Life as a royal is never easy, but the current climate for drag queens and kings feels especially fraught.
In its first year tracking anti-LGBTQ protests and threats targeting specific drag events, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation reported 141 incidents in 2022. Of those, 10 were in North Carolina, which ranks second only to Texas’ 20, and the numbers continue to grow in 2023.
Divine, a local performer and producer with Bearded Lady Productions, knows about those threats all too well. In January, a group of protesters gathered outside her event at the S&W Market.
Amanda Ball, Highland Brewing Downtown Taproom assistant manager, says the group was blocking entry into the building and carried signs and fliers. “They had microphones and were being very loud about their beliefs,” she recalls. “When the cops arrived, they told them that they must stay on the sidewalk and that they cannot block entry nor block the door.”
Samantha Booth, spokesperson for APD, confirms that a call was received for a civil disturbance, officers made contact with the involved parties, and no arrests were made.
Instead of cowering, Divine performed that evening and walked out the door “in full drag, ready to take it on.” By then, the crowd had dispersed. Nevertheless, she was escorted to her vehicle by members of the Highland team and now has security at her shows.
“When you think that there’s a Listserve somewhere for [hate groups] to notify them where to go to protest or bash somebody — that’s frightening,” Divine says. “This is not just the bully at school. It’s a systemic planned attack.”
But there is support within the drag community. Amid the onset of the protest outside the S&W, Divine was instructed to avoid the windows. Fearful for her life, she texted her family and fellow local performers.
“Within a minute, every drag queen in Asheville was on guard, and the bar owners were on point knowing that this is happening,” Divine says. “So yes, there’s absolute network and strength here. It’s just not always visible because we’re always fighting about who’s pretty and who looks the best.”
That support also extends to kindly strangers within the broader community. After her performance at the S&W, Divine was told that a group of locals emerged from the adjacent Times Bar and persuaded the protesters to leave.
Strength in numbers
Dahmit Janet of the Beer City Sisters has noticed a similar increase in protests and threats against the drag community in the last year or two. But even before this rise in unwanted attention, her house (i.e., performance group) had safety precautions in place.
“Our rule that we go by is to never go anywhere alone, ever, when you’re what we call ‘in face,’” Janet says. “I’ve lived in the Asheville area most of my life, and I’ve never really felt unsafe here. But once you have that face on, it can change things.”
At Scandals Nightclub, where drag shows have been held since 1982, manager Kristin Presley is sure to have security standing at the stage during each event, which has been done from the start.
“Our security team is very good about keeping patrons clear of the floor,” Presley says. “If our drag queens ever feel uncomfortable leaving the bar, they know they have security there to make sure they are safe.”
Even with such precautionary measures, the drag community encounters plenty of other obstacles, including political ones. On March 2, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed a bill banning drag shows on public property in the state and for those younger than 18. The bill equates drag performers with strippers but will have wide-ranging consequences that Divine says its sponsors have yet to realize.
“It means there can’t be a single drag performer or drag queen at Pride in the entire state of Tennessee. It means any piece of theater that uses drag as a convention or a plot convention will be illegal,” she says. “So, what about women who wear pants? And pastors who wear robes? Would the pope get arrested in Tennessee? Anyone wearing clothing that’s defined as nonaligned with their perceived gender breaks this law.”
Though such prohibitive actions are often framed as protecting children, Janet says the drag community and its allies believe that it’s actually rooted in LGBTQ persecution. Minors, Janet continues, aren’t allowed at the Beer City Sisters’ truly adult-themed performances.
“Not all drag is the same,” she says. “Most of our shows are at a bar, so you’re not coming in if you’re not of adult age. But then we’re also … in the [Asheville] Mardi Gras parade, and that is very different from the midnight show at the 21-and-over bar.”
Despite these challenges, the Asheville drag community continues to put on fabulous shows practically every day. And in the case of Asheville Drag Brunch and the Beer City Sisters, they make a difference for communities in need.
Both groups are nonprofits and donate all proceeds from performances to local charities. Upcoming beneficiaries for Asheville Drag Brunch include Arms Around ASD, Tranzmission, Healing Solutions Counseling and — at the Sunday, April 9, return of Pageant: The Drag Show at The Grey Eagle — Blue Ridge Pride Center; and the Beer City Sisters have worked closely with the WNC AIDS Project, Loving Food Resources and BeLoved Asheville.
This philanthropic side of drag and the support that’s shown among its members have resulted in a robust scene that continues to grow. Divine says you “can’t throw a heel without hitting a queen” in Asheville. And Presley doesn’t have any trouble booking shows at Scandals.
“I’ve seen more people want to participate,” Presley says. “They’ve come together as a community as well, wanting to help each other promote themselves and also to help the younger ones or the newer ones learn the ropes.”
The gradual mainstreaming of drag, however, has been a blessing and a curse. Divine notes that while the “RuPaul’s Drag Race” reality show and competition has resulted in elevated attendance, it’s also led to impossible standards for certain patrons.
“RuPaul has projected the image that drag is all jaw-dropping spectacular and every drag queen should be able to sew,” Divine says. “[Asheville’s] drag queens are working, like, a 40-hour job at Cookout, and $10,000 minimum is what it will take you to be on ‘Drag Race,’ just to have the costume.”
Such unfair expectations for local performers are increasingly coupled with drag audiences that aren’t aware of proper etiquette. Divine notes that bridal parties and “straight girl parties” choose to be at drag shows because they trust the queer community to provide a safe space in which to party. Though some of these groups are respectful and aware that the performers’ salaries come from tips, she says most aren’t.
“They’re invading the queer space and not really knowing the culture of what they’re getting into,” she says. “And it pisses us off.”
At Scandals, Presley sees plentiful birthday parties, bachelorette parties and other groups celebrating special events — most of whom are well behaved.
“I’ve definitely seen drag gain popularity over the years but it’s kind of always been there,” Presley says. “I think that we could always use education, just with the diversity. For the most part, our patrons respect drag queens and drag shows. But given the circumstances, you always have one [who doesn’t] here or there.”
Room to grow
Additional performance homes at Banks Ave. Bar, O.Henry’s, Asheville Beauty Academy and various breweries and wine bars help sustain the demand for local drag performances, though its members see plenty of opportunities for growth and improvement.
“I think that we have a great scene, but it’s still very much a late-night scene,” Janet says. “That’s sort of when the LGBTQ community feels more comfortable expressing themselves. It would be great if there were more events like [Blue Ridge] Pride, where there’s some exposure to the mainstream.”
In this writer’s conversation with Janet, the concept of a Drag Congress with representatives from each house was jokingly suggested but received support from the performer — who would nominate Divine for the assembly. Janet notes that her friend is a true leader who isn’t afraid to speak out about difficult topics or stand up to adversaries who want to intimidate her and her sisters.
“It’s scary to me, but inside me, larger than that fear is my want for equity and fairness and equality,” Divine says. “[Opposition groups] have no idea what they’re protesting. I want them to meet me — let’s talk. Let’s just be humans together. You’ll not be scared of me, I promise. My makeup may scare you, but that’s it.”