Backstage, just before Rainbow Alliance’s annual drag show is about to start, professional drag queen Tajma Hall gets ready behind a screen. Makeup artists powder the faces of backup dancers. And in front of a lighted mirror, someone fusses with emcee Brian Coleman’s hair extensions.
“I feel powerful,” says Coleman, a Communication senior, while he checks his reflection. “Nothing says power to me like a pair of pumps. I feel ready to take on anything, and anyone, for that matter.”
And outside, waiting to be seated, the audience seems to agree. The discounted ticket price for those who dress in drag has drawn in the proudest of Northwestern’s gender-ambiguous community: Guys in low-cut dresses and high heels are distinctly strutting rather than walking, and ladies are admiring their face-paint beards and perfecting their crotch-grabbing technique.
“The lipstick is weird, the belt is tight, but it feels good,” Medill sophomore Brian Knox says of his feminine outfit. “I thought, ‘People are going to think I’m crazy,’ but when you get here, people don’t have an issue with it.”
The show’s atmosphere is uninhibited and unabashed both onstage and off. The performers keep up a steady stream of erotic, and occasionally arousing, innuendo, and the audience, many of whom are also dressed in drag, never hesitate to stand and cheer for the most-scandalous antics. Several audience members even wave dollar bills for Tajma Hall to collect, and the crowd especially approves whenever people remove their clothes, such as when the star of dance group Syzygy sends his bra flying to the floor.
In its sixth year, Rainbow Alliance’s annual show near the end of Winter Quarter has become a unique campus tradition centered on the (very) friendly competition between student groups, some of whom create their own acts. This year Boomshaka’s raunchy Harry Potter spoof, which capitalized on Dumbledore’s recent outing, takes the $500 first prize. Besides creativity and performance, acts are judged on “gender-bending,” or how far they push the rules of gender norms.
The night itself is dedicated to freedom of sexual expression — the confidence of putting on a drag outfit once a year and strutting it with the real queens. “The idea is to push the average student’s ideas of gender expression,” says Jessie Kaiser, co-president of Rainbow Alliance, “in a way that’s easy and accessible.”
That playfulness becomes alive and infectious: Two male members of Boomshaka decide to add an impromptu kiss to their performance. “That was spur-of-the-moment,” one of them says later when he was accepting his winning trophy, “and he kissed me back.”
“It’s just a place to show off being gay,” says John Jordan, the show’s co-producer. Between the frenetic cup-adjusting, bra-stuffing and hip-thrusting, the sentiment isn’t always obvious, but it’s there. “We can wear rainbow flags or whatnot, but the drag show puts it on a pedestal,” Jordan says. “This is queerness on campus.”
Rainbow Alliance wants to make Northwestern a more comfortable place to be gay or transsexual. Co-President Patrick Dawson emphasizes that the lipstick and thongs are part of that effort, and Weinberg sophomore Lyzanne Trevino, the show’s assistant producer, agrees: “This is the one and only chance you’re going to be able to walk into a safe environment where people are doing something completely different from their everyday life.”
But that doesn’t mean the drag show is a private party. After performing a rousing lip sync to Jennifer Holliday’s “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” Tajma Hall asked for gays, bisexuals and straights to cheer as groups, and the heterosexuals announced themselves as the clear majority. “I think that it’s really affirming for LGBT people to see something where they’re represented in a positive light and well-received by heterosexuals,” Kaiser says.
To Trevino, the drag show’s meaning comes from its reaffirmation that Northwestern accepts its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community—even when its members wear stuffed bras. “Here’s an event that the whole campus is invited to [where you can] walk in and think, ‘I’m not going to be pointed at,’” she says.
In the moment, the drag show can seem almost chaotic, the only night when students allow themselves to become uninhibited. But after the performance ends, it’s hard to say how many of these students, gay or straight, would feel comfortable having women’s crotches and men’s fake boobs in their line of sight.
“I think this event can be helpful for the right person,” Kaiser says.The right person, according to Kaiser, might be someone who is gay and finds a part of himself in the show that he previously felt uncomfortable about. For some, the drag show is liberating, but for everyone else, it’s mostly just a way to spend the night. “It’s meant to be fun,” Kaiser says. “I think it’s in the fact that it is so fun that it can be a profound experience.”
Because while the show elicited gasps, laughs and curious eyes that night, the false eyelashes, wigs and sock-stuffed jeans are more than shock factor—drag doesn’t necessarily change minds, but its ability to give students “a chance to be queer for a day,” as Jordan says, may be power enough. At the very least, it’s a chance to tuck a dollar bill into Tajma Hall’s cleavage.