It's well past midnight on a Friday at the Rainbow Club West when The Lady Geneva launches the evening's drag show, storming the club's performance room in fishnets and her trademark past-the-knee ebony zip-up boots, which are polished to a malevolent sheen. A whiskey-voiced hussy powerhouse with sturdy thighs and a frizzed-out explosion of frosted hair, she's brazenly sexual in a Mae-West-meets-the-Dominatrix kind of way. And she's a "natural" drag queen—meaning she's made no surgical, injectable, or hormonal alterations to her body, other than an eye-lift she says she had done for personal reasons. What she may lack in overtly feminine characteristics, she more than compensates for through the dynamism of her stage persona.
As she struts and vamps, lip-syncing to some forgotten '80s diva nugget, timid-looking patrons approach her and respectfully insert bills of various denominations along the borders of both the top and bottom of her outfit. Truth be known, they look almost too frightened to do anything else but succumb, and pay homage to the Lady's charms.
"How the fuck are you doing tonight?" TLG barks at the crowd, a little breathless, when her song ends. Her banter with the audience is self-assured, and unfailingly crude. "Ohhhhhh, you cocksucker," she snarls at a friendly heckler, before turning and demanding a response from the room as a whole: "Are you ready for some more dancing bitches?" The response is loud and enthusiastic. Among the eight drag queens "on cast" at the Rainbow, the brassy Geneva is the perfect set opener—a sparkplug, rabble rouser and provocateur.
Geneva is followed by leggy Gabriel Alexis, who strides across the black and white checkerboard floor in a slinky powder blue dress, her lean calves accentuated by the silver tassels hanging from the bottom of her skirt.
Unlike TLG, Gabriel ("The Fantastic Plastic") has augmented her femininity with silicon, through repeated injections to her arms, legs, hips, butt, and several areas of her face. Though her facial alterations are more obvious, the other changes were done tastefully enough that her lean body is now devoid of almost all the tell-tale masculine characteristics that used to betray even the most convincing drag performers. Her stage moves are less aggressive than those of Geneva, but then brass and sass aren't really Gabriel's bag. Exuding the feline hauteur of a runway model, she comes off instead as preternaturally self-possessed.
And next up is Angel Collins ("The Eighth Wonder of the World"), a 20-some-odd year veteran of the local drag scene whose male alter ego Carl, a local salon owner, is arguably the de facto King of queens in Knoxville.
Early in her career, Angel took estrogen pills, the body alteration of choice among queens before the advent of the silicon injection. Now 41 and hormone-free, Angel still prefers the larger-than-life trappings of '80s drag—bubbling wigs, lurid make-up, incandescently sequined dresses. This night, as she struts to the song "Strut" by former pop-rock diva Sheena Easton in profuse blonde curls and a glittering purple dress, she exhibits at times an almost vaudevillian showmanship. You get the feeling that though Angel takes her drag seriously, there's an irreverence lurking beneath the surface that makes her presentation a lot more fun to watch than most.
Three drag queens with three markedly different life experiences, each with her own unique understanding of her place on the continuum of sexual identity: According to Rainbow West co-owner Martin Washington (better known to his patrons by his queen name, Mercedes Alexander), most heterosexuals (and even some members of the gay community) don't understand the phenomenon of drag because they perceive its diverse permutations in the light of a few, very tired stereotypes—queens-as-transsexuals, or maybe queens-as-divas.
"What people miss is all the different perspectives," says Washington. "What they don't see is that it's all a pyramid, with drag at the top and all these different sections underneath. You can't really ask the question 'Why do people do drag?' because there are so many different answers."
Social scientists have myriad ways of categorizing people who question, change, or otherwise toy with their sexual identity. Broadly speaking, there are drag queens—men, usually gay, who dress up in women's clothing as a means of performing; there are transvestites—people, usually heterosexual men, who have a sexual fetish for wearing the clothes of the other gender; there are transsexuals—people who desire to have, or have achieved, a different physical sex from that which they were assigned at birth; and there are the transgendered—people who question their sexual identity, and perhaps even live as a member of the opposite sex, but who choose not to undergo a wholesale operative transformation.
But the lines that separate those categories are often blurred. While some female illusionists, for instance, may fit the textbook definition of a drag queen—a performer who relegates cross-dressing to the stage—others may find themselves falling into any number of other categories over the course of a lifetime.
Carl, the man behind Angel Collins (he prefers not to divulge his real last name), says he had no desire to be anything other than a man until, caught up in the competitive milieu of the drag scene, he began a course of estrogen therapy to feminize his features.
"Female hormones change your mindset," Carl says. "You start to believe you're a woman. I lived as a woman; I went to the pool every day in a bikini. I felt somehow my life would be easier that way."
With time, Carl says his attitude changed. He eventually ended the hormone treatments, and became reacquainted, in a sense, with his sexual identity. Today, the only visible remnants of his foray into hormonal femininity are a rounded face, and a slight growth of breasts, largely unnoticeable when he's dressed in male clothing.
Answering the phones most afternoons at Carl's salon is Xena, a local drag performer who, having already begun a course of silicon injections and hormone therapy, lives as a woman and hopes to a undergo a complete operative sex-change, a procedure that requires a lengthy pre-operative period of psychiatric evaluation.
Stereotypes of drag queens as transsexuals notwithstanding, Xena is one of only two or three local performers seeking a complete gender reassignment.
"If I had know about transsexualism eight years ago, I would never have even stepped up on stage," says Xena, a striking, fair-skinned 26-year-old blonde whose body is now almost wholly devoid of any visible concessions to masculinity. "Performing isn't really a big deal to me. At the time I started, it just happened to be the only way I knew to express how I felt about my identity."
Perhaps more commonly, though, drag performers are driven to undergo the extremes of actual body modification by competitive pressures. "Pageants are huge now," says Gabriel Alexis, who has been a contestant in national drag pageants including Entertainer of the Year and Miss Gay USA. "And in the bigger, more competitive atmosphere, all the girls have had work done."
Gabriel says her own silicon enhancements were all paid for by local bar owners with a vested interest in her career. There's a trace of ambivalence in her tone when she's asked about her augmentations, though. "I was really young when I had them done," she admits. "The decision to have the silicon was almost like a steroid moment for athletes."
The Lady Geneva's male alter ego, Patrick Callahan, speculates that drag is at best only nominally related to gender identity. "I don't know anyone who deliberately set out to be a drag queen," he says. "It's not something we choose. It's usually something we fall into."
Fifteen years ago, the then-teenaged Callahan began performing with the hope of earning some quick cash. "I really needed money, and I ignorantly hit on the idea of doing drag," he says, laughing. "I didn't realize that when you start out, you're not going to make anything."
Performing mostly in amateur night talent shows at local bars in the early going, Callahan not only failed to make money, he also saw his personal relationship fall apart when his boyfriend at the time decided he couldn't cope with having a drag queen as his significant other.
But even as he lost in love, Callahan found else something just as important in his new hobby—an outlet for yearnings he never knew he had. "Drag fulfilled an unspoken need inside me," he says. "So I kept doing it."
Today he makes his living off drag, performing three or four nights a week at the Rainbow West, as well as booking an occasional out-of-town show. (The average queen is paid perhaps $150 to $200 for an appearance, in addition to tips, which could run anywhere from a few shekels to hundreds of dollars for a night's work.)
He also believes drag saved his life. "It's therapy for me, an outlet," he says. "I'm probably the only person to ever say this, but I feel more masculine when I'm in drag."
An unassuming, mild-mannered sort, Patrick Callahan is indeed something of an introvert compared to the fiery, bawling Lady Geneva. "Ordinarily, I won't go up and talk to someone of my own accord when I'm not in drag," he says. "I'm a wallflower. But Lady Geneva, she'll say anything. She'll do anything. When I'm up there as her, it's like I suddenly have balls of steel."
Carl/Angel says he only has sinus problems in the winter, when it gets especially cold—so cold that the silicon injected into his face several years ago freezes and hardens, a feeling he likens to having bricks packed in his cheeks. His experience points to one of the harsher realities of drag—that its competitive pressures sometimes drive queens to unhealthy, even dangerous extremes.
"There is a dark, ugly side—what people will go through to be who they feel they have to be," he says. "Sometimes people just forget that at some point, you have to go back and live like a man."
Carl explains that there is an underground market in the drag scene for medical procedures such as silicon injections; people with little or no training, but with access to medical equipment, will travel to other cities, spread the word at the local gay bars and set up shop at a hotel room or in someone's basement.
The woman who injected Carl's face with silicon was a former medical technician at a doctor's office. Later, she became a drug addict and was known to inject some clients with substances other than silicon, including floor wax. He says she later went to prison when one of her "patients" died from a punctured lung.
The temptations are considerable, even for performers like Martin Washington, who prides himself on performing free of enhancement. "I always wanted to look as much like a woman as possible without having anything done," he says. "But everyone else now is looking for that quick fix.
"I might consider having work done if the opportunity was readily available," he admits. "But I'm not going to search it out."
With age comes wisdom, though. Many of the city's older performers, drag queens like Angel Collins, went through a period in restless youth where they struggled in one way or another with the nature of their sexual identity—a period where they may have pushed their gender-bending tendencies to the limit. Eventually, though, most of them seem to have emerged from the throes of their identity crisis with a stronger sense of self.
Another one of the city's most venerated drag queens, the Carousel's Champale Denise, took hormones and lived as a woman for eight years beginning in 1987. Today, she lives as a man—though she prefers not to use her real name in this article—and now views her alter ego as a means of making a living, not a lifestyle choice.
Her moment of clarity came in 1994, shortly before her mother passed away with diabetes. She says she visited her mother in the hospital one day, dressed as a man rather than in drag as Champale Denise. Lying on her deathbed, the woman saw her youngest son appearing out of drag for the first time in years.
"She looked at me, her face lit up, and she said, 'There's my baby,'" Champale remembers. "That hit me hard. I grew up a lot in just those few minutes at the hospital. In that moment, my mother gave me something I had been missing. She let me know she loved me, as I am, and that I was still her baby."
Many local queens say that what's missing from most mainstream reflections of drag and its attendant culture is the human—and humane—side of the performers, which they feel is too often lost in the Z-snap stereotypes.
"Most people have this very definite idea of who we are and how we act. They lose the fact that we are real people," Callahan says. "The things you see on stage, those aren't really me. They're part of a character that I play."
Carl/Angel points out that traditionally, drag queens have taken a leading role in gay issues, both here and elsewhere. Local queens were instrumental in helping launch AIDS Response Knoxville, the city's AIDS outreach group. The community also has a history of coming to the aid of stricken fellows, as was the case when queens performed at a benefit for the family of Joe Camber, a local gay activist who was strangled to death when a rendezvous with a stranger turned violent; or when they raised money for Candy Carrington, a local drag queen who needed heart surgery despite having no medical insurance.
It would be heavy-handed to say there's an element of tragedy that runs through the experience of every drag queen who was interviewed for this story. But there was certainly a shared pathos, a sense that something was missing from the lives of these performers, and that for better or worse, taking the stage in women's clothing provides at least a temporary substitute for that missing piece.
"Somewhere, at the heart of every drag queen, there's some kind of yearning for attention, for acceptance," says Champale Denise, who grew up the youngest of five children. "You didn't get the reinforcement you needed somewhere in life, so you try to get it back through the love you get from an audience.
"I have a two-year-old daughter now," says Champale, a full-time single parent when she's not on-stage at the Carousel. "And every day I tell my daughter how much I love her. It won't be like it was with me. She'll never have to seek those words out from someone else."