Living authentically: Drag artists of color create love and family of their own
June 7, 2023
A crowd of people showered various drag artists with dollar bills and cheers just outside of the Comfort Station lawn. It was evident it was more than a celebration. It was a safe space for them to be their authentic selves.
The five different drag artists shared their stories and embraced their autonomy while performing at the first “Drag Me To Life” showcase on May 27 in Logan Square.
Although it was an evening filled with fun, Cindy Néro, the coordinator of the Drag Me to Life showcases and online workshops, which focus on helping new drag artists kick start their careers in New York and Chicago, took time to remind audience members of the unspoken realities drag artists face.
“Drag is not cheap,” Néro said. “It is a very expensive hobby for me right now.”
Drag performers, especially newer artists, can sometimes earn only $30 to $50 a show, making it hard for them to make a livable wage. Some can also spend up to hundreds of dollars on makeup, props and costumes, Néro said.
With the support of other community organizations like Voice of Purpose, Néro provided artists with a drag starter toolkit which includes makeup, a wig and their choice of a binder or hip pads to help lessen the expensive costs.
Another harsh reality that drag performers experience is carving a safe space for people of color and those with disabilities in a scene that is dominated by white, able-bodied artists.
“Traveling is hard for me as a disabled person because the only line that has accessible [access] is the Pink Line,” Pinky & the BrainDamage, one of the drag performers said. “[Gay bars are] all in North Halsted, in Boystown. That is very white supremacist, very elitist [space]. I wish there was more here in Pilsen.”
Pinky suffers from long-term effects of a brain injury and chronic pelvic pain, which makes it hard to find buildings that have ramps for the stage and other accessibility options. Pinky also uses a cane, which often deters people from wanting to work with them.
“I feel like a lot of people have these preconceived notions about me because I am assigned female at birth, because I’m a drag king and because I’m disabled,” Pinky said. “People have all these assumptions about me, but in Cindy Néro’s [workshop] class, I wasn’t a limit.”
Not only is Pinky challenging what a drag performer “typically” looks like, they are also trying to reconstruct how masculinity is perceived in Latine culture by the way they express themselves on stage.
“With all these feminist sides, we need some levity, especially from men in Mexico,” Pinky said.
Mexican artists like Luis Miguel and Juan Gabriel were sources of inspiration for Pinky because of the way they made masculinity “fun and enticing.”
“Mexicans make masculinity so hilarious … making fun of that, making fun of the machismo in Mexico, because what else are we gonna do?” Pinky said.
In order to reimagine masculinity, it is important to create safe environments for people to feel comfortable to be who they are.
For Blaque Diamond The Trans God, growing up in Louisville, Kentucky’s “Bible belt,” this was not always possible.
“Being a fat, Black, trans, nonbinary, queer sex worker performer who’s not monogamous, and very much the opposite of everything my parents and family wanted me to be, absolutely, that’s why my name is Blaque Diamond The Trans God,” they said. “I’m working through my religious trauma.”
When he began to travel from the South to New York City’s drag scene, he felt it was necessary to co-produce shows for Black and Brown drag artists in Louisville.
“I love it, like, my hometown needs that,” Diamond said. “There are people just like me all over that city.”
The online showcase of the Drag me to Life event, was an opportunity for Diamond to talk about his religious past while incorporating parts of his current identity.
“I can be fat and perform,” Diamond said. “I can be visibly trans and perform. I can be Black and perform.”
Spirit Apotheosis, another drag performer, never thought he would find a community when first starting in drag, but he was able to choose his own family through the workshops.
“The community and the family that I also got from the program was also really valuable to me,” Spirit said.
Spirit said he was thankful to have had a space for Black and Brown drag artists to share their experiences and feel comfortable being themselves.
“It became very apparent that there was a need for community in the way we were all sharing our stories,” Néro said. “We were all affirming and validating each other in our experiences that I feel like I wouldn’t have gotten in any other type of workshop.”
Néro is hoping to continue the program next year and expand it into a 15-week session, incorporating new lessons, like drag dance day and teaching basic sewing.
While at first feeling nervous that the workshop would not be as successful as she hoped, Néro quickly realized that she was filling a void “to explore drag in a safe and affirming environment.”
“I built a drag family, and I’m building a network or drag community out of this as well, people who share the same values of wanting to rise above everything that is going on, that we’re going through in this collective moment,” Néro said.
Néro offered her instagram handle, @la.cindynero, if you want to connect with her.