hang this, but meet me at the Papermoon this Friday night. Oh, and dress up in your best drag.

Soon we’d gathered two more members, and a drag queen, began teasing “the Salt City Boys are coming” through rainbow-colored stickers, and home-printed flyers. After considering our focus, dressing up in drag every weekend for a month, and making it known we were gearing up, the first Drag King Troupe of Utah was announced in August 2002.

We began plans for our first show, to be held that October. Prior to that, we were able to connect with and bring in Club Casanova Kings for a September date, fresh on their World Tour from New York City, traveling by passenger van.

Meeting big names, spending time with strangers who became family quickly, was the jump start I needed to make the Salt City Kings happen; for me, for the brotherhood, for our community. I got more time with these wonderful entertainers than most people get with their heroes, as they stayed with us for the week. I hold the conversations with Mo close to me still, and am inspired by the growth the Drag Kingdom has gone through.

Drag history dates back to the early pioneer days here in Utah. A fact that has been written of recently, due to the political climate. I became a part of this history, adding further the drag community has been here for over a century.

October 13, 2002, two days from my 22nd birthday, my vision became official. The handmade, cutout letters pinned to a heavy velvet backdrop, It’s Good to Be King. A friend’s sexy motorcycle, rolled up on to the stage with care, the Purple Passion. A last minute review of our show lineup. A heated argument about who should announce our opening number. A new beginning to a lifetime of moments, just like this…

Four kings became eight. Eight became fifteen. Always with our Queen, or queens really. The kings made space for the Kit Kat Girls; bio queens who kept us in line, and made us shine. We performed by command at coronations across the western states. We won awards for local recognition. We ran for pageants with other organizations. We became a staple in the drag scene; requested for special events and celebrations. Had the privilege of entertaining at pride festivals; always eager to don the smiles of gratitude.

Through a decade of monthly productions, large group numbers, choreography, set building, arguments, brotherhood, love, breakups, tryouts, new kings, travel, opportunity, collaboration, connection, charity, and service, the Salt City Kings raised thousands of dollars and built relationships that have withstood the test of time. Friends became family. Kings became leaders and giants in the fight for equality and justice.

The kings donated to causes near and dear to their hearts, always wanting to make this world just a little bit brighter. Proud moments. Humble moments, to just be there for others. We dedicated our April show always to the Rape Recovery Center of Utah. Our October show helped raise funds for Breast Cancer causes. The in between’s all added up for others’ needs.

Now almost 21 years later, we’ve become Elders to look to, and keep history alive for; paving a way for the now generation of youthful drag entertainers, taking up the mantle.

We’ve lost a few brothers; life is fragile and hard. I hold them close to me; memories of each I’ll never let anyone take from me. We celebrate them; they who brought us back together. Real talk of a comeback reunion of some sort. We’ve laughed a little more lately. We toasted whiskey to our Irish Prince in a Mormon parking lot after the funeral service none of us expected so soon.

We still love. We still perform; some of us.

We still hold to the fact that Life is a Drag, Live It!

We’ll be building our history into a site being developed. Until then, consider going to a drag brunch, a show, a fundraiser, or donating to a cause of your choosing. Our drag and trans community could use a little love and light, considering…

Sean Childers-Gray is a designer, writer, trans advocate, and educator. This essay was originally published on his Substack, The Shape of Our Dignity.

All photos courtesy of the author.