To walk through Horton Plaza at lunchtime on a gorgeous day in late spring with a flamboyantly beautiful woman on your arm is a sure way to snag a lot of looks — quick, long, furtive, appreciative, critical, and the confused. This particular woman is over six feet in spiky four-inch heels, has a wild tangle of black hair and a small purple satin dress that fits her like an orange peel fits an orange. Her skin coloring shows traces of a Hawaiian and Greek heritage that heighten her exotic appeal. And she doesn’t so much walk as sway forward, a mixture of stride and hip movement, stiff back and head toss. She’s here because I invited her for lunch and to buy a golden rhinestone-covered cowboy hat to match the golden chaps she sometimes wears to work.
Those who look twice begin to focus on the woman’s feet and hands, which are large for a woman. Then they notice her Adam’s apple. In fact, everything about her is italicized, larger than life. Occasionally she smiles back — relaxed and in possession of her world — as if these people were guests at her own private party.
The woman — her name is Tootie — leans over to speak to me. “You know, honey, once you get your weenie whacked it’s over. You’re going to become normal. You’re going to be a girl. Nobody is going to fault you for liking men. But as society changes you’re going to see more people who are comfortable being drag queens, like me, because that’s really what I am. I don’t ever want to lose being a boy. I mean, it’s great to be able to stand up and pee. You can’t do that kind of stuff if you’re a girl, roadside peeing is not very easy. And it’s nice when I get home to take out my tits and put them on the dresser, you know? And not have to have them on me all night.”
In some ways this story started 40 years ago when I was a sophomore at Wayne State University in Detroit. To get from my best friend’s apartment to my apartment, I had to walk past a sleazy drag bar in a sleazy neighborhood. I was immensely shy, and the girls in minidresses would stand out on the sidewalk and taunt me. Usually it was around midnight. Of course, it was no more than crude joking and it was aimed at anyone who passed, but it seemed aimed at me alone. When I crossed the street, they shouted and waved. My very shyness and refusal to acknowledge them increased their jokes. I knew nothing of drag queens, and who knew what went on inside that dark place? At 19, I found the whole thing very scary, although what exactly I was afraid of I could never actually say.
As the years passed, I didn’t learn much more about drag queens. A few movies and a few newspaper articles — that was it. However, not long ago I was driving down Fifth Avenue, and as I passed Lips, a club featuring drag acts and where drag queens work as waitresses, I saw a beautiful young black woman teetering on top of a 14-foot stepladder screwing a lightbulb into the Lips marquee. Three other women were down on the sidewalk, looking up at her speculatively. Nice balancing job, I thought.
By the time I had gone another block I realized that hadn’t been a woman after all. Then I again told myself that I knew absolutely nothing about drag queens.
It is one of the pleasures of journalism that it allows me to satisfy my curiosity on a wide variety of subjects, and that evening I visited Lips to see if I could interview some of the — what were they called? Perhaps even “drag queen” was politically incorrect. Perhaps they were called Persons of Ambiguous Sexual Presentation. However, drag queen was what it was. For most of this, that is.
There is nothing subtle about Lips with its pink walls and oversized rhinestones stuck to golden glitter above the bar, a variety of gaudy colors, tinsel wherever it can be attached, mannequins in gaudy dresses, photographs of drag queens — outrageously lovely in big wigs and sexy dresses — a gigantic four-foot lipstick standing at the corner of the bar by the door, being at the same time both phallic and feminine. In back is a stage such as Miss America might use surrounded by a ring of tables. I first talked to Mitchell Albert, the general manager.
He told me that Lips had opened in June 1999 and employs eight or nine drag queens who work both as showgirls and waitresses. The customers are almost entirely heterosexual. The different stage shows include drag queens impersonating and lip-synching, or singing, famous numbers by famous singers — Cher, Barbra Streisand, Billie Holiday. One of the biggest attractions, however, is the birthday celebrations — where the birthday boy or girl is invited or coerced onto stage, interviewed, and teased (“Are those tits real, bitch, or have you hidden your napkin?”), given flowers, which are taken back at the end, and has his or her picture taken with the girls. It is all very campy. Mitch said they have had as many as 30 birthday celebrations a night. There is another Lips in New York City that opened four years ago and is owned by the same group of people.
Mitch had come out to San Diego from New York, where he had been working for the same company. I asked him if there was any difference between working at a straight restaurant and one where the waitresses were drag queens.
“Food is food, a restaurant is a restaurant, service is service. I try not to think about the demographics. I’m straight, so maybe I’d prefer working with straight guys, you know, guys talking about football. But these guys are great. At first I think I was too direct. I mean, most of my experience has been with 40-year-old straight waiters in New York, and so here at Lips I think I stepped on some toes, so I’d have to apologize. Here they can be very sensitive, so sometimes you have to be pretty indirect. But actually, the last place I worked, Broadway Girls in New York, the waitresses were all young Broadway hopefuls. They were 22 or so. They could be very sensitive. It was very similar to here, the same kind of sensitivity. You’d have to watch your temper.”
Over the next week I talked to five different drag queens. I had assumed they might be rather similar. This turned out not to be the case.
Tootie was the first I talked to, and as I was waiting for her to show up one Sunday afternoon at Lips, Mitchell said to me, “Are you waiting for Tootie? Just to let you know, drag queens are never on time. That’s a thing about being a drag queen. If Tootie has a show at 7:00, she comes in at 7:30. She’s on drag-queen time.”
Actually, she was only five minutes late and couldn’t see the problem with drag-queen time. “Drag time is like, you know, you have a problem getting the lashes on or your wig is not looking right, or you can’t get your dress zipped up, or all of those things happen all at once. I mean — you can imagine.”
Tootie is assistant manager at Lips and headlines in the shows on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, doing impersonations on Thursdays of Cher, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, and Diana Ross. On Wednesday nights she does shows in a club in Laguna Beach. She has also done shows in L.A., has done several national commercials, and has appeared in two films and a Zippo lighter campaign where she got to ride on the back of an elephant. Her psychic tells her that she will soon do a film that will change her life. “She told me about the other two,” said Tootie, “so I’m going to have to trust her on that.”
Tootie started in drag in Honolulu at the age of 20 when she appeared in the play The Spider Woman. “Androgyny was always very interesting to me, but I never wanted to be a woman except for short spurts of time. For many drag queens it was Boy George who gave us a sense of permission, let us do what we wanted to do. At least that’s how it was for me, you know? But I don’t see why drag queens always have to be performers. I think they could be great politicians or public speakers or secretaries or business people.”
A few years after that first experience Tootie moved to San Diego and started a cigarette-girl business with drag queens called Uptown Toots, which is the origin of her name. “I needed something identifiable, so I thought, you know, Tootie went well with Uptown Toots. And it was fun. People have gotten used to hearing Natasha and Elisha and Crystal and Karesha, all of that stuff. They wanted a change, and here’s a person who came out of the woodwork, wearing big flowers in her hair and the shortest skirts possible, and right away, I think I endeared myself to a lot of people that way.”
And why hire drag queens instead of, well, regular girls?
“Girls are harder to work with than drag queens because they have periods and boyfriends. Of course, drag queens have boyfriends too, but the drag queens are usually the ones calling the shots.”
Flashy, beautiful with a great figure, wisecracking and sharp-tongued, Tootie is as hard to overlook as a black cat on a wedding cake. She could be 30 or five years older. When I asked how old she was, she raised an eyebrow. “You mean in Hollywood years?” I said sure. “Twenty-four, honey.”
On the day of our lunch, we had been crossing Fourth Avenue when a driver in a green Chevrolet swerved as he took a second look. Tootie patted my arm. “I’ve been the cause of three traffic accidents,” she said proudly. I was surprised it wasn’t more.
Although intellectually I knew Tootie was a man, it was something of which I had to keep reminding myself, because she never seemed like a man. On the other hand, when I walked with her she tended to walk ahead, like a dancer who always insists on taking the lead.
The stereotype of the drag queen, said Tootie, is that she’s vicious — the bitch who will jab her stiletto heel into your heart and grind away.
“The lady — er, the drag queen that started Lips in New York was very impressed and influenced by that TV show Dynasty. That’s partly where that stereotype came from. And maybe through life the women that we’ve also chosen to emulate have been bitches. You know, Diana Ross has a notorious reputation; Barbra Streisand has a notorious reputation. Joan Collins, Joan Crawford — all of these female icons that we have, you know, cleaved to, are all considered bitches, so maybe that’s where we get it from too. Here at Lips we don’t do a lot to dissuade that. We have shows where we reinforce that image that we’re a bunch of bitches, you know? But it’s tongue-in-cheek. It’s playing on old stereotypes of drag queens. Because, actually, the time of the vicious drag queen is over. People don’t want that. And in my own life I try to be not that. When I was a little ‘girl,’ I used to tell people that Marlo Thomas was my sister — my last name is Thomas. I used to say that because she was somebody, you know, cutesy, and affectionate. So, I’ve always liked that and wanted to be like that. You get a lot more with sugar than you do with vinegar, right?”
But even though drag queens may be getting sweeter, they don’t tend to hang out together, Tootie told me. “There’s still a lot of bitchiness between us, though we’re finding that less and less. A club like Lips in conservative San Diego puts us together and creates a place where we can come together and do what we do, without fighting for jobs, or fighting for focus, or whatever — men, whatever, you know? So, Lips has been a great catalyst to get us all bonded and stuff.”
However, in talking to drag queens over the next week I heard some rather sharp criticism about the behavior, lifestyles, performances, manner of dress of other drag queens — remarks that, if not entirely bitchy, certainly contained a lot of meow.
Although several other clubs in town have occasional drag shows, the main commercial venue is Lips; and on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays Tootie brings in other drag queens from the community “to do numbers and stuff like that. We want to reach out and embrace everybody, you know?”
I asked her how many drag queens she thought there were in San Diego.
“Well, I’m amazed because I meet new girls every week. I can’t believe there are that many drag queens, but there are. There are the ones that work and live their lives like that, there’re the ones that just do it once in a great while, and you have the young crop that is coming up who are just trying it out for the first, second, third time maybe — they’re still in high school or just getting out of high school. So, we’re here, there’s a lot of us. And there’s a greater sense of permissiveness. Places like this allow that, which is so great. Drag is a very familial kind of thing, we pass it down from generation to generation. I mean, I have a dress that was given to me by a drag queen who is no longer doing drag. She gave me one of her old dresses that she danced for — a sheikh back in the ’70s with — so it’s passed down from generation to generation. Sometimes somebody will come in and maybe they’ll look a little rough or something and one of the girls will say something like, ‘Oh my God, look at that one.’ Well, I’ll be very quick to take them over on the side and go, ‘You know, these people are like totally welcome here, and we need to make them feel that way.’ Because there is no place else you can go and feel that.
“But the work and the lifestyle — it’s not for sissies, that’s for sure. It’s pretty tough when you get down to it. We spend six hours in high heels, and yes, we have to put up with a bunch of crap from people too. So it’s tough that way too. And some drag queens find it particularly hard. When I had my own show, I had a Marilyn impersonator who constantly went back and forth about loving it and hating it because of the stigma that it has, or the stigma that it gave him as a gay male. I hate to see people go through that kind of angst. You know, why? That’s not life. Enjoy what you’re doing, and I mean, I totally enjoy this.
“We get tons of goofy people in here. That’s what gives me fodder for my show, it keeps me going, and I’ve never had a really bad experience with anybody. I have seen where people come in and maybe they’re not happy with the person they’re with and therefore it translates over to their energy during my show, something like that, but I’ve never had anybody who was like vehemently negative about drag queens or gay people. Well, once, there was this guy sitting up by the stage and he did not want to be touched by anything or anyone — and you’ve seen how I go around the audience, and we all do, you know — well, when I get a guy like that, you have really opened the floodgates, okay? Because number one, I am still a man in a dress, and I am going to push it, all right? So, I will tell everybody — see that guy over there? That’s the one you want. And I’ll tell them on the microphone so he knows to get ready, baby. Well, that guy gobbled his food and he got the hell out of here, but I think everybody else in the audience saw how he acted and realized how ridiculous that was. Maybe there were some other people who came in with that same attitude but saw how stupid it was on somebody else and left here changed — maybe.”
Because of her work at the club and with Uptown Toots and her other jobs, Tootie tends to be in drag from morning to night. But most of the drag queens at the club, she told me, “live their lives as boys all day, then they throw on a pound of makeup and two pounds of powder, and they’re here ready for work looking glamorous.”
And there are several others at the club who remain in drag all day because… Tootie toys with the word “transsexual” but doesn’t like it. “It’s hard to say, well, they’re like women, because it’s not like they’re like women, they’re like guys, but they identify with women more. I would say that they maybe enjoy their masculinity and their femininity, but they identify with being a woman more.”
Tootie makes many of her dresses but buys them as well. “You always go to the closeout racks, because that’s where you find the flashiest dresses. I’m an incredible bargain hunter, and I will find things and I will never pay more than $20 for anything. And I have beautiful gowns, honey, I mean gorgeous, but I’ve never paid over $20 for any of them. I have a wardrobe that would make most girls just like salivate.”
She is also always on the lookout for clothes for the other drag queens at Lips, whose personas range from the glamorous to the campy. In New York, Tootie told me, the queens tend to be campy. “But here at Lips, we kind of have to mix it up, we have to be a little bit more fishy.”
Fishy, I asked?
“Well, if you look good, you look fish, girl.”
But buying clothes can present difficulties. While Tootie herself wears a size 8 dress, another drag queen at Lips, Angelica, who stars in a comedy act, wears a size 16 dress and a size 13 or 14 shoe, which can mean a lot of Internet shopping.
Angelica, or Jelly, was the second drag queen I talked to. At six feet three and 200 pounds — spiky heels can bring her up to six seven — she can be daunting in red satin. Though extremely campy in drag, she was very serious in person. When I talked to her at Lips, she was wearing a blue T-shirt, jeans, and a baseball cap turned around backward. There was nothing feminine about her, nothing to indicate that part of her life was spent as a drag queen. Consequently, I shifted over to Angelica’s daytime name: Greg.
Originally from Long Beach, Greg earned a bachelor’s degree from San Francisco State in social science with a concentration in sexuality communications — counseling, with a minor in gay/lesbian/bisexual studies. He also has two associate degrees in criminal law and criminal psychology and is certified in administrational justice, paralegal studies.
I gestured around the restaurant with its pink and glitter. So how did this happen?
“I would drag like twice at school just for fun, nothing serious at all,” Greg told me. “When I graduated, I moved back to L.A. and started doing computer consulting. I was making $80,000 a year, full benefits, company car, company townhouse, everything was set, and then I had a friend moving down here and I said — well, I’ll look at some jobs. Lips was having auditions and I do stand-up comedy — mostly I’d done a lot of benefits and charities in San Francisco, coffeehouses and juice bars, things like that — and I thought there was no way they’d consider me as a drag queen, because I had only done drag twice before and it wasn’t serious at all. So it was like — it would be really fun to audition as a joke. I mean like just to have the experience and to be able to write about it someday and talk about the crazy time when I auditioned to be a drag queen.
“So I auditioned and did all comedy stuff. No one else really had done comedy here, like they all do just dancing and glamour kind of stuff. And they loved it and offered me the job, which I’d never expected because I figured I am competing against hundreds of professional people that have been doing this for a long, long time, but they offered me the job. So here I was wearing a suit and tie to work every day, and I thought, I’m only 23, do I really want to be so serious? How many opportunities do you have in your life to be an entertainer and do something so wild and crazy while you’re still young? I was like, if I don’t do this, I’m going to regret it — I don’t want to ever have to look back and be like what if I had done that crazy drag-queen thing back when I was 23?
“So I got out of L.A. and moved down here at the end of May 1999. The whole decision-making process took two weeks. Like one day I was wearing a suit and tie to work, then two weeks later I’m down here learning everything there is to know. When they actually hired me, I said, I don’t know how to be a drag queen, but I’m really good with people, I’m really good waiting tables, stuff like that. I’m really good entertaining, being a comedian, like at my tables. So, if the girls can teach me how to do my makeup, I can teach them how to be good waitresses and work the computer and other stuff.
“When you start doing drag, most drag queens have a drag mother that takes you under her wing and shows you how to do your makeup, shows you how to sew or make your costumes, and gives you her old jewelry and passes these things down in order to train you. And her mother becomes your grandmother, and if she has two daughters, they become your sisters, a whole lineage. For some people, it’s just like a funny kind of title that they give to these people, but for others it’s very, very serious, and they call each other family, they celebrate like holidays together. I know a lot of people that celebrate Mother’s Day — it’s a big thing where they bring flowers and candy and take them out to dinner, the exact same way that you would with a regular mother. But I didn’t do any of that. I was a drag orphan and self-taught pretty much. When I came here, everybody who worked here was a professional who’d already been doing drag for a long time. I’d never really done drag at all and no one ever really offered to be a drag mother, but every single person here in the restaurant painted my face at least once, like for the first month. And that’s kind of how I learned. After that, it was just kind of trial and error.”
Parenthetically, Tootie had told me, “All that drag-mother and drag-grandmother business, I can’t stand it — I say I’m the administrator of a drag orphanage.”
Greg’s day job is with the Office of Naval Research, doing research in cognitive neuroscience, using hypnosis to manipulate the subconscious. “The theory being that your conscious mind is only able to access a very small percentage of your brain’s memory. Using hypnosis is a way to gain access — like having a photographic memory. Our mind remembers everything that we’ve ever seen or heard, it’s just our conscious mind can’t handle all that information, but through hypnosis, you can access it. This is one small example. There are a million other applications for this research as well.”
The skills acquired from Greg’s various degrees have been useful primarily in volunteer work: working with different community centers, working as a gay youth counselor and with Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a gay-rights organization.
I suggest that all of this seems some distance away from being a drag queen.
Greg glanced around the room with a mixture of perplexity and pleasure. “Well, this was never my plan. I didn’t go to college for six years so I could be a drag queen. I thought like it will be fun for a month or so to try something different. I mean, how long can you really wear heels and spend two hours doing your makeup every night? How long can you do that and enjoy it? But I’d never really had any kind of performance outlet. I never sang or danced or played instruments or acted or had done anything onstage, and so being onstage as a comedian was a whole new thing for me. Then as it kept going and I was able to refine things, refine the way I looked, refine the way I dressed, you know, get more creative with my makeup and my costumes and my numbers, and that remains exciting and fun because like I’m constantly reinventing myself. Here it’s great because you do your own numbers and your own show — you can pretty much do whatever you want, whereas singers and actresses other places have to follow a script, they follow what somebody else has written. So, that way, it’s stayed exciting. People always ask me how long I’m going to be doing this, and I say until it stops being fun. Because I can certainly make more money somewhere else.
“But another reason I wanted to move down here was that I thought about how amazing it would be to meet all these crazy people that lived these incredibly different lives from me, but it wasn’t like I was one of them. I just wanted to understand where they’re coming from and blah blah blah. Before I started working here, I saw drag queens as these mystical creatures who were totally different than me, not even like human. I admired them and I loved watching the shows, I loved everything about it, but it was never something that I saw a commonality with.
“As crazy and strange as everything seems to people when they first come in here, that’s the same way we all felt when we first saw things. I mean, four years ago, I thought drag queens were like mentally disturbed and that they had these psychological problems, they all wanted to be women, and I’m sure some of them do, but that’s not what it’s about. Because when I met them, I realized that for a lot of them drag was just kind of like another thing. They just fell into it like me, came and auditioned. Some of them, like Tootie, who are career queens, have been doing it forever and constantly. You ask Tootie what will you be doing in ten years and Tootie says I’ll be a drag queen. Whereas for me, I don’t see myself doing this for ten years. For me personally, I only do drag for work. I don’t dress up for any other reason unless I’m going onstage. Whereas, there are other people for whom getting dressed up is a way for them to express themselves and to become someone they don’t feel like they can be as men, and so they do it, you know, more often. So definitely some people have always kind of been drag queens in their lives, but there are a lot for whom this is just like a show. They’re like actors and this is their medium, and they come here and they perform, and when they’re done, they’re done.
“But definitely doing drag has affected my entire life. It’s become more campy. Drag has definitely seeped into everything else I do. Not the dressing up, but the way I dress, the way that I act, the way that I decorate my room. Those things have become really campy and flashy and dramatic — things they never were before. And I’m comfortable with it. Maybe I’m queening out. You know, flaming, whatever. That’s something that was never part of my personality before. For some people that’s their personality naturally. For me it’s not, it’s still like a fun medium that I play with. But when six of us drag queens from Lips go out to lunch, it’s not like watching six boys having lunch together; it’s like a show. Six people around a table, making jokes, making fun of each other, singing, dancing, I mean, whatever, and that’s a great thing that I never had done before, and there are certain things that I think will always be with us. The idea of being comfortable with people staring at you, or being comfortable with people being shocked at you, or thinking that you’re weird or strange, of being comfortable with that and not caring, which gives you a freedom and the ability to be outrageous. One of the biggest reasons why people don’t act outrageously is they don’t want the attention; they’re not comfortable with it. And being a drag queen and doing what we do onstage, it definitely makes me outrageous — me wearing a big fur coat in broad daylight is not as big of a deal as when we do what we do for a living onstage.
“Right now there are about 5 of us that have been here since we opened, from like 25 people in the beginning that have slowly been filtered out. And those 5 of us, we all work like almost every day. We run the entire restaurant, because we’re the people that really enjoy everything about it. If you enjoy it, enjoy being onstage, enjoy being able to play with being a man that dresses up in a dress and lip-synchs to other people’s songs, if you can see this as a job where you are this incredibly glamorous superstar, then it makes you happy. If you can enjoy the good things about it, then you can handle the bad things, the fact that you’re in heels and walking around for seven hours and spend two hours doing your makeup and getting ready.
“I know for my parents, they’d be like — why would you want to do this? Why would you want to dress up like when you go to a prom or for your wedding day? But as a drag queen you dress up in these beautiful gowns and your makeup is all done up and you walk in and people just look at you and think you look great. When you’re here at the restaurant, you feel like a superstar, people see you and gasp and say they love you and you go up onstage and everyone is cheering. I get to do that every night. That’s my job. Every night I get to dress up in these great outfits and I walk in and everyone tells me how beautiful I am all night long. Why wouldn’t you want to do that?
“If you do drag and you look good, you’ll always want to do it in some way. I mean, you may not want to do it as a career, but there is definitely something that you will never get as a man, no matter how glamorous you can ever look as a man. I mean, a tuxedo is considered like the highest form of male drag, but the reaction you can get as a man in a tuxedo will never even come close to a woman in a gown with her hair and jewelry and everything. You will never get that. So, for a man to do drag and even to touch on that glamour and get the response that you can get, if you look good — because I looked bad before and I never got it — but once you look good and you’ve had that reaction, then after that, you can never get enough attention to equal that. There is a certain kind of high. If you could have a job where you can do that, wouldn’t you want to do it? Who wouldn’t? Whether you’re straight or whether you’re gay, whether you like drag or hate drag, that feeling is universal.”
Finally, I asked Greg if working in drag ever gave him the chance to use what he had learned in college in gay studies to educate people.
“Sure it does. Being a waiter at regular restaurants is very different than doing it here, because here people don’t want a drag queen to walk up and say, ‘Hi, welcome to Lips, may I take your order?’ Here there’s so much more than that. Like when I come to a table and I jump into a customer’s lap and start taking his order. It’s something different that makes it more fun, like performing at the tables. Eighty percent of the people that come into Lips have never seen drag queens before. This is the gayest thing they’ve ever done. Lots of them feel very uncomfortable being in this environment because they’ve never seen a place where gay people can be open. This is not a gay restaurant, but definitely gay people feel comfortable here, whereas it’s not marketed only for gay people. Most of our clientele are straight. And so, they come in and they see us, and I try to talk to them — because there is absolutely no education in our society about anything concerning gay issues, certainly not drag. And the people are always asking these questions, because the lines are very blurred between what a transvestite is, what a transsexual is, what a transgendered person is, and what a drag queen is. I get the same questions all the time. Like do you want to be a woman? Have you had surgeries? Do you do this during the day? And those questions are all things that identify the person as having no knowledge of what those different things are, which is not surprising because there is no education, unless you’ve studied it on purpose. So at every table I go to there’s pretty much an opportunity for me to educate them and give them a better idea of how similar we are.”
I asked Greg to give me definitions of transgender, transsexual, and transvestite.
“Transgender is an umbrella term covering everything,” he told me. “Specifically, it’s used to identify people that feel they are a different gender inside — they’ve been given the wrong body. Sometimes they want to have surgery, sometimes they don’t. That would be transgender — gender being what is on the inside, not what is on the outside. And if those people choose to have the surgery, where they actually physically alter their bodies, then they enter the category of transsexual, which is when you start changing the biological sex of your body. Then, transvestites are men that feel a sexual release from cross-dressing. For them dressing up is a means to embrace a feminine side of their personality that they can’t usually express. It’s not like just for fun. If they don’t dress up, they feel a pressure build up that isn’t released until they do. Actually, 80 percent of transvestites are heterosexual men, which comes as a shock to most people because people always assume transvestites are gay. But a transvestite might do no more than wear women’s underclothing under men’s clothing — and only he knows about it. Or he might just dress up at home and walk around the house — things that a drag queen would never do. The entire point of being a drag queen is to go out, it’s for the show, for people to see you. It’s not for yourself, it’s for everybody else. A drag queen would never get all dressed up in drag and stay home. That would defeat the entire purpose. And I suppose that there are heterosexual drag queens. I’ve heard that there are, but I’ve never met one. The thing is that all these categories involve men dressing up as women, that is why it’s confusing.”
In talking to Greg, I had been struck by how becoming a drag queen had actually brought about changes in his personality. He had become more outgoing, less inhibited, more outrageous, more comfortable with himself.
This was something I also found in the third drag queen I talked to — Kiki, the only African-American at the club and who, among other things, does Whitney Houston impersonations, singing rather than lip-synching her songs. Greg had told me that kiki was slang meaning to like to talk and that Kiki had received her name because she talks all the time. Small and pretty — she wears a size 6 dress — Kiki is one of the drag queens at Lips who could easily pass for a woman. Although 32, she looks in her mid-20s. She, too, is flamboyant, sexy, and perfectly at ease. But it wasn’t always like that.
Kiki had only been in drag once before coming to Lips, having been part of a show at another club. On that occasion, the owner of Lips happened to see her and asked her to audition. By that time Lips had been open about two months.
“I told him to screw himself,” said Kiki. “I wasn’t going to dress up as a woman and wait on people’s tables. Then about three weeks later, one of my friends who worked at Lips came up to me and said, ‘Oh my God, you know how much money I made in one day?’ That was on a Sunday and I was here on Wednesday. I had no training at all. I came here as a crazy, obnoxious man in a dress, is what I call it. So then I had a drag mother who said, ‘Okay, you don’t know how to do your makeup, you don’t know how to do anything, I’m going to help you.’ So in five days of working, she showed me how to put my makeup on. The attitude in my stage presence was there, I just needed to make my face look like a drag queen. I mean, I’m an entertainer. If I could do this without dressing up like a woman, I would. All I want to do is entertain and make people laugh and have a good time. If I can do that, I’m happy. I’m a stage person, I have to get up and make a fool of myself; I’m the crazy, obnoxious one.
“I was nervous in the beginning, because I’m doing everything dressed like a woman and I didn’t know how to act. So the first day, I took a drink and said I need to just be me in a dress, that’s all. But I was scared out of my wits, scared of everybody who came in here. Because this is my part-time job, this is not my real job. I was afraid that someone was going to walk in from my real job and notice who I was. Every time I turned around, I was looking over my shoulder and after a while, I said, none of these people pay me, none of these people feed me, none of these people take care of my bills, so I shouldn’t worry what they have to say. It took me about five months to get used to it. I was only working one day a week at that time. Then in my sixth month my whole attitude changed. Then they put me on five days a week. You see, it took that long to come out of my shell. That’s how long it took to stop worrying.”
One reason Kiki was reluctant to let people know she was working as a drag queen was that she lives alone with her eight-year-old son. It took six months before Kiki could tell him.
“But in the beginning, I was real nervous. I would sneak out of the house, not letting him know. Then I brought him in here for dinner one night and we sat down and we ate and he said, ‘Daddy, those are men?’ I said, ‘Is that bad?’ He says, ‘No. Why don’t you do that?’ And I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it for you.’ So then he saw me perform and he thought it was great.”
Now her son asks for a new picture of Kiki every week to take to school for show-and-tell.
“I mean, the refrigerator door is covered with pictures,” Kiki told me. “All his friends come over and say, ‘Is that really you?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s me.’ And they say, ‘You’re prettier than my mom!’ It’s hard being a single parent.”
Another reason Kiki didn’t want to advertise her work at Lips is because in her other life she is on active duty in the Navy, where she had worked as a cook. Yet here as well, after six months her fear of what might happen if she was found out disappeared.
“I have to say the Navy has come a long way, because a couple of years ago I would have never told anybody I was doing this, ever. Now, I don’t have a problem. If someone asks me what I do for my part-time job, I tell them. I work in a restaurant. If they ask me where the restaurant is, then I go further with it, but if they don’t ask that last question, then I don’t go any further. Actually, the ones I’ve told have honestly come in here and had a good time and say you are great. A lot of the people in the military know I work here. There are people you can tell and people you can’t tell. Even a couple of my bosses have been in here. They didn’t recognize me until two days or three days later and I’d say, ‘Where did you eat dinner the other night?’ They’d tell me and I’m like, ‘Oh, you didn’t see me?’ They said, ‘You were in there too?’ I’d say, ‘Yes.’ And that’s when I told them. But most of the girls in the Navy know what I do because I get tips from them for certain outfits and where to shop at.”
I asked Kiki how she saw herself in relation to Tootie and Angelica — Tootie into being a drag queen for the long haul, Angelica only for a short time.
“Me and Angelica are about the same,” Kiki told me. “When I get tired, I’ll just leave. It’s just that this job got me out of debt. Because I take care of my son, I have to pay for baby-sitting, and then I have to pay my ex-wife for my other son. She has one and I have one. But before working here it was really, really hard. I was working three jobs prior to this one. I was working the Navy, Little Caesar’s, and working at a hair salon at night, cleaning up. So, I was spending most of my life away from my son, and I didn’t even see him but once or twice in a week. Then I took this job and I spend a lot more time with my son. So, when I finally got out of debt, the whole thing changed. Like I said, if I could do this without dressing up and have as much fun, then I’d do it. This is just entertainment for me. Other people like to dress up, go out and do things, not me.”
Another reason that Kiki wished to keep what she did hidden was that she didn’t want her family to know, even though they live in Buffalo, New York. Yet after about six months she stopped worrying about that as well.
“Three months ago, I went home for my brother’s wedding and I laid the cards on the table. I told everybody what I was doing for my second job. I thought my father was going to kill me because my father hates, hates, hates anything that is out of the ordinary. When I told him, he was the first one that said, ‘You know what? If you’re doing it good and you’re doing that damn good, then I want you to keep doing it.’ [Kiki makes about $2000 a month at Lips.] Everyone almost died when he said that. They were like, I don’t know what you did to Dad, but that’s not our dad. My mother looked at him like, are you serious? And my mother has known since a month out, that’s when I told her. Then when I went home I told everybody else. I showed them the pictures, I didn’t say anything, I just showed them the pictures first. I let them take it in and then I said, ‘You know that’s me, right?’ ‘You’re crazy, this isn’t you, you’re gorgeous.’ ‘I work dressed up like that.’ And it took my father about an hour before he said something to me. Then he said, ‘If you’re doing it that good, keep doing it.’ ”
I was impressed by the series of changes that Kiki had gone through during her time at Lips, and I asked if there had been others as well.
“It’s made me respect women more,” she told me. “It’s made me think of the hell they have to go through to make themselves beautiful for a man or for public life — day in, day out, putting makeup on, eye shadow, hair. When a man gets up, all he does is take a shower, put on some Chap Stick, brush his teeth, and walk out the door. A woman goes through a lot more. But I’ve also come to see how most women have to put themselves on a plate and garnish it very well. I’ve become more sensitive to that. And I respect them. But I have to honestly say that if you have to do that, if you have to garnish up a plate, then that’s the wrong person that you’re chasing after anyway, because someone should see you for what you are on the inside, and not the outside. Being in the gay atmosphere, lesbian atmosphere, a lot of people judge you by your looks. They judge you from just looking at you, when it’s the inside that matters. Coming here has taught me that also. I see a lot of people — he’s cute, he’s cute, he’s cute — but that person may be a poor person on the inside, but they still want that because it’s all about what they have and how they look. When now I could care less.
“But this is something I’ve learned being here, because I used to be that same person that goes, ‘He’s ugly, she’s ugly, I don’t even want to be anywhere near them.’ And it’s the inside that you have to learn, because anyone who sees me dressed like this all the time is going — Drag queen, always gotta be in dresses, always going to be running around doing that. And that’s not me. They only see me in the restaurant, they don’t see what’s on the inside, they just see what they see. So that’s made me more sensitive as in if I found someone attractive, I can’t go by looks anymore, I have to go by the person on the inside, how they feel, how they care, how they carry themselves.”
I was struck that all these changes had happened to Kiki after she had been at Lips for about six months, but what had brought these changes about didn’t become clear until I asked her about being a gay man.
“Whooo,” she said. “I am Jerome. That’s what I tell everybody.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“That’s my name. I don’t relate anything to sex. I’m a human. People run around saying, ‘I’m gay, I’m straight, I’m purple.’ I’m like, ‘Okay, I’m Jerome.’ That’s my man name, Jerome, I’m Jerome.”
I was afraid that I might have been offensive and said as much.
“No, you didn’t offend me at all. A lot of people are like, ‘I’m gay.’ Oh my God and I’m like, ‘I’m Jerome, how are you?’ I just don’t want anybody to get the wrong impression about me, so I never pretend to be what I’m not supposed to be, I’m just Jerome. When it comes to sex, if you make it to my bedroom, then you’ll know.”
So then I asked Kiki or Jerome how she or he described himself. I didn’t mean sexually, but his whole life. How did he see himself? And then Kiki explained how he had changed after six months at Lips.
“I see myself as a nice, sweet, caring, loving black man,” Kiki said. “Five years ago, I didn’t see myself as this. I saw myself as this timid little scared little thing, running around the streets of San Diego, thinking that he knew everything. And now I see myself as being this — if someone needs something, knowing you or not knowing you, I would give it to you. I would have never done it before. And what changed me was that I looked around and I saw where I was — in debt and then out of debt, and when I needed things, there was no one ever to give it to me, no one to help me. And I had to stop asking my family because I had to be a man and take care of my responsibilities. When I came out of that on my own, I decided that if someone ever needed me, I would be there for them because I would want the same thing for me if it ever happened to me again. And it was actually coming here and working as a drag queen that brought that about. Lips brought me out of the basement of owing money to everyone to actually putting away $100 and $200 every two weeks and to where I could be comfortable and take care of my son properly. When I saw that I could do that, then it was like I wanted my son to learn the values of life and help his brother too, who might not even be his brother but who might just be someone who needed something, that my son should be there to give it to that person, whether they’re black, green, yellow, purple, whether you like them or hate them, you should always be there for the rest of these men and women on this earth. See what I mean? Because everybody needs sympathy.
“All that has to do with when I got comfortable working here, it’s all tied together. Because when I first started working here, I didn’t think any of these people were like me, because I came in here and I had makeup on my face and I looked like a man. Then Gigi started working with me, helping me with my makeup, and the others started coming around saying, ‘How you doing?’ and as time went along they started asking me to do things with them, and that’s when everything started changing. They would say, ‘Let’s go out and do something — you want to go out and do something?’ And oh my God, they actually liked me. And I was wondering, why do I need them to like me in order to feel comfortable? And that was one of my human traits that I let take over when I shouldn’t have to worry about anyone liking me or wondering what I’m doing with my life or who I was going home with. Instead I should be thinking about what makes me happy, just like everybody else, and not be worrying — Oh my God, these people don’t like me, I’m in here just one day a week, they don’t know me, they don’t know me.
“And then, boom, I changed, I just busted out. And it was overnight because that next day, I came in here and everyone is like who in the hell are you? I came in smiling and bouncing around. You see, at the beginning, I was walking around like a little angry little sob. I was wound up so tight that no one liked me, no one liked me, and now I find it amazing, people come here asking for me to be their waitress for their table. It’s funny, isn’t it? It shocks me every time I sit back and tell someone about it. When my mother asked me what made me do this, I broke it to her from beginning to end, she’s like this — You had been through some hell and no one even knows it.
“And you know what else is funny about this? I tell people when they come in here, a good 20 percent of that story and they will look at me and go, you are amazing, and I still don’t see it like that. I see it as being a person that learned from A to B, and before he could get to C, he made a decision and changed it all, so he didn’t need the rest of the alphabet. I was trying to climb that hill, but I was tied on the safety line. Then I cut the safety line. That made it a lot easier. You see, people can’t judge each other from the outside. You have to get to know your shit — get to know your fellow man and take life for what it is. Life is too short to play around with these games.”
It was for me an amazing story — that self-discovery had come about not by being who one was, but by being who one wasn’t. In addition, that while Kiki seemed the most dramatic case, it was something I also found in most of the others, that pretending to be women had given them more freedom to be men, to be human beings. It seemed an enviable condition.
While Kiki is very clear about her sexuality while performing (“That’s me onstage. That’s the man me onstage, dressed up like a woman”) and doesn’t do drag outside of Lips (“You not paying me, I ain’t going”), the fourth drag queen I talked to, Gina Roberts, occasionally considers what it would be like to have “the operation” and become a transsexual. She is also active in the greater drag-queen world in San Diego.
Gina Roberts is the one Asian working at Lips, having come to the States from the Philippines in 1983. Small and lovely (she wears a size 4 dress), her makeup is far more subtle than the other drag queens at the restaurant and her delicate features make it easy for her to pass as a woman. But in daylight, she told me, it was very easy to tell. (“It’s the muscle and the way I carry myself: too much, too wild.”) Although 27, she looks 20. Gina has been at Lips since just after it opened and began doing drag seriously about a year and a half before that. Her first experience with drag, however, had been a year earlier when she had dressed in drag for a Halloween party. The problem was that even with the makeup, she could still see herself, as she expressed it.
“I didn’t like it and I never wanted to do it again, but then the next Halloween I had another friend who had a drag party and he told me he wanted to do my makeup. But I wasn’t sure. I mean, I didn’t have a good experience the first time. So he said, ‘If you don’t like it, you can take it off.’ I said okay.
“And he did my makeup and I was like wow. Everything changed. I couldn’t even recognize myself. And after that he did my makeup for a while. He was my ex-roommate, and he became my drag mother. Every time I would go out, I would ask him to be my makeup man, and he would tell me, ‘You’re just going to have to learn on your own because I can’t always be doing it.’ And you can totally tell who does your makeup because it’s similar to the way that person does his own. People will look at you and say, ‘Oh my God, I know who did your makeup.’ So I watched him and tried to do it myself. Sometimes it would look okay and sometimes it wouldn’t. And I really hated it when it didn’t look right. Then after a while I got used to it and got it just the way I wanted it. I would never let anybody do my makeup now, because I’ve created my own look and it’s totally different. I tend to do it more softer now. Because before it was like drag queen — you can totally tell, the makeup looks nasty. But I’ve been able to make it more subtle because my facial structure is more feminine. Asians have softer bones. Most of my Asian friends, they’re more like very feminine with makeup.
“So then I began to enter pageants and some of them I never got in because it was like my first pageant and I didn’t get anything because I was so scared. But then every weekend I would go out with my friends. It was a routine with us, we’d go out every Saturday in drag and I would love it because nobody knew who I was. I would do benefit shows and stuff. Then I heard about Lips. I wanted to apply for it because I had clothes and I’d learned how to do makeup and I was performing in a lot of benefit shows and had a lot of experience. Well, one night, we did a benefit show and after the show I came over to Lips and auditioned. They loved me and it was fun.”
The world of drag-queen pageants and benefits that Gina Roberts became part of can be found all across the United States. Earlier Angelica had said that very few drag queens make their living performing. “Many more drag queens do drag for competition, do pageants. They’re called pageant queens or are part of the Imperial Court, which is like drag royalty. Every city has an Imperial Court. And those are very competitive. Pageants are just like beauty pageants. The Imperial Court is voted for. So they’re like popularity contests and it raises a feeling of competition, because putting other queens down benefits you by making you look better. So it can be very catty, very cutthroat.”
In San Diego the different neighborhoods have competitions and there are also ethnic competitions — Miss Gay Black, Miss Gay Latino. Gina Roberts had been elected Miss Hillcrest and participated in the Queen of Asia pageant, coming in second as Miss Filipina. Drag queens also perform in benefits for organizations such as the Harvey Milk Foundation and the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund but also nongay benefits as well. I was told that about 200 men in San Diego do drag in these competitions.
Angelica, Kiki, and Tootie took no part in the pageants, while Tootie was somewhat scornful of these group activities. “All that Royal Court stuff — I can’t stand it,” she told me. “They’re queens without a country.”
“Most of these Asian queens are very competitive,” Gina told me, “and their costumes are like gorgeous, but I try not to spend a lot of money on my costume or gown or anything. Mostly, the Asian community tends to stick together. We’re out partying all the time and have picnics. I mean, if a person wants to join our pageant, you’re more than welcome. We pass out the flyers and everything. Usually at least one non-Asian will join.
“And I joined a pageant in L.A. that was called Miss Universe that was very competitive because I was competing with transsexuals who were turning into women. I never even placed. I looked like a little boy in a dress compared to them. It was like boobs and ass everywhere. Long hair, real hair. I mean, everybody starts out as a drag queen. Some start out feminine — you know, growing their hair, growing their nails, but no makeup. And they look like women. I had a friend who was just starting out — very feminine. But they teased him, his hair was long and he was like a boy until he started using hormones and everything was like going softer. He’s not 100 percent woman, but he’s going through the process and he looks good. Now he wants the operation. It’s a big step, but he wants it done. It’s just a matter of money.”
I was curious whether becoming a drag queen had changed Gina Roberts as it had changed Angelica and Kiki, if she had become more outgoing and comfortable with herself. It turned out that she had.
“Sometimes when I’m in drag, I get more out of everything. When I didn’t do drag, I got a lot of attention, but when I started doing drag, it was a different kind of attention. It was like people were very attentive; they listened to what I had to say. Some people would say they looked up to me. I’m like, ‘Why would you do that?’ And I guess it had something to do with the way I looked. They were amazed at how someone can look like a woman — have nothing done — no surgery, no hormones, and they’re amazed by that and they respected that. And out of drag, people missed me being in drag because I’m more fun in drag. Like when I work here, I go out at the end of the night with my friends to a club and I have a lot of fun. So, there’s a big difference. On the other hand, most people have only seen me in drag and don’t know the other side of me. And that’s okay because I like to keep it that way sometimes. But when I get close to someone who I can call my real friend, then they will know I have another part of me. And they’re very comfortable with any way I dress, and it doesn’t make any difference.
“But basically I would say I am two different people. When I’m in drag, I’m very loud. And when I’m not in drag, I’m very quiet — or I get quiet, sometimes I don’t. But when I’m in drag, usually I’m out there. People tell me this all the time, it’s like — wow, you know, there’s like two different people, and then it’s stuck in my head that people think it’s two different people and I kind of play that part. I don’t even have to think about it. It just comes naturally. I just see myself as Gina and that’s who I am. And out of drag, it’s Robert. And that’s how I am. Though in some ways when I switch from Gina to Robert, it’s more comfortable. Like now I can touch my face and brush my hand through my hair. I’m more relaxed, you know? And I don’t have to cross my legs.”
I asked Gina Roberts if she had ever thought of becoming a transsexual.
“It’s crossed my mind many times, but I don’t think it’s something I want to put myself through. It’s a lot of work and it takes a lot of patience. I’ve seen most of my friends going through that process and it’s difficult, the attitudes change and it just doesn’t look right. It’s weird. For example, I had a friend I used to hang out with all the time. She went through the process and she’s still going through the process of becoming a woman. Every night she was saying, ‘I am beautiful and you should treat me like — you know — I’m the princess. And you are nobody. You are nothing. You are just a boy in a dress,’ or something funny like that. She was very sensitive about a lot of things, and it had something to do with all the drugs she was taking to become a woman. It messes with your head. And it’s a lot of things you have to go through, you know? If the process was a week, I would probably do it, but it takes years. Counseling and hormones and pills — I just couldn’t handle all that. I would go crazy before I turned into a woman.
“Also in some ways it would change everything for me. I mean, I always thought that was what I wanted to be. At a very young age, I thought, I’m going to grow up to be a woman, a beautiful woman. But growing up, it wasn’t so much becoming a woman as being comfortable with myself. And you know, as I grew older I began to be more comfortable with myself, like experiencing gay life. I was happy just the way I was, and I didn’t have to change anything. Then, when I started to do drag, it was like having those two different people — Gina and Robert — and I didn’t have to change anything. If I got in drag, it was whatever I wanted to be. And if I got out of drag, it was me. And it was not a process where I had to take anything for it, like hormones. I mean, I had to take a lot of lessons with makeup, but transforming is something else again. A lot of my friends encouraged me to transform and I joke about it, I’ll say I’m already taking hormones. They say, ‘You are? Oh my God — no wonder your tone is getting a little lighter.’ And I say, ‘No, honey, I’ve had nothing done.’ So, it’s just being comfortable with yourself, and I feel comfortable with what’s going on in my life right now. So that’s one of the biggest things about transforming. I would miss Robert.”
Now Gina mostly stays in drag, and usually she is taken for a real woman.
“If I’m in the gay clubs, they know who I am,” she told me, “but if it’s just straight parties, the guys stare at me and the women give me hard looks. If a woman stares at me, I stare back at her. I’ll play the part. Vicious to vicious. And women cannot tell. You know, like looking at me, if I’m in a bar and they’re looking at me, they won’t have a clue that I’m a man until they get next to me and I start talking. Then of course they’ll know because my voice is deep. Stuff like that.”
Because of the sexual ambiguity of drag queens they can appeal to both straight and gay men, though many gay men dislike drag queens, partly because of the attention they attract and partly because a gay man isn’t drawn to women in the first place.
Earlier Tootie had told me, “The people that we are mostly around are straight people. And so, in both the straight and gay worlds, we’re ostracized in some sense, you know. I think drag queens go through a lot with that, and you build up walls around you as a buffer. But I think that we’re in a paradigm shift in our relationships and sexual relationships and stuff where we’re letting down our hair in sexual areas so that people are more into the gray areas. They’re not, you know, if you’re a guy, you’re into girls; and if you’re a girl, you’re into guys. And then we went into the next paradigm shift where it’s if you’re a guy, then you might be into guys also, but you know, you’re into guys or you’re into girls; and now I think we’re into this third paradigm shift, which is if you’re a guy, you might be into guys or you might be into girls or you might be into both or you might be into transgendered people. I think that’s the way that it’s going. And maybe it’s going to get more and more muddy, who knows? I wonder what comes next.”
Other drag queens also spoke of these gray areas and how they sometimes felt ostracized.
Angelica had told me, “Parts of the gay community totally embrace drag, but since most of the gay population is closeted and not open and happy about people knowing they’re gay, they view drag queens as very threatening to that. The internalized homophobia in the gay community wants the gay community to be seen just like the straight community, that it’s just a change in sexuality, that everything else is exactly the same, and they don’t see drag as having anything to do with a gay culture, if there is one. And so the rejection of drag queens by gays is not usually just about a rejection to drag, but a rejection to the outward representation of sexuality, of gay sexuality. The result is that drag queens are in this dating limbo — people look at us like a woman trying to attract a straight man, but not like a man attractive to gay men. Again, it’s because there is no education. People don’t see drag queens as people, unless they look more like regular women. They see them as characters.”
Because Gina can look like a regular woman, straight men are often drawn to her.
“If I’m at a bar where there are drag queens and straight men are looking for that, then I don’t think anything of it — they wouldn’t be uncomfortable towards me and I wouldn’t be afraid of telling them who I am. I don’t have to tell them that I’m a man. But when I go to a straight club, then I immediately tell people — if they ask me to dance — I’d say, ‘I’m a man.’ And sometimes it’s, ‘Oh, okay.’ And they turn away, but one time it was really funny, one time it happened and I told some guy I’m a man and he said — ‘Oh, so am I.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, okay. What’s up?’
“Other times, it’s, ‘Baby, you’re so beautiful, do you want to dance?’ I say, ‘No, thank you, I’m tired. My boyfriend’s here.’ I don’t want to deal with that kind of stuff. And you know, a lot of people just don’t have a clue. And I think they have the right to know, but I’m not going to go yelling, ‘I’m a man!’ If somebody comes up to me, I will usually tell them. Like, ‘Before you go on, honey, there’s something you should know.’
“Actually, my boyfriend says he was straight. He has never been with anyone gay or a man dressed as a woman, but he told me that when he saw me he thought I was beautiful. And he never thought it would go into a relationship. And we’ve been together for nine months. And he still thinks of himself as a straight man. He likes women. He would never look at other men the same way. He’s very comfortable with me in and out of drag. And I’m happy. It’s very hard to find people, you know, that you can feel comfortable with because not a lot of people can take this seriously, this lifestyle, because of how people see you and who you’re with. When we go out he says he doesn’t care how people see him, but I know he does. And you know, we’re just taking it day by day. I told him, this is who I am. I’m not like this all the time. This is a job. But most of the time when I go out I’m in drag. Very rarely am I out of drag.”
I asked Gina how she gets along with women.
“They hate me,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s true, but they tell me they hate me. You know, it’s like you bitch. You have no stomach, look at your waistline. I’ll say, you too can have a body like this — all you need is foam and rubber. But still, it’s like, honey, look at how skinny you are. And I’m like, yeah, as a woman, I’m skinny, but as a man, I’m still skinny. And it’s not pretty as a man because I don’t work out, so I’m a small little boy. But if I’m dressed in drag, everything comes into place. Everything looks better. And I wouldn’t say that out of drag I look bad or anything, I’m just saying that it’s not the way I would want to look — muscular and stuff like that. So these women are jealous of how a man can look better than a real woman. And to me it’s nothing to brag about. It’s simple if you just put your mind to it. If you’re that worried about how you look, then you can do something about it. I mean, you know, I did.
“But sometimes lesbians come up to me and say, ‘If you were just a real woman, you know?’ And I always respond, ‘Honey, if I was a real woman, I wouldn’t be a lesbian.’ So, it’s just a different scene. It’s usually the straight women that I meet — ‘You’re so pretty. Your hair is so-o-o beautiful. I could never wear your clothes.’ And I say, ‘You too can look like this, honey, I’m telling you.’ One thing about drag queens, we’re very catty. Very catty. You noticed that?”
My last interview was with Safire Blue, whom I talked to out on the patio behind his apartment in University Heights. Muscular with short bleached blond hair and about five feet eight, he is a youthful 37 and first did drag over 20 years ago. He was dressed in “boy clothes,” and so it was hard to think of him in drag (he wears a size 12 dress) until I actually saw his Barbra Streisand impersonation. In talking to him I used his boy name: Pasqual. He had come down to San Diego in 1996 from Orange County, where he had been surfing and going to school. Although he had done drag longer than the others I talked to, one of the first things he said was, “My one rule is that you never forget you’re a man in a dress. If you start to forget that, then you lose it.”
Pasqual has worked at Lips since its opening day. Previously he had also done drag in Florida, Texas, New York, and Atlanta. Living in Atlanta, he had been on the board of directors for the 1992 Atlanta Lesbian/Gay Pride Festival. For the festival’s Pride Prom, Pasqual had been asked to go “in face.”
“It means being all made up,” Pasqual told me. “Instead of going as a boy, I had to go as a girl. And I was awarded the 1992 Atlanta Lesbian and Gay Prom Princess. And from then on it became something I began to do more seriously. I like doing it, but I don’t want to live as a girl. And it’s funny because you say drag queens and I say I’m not a drag queen. I consider myself a gender illusionist. I mean, look, I have 48-inch shoulders and a 17-inch neck, and when I dress up, you’d never be able to tell. I mean, a lot of the friends I’ve met in the last year have met me as Safire Blue, and I’ve walked up to them as a boy and they’ve no clue who I am, none.”
Like Gina Roberts, Pasqual is deeply involved in the drag competitions and a variety of other drag events outside of Lips.
“I started it here about two years ago to help out a friend of mine who was running for empress in the Imperial Court, and he asked me to help him do a benefit. So I said sure. I like to perform and I like to pull off the illusion, and I did a song by Taylor Dayne called ‘Want Ads.’ The whole show was based on an ’80s throwback thing. And from that day, everyone said you have to do this. I’m like, okay, fine. So, I helped out with one thing or another, and before you know it, my friends talked me into running for Miss Gay San Diego, and I did, and I won. I actually am the current reigning Miss Gay San Diego. They haven’t had a new pageant yet. I’ve got the crown and the sash and the trophy — all of the stuff that goes with it. Bunch of pain, if you ask me.”
Pasqual told me that the Imperial Court was a nonprofit organization with about 65 chapters nationwide, which raises money throughout the year for charities and other nonprofit organizations. The different chapters have elections for emperor and empress, prince and princess royal. And there is also the court itself.
“I’m a member of the Imperial Court. Right now I’m titled a grand duchess, which is an earned title. You start out with a small title — a lady — and work your way up by the things that you do, benefits and fund-raising. Everybody who is in it donates their time and their energy and their gifts, whatever they have, and they raise money for lots of people. So far our San Diego chapter has raised $60,000 this year, but if you figure our $60,000 added to tons of other — 65 other chapters across the United States. And it’s not only money that you raise. It’s like we have toy drives, teddy bear drives, blanket drives for people in Mexico for the winter, in Tijuana. All kinds of stuff, all year round — that’s a lot of stuff. Much of what I’ve done has been not for personal gain, but because of the fact that I like to entertain and I get more out of an audience entertaining as a female. I can use that and I’ve used it to help raise money for different organizations, different causes. I had a fund-raiser for an organization called Ordinary Miracles, which was started by two gentlemen about four years ago. They arranged it on one Saturday night to have the bartenders in a lot of the bars donate half their tips to a needy organization, and I think that first year they raised $5000. This year, their goal was $55,000, and they raised I think $125,000 — I think. I know they raised more than enough money to give who they said they were going to — like to some of the children’s funds like Wish Upon a Star and organizations like breast cancer — we don’t just do gay things — and then they gave the rest to other organizations. And I had a benefit for them in December and I was one of the only people — a benefit all by myself — and I raised $2500 by auctioning off people, bartenders and waiters from different restaurants in the area.”
When I asked Pasqual how much time he put into pageants and benefits, he said that before he started at Lips it took at least ten hours a week. But now most of his time is spent working and going to school. In December 1999, he received his cosmetology license and he has recently begun working in a salon. Although Pasqual clearly loves and takes great pride in being an entertainer, a gender illusionist, he sometimes regrets how working at Lips often means he has less time to give to pageants and fund-raising.
“All that time I spent doing it — it’s fun. It makes me feel good about myself. It’s not like — I’m going to get shot for this one, but it’s not like what I’m doing now. If I had known 20 years ago that I was going to end up serving food as a drag queen, I probably wouldn’t have started because it’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of work. They don’t seem to understand that unlike some of the other female impersonators — if I’m going to do something, I’m going to give it 110 percent, and it can take me an hour and a half to get ready for work. That’s an hour and a half that I don’t get paid for and I’m doing it four times a week. Take you yourself for instance, you get up, you get in the shower, you brush your teeth, you put on your clothes, and you go to work.
“I have to get up and get in the shower and shave every day, which I don’t normally, and then I have to start piling on the makeup and the clothes and the padding and the jewelry and the hair — that’s a lot of time. And I mean, there can be a real mess in my room because there’s boy clothes, girl clothes, hair, jewelry, stockings, hose, heels. See? Imagine what it would be like if you had to have a little makeup counter there all the time. It’s like I’m two people. Always mess — always. There’s nothing I can do. I make some good money at it, but it’s more of a chore to me. I’ve lost hold of what I was doing it for in the first place. Raising money, being out there for my friends that need me — that’s what I like most.”
And those gray areas talked about by the others, rejected by gays and attractive to some straight males — this too was something that Pasqual discussed.
“One of the things that’s difficult about doing what I do,” said Pasqual, “is the fact of being a female impersonator, gender illusionist, means it’s very hard to date. It’s not like gay men don’t like drag queens, they just won’t date them. It goes back to the thing that if I wanted to date a woman, I would go with a woman. But what they don’t realize is that underneath that woman, is me — you know what I mean? They can’t separate the two. There’s a boy and there’s a girl. I have an alter ego and her name is Safire Blue and when she’s out, she’s out. And when Pasqual is out, Pasqual is out. They cannot realize they’re two individual people. I mean, they literally are. And all they see is that it’s just a guy in a dress. They can’t see that’s what I do. And the amount of money that I make in 20 hours a week knocks the hell out of some of them, but they can’t look past the fact that I’m wearing a dress.
“So, you know what? I’ve actually kind of given up on the whole dating issue, yes I have. Not just because of what I do for a living, but because of the fact that at 37 years old I can’t compete with the people who are out there. So I go out with my friends and I have a good time, and if something happens, something happens. If it doesn’t happen, hey, I still went out and had a good time. But I don’t go out looking for it.
“But when I am out as a female, I will not, under any circumstances, meet a guy. I won’t. I can’t do it. Because the truth is, there are a lot of guys who like men who wear women’s clothing. We have a term for them, they’re called ‘tranny chasers.’ Like transvestite? Or more endearingly known as ‘panty sniffers.’ And what they do is they go out and meet guys who wear women’s clothing, and then they’ll take them home. The only one that gets undressed is the ‘man,’ and they lay there and get serviced. They’re kidding themselves to me. They’re straight guys. Married with children.
“I did meet this one guy one night and we started to talk and I said to him, ‘You really do like men in women’s clothing, don’t you?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I do.’ And I said, ‘Let’s just say hypothetically — you’re a good-looking man — things happen and we decide to go back to my house, do I get to leave this on or do I get to take it off?’ He said, ‘No, you have to leave it on.’ And I turned around and I said to him flat out, ‘Well, you know something? You, my friend, are a freak.’ And he said, ‘Who are you to call me a freak?’ I said, ‘You know what? Let’s be honest, I make a lot of money at this. I don’t do it to meet men. I do it to come here and entertain. That’s what I do, I entertain. You, on the other hand, think that just because it looks like a woman, it’s okay to be serviced by her even when it’s not a woman. From what I can see, I believe that you’re in denial and maybe you should either fess up to it or just move on.’ And he kind of raised his eyebrow and said thank you very much for your input and walked away.
“So there’s a lot of self-deception there, obviously. You see these guys, they’re hanging out in different clubs where they know there’s going to be drag queens or female impersonators or trannies, and that’s what they’re there for. They’re everywhere. And some of them, you would not believe. I mean, it’s not like these people are the dregs of society — I mean, let’s face it, they’re going after a man in a dress — because some of them are doctors and lawyers. But that’s what they prefer, that’s what they like. It’s all a fetish thing, I guess. But I can’t do it. Sorry. I have to separate the two.
“It’s appalling sometimes. First of all, you have to understand that a lot of drag queens have given us a bad name. A lot of them are prostitutes. Well, not here of course. Some are prostitutes and those are the ones that just yell on the street corner and those are the ones that the newspapers automatically point out. And that just makes us all look bad. And there are some of us that actually do it for noble causes. You know, it’s not just because I like putting on a dress. Not because I want to be a female. I don’t want to be a female by no means. Not after what I have to go through just to go to work.
“My mother asked me a long time ago when I actually came out of the closet when I was 16 — I told my mom that I was gay and she asked me, ‘Do you want to have a sex change?’ I said, ‘Mom, I like standing up to pee. No, I don’t want to have a sex change. I like being a boy.’ Now I’m getting to the point where I want to be a boy even more because of the everyday thing. I mean, going to work four nights a week, dressing in drag. It’s fun, but it’s not as if I’m only entertaining and that’s it. I’m going in there and selling $2000 worth of food and beverages, and on top of that, in a six-hour period, I’m also doing five numbers, with five different costume changes, and having to keep myself composed all night long in order to make sure I still look as good at the end of the night, as well as running around a restaurant, making sure everybody is happy. It’s a lot of work, and in high heels to boot. I tried in the beginning to wear the little flat ones, but it just doesn’t look right, so I wear four- or five-inch heels and run around in them, and that’s the easy part. The heels are not the hard part. No, I don’t want to live my life as a girl. Some of them do, but I don’t. I don’t want to have to shave my entire body every day. I do it for a reason, then I’m done. I want to be a boy. I don’t want to have to get up and be Tootie or Gina Roberts all the time. I don’t want to be Safire all the time. Safire is her — over there. Wadded up in a ball in the corner of my room.”
Yet Safire also talked about the sense of freedom, a sense of being alive that seemed very attractive despite the fact that it often led to being misunderstood and being confined to what the drag queens themselves described as a gray area of human sexuality.
“One night a gay man came up and talked to me,” said Safire. “He was from either San Francisco or L.A. He was coming on to me a lot, and I said, ‘What is it with you?’ He said, ‘You know what it is? Drag queens are so much more real than gay men.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Because each one of you spends a certain allotted amount of time developing your personality. Like Safire has got her own personality.’ And he really liked that, because gay men as a whole are sometimes very rigid. You know, that standard model thing. Like I’m here and if you want me, you come talk to me and that kind of stuff. And that’s the way they are. Where drag queens — they’ll cut you down if they want to. They’ll joke with you, they’ll laugh — they’re boisterous, they’re out having fun. They do what they want to do. Yet none of us are the same. We all have our own different personalities; we all like to have fun in our own different ways. And I mean, you put me and my roommate and Kiki and Gina in the same room and sure, when we get dressed up, we look pretty damn good, but personalitywise, we’re four completely different people altogether. It’s a whole somebody else that is coming out, and it’s fun because I have the ability to do something that most people never get a chance to. I can live my life as a girl and have fun and then go back and be a boy and still have fun. Either way, it’s fun. It’s a great life, I just wish I dated more.”