By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly
It’s no secret that Portland loves drag. On any given weekend, fans of the classically queer art form typically have a number of performances to choose from. Whether you like regal and sequined female impersonators, sassy and comedic divas, or abstract and genderbending queens — there’s something for everyone.
Unless you’re looking for a king.
While the city was once home to a number of drag king (or drag king-dominant) troupes, today there are few individuals still claiming the title and nary a collective of faux-bearded fellas to be found.
Remnants of former Portland troupe DKPDX can be found among the ruins of the internet — a rave review in the Mercury (circa 2004), a Tribe.com page inactive since 2005, a mention on an abandoned personal website, a tag on a former member’s Throwback Thursday Instagram post.
In 2008, a new troupe called the River City Riders popped up briefly, as well as the E-Kings (the in-house troupe for defunct lesbian bar the E Room). That was also the year that long-time solo performer Bruce TD King (aka actress Jennifer Lanier) became the first drag king to win Mr. Gay Pride Vancouver (joined by wife Dustina Haas as Ms. Gay Pride Vancouver — a title typically granted to drag queens).
A year or so later, a new king entered the scene, pulling together a diverse group of performers under the name Drag Mansion. That king was Little Tommy Bang Bang — arguably the best known and most flamboyant king to perform in Portland in recent years.
But even the Drag Mansion, which took the reins of queer cabaret Peep Show after drag queen Artemis Chase stepped down and has shared the stage with a number of national drag celebrities, has gone all but dormant.
Just last May, a new drag king performance night took hold at Vancouver gay bar Tigerlily (its predecessor, The Northbank, was a popular spot for drag performances by members of the Imperial Sovereign Court of the Raintree Empire). But its monthly run came to an abrupt stop when Tigerlily closed its doors this month.
The drag king scene, such that it is, now consists of a few solo acts performing occasional gigs. PQ talked to a few veterans of the scene to learn about how they became kings, life in the shadow of the queens, and the future of the drag king performance scene.
What makes a king
Max Voltage, a classically-trained musician, dancer, and choreographer whose stage persona has in many ways melded with their personal identity — first stumbled upon drag in 2001 while attending a Jesuit University. In response the school’s homophobia, Voltage decided to create queer visibility by putting on a drag show, despite having never performed in drag.
“I recruited a bunch of my straight (but not narrow) theater friends, and put together a drag king boy band. I was a huge hit, and a huge controversy, for that matter. After that, I was hooked.”
Voltage went on to win the San Francisco Drag King competition in 2003 and to found a drag troupe called Ubergay Cabaret with their brother, who performed as a drag queen. The troupe presented a fairy-tale drag-pop-opera called “Jack’s Off the Beanstalk” in Portland and toured the East Coast in 2005. Shortly thereafter, it disbanded — along with DKPDX and Sissyboy.
“As a baby-dyke gender weirdo, I didn’t have many stages or performance outlets available to me,” Voltage says. “Drag kinging offered me that stage, that opportunity to be a rock star, to play with gender, to be creative in a completely different way than I had been with classical music, and to find feminist queer performance community. Drag kinging paved the way for my artist self, and all the creative adventures I’ve had since.”
Korin Schneider — better known to Portlanders as glam rock king Little Tommy Bang Bang — was introduced to the scene in 2006 in Wisconsin, when she started doing small parts in performances by a troupe called the Miltown Kings. Eventually, she worked her way up, nabbing guest slots and officially joining the troupe in 2007. Like many gender bending performers, her motivations were varied.
“For some, I think it is a way to more safely express a part of their gender or sexual identity that they are not comfortable with sharing (or not able to share) in their day to day lives. For others I think it is a way to escape themselves, to become someone else for an evening. For some I know it is the only way they feel famous or loved when usually they feel unpopular, unpretty, or unnoticed,” Schneider says.
But, as the saying goes, the personal is also political. Especially in drag.
“Sometimes people do drag to make political statements,” Schneider adds. “Some integrate it into their art practice. Some to smash the patriarchy. Some for comedy or entertainment. Some to feel a part of a community. Some for tradition. Some to raise money for various causes in the queer community. Some because they saw it on TV and thought they could do better than Rupaul’s Next Drag Superstar. The list goes on. For me, it is a combination of a little bit of several of these things.”
Julie Johnson — known by the stage name Clyde S. Dale — has been performing drag for the more than a decade, getting her first taste 20 years ago at Vancouver’s Northbank.
“Drag to me is a chance for me to be someone different [from] myself,” Johnson says.
In the beginning, Johnson was one of the only ones performing as a king. Eventually, she met a performer called Johnny-O, who served as an inspiration.
“After that I got back into the Court and ran for Interstate Bridge and from there was Gay Vancouver 2007-2008 and I went right into being Prince 34 in 2008-2009,” Johnson says. “I took one year off and got ready to run for Emperor 36 of the Raintree Empire in 2010-2011 and am still with the Court of the Raintree as a board member.”
Johnson started a troupe called the Tiger Kings in May, but the group’s performances are currently on hold following the unexpected closure of its home base in Vancouver, Tigerlily Restaurant and Bar.
For Johnson, drag is not just about self-expression, but also connecting with community. “I have meet a lot of cool people and have made some really close friends that I call family.”
Standing in the shadow of queens
Despite Portland’s once thriving drag king scene, and the still significant number of gender bending performance artists coming out of queer and dyke communities, female and genderqueer identified performers can’t seem to get out from under the shadow of a queen-dominated performance culture.
Schneider says it’s hard for kings to compete with queens, and that the uphill battle for respect is the main reason there aren’t more drag kings.
“It’s frustrating to, more often than not, feel overshadowed by whichever drag queen is standing by. I think the reasons this happens are multiple and deep,” Schneider says. “Part of why I think it is harder for kings is that, in 2013, there isn’t something intrinsically radical about seeing a woman wear pants or a suit. But put a man in a dress, and that is still shocking to most people…. It is hard for a drag king to be as sparkly, glamorous, and fierce-looking as a lot of the drag queens are. Trust me, I’ve tried. A 6’2” person with 9-inch metallic heels, a giant wig, a sequin dress, and red glitter lips is most likely going to be more fun to look at than what the average woman trying to present themselves as male would be able to wear.”
She’s worked around that by developing a 1980s glam rock-inspired character, allowing her to wear shiny clothes, accessories, and big hair while still playing a masculine role. Schneider also tries to tip the balance by creating engaging performances that go beyond simple lipsyncing.
“But this is a lot of work, and I have definitely caught myself feeling resentful towards some queens for putting less into their performances and getting better responses, more money, and more praise. I try not to, but sometimes it’s hard,” Schneider says. “This is why I won’t do competition shows anymore. It felt bad to lose to queens who I know put in less work than I did, and even worse to feel like no matter how hard I tried, I could probably never win.”
While queens may spend hours perfecting their hair, contouring, and shading, kings often pour themselves into choreography and story lines. But what makes a peacock more impressive than a less flashy songbird? It’s hard not to wonder if it has something to do with the bird’s gender.
“[Drag kings] are not real boys, they’re girls trying to be boys and that’s easy — put on a shirt and jeans and makeup for shading,” Johnson says. “I give the queens the ultimate respect for I know I don’t like to put all the dresses on and pantyhose, but I hope that one day we take the stage and get just as much respect as the queen on the stage before us or with us.”
Voltage agrees that gender differences play a significant role in the disparities between kings and queens. But that’s not the only factor — the tendency of drag king performance to be about more than the spectacle can be off-putting to some audiences.
“Drag queens have this appeal to the straight audiences that kings never quite had. A lot of the best drag king troupes performed political, innovative queer art; it wasn’t meant for straight audiences,” Voltage says. “So then as kings, often you keep entertaining the same community. Plus with a troupe model, you have a few people doing a ton of work every month to put on these shows. So it’s pretty hard to sustain. But you know what, if Logo would just give me my own drag king reality television show, I bet I could set some kings into motion.”
The future of the kingdom
With the number of active drag kings dwindling, what does the future hold for the art form? Are drag kings, like lesbian bars, a relic of a time since past or performers whose time has not yet come? It depends who you ask.
Schneider says that, despite the challenges faced by kings, they will return to the stage — troupes in tow — eventually. It’s simply part of the “cycle of (drag) life.”
“I don’t know of any official drag troupes active at the moment. These things seem to go in waves, though, and I feel like there will probably be another one soon,” Schneider says. “They have their time and place, then they break up or grow apart and new ones form and grow and the cycle repeats.”
While a number of venues for drag king performances have run their course (Max Voltage’s Homomentum, Little Tommy Bang Bang’s Peep Show, Clyde S. Dale’s Tiger Kings, and Hamburger Mary’s), new performance nights have cropped up in the last year, such as Chicken Strip, Totes Hilarz, amd Testify.
“I think these new venues for performing will inspire new performers to take the stage, and eventually new troupes will form,” Schneider says.
Voltage believes that drag king culture appears where it is needed. While Portland’s scene has evolved to include more dyke/queer-focused events, kings are still needed outside the metro area.
“When drag kinging started to really blow up, in the early 2000s, it was also the location for dyke/genderqueer/trans community to come together; we were like mascots for our newly formed dyke/genderqueer communities,” Voltage says. “I think in smaller towns, where there’s still that need, drag king culture thrives.”
These days, Voltage is more interested in what could be called a post-drag approach to performance art — one that embraces explorations of gender without being confined to simple crossdressing. Voltage is currently producing a Homomentum-inspired musical, featuring “a drag king makeover, a magical boy band, unicorns, a band of intergalactic performance artists, a queer revolution, and lots of glitter.” A staged reading will be held Nov. 15 and 16 at CoHo Theater.
As for Little Tommy Bang Bang — he only brings out his mullet on special occasions, such as the recent Time-Based Art Festival event “Critical Mascara.” Otherwise, Schneider is occupied with other forms of art and craft.
Clyde S. Dale is on hiatus while the Tiger Kings find a new home. Johnson says Vancouver’s Fraternal Order of the Eagle is a possibility, but she has no official plans to revive the group.
Regardless of what the future holds, these kings and their fellow performers have left an indelible mark on Portland’s performance art scene.
“Although it has been a tough path at times,” Schneider says, “I am glad I have stuck it out. I have gotten to have some important conversations, and hopefully I’ve changed some minds about what a drag king can do in what often feels like a world full of queens.”