The dressing room of Chester Street Bar is where caterpillar becomes butterfly each Sunday night as drag performers apply heavy makeup, carefully glue on facial hair and adjust wigs in preparation for their transition from street to stage.
The space itself is well-hidden, tucked carefully in the upstairs corner of the club. The worn, outdated carpet feels sticky from blackened gum, and if you look closely, it glitters … but it isn’t a castle folks are coming to see; it’s the show.
As many drag performers are well aware, there exists a great deal of ignorance about drag balls/shows and what it means to be a drag king or queen. The origins of the word “drag” are debated but have been said to date back to ancient Rome and Shakespearean theater.
A literature teacher told me that the word “drag” arose when Shakespearean actors (who were wearing women’s clothing to impersonate female characters) were forced to cut holes in the backs of their elaborate costumes in order to easily pull them up when walking so as not to catch them on a loose nail when dragging on the floor. Others say “drag” comes from Shakespeare writing “DRAG” next to the names of the actors who were “dressed as a girl.”
Regardless of its birthplace, however, it should be noted that the term “drag” usually refers to an impersonation of a gender for entertainment purposes. The majority of queens and kings are performers who dance and lip sync in costume. Their identity as a drag performer reveals little about their sexuality or gender identity outside of the show. That is to say, “drag king/queen” does not necessarily mean “transgendered” nor is it a marker of sexual orientation, transexuality or “gender-bending,” all of which relate more generally to a lifestyle outside of stage performance (although, contemporary gender scholar Judith Butler would add that gender is always a performance). Point-blank, everyone does drag for a different reason, and C-Street’s drag stars are no exception.
“I used to be anti-drag,” laughed Chester Street’s headlining queen Ceduxion (aka Marcus), who, away from the limelight, lives as a gay male; he has been doing drag shows for nearly a decade. For Ceduxion, becoming a queen happened by accident when at a drag pageant, he was asked to fill in for a contestant who didn’t show. Long story short, Ceduxion stole the gold and soon after learned that she was obligated to perform for a year and that the show was a preliminary for a state competition, where she later took fourth place. “Drag supports multi-personality disorder,” she joked. “Ceduxion is more confident than Marcus.”
Whether it’s a queen or king show, performers are backstage laughing, dancing, drinking and generally having a good time, making it hard to remember that for some, this is a paid job. “It’s like Halloween every Sunday,” drag king JJ Conner explained. “This is one place where we can congregate and not worry about dumbasses that say you can’t go into that bathroom because you have short hair.”
Everyone brings something different to the show. While many of the kings perform hip-hop or rap, king Marcus Freemont puts on an ’80s punk-pop show. “I’m a king of a whole new breed,” she grinned, pulling a tattoo shirt over her head. The costume isn’t all it takes to get ready; many choreograph movements, drill music or get themselves pumped for the stage. “I take two lemon shots back-to-back right before I go on stage,” Marcus Freemont said with a laugh. “It doesn’t get me drunk, but it takes the edge off.” Sasha, a drag queen, explained that she kisses her best friend, drag queen Mya, before the show starts.
Both Sasha and Mya explained that they are M2F (male to female) transexuals and drag queens. Both women are taking hormones to facilitate their transitions and have serious plans of undergoing sex-change operations. Their transexual and drag queen identities overlap, and both queens said that post-operation, they would continue to perform at drag shows as queens. In instances like these, the lines between stage performance and real-life gender performance are further blurred.
C-Street’s Amateur Night, which occurs the first Sunday of every month, brings in performers from Chicago to New Orleans. Although weekends are designated for hosting either strictly king or queen shows, the lineup depends on who comes to perform. The audience judges the performers, and the winner goes home $75 richer, not including tips. It makes you wonder if “drag queen” ever winds up on a resume.
But for some, it isn’t about the money. “What inspires me is knowing that in my day to day, I make a difference,” explained Dymond-Champagne Calloway, a queen who made her second appearance at the C-Street’s Oct. 5 Amateur Night. “Whether it’s in a wig and heels or a T-shirt and jeans.”
Creating a unique stage persona often begins by generating a name for oneself. Mr. Frasty (freak-nasty), a heterosexual male who performs as himself, attributes his energy and open-mindedness to growing up in a gay family, explaining that, “gay people really know how to party.” An Amateur-night regular, Frasty describes his stage persona as “100 percent me at my fullest.”
Some consider their performance self a separate personality or a character role to be performed. Others don’t distinguish between limelight and daylight and may not be putting on a costume at all. As Kia, another queen, explained, “It’s all a part of me.”
So why are gay bars like C-Street some of the only places where drag shows can be found, especially if sexuality and drag have little to do with one another? The answer is simple: Gay bars aren’t just for gay and lesbian clubbers but rather a space for the free exercise of gender expression. C-Street isn’t a “gay” bar so much as it’s an “alternative bar,” a home for those who’d like to check discrimination and prejudices at the door. No matter what gender category you find yourself in, everyone is welcome.
According to the International Lesbian and Gay Association, a compiling of reported hate crimes issued this past July revealed that hate has claimed the lives of more than 10 transpeople already this year. For many violators of so-called gender norms, being oneself takes exceptional courage. Yet the consensus among C-Street’s performers is, above all, to be true to yourself. “Open the doors to your prison if you want to be free,” said C-Bird, the Oct. 5 Amateur Night champion. “You can’t fly if you’re heavy.” “To thine own self, be true” is the mantra, and its echo resonates with me even now.
To learn more about upcoming drag extravaganzas at Chester Street Bar, visit their Web site at www.chesterstreetbar.com. To find out how you can support the International Lesbian and Gay Association, visit them at www.ilga.org.

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