‘Flamboyant, Gay, Man-Thing’: Non-mainstream performers are making room in Chicago’s drag scene
Chicago’s Northalsted neighborhood, commonly referred to as Boystown, is iconic for its wealth of talented drag queens who crowd onto illuminated stages and strut their stuff in front of loving crowds.
The night begins with the queens folding their dresses, boots and wigs over their arms and piloting packed suitcases through dense crowds of drunken merchants.
Then the transformation begins: an everyday Chicagoan transforms into a regal, extravagant, or totally radiation camp.
For non-mainstream drag performers, the Boystown drag scene is a competition between white, cisgender, and gay men for money and approval from other white, cisgender, and gay men. When drag is presented through this narrow lens, potential performers are turned away.
“There’s nothing wrong with traditional types of drag, but I think it becomes an issue in terms of diversity,” said Madison Hill, a DePaul senior who moonlights as Georgia Rising. . “A lot of people don’t feel included, because they’re not white.”
Championed by gender nonconformists as well as lesbians and other queer people, non-traditional drag gives them the opportunity to express themselves outside the confines of what we constitute as traditional pageant drag.
Carolina Aceves, known as the Whorechata onstage, is a senior DePaul graduate in late March.
“It’s fun to be able to do drag, especially non-traditional drag where I might like to be like a flamboyant gay man,” Aceves said.
Aceves has met many of their counterparts online and through Discord channels. Their hope is to create a community of non-traditional performers and push the boundaries of Boystown’s rigid drag scene.
“We’re trying to build a collaborative, horizontally structured drag house full of lesbians, non-binary people, and people of color to really make room for that kind of drag,” Aceves said.
Trying to get reservations on the rainbow stretch of bars and clubs was a difficult task. Thus, these artists organize their own shows with other non-mainstream drag artists.
“When I first met them all, we decided we wanted to put some time and energy into putting on our own drag shows,” Aceves said.
While some popular bars have been harder to work with, Aceves and others have found their spaces in places like Golden Dagger, just north of DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus.
For Aceves, Golden Dagger is “one of the best places in Chicago for lesbians, people of color, and gender non-conforming people.”
A lack of diversity in Chicago’s drag scene should be a wake-up call for bookers.
“For people who are part of the LGBT community, especially lesbians, trans artists and people of color, there has been a major lack in our industry,” said Golden Dagger talent buyer Zoey Victoria. “The halls are finally waking up to the talent of this city.”
Finding places to perform and earn a living has been difficult enough for non-traditional artists like Hill, spending time on craftsmanship is another hurdle.
After months of drag racing and being a college student, Hill still struggles with this balancing act.
“I was really nervous, because it takes me a long time to put on makeup,” Hill said. “I can’t have homework. I have to devote as much time as possible.
Hill’s counterparts know they’re students, and sometimes that gets them in trouble.
“I made the mistake of putting on a show last quarter, right before finals, which wasn’t it,” Hill said with a laugh. “The queen who took him in was like ‘we need to get you drunk, before you need to go write those papers. “”
Aceves and Hill did not begin booking shows and coordinating acts. Instead, they began experimenting with makeup at home, then began performing in drag shows, open to all experience levels.
Aceves worried about what they would do in a competition. For much of their drag history, home performances in front of their mirror were as far as they went.
“I started cruising in the privacy of my own one-bedroom apartment at the start of the pandemic when things first came to a halt,” Aceves said. “I did it to express my gender and try to find some peace of mind.”
Through this style of dragging at home, Aceves found ways to hone his skills.
“I grew up on drag, and looked up to so many Chicago drag performers,” Aceves said. “I watched tutorials on YouTube, and I followed [other performers] and kind of see what they were doing and try to emulate that.
Drag has always been a way to challenge social gender norms. Gay venues were a way for the LGBTQ community to come together and express this challenge without fear of reprisal.
“By dragging, we’re saying sex isn’t real,” Aceves said. “We challenge the idea that there is a certain way to be a woman. There is a certain way to be a man. There’s no way to be anything.
Chicago’s predominantly white drag scene needs to change, and Victoria believes Boystown venues and bookers have an obligation to make changes. This change begins by diversifying their bills (the list of artists of the evening).
“I encourage them to think about how they build their bills,” Victoria said. “I would really like to see clubs give opportunities to people of color, especially black and trans artists.”
As awareness of the overwhelmingly white makeup of Boystown’s drag bookings comes to the fore, Victoria is optimistic about the future of Chicago’s drag scene.
“We’re on the brink of a Chicago drag renaissance,” Victoria said. “I feel pretty optimistic.”