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On the importance of drag shows in the LGBTQ community [column] | Local voices

The angel story

I was born in 2005 in Lancaster County. I grew up in a Puerto Rican family with a mother, father, abuela (grandmother) and two sisters who come occasionally on weekends.

Our household is predominantly heteronormative, meaning being straight is definitely the preferred sexual orientation.

Growing up, I never had an interest in what was stereotyped as “normal” for boys. When going to McDonald’s, I always wanted the “girl” toy in the Happy Meal, and I always wanted the pink LeapFrog tablet instead of the green or blue one.

When I was in CM1, a member of my family told me that I was a lesbian. I was disgusted, because I was brought up to think that kind of difference was out of the question and taboo. But then, in sixth grade, I started questioning my sexual orientation and finally realized I was gay.

In December, I came out to some family members and was rejected. One of them even threatened to fire me or put me in Christian “therapy”. I became deeply depressed, lost interest in my hobbies, and feared something worse was about to happen.

But then I went out with my godmother, Aida, and she welcomed me with open arms. She had had similar experiences at Lancaster more than two decades before me.

The story of Aida

I am Puerto Rican and was born in New Jersey. I moved to Lancaster when I was 12 in 1994, but even before that I had learned that thinking differently – and living differently – wasn’t OK.

When I was 14, I moved back to New Jersey to spend the summer with my family. That’s when I saw my first drag queen hurtling down the block on her skates. They were beautiful and I was mesmerized. Then a family member started shouting insults at them and my heart sank. But this queen shouted back, “Honey, you’ll never look as beautiful as me, so keep screaming, clown!” I knew that day that I could never be honest with my family.

At 16, while attending a Christian high school, I began to question the philosophy of my Christian faith. It was also the time when I started hurting myself in different ways because I was convinced that I would burn in hell for who I was; I was convinced that I would never find my purpose. In my early twenties, I yearned to be straight so I could finally free myself from the desire for women. I even married a man; we later divorced. The bright spots of this time are my children, who have become my saving grace.

At 34, I finally stood in front of the mirror and said to myself: “I am a lesbian! I then fell on the floor of my bedroom and started crying because I finally felt free, free to say out loud what I had been ashamed of all my life. I am a lesbian! I went out with my children and my family. I got a lot of backlash, especially from some judgmental family members, who called me a shame and said I was going to hell.

So when Angel came out to me, I knew I could be the loving, welcoming presence I never had and desperately needed.

So what does all of this have to do with a drag show, especially the one that has recently garnered so much attention in our area?

Aida writes

Drag was the first thing that brought me joy after my family shunned me. I went to a drag brunch and met some amazing queens who allowed me to share my journey with them and they shared their journey with me. I was captivated by their freedom to just be! They are men and women who transcend the gender binary with makeup and costumes or dresses, but they represent so much more. For me, they represented freedom.

Sometimes it’s lonely being a lesbian in Lancaster; when I go to a drag show, I find the support I need, even for a moment watching these men, women and transgender people drill with their lip-syncing and dancing!

angel writes

For me, celebrating Lancaster Pride in 2019 was the first opportunity I had to take a drag ride. It introduced me to feelings I hadn’t experienced before: euphoria about my appearance, an evolving sense of identity and healing. In 2021, I had around 200,000 followers on the social media site TikTok and a good sense of style and awareness, but something was wrong. I was comfortable with the label “boy”, but I felt like something was missing. And that’s when it clicked: I realized that I was non-binary, meaning I don’t identify strictly as male or female. So now I identify as bigender.

Drag was already a form of gender expression I participated in, and with my newfound awareness, I allowed myself to play more with my presentation. I started mixing androgyny with femininity, because that’s what gave me this euphoric feeling, and that’s how I see my own gender. For me, drag means art: art that presents my gender expression with a blending and blurring of gender boundaries. Flirting should not be taboo. It’s a part of me, a part I’m not ashamed of.

Angel and Aida

According to Channing Joseph, associate professor at the City University of New York’s Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, William Dorsey Swann, a formerly enslaved black man, was the first known self-proclaimed drag queen and oldest known American LGBTQ activist.

Channing’s forthcoming book, “House of Swann: Where Slaves Became Queens – And Changed the World,” tells the story of Swann, who hosted cross-dressing balls in the 1880s and 1890s in Washington, D.C., and cultivated a network of drag queens in the face of intense pressure from the courts and community leaders.

For both of us, drag was part of our growth, our understanding of ourselves, and a celebration of our freedom and self-worth. I (Aida) feel lucky to have been able to share this art form with Angel at a younger age than she was with me.

But not all teens have access to this kind of art or to mentors who can educate them about the role dating has played in our community. That’s why drag shows like the one hosted by the Hempfield Gay Sexuality Alliance over the past three years are so important.

As one of our friends said, “Straight guys think drag is about getting naked on stage. You have to show people who don’t know or don’t understand (what it’s really about). … These young people need to know their history!

Drag is part of our history. It’s a part of our community. It’s not erotic; it’s not about sex. It’s about self-expression, freedom and self-discovery. There is nothing culpable in that. A drag show just might save someone’s life.

Miguel Angel Rosado is a junior and vice president of the Gay Sexuality Alliance at Hempfield High School. Aida Rivera is her godmother and a licensed practical nurse.