By now, the majority of America knows the difference between being told, "Shanté, you stay," and the heartbreak of "Sashay away." Drag in its various forms has been around for centuries, but no one can deny RuPaul Andre Charles' Emmy award-winning phenomenon of a show, RuPaul's Drag Race, has managed to overwrite the mischaracterization of drag queens as deviants, replacing it with the real-life dreams of queer performers trying to artistically combine the perfect lashes, wig and glittery gown into an iconic look for the gods. Not only does Drag Race challenge the gender binary and elevate queer gender expression in between quote-worthy reads and messy shade – it's also deeply infused drag culture into the mainstream world's fashion, music, dance and video – even infiltrating the everyday slang lexicon.
But drag has always been about more than just lip-sync performances, expensive makeup palettes and dazzling costumes. For decades, drag activists have been at the forefront of the LGBTQ liberation movement – their eye-catching outfits make the protest march behind them hard to ignore. Self-described drag queens Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, two transgender women of color, were both key figures in the 1969 uprising against police raids at the Stonewall Inn in New York City and later became tireless advocates for homeless LGBTQ youth, transwomen of color and gender-nonconforming people. Sometimes, that even meant railing against their own, as when Rivera called out mainstream gay rights activists who sought to exclude those who didn't fit into the neat, "acceptable" categories of the straight world during New York City's Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally in 1973.
- Photo by David Lawrence
"Y'all better quiet down," she yelled at them. "I have been beaten. I have had my nose broken. I have been thrown in jail. I have lost my job. I have lost my apartment for gay liberation and you all treat me this way? What the fuck's wrong with you all? ... The people are trying to do something for all of us, and not men and women that belong to a white middle-class, white club."
Although LGBTQ advocates have recently won hard-fought, decades-long nationwide battles for civil rights and marriage equality, the mass shooting at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando that ended the lives of 49 people and the election of President Donald Trump last year have pushed queer leaders to protest against homophobic and transphobic policies, racial discrimination and gun violence.
For this year's Pride issue, we profile several of Orlando's iconic drag queens (and drag nuns), who not only entertain and inspire with their beauty, talent, art, comedy and charm, but also use their status in the community to challenge inequality on the front lines.
- Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
When the queen of the Parliament House gets on stage, she's not just lip-syncing to Missy Elliott or Tina Turner – Darcel Stevens sees herself as preaching a ministry of hope for those who may not be accepted by society.
Darcel, né Darnell Stevens, has been performing at Parliament for 25 years and currently serves at the gay entertainment complex's entertainment director. The drag character was born in 1983, after a friend in Gainesville dared Stevens to dress up. Back then, drag was regulated to someone's house or a gay bar – certainly not on television, Darcel says. Aside from mastering the art of female impersonation for decades now, Darcel sees it as her duty to use her platform as a drag queen to promote gay rights, educate on sexual health and help get resources for people who are HIV-positive or have AIDS. After all, it was drag queens who started the rebellion at Stonewall, Darcel says, and it was Stevens and other drag queens at Orlando City Hall years ago protesting for anti-discrimination ordinances.
"We were in full-beat drag, therefore we got attention," Darcel says. "We started a dialogue and a conversation. Within each one of those queens is the spirit of activism. Most queens who take their job seriously know that being an entertainer is more than just the stage. We don't take any shit and we will fight for our rights."
Darcel has inspired dozens of people to follow their dreams, but her main goal at this stage in her career is to convince youth to take up the mantle of activism and community organizing in the age of Trump.
"My mission and ministry is to inspire and empower people – to let them know that there's hope, that they're better than what they [think they] are," she says. "Young people grew up in a whole different era with rights and there was a time when we got to enjoy them without thinking. But I think what woke everybody up was this past election – we were smooth sailing until this person who is a racist and a bigot was elected. Now is not a time for people to be complacent."
Darcel plans to be in the Pride parade this year, though she says she wishes the LGBTQ celebration were less focused on corporations and more on making a statement.
"We as gay folks need to become more radical," Darcel says. "We've got to show we're not sitting back. We've got an administration not looking out for us, and we've got to let them know we're here, we're queer and we're going to vote."
- Photo by David Lawrence
THE SISTERS OF PERPETUAL INDULGENCE
During the hate-filled demonstrations by the Westboro Baptist Church at the funerals of Pulse victims in 2016, there were several faces that stood out from the hundreds who came to shield families from additional pain. They were the faces of men, painted stark white with sparkling glitter beards and rainbow eye shadow, clad in the wimples and habits of traditional nuns (but with fishnet tights).
The small group was part of the Orlando Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a chapter of local drag nuns who are part of the larger organization started in San Francisco in 1973. Though mostly made up of gay men, any person, regardless of sexual orientation or gender, is welcome to join the years-long process of taking lifelong vows to become part of the order. The original sisters used their painted faces to promote safer sex in a time when AIDS ravaged the gay community and created "Play Fair," the first safer sex pamphlet written in plain language with humor. Today, the Orlando sisters still honor that work by passing out small plastic bags with a condom, a packet of lube, a mint and a safe sex pamphlet.
- Photo by David Lawrence
Sister Secret Synnda Sauce, president of the Orlando order, says aside from raising thousands of dollars for charitable causes, much of their job is informing people on the street about safer-sex practices and letting men, women and other gender-nonconforming people know about PrEP and PEP, medication protocols to be taken before and after possible exposure to HIV. (The Orlando metro area ranks sixth among U.S. cities for the highest rate of new HIV diagnoses in 2015.) Sister Secret says it's hard to get the word out about these helpful drugs when some doctors and pharmacists don't even know about them. Part of the job is also breaking down stigmas surrounding HIV-positive people, which still persist even though the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently agreed that an HIV-positive person taking medication with an undetectable viral load can't transmit the virus.
Whether it's sex education or raising visibility about homeless youth, the sisters use their costumes to attract attention and hopefully a listening ear.
"Part of the mission of the sisters is to go out and fight for queer rights and visibility and to bring joy and fun," Sister Secret says. "We go out and tell people that they're loved, that they're worthwhile and that they're a valued part of our society. We give people hugs and tell them we want them here."
- Photo by David Lawrence
It's easy to find Miss Sammy's house among the oak trees and Spanish moss of Mills 50 – it's the only one on the street with a huge banner above the door that says "DUMP TRUMP."
"You do phone calls and send emails to senators and representatives, but it just doesn't seem like anything is getting done," Miss Sammy says. "During the campaign, it was obvious he was totally incompetent for the job and none of us thought he could beat Hillary. That would be a cold day in hell, we thought. Nobody is hearing us, so I decided to express my opinion this way."
Sam "Miss Sammy" Singhaus says he received an anonymous letter from a neighbor shortly after putting the banner up.
"It said, 'Dear neighbor, your political reviews stink, just like your ass,'" Singhaus says. "Then he said, 'Well, if I had one, it would say in big letters, fuck you, faggots.'"
But that doesn't scare off Singhaus from expressing his views on equality for everyone. He's been vocal about being true to himself since he left his Orlando home as a teenager and went to New York to study dance. His talent led him to Broadway, where he starred in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in 1982 and La Cage aux Folles in 1983 as the original Clo-Clo. Singhaus remembers gay was chic in New York – until the HIV/AIDS crisis, then known as "gay cancer," hit. The epidemic killed thousands and left lasting stigmas for HIV-positive people and the LGBTQ community.
"When AIDS hit, everybody changed their mind and gay had to be put back in the closet," he says. "I lost my twin brother [Daniel Singhaus], five guys in my show, my best friend. I'm one of the few guys that lived in New York City for all that and is still alive."
Singhaus came back to Orlando in 1987 and opened the Big Bang club in downtown, and later worked at the Firestone club and Pulse. One night at the Firestone, an entertainer threw an "artistic fit" and walked out, so the boss asked Singhaus if he knew how to do drag. Singhaus agreed to do it and Miss Sammy was born, a charming Midwestern housewife with witty quips, the beauty of Lucille Ball and the lungs of a Broadway star. The rest is history – Miss Sammy has been a staple in Orlando's drag scene for decades now and is a charming hostess at Hamburger Mary's for "Hambingo" on Tuesdays.
In an age of angst, Miss Sammy singing "Life Is a Cabaret" into your ear while rocking a floofy red polka-dot dress and pearls, cocktail in hand, is a welcome respite that never gets old.
- Photo by Joey Roulette
CHACHITA GIFT & AALIYAH VALENTINO
When the gunman stormed into the gay nightclub Pulse, he robbed 49 people of their lives, dozens of survivors of their peace of mind, and Orlando of one of its only Latin nights.
The mass shooting on June 12, 2016, happened on "Latin Night," meaning many of the victims were Latinx, with the majority being of Puerto Rican descent. But now, a year later, two drag queens are joining with Pulse survivor and promoter Orlando Torres to bring back a safe space for the Latinx community at Savoy Orlando on Saturday nights.
Chachita Gift brings a comedic touch that makes everybody feel like family as the night's host. The performer, whose given name is Nicolas Diaz, started his drag career in an unusual path. He was working as a professional clown in Puerto Rico when someone told him they wanted a "clown for adults."
"That's when Chachita started, and I liked it," he says. "It paid more than children and I can drink while I'm performing."
- Photo by Joey Roulette
When he moved to Orlando decades ago, Diaz began performing at weddings and quinceañeras – Chachita stood out from other pretty Latinx queens for being hilarious and mixing in that humor between songs.
"Why don't you want to laugh and forgot about five minutes for everything, your job, your family and disconnect," he says. "That's what I love, to make people laugh. This is an art, and a way of living, but it's more than that – you can use it to help a lot of people, too."
Last Saturday, Aaliyah Valentino, 23, was getting ready next to Chachita with multiple makeup kits at a kitchen table. The two had helped raise money for Puerto Rico hurricane victims at Savoy along with other queens. Aaliyah, whose real name is Luis Rodriguez, was born in Deltona to Puerto Rican parents. By day, he works as an erosion control specialist on the I-4 Ultimate Project, but for a year now, he's been making the hour-long drive to Orlando perform in local clubs as a drag queen because there are no gay clubs where he lives. He likes to rap to Ivy Queen and Cardi B, though he occasionally plays with gender while lip-syncing to Marc Anthony.
"I want to show people you can go out and be yourself and try something new," Aaliyah says. "Five years ago, I would have never imagined myself doing this because of the person that I was and how shy and timid I could be. I would have never imagined myself being in front of people on a stage and a crowd, but here I am."
Both were touched personally by the Pulse massacre. That's the first club where Aaliyah was inspired to be a drag queen; Chachita lost friends at Pulse and wasn't sure she'd be able to perform again.
"It was scary and hard to go out the next day, but life needs to go on," Chachita says. "The show must go on."
- Photo by austin young
There hasn't been a time in Ginger Minj's life that she wasn't a performer. The self-described "glamour toad" contestant from RuPaul's Drag Race first got on stage at six months old, when her mother volunteered her to play a baby in a local production of Fiddler on the Roof.
"I got into drag when I realized drag paid the bills more than theater did," says Minj, whose given name is Joshua Eads. "I focused my energy on that and it took on a life of its own."
After growing up in nearby Leesburg, Eads, 33, continued his life in Orlando theater productions until he started working as a drag queen – some of the first places to book him included Pulse, Hamburger Mary's and Sleuths Mystery Dinner Show. Ginger Minj was born out of a reference to the British slang term for red pubic hair and quickly became the iconic "overweight, asthmatic, chain-smoking cross-dresser from Orlando." After making the top three in Season 7 of Drag Race, Eads traveled the world with the cast of drag queens "four or five times over" and brought his Southern-fried sass to his 2016 album, Sweet T.
With a second album of club tracks and film appearances on the way, Ginger is now turning her focus back to what got her started in the first place – theater. Eads and his friend Janine Klein, a fellow performer whom he describes as the "Lucy to my Ethel," are going on a world tour of Eads' musical Crossdresser for Christ and are working on creating a show about the life of Harris Glenn Milstead, the legendary drag queen known as Divine.
"No matter what roles you get as a drag queen, what amazes me is people don't take you serious as an actor," Eads says. "Being a drag queen is just a portion of what I do. It's been kind of an uphill battle to fight stereotypes, but I wouldn't trade it for anything – it's given me a lot more than it's taken."
Still, being a drag queen has become that much more important as the current presidential administration attempts to ban transgender people from the military and roll back LGBTQ protections.
"I think we've made so much progress over the last decade or so, and now literally every step we've taken is threatened," Eads says. "If we don't stand and fight for that, we'll go backward. We've lost too many lives to see things being undone in front of our eyes."
- Photo by Demetrio Asciutto
Opulence Black has managed the difficult task of summarizing her eccentric drag style into a pithy phrase: "Hobby Lobby shopper gone crazy."
One day, she might glue pearls to her face and contour herself into violet alien business-bitch realness; on another, slip into a green, muscly costume for a sexy, androgynous Creature-From-the-Black-Lagoon feel or stick white contact lenses in her eyes and don a glittery teal wig for a creepy hipster soothsayer vibe.
"Sometimes, I'm feeling like a magical alien, other times I'm inspired by insects, animal heads, bones, crystals, weird little oddities," says the performer whose offstage name is Rock Kelly. "I want people who see me to warp their expressions and their expectations of what they think a queen or a person should be. For me, drag celebrates the grotesque, the parts of yourself you don't like – it's about celebrating what you have and taking something ugly and making it pretty."
Kelly, 23, began doing drag seriously three years ago after contacting a drag queen on Instagram for help with an art project while a student at the University of Central Florida. Demetrio Asciutto, also known by his stage name, Victoria Elizabeth Black, specialized in creating a ghostly glamazon persona and taught Kelly the tricks of Halloween makeup. (Victoria is currently competing on Season 2 of the Boulet Brothers' DRAGULA television show.) Opulence Black was born about three months into their relationship with her first performance of alternative drag at the gay nightclub Pulse. Now she works Thursdays at Southern Nights as part of the freshman lineup, though she still misses Pulse.
"I was booked literally the Thursday after the shooting happened at Southern Nights," Kelly says. "My mom didn't want me to go out, but I told her, 'No, I'm not going to sit home. I'm going to go out and keep doing it.'"
The hate that ended the lives of 49 people at Pulse doesn't make him want to hide – Kelly says it has pushed him to stand out more in his queerness.
"I'm not hiding the fact that I'm gay," he says. "We need to be more outspoken and everyone needs to get registered to vote. There are still those people in the world not aware this is normal. This is love. We want to live more out loud in day-to-day life because you never know how long you have."