Here’s the Truth About Being a Drag Queen in the Midwest

By Sophie Oswald

With our society telling everyone how to look, it’s always great to see people go against the grain. You should feel free to explore all aspects of your being without having to fit the mold that was created to make us all… let’s be real here… boring af! Those who flash a middle finger at set expectations deserve a round of applause. Here’s the thing; you’re allowed to stand out. And drag is one sure way to do that. 

Drag is a style of entertainment where performers dress up in flashy clothing and exaggerated makeup as a way of self-expression and an art. Drag doesn’t revolve around the gender or sexuality of the performer, but rather gives them a space to explore different roles.

Folks of any gender can be drag queens, but typical performers are men who get dolled up in a way that overemphasizes the feminine form. Women who perform drag are often referred to as drag kings because they’re dressing up in a way that overemphasizes masculinity. 

An unfortunate and harmful misconception by some outside of the LGBTQ+ community is that drag performers are transgender—that their artistic presentation is related to their gender identity. Transgender individuals and drag queens are not synonymous—though you can absolutely be trans and perform in drag. So be aware when talking about performers and use their preferred pronouns for when they’re both in and out of drag.

Drag has come a long way in its acceptance—though the LGBTQ+ community has been putting on drag shows for years—but there’s still a ways to go. Even performers who live in big cities with reputations of being open and accepting of others don’t always see support from their community. 

Being LGBTQ+ in rural America is already tough.

It’s not easy growing up in a small town or fairly rural area as anything other than a cisgendered, straight, white person. If you’re a man, it tends to be even more glorious for you. Add in being queer or different in any way, and you become an easy target for attacks.

LGBTQ+ folks face a dangerous existence. On October 7th, 1998 Matthew Shepard was targeted because of his sexuality, attacked, tied to a fence in a Wyoming field, and left for dead. Because of a hate crime, Shepard’s life ended at only 21 years old. There are too many other stories out there like his. Rural communities are often small, and smaller towns mean less diversity. When unique individuals exist, they’re alienated—or worse.  Too much violence occurs because of homophobia and transphobia, and historically there have been spikes in violent crimes following any advances in LGBTQ+ rights. Homophobia comes from a place of fear and comes out in hateful feelings and actions. 

Being an LGBTQ+ person living in a rural area comes with many challenges. They often face discrimination from neighbors and don’t always get the support they need. In the report Where We Call Home: LGBT People in Rural America, a survey found that somewhere between 2.9 and 3.8 million LGBTQ+ people live in rural areas throughout the country. 

That’s not to say small towns are always judgey and awful locations to live. Some individuals in these areas are accepting, but the community needs more allies to feel safe wherever they go.

Drag in rural America is a similar story.

Growing up in small-town America, the drag scene isn’t really a thing, or, at least it wasn’t until recent years. The few gems that do offer a space for those interested in the performance art still tend to get judgmental glances on the outside. 

Drag is a part of many hit movies in some capacity dating back decades; Psycho, Tootsie, Yentl, and She’s The Man to name a few. Once RuPaul’s Drag Race debuted in 2009, people got an even bigger glimpse into the world. With the growth in representation in mainstream media, acceptance and even appreciation has grown.

But even the most famous drag performers had to start somewhere—and the Midwest is no exception. BeBe Zahara Benet, who won the first season of RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2009, lived in Minnesota as a teenager. Trixie Mattel, a famous drag queen and reality television personality, is from Wisconsin. She now has a popular YouTube channel

Today, the Midwest is still blooming with drag performers. I spoke with three drag queens from Kansas to hear their stories and discover what it’s like to be part of the drag scene in the Midwest.

Michael Anschutz as Velvet von Vinyl

@velvetvonvinyl

SO: What are your pronouns?

VVV: He/him, they/them/theirs, in drag I prefer she/hers and my drag name is Velvet von Vinyl.

What did you learn growing up in Kansas?

First off I learned how to tell when a little rain is about to turn into a full downpour. That said, I grew up in Wichita and the outskirts of Topeka, so I mostly learned how to drive for hours on end and know nothing about cows. 

When did you first become interested in drag? How did you learn about it? 

Looking back as a kid I was fascinated by all kinds of stuff in movies and TV that blurred or broke gender rules. Ursula from The Little Mermaid was and is my favorite Disney villain, and her design was inspired by the drag queen and actor Divine best known for her parts in John Waters’ movies. Then as a teenager I saw Rocky Horror Picture Show which revels in gender anarchy. By about 19, when I really wanted to learn about the history of drag and how to put myself in drag, I was lucky enough to have the internet as a resource.

Did the people in your life at the time support your interest?

At home, no. I was hiding that interest and later side hobby from my family. I was really lucky to meet some very supportive queer friends and found family who gave me that support to explore this drag thing.

What do your parents and other family members think of your drag persona?

It is still a tense subject at times with my folks, but they have come to accept it. My sister is quite supportive. Honestly “coming out” is more complex than it looks in most media, and I still am finding my way to reconcile my discomfort letting my family into my drag life.

Tell me about finding a community that celebrates drag. Was it difficult to find in your area? Did you feel like there were plenty of events set up for you to perform or that the scene needed improvements?

So back in about 2014/2015, Topeka’s only gay bar Skivvies was closing. So I would go out to Jazzhaus in Lawrence where on Thursdays drag shows hosted by MsAmanda Love created a de facto queer bar. Go check it out! They are celebrating seven years of shows and it has been so great to see MsAmanda and everyone who works to make it happen get that love now that they can perform live again. But yeah, there was not much drag stuff or queer nightlife that I was aware of back then.

When was your first drag show? How did it feel to perform?

My first show in an actual drag show was MsAmanda’s open show. It was nerve-wracking, but lots of fun. But my first performance in drag was through community theater. Ad Astra Theatre put on Charles Busch’s play Psycho Beach Party. I got cast as a B movie starlet named Bettina Barnes. My director Craig Fisher trusted me to figure it out as I had a strong interest in drag. It was again nerve-wracking but so fun to tell this silly story with my friends in the cast.

How long have you been performing in drag?

It is tough to say exactly how long I have been performing in drag. I have taken breaks from performing, obviously most of 2020 was rough for anyone who works in nightlife. I think to myself sometimes that I really treat every show like it’s my last just because there are no guarantees. But yeah roughly three years or so.

Do you feel more comfortable in drag?

Physically, absolutely not. What I wear to get into drag is tight, hot, and I can’t use the bathroom without a lot of hassle. But I would say that like many performers, I am drawn to drag in part because it celebrates aspects of myself that I was taught to suppress or was afraid of being. I was afraid of being called a sissy or being feminine and drag celebrates that for me.

Are there differences between you and your drag persona? Is there a quality that your drag persona has that you wish you had? What does being a drag queen allow you to do or express when you are performing that you normally wouldn’t be able to?

Velvet von Vinyl and myself both have a smart mouth that works faster than our better judgment sometimes. Velvet these days is mostly an emboldened version of my own personality. I wish I were more comfortable with attention in my day-to-day life because I’m still pretty shy at times. Drag has really been an outlet for all sorts of things. My anger, my silliness, my love of lyrics, and connection with other people who love the absurdity of this world.

What does drag bring to your life?

Most importantly, drag has brought me connections with some fabulous people. It still pushes me to explore and just make something for the fun of it.

What advice do you have for anyone in the Midwest or any other sometimes unaccepting place that wants to do what you do?

Every queer person’s path to embracing their truth is their own. Do not beat yourself up for staying in the closet longer than others. If you can, find folks who celebrate your differences rather than just accepting them.

What do you wish people knew about drag?

It is so much more than RuPaul’s Drag Race! I love the show, but it can be frustrating when folks say they love drag yet watching that TV show is their only reference point. Most of all, no matter how small, local shows are so important to create a space for queer folks; so if you can, go support and have fun.

What do you think people can learn from drag? What can kids learn from drag?

Maybe to take themselves a little less seriously. Everyone performs gender not just drag performers. Personally, I have no time for the “How am I supposed to explain this to my child?” line of thought. The world is absurd and there are far more difficult things to explain to a child, like medical debt-induced poverty in the world’s richest country.

What issues are there within the drag community? For example, is there enough diversity?

Where to start, of course there are issues. First, I have become more conscious of using the blanket term “the gay community” and the like. Community takes work to build. Really we’re a queer population with countless overlapping communities. But to the question, there needs to be way more scrutiny and equity in who is benefiting financially from drag shows. Many shows are labors of love and aren’t making huge profits. The people who own the venues, bars, clubs hold a lot of power. Sometimes they abuse that power and/or fail to use it well. Show casts often lack racial diversity. The queer rights movement is inextricably bound to fight for racial equity, and many venues do not uphold this value in their choices. 

What was the most difficult thing about starting drag?

For me, the toughest thing about starting drag was hiding it from my family. Also, Dolly Parton said it: “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.” You can get resourceful, but yeah it’s rough when you’re living paycheck to paycheck to get yourself dressed up.

Are there any big drag fests/events/shows you want to be involved in someday?

I’d love to go to the Austin International Drag Fest someday. It looks so fun. I’m also really looking forward to exploring Chicago’s drag scenes as I recently relocated.

What do you think makes a good drag performer a great one? 

I love to see a performer tell a story through their performance and live totally in that moment.

What is your favorite way to connect with people in the drag community?

Instagram is fun, I’ve always been a bit slow on the social media game; I didn’t have a Facebook until I was 21 in like 2016. But my favorite is just to work with new people. I won’t “click” with everyone, but I respect the work and love to share a laugh backstage.

Have you had to deal with hecklers, and if so how did you handle them?

No hecklers really, but when I would walk to and from gigs or get food after, I got some drunk guys shouting stuff. I pay them no mind. In the bar, it’s sometimes more frustrating to have folks just on their phones. If you’re glued to your phone during someone’s number, be prepared to get messed with, just saying.

Is there anything you would like to add for our readers?

Check out your local shows! In the Topeka area, there are shows happening at Studio 62 and Jazzhaus in LFK. Local pride organizations or college queer student organizations are great resources too. Cheers! 

Manuel Colunga as Shaneeda Vicodin 

@shaneedavicodin 

SO: What are your pronouns?

SV: My pronouns are he/him.

What did you learn growing up in Kansas?

Kansas is a pretty cool place! I actually grew up in California and in Topeka, KS. Everything is kind of at a slower pace here, which I love.

When did you first become interested in drag? How did you learn about it?

I first found out about drag when I was a shot boy at this gay bar when I was 21. I thought it was amazing. I always wanted to do it, but I always made excuses as to not do it. Like “You’re too busy, too much money, etc.”

Did the people in your life at the time support your interest?

Yes! I got pretty lucky with that because everyone wanted to see me perform! I have a pretty cool supportive group of people.

What do your parents and other family members think of your drag persona?

They’re all pretty chill about it. They all call me “Shaneeda” now. They even have my three-year-old nephew call me that. It’s pretty funny.

Tell me about finding a community that celebrates drag. Was it difficult to find in your area? Did you feel like there were plenty of events set up for you to perform or that the scene needed improvements?

Finding a drag community wasn’t hard for me at all. I have quite a few friends who are performers. I also work at a salon (Him Her Them Studio) that has a lot of LGBTQ+ clientele, so I’m always surrounded by people who either know someone to get in touch with or perform themselves. I don’t really think the drag scene needs improvements. I know there are quite a few opportunities to perform around the city, but I also just started as well, so I’m not fully sure.

When was your first drag show? How did it feel to perform? 

My first drag show was actually a couple weeks ago! It was so exciting! I was so busy though trying to get stuff together, I didn’t even have time to be nervous at all. It all went by really fast, which is kind of funny. I waited a long time to do this, and I only ended up remembering being on stage for like six seconds.

How long have you been performing in this way?

I’ve only performed once but I’m actually getting ready for performance tomorrow and I’m doing a drag/burlesque show next month!

Do you feel more comfortable in drag? 

I’m pretty comfortable in and out of drag.

Are there differences between you and your drag persona? Is there a quality that your drag persona has that you wish you had? What does being a drag queen allow you to do or express when you are performing that you normally wouldn’t be able to?

I don’t think I have differences between my drag persona and my out of drag. I have a very unique fun/dry sense of humor and I’m very quick-witted, so my personality is the same, I just have a wig on!

What does drag bring to your life?

Performing brings more opportunities of me having a place to show off my creativity and getting to meet other performers with like-mindedness when it comes to displaying your art.

What advice do you have for anyone in the Midwest or any other sometimes unaccepting place that wants to do what you do?

Honestly, you just gotta get up and do it. Pay no attention to the haters. If you stay worried about what other people think about you, you’re going to have a boring life.

What do you wish people knew about drag? 

How time-consuming it actually is to get ready. Drag is another form of artwork. We are showing people our art, so sit down for the whole number. 

What do you think people can learn from drag? What can kids learn from drag? 

I think people can learn a lot from drag artists! Like to not be afraid to be yourself, go out and show the world who you are… just as long as you’re not a douchebag… wait… can I say that on here? Same goes with kids, be your authentic self. Stand up for yourself and your friends on the playground!

What issues are there within the drag community? For example, is there enough diversity?

I think now I’m starting to see more diversity in the drag scene, which I’m really excited about! I love seeing POC getting their chance to shine and show their artwork. 

What was the most difficult thing about starting drag?
The most difficult thing for me about starting drag was deciding which numbers to perform to and how. I have so many different ideas and concepts that I’d like to do, and it was hard for me to choose. Oh… and heels. Doing it all in heels.

Are there any big drag fests/events/shows you want to be involved in someday?

For right now there aren’t really any big shows I’d like to do. I’m mostly just really doing this for fun. Kinda like a bucket list thing. But who knows? Maybe you’ll see me on TV one day.

What do you think makes a good drag performer a great one? 

I think always trying to go out and elevate your drag. Have someone record your performance and then go back and look to see what you can improve on. Always think outside the box and do something different.

What is your favorite way to connect with people in the drag community? 

Instagram is by far the most effective way for me at least to get my drag persona out there even more to connect with people. Also just going out to shows and connecting with people in person is great!

Have you had to deal with hecklers and if so how did you handle them?

Luckily I haven’t had to deal with any… yet. But you know, I’d just keep performing and being amazing! The show must go on!

Is there anything you would like to add for our readers?

Go out there and support your local artists! We’re all going through this weird time with the pandemic and whatnot. Also, if you’ve ever wanted to perform then just go out there and do it! Also, follow me on Instagram @shaneedavicodin.

Roman Lucas as Jadoré Aimee

@jadore_aimee

SO: What are your pronouns?

In drag: she/her. Out of drag: he/him.

What did you learn growing up in the Midwest? 

I grew up in Missouri. Learning how to be myself and 100% authentic came easier once I began drag, because you’re around others that are learning to do the same. I believe that it’s a never-ending journey.

When did you first become interested in drag? How did you learn about it? 

I learned about it via RuPaul’s Drag Race and going to see local drag shows! Watching many local entertainers really sparked that interest, and it continued to grow!

Did the people in your life at the time support your interest? 

Yes, I have been blessed to have a support system (family and friends) that supports and uplifts me always.

What do your parents and other family members think of your drag persona?

My parents are very supportive of my drag, they frequently come to my shows. On the other hand, my extended family rarely asks me about my drag and have never asked me about it.

Tell me about finding a community that celebrates drag. Was it difficult to find in your area? Did you feel like there were plenty of events set up for you to perform or that the scene needed improvements?

Initially, it was hard to get involved within the community. Many entertainers that I would reach out to would either leave me on read or not even open my message. Once I found out about open shows within my community that I began performing in is when my growth and career began (which are also never-ending).

When was your first drag show? How did it feel to perform?

My first show was back in August of 2019. It felt amazing to perform. When I’m on stage, it feels like what I should have been doing for my entire life. 

How long have you been performing in this way?

I have been performing for just under two years. Within those two years, I have performed in many different venues, traveled for bookings, and even participated in a local competition in Kansas City called “Drag Survivor.”

Do you feel more comfortable in drag?

I would say I for sure feel more confident. I pull from confidence that I know I always have, but don’t find as easy to exude when out of drag. 

Are there differences between you and your drag persona? Is there a quality that your drag persona has that you wish you had? What does being a drag queen allow you to do or express when you are performing that you normally wouldn’t be able to?

I see differences and similarities for sure. I am naturally a kind person, so Jadore always is as well. However, Jadore can exude more confidence and is a lot more fierce than Roman is.

What does drag bring to your life?

Drag brings me so much happiness. It’s a creative outlet that I get to utilize frequently. I also love to entertain people and live for the moments when I feel a genuine connection with the audience and they are enamored by what I’m bringing to the stage.

What advice do you have for anyone in the Midwest or any other sometimes unaccepting place that wants to do what you do?

Talk to someone who does drag and have a dialogue. I once was told that difference is a teacher. Have an open mind, then try going to see a show.

What do you wish people knew about drag?

It is not easy. The makeup is hard to learn, it’s not cheap to look the way we do, and all while wearing heels, we are required to be fierce, look good, and entertain. Tip all the entertainers you see.

What do you think people can learn from drag? What can kids learn from drag?

People can learn that what one is passionate about can be unconventional and that is okay. I think it’s very important for kids to be exposed to different things, drag artists being one of them, to know that they really can be what they want to be when they grow up with no contingencies, and it can be as unconventional as they see fit.

What issues are there within the drag community? For example, is there enough diversity?

One major problem that I am proud of KC for trying to overcome within the recent years is the problem of not having spaces for newer entertainers to perform. Many polished entertainers say that us newer entertainers are fortunate, because we have more opportunities than they did when they first started. 

What was the most difficult thing about starting drag?

Knowing how to start and how much work it took. Learning how to do makeup well and finding good looks is something that every entertainer struggles with and has to continue to work on for their career, but that gets easier as time progresses. Plus drag is not cheap.

Are there any big drag fests/events/shows you want to be involved in someday?

I have always wanted to perform in Pride shows and festivals. As cliche as that sounds, it has always been something that just seemed amazing to me.

What do you think makes a good drag performer a great one?

One that is professional. A professional entertainer, in my opinion, punctual, ready to do their number when it’s their turn, kind, and willing to help others.

What is your favorite way to connect with people in the drag community?

I love interacting with others on social media as well as within the community at venues.

Have you had to deal with hecklers and if so how did you handle them?

Yes, in my eyes, you can ignore them and keep doing your thing, or turn it into a joke to make them look dumb.

 Is there anything you would like to add for our readers?

Again, support your local entertainers, and if you are an entertainer, make sure you are an entertainer for the right reasons and you are always seeking growth. Also, support drag kings as well! They are just as valid and have amazing art.



Sophie Oswald
 (she/her) is a writer and creator currently living in Kansas City. She got her degree in mass media with an emphasis in film and video from Washburn University. She also has minors in art, history, and women’s studies. When Sophie isn’t writing or volunteering her time to social justice, she can be found hanging out with her pets. 

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