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Commentary: Glittery confidence is as potent as jet fuel

 Freesia McKee
Rich Egger
Freesia McKee

On the long drives I take across the Midwest to visit family and share my poetry, I tune into the radio. Recently, I’ve been immersed in news of legislation that shuts down drag shows and limits opportunities for transgender people within healthcare, education, libraries, and other aspects of public life.

I’m here to tell my story, which is that the first drag show I ever attended was inside a church. I was fourteen and a member of one of the few progressive congregations at the time in Milwaukee. In 2004, it was only a few months after Wisconsin’s ban on marriage equality. So, at our youth convention, we decided to host the Miltown Kings, a troupe who showed up and gave us their all, a multi-act, mustachioed, bedazzled extravaganza rocking the sanctuary with lip-synched pop music in our house of worship. Time slowed down as we watched performer after performer lean into the gender binary’s failures, contradictions, and sharpest angles as they demonstrated possibilities for more expansive and original gender expression. At the end of the show, the performers received a standing ovation, and afterwards, many of us asked for their autographs.

But even then, in the early 2000s, a few adult congregants questioned whether drag performances were suitable for teenagers. I think these bystanders were uncomfortable with the drag performers’ glittery confidence because they could see it was as potent as jet fuel. In drag, confidence is the secret ingredient, as solid as a diamond and hewn through the same pressures. There is nothing more powerful than seeing someone take the thing they’re bullied for and say, “You know what? I’m going to flaunt it.” There is something healing about serving as an audience member, participating in that transformation of pain into pride.

Those in the top seats of governmental power tend to be afraid of grassroots, contemporary art-making. Tennessee’s drag ban this year proved again that the people afraid of possibility are afraid of living artists, especially those in drag, an art form directed as we know it by trans women of color. People afraid of possibility are afraid of inhabiting the body, preferring disconnection. People afraid of possibility are not living their best lives.

I wish you had been there in 2004 after that drag show at my church. For many of my friends, it was a transcendent experience, an invitation to recognize those things in us we’d usually do anything to hide. We talked about the drag show all day, and then we kept talking about it for years, the acts we loved and the creative decisions the performers made. It was something we talked about. Before that show, I had seen drag queens growing up, going to Milwaukee PrideFest every year. The first time we saw those queens dressed in their fineries, seated on Pride parade floats, waving to the crowds like Miss America, my five-year-old little sister yelled, “Hello, Hollywood!”

When I think of the many transgender people who have been in my life since I was a small child, I think of resilience and I think of survival. I think of the strength of struggle. Some of our friends are not here anymore to talk about their experiences: job discrimination, housing insecurity, incarceration, and worse. When I think of the trans people in my life, I also think of an immensity of fierce love, love that is fought for, love exerted, love we must sometimes name to see.

I hear of the attacks on drag shows and those false claims that art created by trans people is somehow dangerous. I feel sick to my stomach, a pain that goes back many years. Then, I try to remember specific moments of joy: A drag show with my cousin in Montreal. Watching my partner perform on-stage as I sat in an audience between my parents. A country music drag show on Zoom in the early, lonely days of the pandemic. Drag as protest, drag as music, drag as movement, drag as public art, drag as participation, drag as a sacred place, drag as a family reunion.

I know that in every small Midwestern town, there are trans people and allies. This is the thing that gives me solace as I witness open hatred daily. The truth is that everywhere, even here, trans people and allies outnumber the haters. We will not be ousted because we are rooted. We will not be diminished because we are infinite. We have powerful stories to tell. The only thing to do is raise the volume.

Freesia McKee is a poet who teaches English at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio.

Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.