BETA

Drag her

On Sat., Jan. 14, the kitchen at 168 York St. Café, a gay bar in the basement of a brownstone, closes early, and the dining room undergoes a makeover. Tables disappear. Chairs and benches come together in rows, with an aisle down the center. The space looks a little bit like a cabaret and a little bit like a church, complete with a collection bin: an ambitiously large, hot-pink bucket labeled “TIPS.” The same scene change happens on the second and fourth Saturdays of every month, but tonight’s show is a special one. Up at the front of the room, in front of a splatter-painted white sheet, hangs a caricature of the evening’s red-lipped, blond-bobbed hostess: Dirty Dixie Normous, Connecticut’s self-proclaimed Queen of Comedy.  

Dixie is a visitor here. Usually this room—or, during the summers, the patio out back—belongs to Robin Banks, who hosts The #1 Drag Show in Connecticut (another self-given honor). But Robin flew south for the winter. While she’s enjoying the sunshine in her hometown of Phoenix for a couple of months, four local performers have stepped up as guest hosts. Dixie is the first. She’s joined tonight by Ivanna Riggie, all the way from Massachusetts, as well as Connecticut’s own Tiana Maxim Rose and Mia E Z’Lay.

When I head to York St., it’s snowing hard. Tonight’s a night to stay in, and it seems like people might have done so. The front door opens to a staircase, with a room on either side: to the right, the theater, currently empty; to the left, a long narrow bar, where about 10 people have congregated. Still, it’s only 9:30—a half-hour before show time. Soon comes a steady trickle of patrons, mostly young men and women in their thirties, plus a couple of off-duty but in-drag drag queens.

Just before 10, DJ Ephraim takes the stage, turns on “Toxic” by Britney Spears. Guests get drinks and take seats. The place is crowded, if not quite packed, with people here to see Dixie and co. do what they do best. By the end of the night, the audience will have witnessed lip syncs and lap dances, stripteases and front splits. Tiana will have hopped on a chair in heels. Mia will have crawled around in a homemade two-piece Rugrats hoodie. And Dixie Normous will have tucked single after single into the belly of a stuffed white tiger—her “sore, wet, hot pussy.”

But for now, the queens stay out of sight. They’ve gathered upstairs, away from the buzz of the crowd, in a dressing room through which countless others have passed. Tonight’s performers represent just a few of the many queens in New Haven’s drag scene. It’s a community that has grown in recent years and, despite a stagnant number of gay bars, continues to flourish.

***

It’s hard to talk about the history of the New Haven drag community, in part because the city’s drag scene can’t be separated from that of Connecticut. Many of New Haven’s most prominent queens now live, or have always lived, in other parts of the state: Dixie Normous in Milford, Lucia Virginity in Thomaston, Sylvia Heart in Stratford, and so on. These queens perform at bars in neighboring towns, like Trevi Lounge in Fairfield, as often as they do at Gotham, Partners, and York St. They also travel to shows in Massachusetts, New York, or Rhode Island. Mia E Z’Lay recently finished a series of performances in Chicago. Similarly, queens from out of town—like Ivanna Riggie—join New Haven regulars in our own venues.

So drag in New Haven can’t be confined to the city limits, and neither can its past be pinned down in time. One bar’s drag scene might be booming while another’s is slumping. Plus, drag queens are notoriously sketchy about chronology. When I brought up, in a conversation with Robin Banks, a discrepancy about how long she said she had known a queen and how long that queen had told me she’d been doing drag, Robin laughed. “Oh, we all exaggerate. We all say less than we’ve been doing it.” She compared it to lying about your age.

One thing is for sure: drag has long been a part of New Haven’s gay life. Joe Goodwin, who has owned 168 York St. Café since 1993, remembers seeing female impersonators there as a patron, back in the late ’70s. “That was part of our culture,” he says. “Every bar had a drag queen.” Yet even given its deep roots in the Elm City, the drag scene hasn’t always been thriving. Like any community, its vibrancy has wavered over time.

In the late ’90s, according to Dandy Lions, there wasn’t much drag in the city, even though gay bars were packed. Dandy remembers Gotham Citi Café as the only venue with a regular full show. In the early 2000s, she started a monthly revue at York St. Café. Robin Banks—then just Shawn Bodey—met Dandy when he moved to New Haven in 2006. “I was just smitten by her,” Shawn said. He acted as a drag hag for a while, promoting Dandy’s shows and serving as an announcer. Gradually he started playing around with drag, and before too long Robin Banks was born. She made a name for herself, and took over the show at York St. when Dandy moved temporarily, in 2009, to Washington, D.C. It’s been hers ever since.

The start of Robin’s show, now a staple, coincided with a larger boom in New Haven’s drag scene. These days, on any given weekend, Partners, Gotham, and 168 York St. all feature different performers. Sylvia Heart has been doing drag for about nine years, and she has seen significant growth in the number of local queens. “I came up when there wasn’t any drag scene,” says Sylvia. “There was the core group, maybe like five or six girls that performed.” Now, she says, queens are popping up everywhere. RuPaul’s Drag Race premiered in 2009, and with its popularity came an explosion of how-to makeup videos on YouTube. Historically, fledgling queens have learned to paint from an established performer, often referred to as a “drag mother” With tutorials online, girls didn’t need drag mothers—they were teaching themselves. “Everybody who could pick up a makeup brush and do a straight line with eyeliner was all of a sudden a fucking drag queen,” says Sylvia.

But Sylvia, and others, note a difference between trained performers and girls who do drag just to go out, called circuit queens. While many local drag performers are happy to see girls dress up and have fun, they also think that those who do choose to perform could go into it with a little more humility. “A lot of the kids these days, they think they can put on some lip gloss and a wig, and they’re a queen, and their shit don’t stink,” says Casey Fitzpatrick, who herself is only 24. “We’ve put in our time, our blood, sweat, and tears—we’ve put in the work for it, and they think it’s just handed to them. It’s not that easy.”

***

So how does a drag baby come to take her place among New Haven’s royalty? The day after Dixie’s show at York St., I head east on Chapel to Wooster Square, where Mia E Z’Lay and Kiki Lucia live. The park shines white with last night’s snow. Inside his apartment, Robert Crowley, who performed last night as Mia, is curled up on a sofa in sweatpants watching South Park. With his wig off, he sports a shock of bright blue hair. (“I’m punk rock as fuck,” he declares at one point in our conversation.) Robert moved here at the end of the summer from Springfield, Mass.; he came up in the nearby town of Northampton. When he lived in Springfield, Robert made regular trips to Connecticut to perform, so he arrived having already broken into the scene.

Robert’s case isn’t unique. Tiana Maxim Rose, who came from New York, shared the advantage of connections in Connecticut. But other local queens have made their drag debuts, in all their messy glory, in the Elm City proper. Casey Fitzpatrick flew up to Connecticut from Florida when she was 18 to reconnect with family, and it didn’t take her long to try and make it among New Haven’s queens: “I started going out to Center St. Lounge, and Gotham Citi, and here, and really learned what drag was. I would come to the club anyways in makeup and heels and like, buzzed haircut—crappy ass makeup. And I would come and watch the shows, like, that’s what I want to do.”

Many queens remember their early days in drag with sharp embarrassment, the same way some of us think about our middle-school selves. Part of that shame comes from the look, which—even with a drag mother’s help—rarely starts out refined. Robert remembers his first stab at hair and makeup: “It was like Mimi from The Drew Carey Show got into a car accident with a flock of emus, and then someone set off an acid bomb, and that was the look I was going for. I think I have a picture.” He shows me; it’s bleak.   

Luckily, even the most established queens, like Robin, remember where they’ve come from, and most of them are happy to help beginners get their start. An aspiring queen will perform her first show for free. If the hostess, or another established queen in the audience, likes what she sees, the beginner will get hired again, and again, and eventually they can start charging a performance fee. But even veterans have to compete for gigs. To be a successful drag queen, you have to stay humble and hungry. Casey Fitzpatrick notes, “There’s queens that I know have been performing for, oh god, 20 years, and they’re still learning new tricks every day.”

Drag in New Haven works like a free market—a name will only take you so far. If your performances start to lag, or if you come late to a show, you’ll fall right back down the ladder. Kiki Lucia appreciates the pressure to stay at the top of her game: “I’m competing with people like Mia, like Sylvia, that are amazing at their crafts, and so it forces me to try to get to their level and get better than them if I can.”

It’s less important to be the best than it is to be unique. “Everyone has their little niche,” says Sylvia Heart. She sees herself as the “sexy nerd.” Robin Banks is known for her verbal wit. Dixie Normous is funny and dirty and a self-described “business queen.” Dandy Lions hearkens back to cabaret-style camp. Barbra Joan Streetsand specializes in her Babs impression. Tiana Maxim Rose describes herself as a “female illusionist”—taking “fishy,” or realistically female, to an even higher level. Her look stands in sharp contrast to one like Ms. E Z’Lay’s. Mia, a long way from her emu origins, is identifiable by her high, or exaggerated, drag. She describes her style as “a mix between an acid trip and Candy Land, and I don’t even know what else.”

Once you’ve carved out a niche, you have to work to maintain it. There’s always the possibility that some fresh blood could see what you do and make it new, or better. “The second you have somebody else in your category, it’s easy to replace you,” says Tiana. But that fear of being outdone doesn’t run too deep. However competitive it can get in the Elm City, it’s also cooperative. “We all scratch each other’s back, we all help each other out,” says Casey. For example, Mia E Z’Lay, a professional costumer, might sew a fellow queen a dress in exchange for an edited mix. In that way, the drag world works like a specialized economy in its most ideal form. The queens can enjoy each other’s talents without getting hung up on jealousy. “It’s kind of like apples and oranges,” says Dixie Normous. “I mean, we’re all fruits.”

***

The economy of drag in New Haven is wrapped up in that of its institutions: gay bars and clubs. In New Haven, queens and their venues have settled into a happy symbiosis. “They promote the bar, they’re the face of the bar,” says Bernard Kleman, who runs Partners with co-owner Dave Kleman. At York St., where Robin Banks hosts her regular show, owner Joe Goodwin speaks of his in-house act with pride: “Robin is my drag queen.”

In return for the entertainment they provide, drag queens get a commission and a venue with a built-in audience. When the gay bars thrive, so does the drag scene. “The more places, the more opportunities, the better,” says Mia E Z’Lay. In her Massachusetts hometown, all but one of the local gay bars have shut down. For drag queens, that means tighter competition and a less diverse community: “There’s like two groups, the freak weird queens and then the fishy queens, and it’s really head-butty.” She’s found that New Haven has enough room for several cliques to coexist.

After a number of closures over the course of the past few decades, New Haven is down to three gay-oriented establishments: Partners, York St., and Gotham. All of them do well enough to sustain themselves, but none see the kind of shoulder-to-shoulder business they did in the ’80s—the golden age of the gay bar. “This place was the place to be,” says Bernard Kleman. “We’d have a line around the corner to try to get in.” Of course, that golden age was also a darker time, when gay men went to gay bars because they weren’t welcome elsewhere. That history is still visible in the design of Partners, founded in 1974. Small, high windows create a sense of privacy.

Partners’s vibe lies somewhere between that of the laid-back York St., which opened in its current location in 1972 as The Pub, and Gotham Citi Café. Gotham is a nightclub—and a successful one. In 2007, Out magazine named it one of the 50 greatest gay bars in the world. But Gotham’s longevity as a gay bar derives, paradoxically, from the size of its straight clientele. “Gotham is equally known to straights as it is to gays,” says Robb Bartolomeo, the owner. When he founded it in 1996, he intended to serve gay patrons seven nights a week, but demand changed that plan. “We cater to the now market,” he says. “We do straight functions, we encourage straight people to come to gay night. We keep up with the times.”

The times have grown increasingly liberal, which translates to a diminishing need for exclusively gay spaces. Goodwin, like some of the queens I spoke to, has mixed feelings about the increased liberalization. “I think what happened is when a lot of the gay people—they want everything that everyone else wants,” says Goodwin. “They want to feel wanted, they want to go to all these places, and—fine. But there was a price to pay for that.”

Implicit in his comment is the sense that gay bars, like the one he owns, are gradually becoming the stuff of history. I got the feeling that running one is as much an act of service to the community as it is of business. “We just want to make sure that all the bills get paid for, and everyone has a safe haven,” says Bernard Kleman. No one today would open a gay bar expecting to make a killing.

In that way, the gay bar as an institution, once quite lucrative, or at least potentially so, has come to more closely resemble the economy of drag. Drag queens—with a few exceptions, RuPaul the most famous among them—have never been rich. Most of them see drag as a hobby, and put almost as much money into shoes, dresses, wigs, and makeup as they bring home at the end of the night. At times, it can feel like an uphill battle. “Drag’s definitely hard,” says Mia E Z’Lay. “And if you’re gonna do well, you have to push yourself.” Tiana Maxim Rose echoes the sentiment. “It does get exhausting,” she says. So what keeps the New Haven queens sewing, tucking, dancing, and lip-syncing, late night after late night?

***

Mark Rohrig, the man behind the woman Dixie Normous, stumbled into drag—literally. His first time out he wore lace-up pom-pom boots that kept coming undone. Walking the two blocks from his car to O’Neill’s, a bar in New London, he had to stop every couple of steps, stoop down, and fix them. As he tells me this story he acts it out, making his haphazard way around the coffee table in his living room.

Mark is a natural performer. Before he ever put on a dress, he wore a G-string as the Polish Pony, a stripper. Before that, he’d played in the Santa Clara Vanguard, the 1978 world champion drum and bugle corps. He’s even worked as a monster-truck show announcer, sending his deep voice over the loudspeakers at places like Texas Stadium. Still, in his drag debut, he was full of nerves. “I was shaking like a leaf,” he says. “I mean like if you put me in a freezer shaking.”

But it only took Mark a couple of nights to get used to going out as Dixie, and before long he felt he had unlocked a part of himself he had never thought to miss. “I feel people only live half their lives until they do something in drag,” he says. “I mean, you don’t really know. I go out all the time now in drag. I’m living my life to the fullest.”

Other drag queens share Mark’s sense of something clicking, a new life opening up. Tiana Maxim Rose grew up in upstate New York, where there was just about no gay scene, and went to an all-boys Catholic school. “Drag definitely eased a little hole that was in me, because I always knew that I didn’t want to just play basketball my whole life,” she says. Tiana also credits drag with introducing her to the trans community. “Although I am not currently transitioning, I do identify more actively as trans than I do even just as a drag queen.”

Casey Fitzpatrick, another trans queen, also used drag as a stepping-stone. “It helped me start my transition, and really figure out who I was.” That said, trans people are definitely in the minority among drag queens, and they don’t always receive the warmest welcome. Some think that once a queen starts identifying as a woman, she doesn’t belong on stage—not as a drag queen, anyway. But Casey doesn’t care. “I show up, I’m professional, I’m on time, I do my shit. And I have a good time. That’s all I could ask for.”

What’s more, she can always count on the support of her drag family: her mother Lucia Virginity, her sister Tiana, and too many aunts, cousins, and nieces to count. “We need like a big giant family tree on the wall,” she says. And it’s true: drag genealogies are difficult to trace around here. It’s more likely than not for two random Connecticut queens to be related somehow. Drag kin act like real kin: sometimes they fight, but usually they have each other’s backs. Tiana mentioned helping her first drag daughter find a job. “Chosen family,” says Lucia Virginity. “That’s what we call it.”

That’s not to say all drag queens identify with family culture. Some fly solo, or hop from clique to clique. But even the most independent queens feel some degree of kinship with their peers. “There’s a sense of camaraderie amongst the girls,” says Dandy Lions. Sylvia Heart agrees: “It’s so small out here that we all just kind of like—we know each other, and we look out for each other.”

Casey, whose life in New Haven has been a life of drag, has tried to take what the community has given her and pay it forward. She’s looking out for the next generation—drag queens or not. “I’m only 24, but a lot of the kids look up to us,” she says. “And especially with Gotham, which is 18 and over. A lot of the kids that go, they don’t even have $1.50 to get on the bus to go downtown. But they come and they make it there,” she says. “They live. It gives them an outlet to be free, and be happy, and to just breathe for a minute.”

Maybe the most significant way queens give back to the community is through charity shows. Drag boasts a long history of philanthropy: in the ’80s and’ 90s, profits from drag shows helped fund funerals for AIDS victims. Many queens today count themselves members of the Imperial Sovereign Court of All Connecticut, the local chapter of an international fundraising group. The Court contributes to all kinds of causes: the Alzheimer’s Association, the New Haven Pride Center, AIDS Project New Haven, and others. Dandy Lions served as Empress in 2015. Under her stewardship—and that of her Emperor, drag king Dustin D. Cobwebs—the Court raised the most money it has since its inception: $40,000.

And yet, you don’t have to be a man in a dress to raise money. Ultimately, all drag queens stay with their art because it offers them an outlet they can’t find another way.

Toward the end of my conversation with Mark Rohrig, I ask him what he loves about drag. “I love everything about it, man.” He jokes about being an attention whore, and describes the joy he gets from “making people smile and laugh, and blowing their minds.” It seems like he might leave it there. But just before I leave, he returns to the question. “Life generally,” he says, “you know, other than drag—the world is not such a great place these days. I mean, you’ve been here a couple of hours, and we’ve been talking about drag, but pretty much everything else that we talked about sucks.” He laughs and runs down the list: chronic pain, PTSD, depression, divorce, and Donald Trump, whose inauguration was looming. “And so, you know, fucking puttin’ on a dress is the best thing I do,” he says. “The world goes on.”

***

So does the show. On Friday, Jan. 27, it’s happening upstairs, on the second floor of Partners. There, Kiki Lucia is hosting the debut of a monthly series called Let’s Have a Kiki. The inaugural theme? “Back to School Special.” She’s playing the principal, Sylvia Heart the head cheerleader, Lucia Virginity the gym teacher, Hazel Berry-Rose the foreign exchange student, and Mia E Z’Lay the class clown.

I run into Mia outside. She’s fresh off a few shows in Chicago, and the exhaustion has yet to let up. But this week brought some good news that’s kept her going. For a while she’s been deliberating on whether to take a job that would have required a hiatus from drag. But on Monday she interviewed for, and was offered, a position at a costume shop. She can keep on performing.

Upstairs, the show starts at midnight. Kiki Lucia does her best to cajole the increasingly drunk crowd into leaving the bar and joining the audience, gathered in a semi-circle around the stage. She gets a mixed response. But those who do come bring their whole selves. They sing along. They clap and cheer at splits and pole spins. And as always, they reach out with dollar bills.

Among the outstretched arms is one that belongs to Mark Rohrig, who has come here tonight as Mark, in jeans and a shirt, rather than as Dixie Normous. It takes a moment for the queen onstage to notice him. He holds himself still. Finally the performer sees him and struts over, her lips still moving along to a song. Their hands meet in the air as the dollar passes from one to the other. It’s a quick exchange, easy to miss. In a moment, the queen returns to center stage, and Mark, lowering his arm, fades back into the crowd.

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