When I first started driving to Hutchinson, Salina and Manhattan on reporting trips for No Place Like Home, I was surprised that drag shows still seemed central to the cultural life of LGBT Kansas.
I’d seen my first drag shows in Omaha at a club called the Max back in 1981 and clearly remember how the performers blew my mind (that particular show was about being convincing rather than being outrageous, and it worked). I have total respect for the art form as our traditional act of resistance and free expression. But I confess it’s never been my top choice for entertainment. And something about their emphasis on drag made it feel as if these small Kansas cities were stuck in the ‘80s. But oh, was I wrong.
Drag had never gone away; I was the one who left drag. And in a new era of liberation for gender identities, it might be more culturally significant than ever (the cool New York Times Magazine writer Jenna Wortham suggested as much in her recent profile of RuPaul).
It’s certainly helped liberate Kansas.
Take Manhattan. At Kansas State University (the state’s ag school), an elaborate drag production has grown over the last decade into one of the most simultaneously radical and mainstream LGBT events I’ve ever witnessed.
Every year now, the university’s McCain Auditorium sells out for a cold night in February. I went to my first K-State Drag Show in 2016 and was surrounded by 1,500 people; this year, for the first time, organizers opened the upper balcony and the raucous crowd grew to 2,000.
Based on applause levels when pre-show entertainer Allie Monet (Kevin Stilley, who I profile in the Epilogue to No Place Like Home) asked how many in the crowd were gay men, how many were “lesbyterians,” how many were straight, and how many just didn’t know, I’d estimate nearly half the crowd was straight – college kids on date nights or friends out with their roommates, everyone cool with each other and happy to be there.
Mistress of Ceremonies Monica Moree, known off-stage as Dusty Garner-Carpenter, is a K-State grad who started the event as a student and now returns every year with a cast of top-shelf talent from around the country (the ensemble calls itself Hot, Sticky & Sweet). One entertainer, Penny Tration of Cincinnati, was among the contestants on Season 5 of RuPaul’s Drag Race (alas, she was the first to be sent home).
In between spectacles such as a lip-synced “Bohemian Rhapsody” and a brilliantly obscene version of Oleta Adams’ “Get Here” – it replaces the repeated phrase “you can reach me” with “you can fuck me” and makes other lyrical adjustments accordingly – Moree takes advantage of her captive audience to educate the crowd via serious lessons delivered with drag-queen humor.
The annual ritual of thanking the event’s sponsors, for example, provides Moree with an opportunity to let the audience know how many more organizations and resources LGBT students have now than when she went to school there (some of which I detail in No Place Like Home). “We’ve come a long fuckin’ way,” she says to thunderous applause.
Then she’ll tell everyone to pull out their dollar bills because the next number’s going to be a benefit for the LGBT scholarship fund.
“Let me tell you about the scholarship funds because they’re really important,” says Moree, who received one of those scholarships and now pays it back, and then some, at the drag show every year. It’s $500, she says, which might not sound like a lot, but it covered the cost of her books, which meant she could eat for a semester.
This year, in $1 bills Moree collected by wading into the crowd while lip-syncing to “This Is Me” from the musical “The Greatest Showman,” along with a $1,000 match from the Addair Thurston Chartered law firm and another $500 match from Shoes Etc. in Downs, Kansas (population 844), hometown to one of the night’s stars, Victoria Fox, this one song hauled in $3,600. Moree matched that with another $400 so the K-State LGBT Resource Center can meet its fundraising goal of four grand.
“In front of the library, there’s a red maple tree,” Moree says after announcing the total, which will help give more students access to counseling and mental health services. The auditorium grows silent as she explains that the tree was planted in memory of a fraternity brother who committed suicide.
“When you see that tree, think of the lives you’ve saved,” she says. “Live your life. Have fun. And tip these queens.”
Two years earlier, Moree had used one such interlude to remind everyone of their history. The U.S. Supreme Court might have legalized gay marriage, she said, but this was no time to grow complacent.
“Ask any minority group what happens when you start getting your rights,” she said. “Your history goes away.”
The house lights were up, and I wasn’t prepared for what Moree said next.
“If there’s an LGBT person in the room who is older than 40 years old, please stand up.”
I’m way past 40. And when I stood, I was surrounded by a sea of people sitting (and applauding). Down near the front, Kevin Stilley and a couple of his friends were also standing. I knew the crowd was young, but this was a bizarre feeling.
“The people who you see standing right now spent the majority of their lives busting their ass so that you can enjoy a show like this,” Moree said to even more applause. She spoke about the AIDS epidemic. “We watched the men and women around us die. And today, that is not the case.”
Go talk to the elders, she told the crowd. Go learn about the fight to get LGBT rights protected in Manhattan (that’s the ground No Place Like Home covers in Chapter 6 and the Epilogue). Go vote, she said.
“Know who your city council people are, know who your Congress people are, know who your senators are, and write some fuckin’ letters,” she said, before telling everyone to get off their asses and get out their fuckin’ dollar bills for the next entertainer.
But the voting nine months after that 2016 K-State Drag Show hadn’t turned out so well for the 2018 crowd. So Moree had another message this year.
“Tonight’s show is about positivity and acceptance,” she said at the beginning. “Our world sucks right now,” but tonight was about the idea that “people of color built this country and we should be nice to them” – the room exploded with applause at this. Tonight was about the idea that “as a gay man, my whole world exists because a trans woman of color threw a brick through a window,” she said, referring to the Stonewall Rebellion nearly 50 years ago.
Moree closes each show with her rendition of the French singer Charles Aznavour’s “What Makes a Man,” in which Moree methodically takes off the costume, the wig and the makeup to reveal his body painted with anti-gay slurs before putting on jeans and a T-shirt. It’s a stunningly effective performance meant to challenge every gender stereotype.
This year the T-shirt was Wildcat purple with sparkly letters spelling out #BornPerfect. Now speaking to the crowd as a man in a pink pussy hat, Garner-Carpenter explained the meaning of the hashtag: As another K-State alum named Sam Brinton had recently pointed out in a New York Times op-ed, the form of torture known as gay-conversion therapy is legal in 41 states and needs to be abolished.
All of it was strong stuff. But the most moving moment of this year’s show was when Moree invited a 14-year-old drag fan named Will up to the stage. Will was two years old when the K-State Drag Shows started, she said. In those days, they had trouble filling a 300-seat hall on campus; now the two of them looked out from the stage at 2,000 people.
Everyone in the audience would go home to their small Kansas towns and talk about what a good time they’d had at the show, Moree said, and that’s how hearts and minds begin to change, how a place like Kansas becomes more tolerant and accepting.
And then Moree had Will stand up. She showed him the line on the floor that marked center stage, and gave him his first lesson on how to walk like a drag queen.
Watch videos of the K-State Drag Show on YouTube.
C.J. Janovy is the author of No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas. Follow her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.