It wasn’t easy growing up queer in small-town Wyoming. And when Taylar went to college in Laramie, an assault left her in pieces…until she found community with Giselle and the Dragonettes. Follow them as they head to the big city for a David Bowie drag competition.
[ ↓ Transcript ↓ ]
Put Some Glitter On It
I drive four hours across the sagebrush and high plains to Laramie, but it’s worth it. My friend Giselle and I are getting ready to go to a show in Denver called Weirdo, a drag competition where the audience decides the winner. Everyone will be in David Bowie outfits because the show is on the anniversary of his death. A type of show that’s hard to come by anywhere else other than a city.
Giselle works on her makeup and we chat.
“I’m going for a form of one of the versions of the makeup that Bowie did for his Ziggy Stardust character” Giselle says while looking in herself in the mirror. “I can’t find my good gold makeup though. That’s a problem. I’m trying to make it shiny.”
“How long did it take you to get good at makeup?” I ask.
Giselle laughs. “I don’t know. I’ll tell you when I get good at make-up. I feel like it was about two and a half to three years before I felt comfortable with the shape of my face and how to make it work. I love this pallet thought. I just need so much highlighter for it to even pick up.”
“Yeah, I like what you’re doing with your highlight and your blush and stuff. It reminds me of that Kabuki mask thing that Bowie used to do.” I say.
“Yeah, I looked at a bunch of different versions from Ziggy Stardust.” Giselle goes back to her makeup, “Yeah, he did the Kabuki one where it was like a death metal triangle of blush, and then he would have white.”
David Bowie, if somehow you don’t know, was a recording artist with elaborate personas. Bowie had pop success with such with classics as “Let’s Dance,” “Heroes” and “Life on Mars,” to more artsy stuff like the album Scary Monsters. He was a big queer weirdo, a person to look up to when there are not many out gay people in your rural Wyoming community.
And when your state has a violent history with the LGBTQ community.
It happened in 1998, a horrible act of violence that left Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, on a fence post to die. It was all over the country, and now when anyone thinks about being queer in Wyoming that’s pretty much all anyone knows. Important stuff. But sometimes that’s as far as the conversations go. And that’s complicated considering Laramie’s way more inclusive than a lot of other towns around the state.
Dominique Alcala-Campos is somebody who understands all this. She grew up here in Laramie and for the last few years has been out performing at events with her drag persona: Slaytan Kills.
Dominque says she thinks that having the queer conversation in the American West always comes back to Matthew Shepard at some point.
“The one time it affected me was when kids were bullying me calling me the next Matthew Shepard,” she says while Giselle gets ready. “Cool. Let’s talk about the normalization of that homophobia rather than going back 20 years, saying, ‘Was this a homophobic act? Was it not? How does this homophobic act affect the queer movement today?’” She thinks for a second and then adds, “It’s not affecting me. It’s not. I mean it is and it isn’t. That specific thing. The specifics of that is like a stain on Laramie’s history, but it’s not universal to every queer person–in Laramie, in Wyoming, anywhere.”
Dominique walks across the room to start putting her own makeup on with Giselle.
Giselle agrees. “At some point, we should talk about how Laramie is kind of a mecca for like gay people in Wyoming.”
“Because of the university,” says Dominique.
“Beause I grew up in a town of two thousand. I grew up in Lovell, Wyoming, a very small Mormon community, and like, no big cities or towns around it really. And so my first exposure to people being visibly queer was going to camps at [the University of Wyoming] when I was in high school. So, I was like, oh my god, this is a paradise for queer people, it seemed like. That’s not necessarily true. It’s not true at all but…”
“It’s also not untrue,” says Dominique. “In relation to other places in Wyoming.”
“Well, I can’t imagine living anywhere else in Wyoming.”
“And being this visibly queer?”
I feel the same way. Laramie has a lot of great queer people living in it. Local drag performers put themselves out there all the time, like during the town’s summer rodeo festival Jubilee Days or doing intermittent drag shows for the community. Something that would be totally unsafe in other parts of the state.
I grew up in Riverton, a small town in the middle of Wyoming. I remember coming out to my dad only a few years ago. My dad is a third-generation cattle rancher and oilfield man. I remember we were welding in his shop and I told him, “Hey Dad, I’m bisexual.”
He smiled and said “Well, at least I still love half of you.”
I laughed with him because I knew he was joking. I know my dad loves me but that was the last time we talked about it. And when you grow up in a community that would rather you stay in than come out, it felt really good to come to Laramie for college.
I joined two performance groups, a burlesque troupe where I could explore my sexuality and a drag troupe, and that’s when I met Giselle Moncur. The town where she’s from, Lovell, is even smaller than my own. A Mormon town of 2400 people. Needless to say, starting the coming out conversation is hard.
“So, I’m already out as a queer person to my mother.” Giselle says, “But not fully out to the rest of my family, although it is very obvious. It’s just something they don’t talk about. And I came out to people in high school awhile before I came out to anyone in my familial unit.”
She says if you own who you are, you take power away from snickering school mates and estranged family members and so-called friends. She took a swig of a beer while we talked.
“Coming out in high school was strategic, because I was already visibly queer, even before I understood my sexuality and gender. So, if I’m out there as that then it takes the power away from people using it as a negative thing to me. They can still make fun of me, say queerphobic things to me, but there’s less that they are getting out of it because I’m already openly that person.”
Giselle and I became friends over our love of heavy metal music and horror movies, things that now inspire her new drag persona, Deadgirl. Giselle says Deadgirl is based on old-school Hollywood women, like Jean Harlow and Lupe Velez. These women were underappreciated and met untimely ends. Lupe Velez was especially captivating and very funny, not so different from Giselle. But sadly, she died young. Giselle is a movie buff so these women have inspired her, during the same period as she began recognizing she was trans. And as a transwoman, drag helped her see herself as feminine when she didn’t think it was possible for her.
“I never thought of being trans as an option for me. When I started doing drag, I started to question my gender more and what felt right. But it’s also hard because it’s hard for me to do a subtle makeup look sometimes because my natural idea is, I should put some glitter on it.”
Why don’t more queer stories come out of the West? I think there’s still a lot of uncomfortable people who don’t want to think about what the gays are up to. I still hear jokes from family members about Brokeback Mountain, which takes place in Wyoming. Very uncool and probably why it took so long for me to come out to them.
Giselle starts pulling on her David Bowie look. A red jump-suit with flared out cuffs. I’m not dressing up for the show today. I’m just the fan club. (#GiselleWeirdoWinner2020.) We start collecting all our things, antsy to hit the road.
“The big misconception of what drag is is that drag is the changing of one’s gender,” Giselle says. “When in reality drag is performing a queer identity; it’s not even necessarily performing a gender. It can be that. But mostly its performing queer visibility. And so, me as a trans woman who does feminine drag, I’m not trying to change my gender or display my gender. I’m just trying to present a big queer personality.”
A Weed Is A Pest. A Weed Is A Flower
I know a couple other performers in town who are definitely big queer personalities. Cylie Erikson and Lee Simmons are also drag performers in our troupe. They both grew up in the same Wyoming town, Pinedale, a teeny tiny ranching/energy town at the foot of the gorgeous Wind River Range. Cylie says her persona, King Weed Flora, is more of a drag “thing” than a king. Who says that a drag persona can’t blur the lines between the male and female dichotomy? “Thing” is the word Cylie likes.
“One of my all-time favorite things is you can do whatever you want with your performance.” Cyclie says. “Make a statement, be a symbol, have fun. Anything goes really and truly. People can interpret it however they like, but my name’s King Weed. And a weed is a flower to someone and a pest someone else. It’s all about perspective and that’s really what I think drag is too.”
Lee is an art student at the University of Wyoming and uses carnivorous plants as a way to assert their femininity in both drag and their schoolwork.
“I kind of viewed that as a symbol of my queer identity,” Lee says. “Taking the femininity that I wasn’t allowed to have when I was younger and using that as a symbol of power. So that’s where Carnavora Flora comes from.”
I talk to Lee and Cylie about why we all do drag. Because we all agree, it’s a little bit scary.
“And to just be out and proud and that’s a really rewarding experience. Of course, it always comes with this aspect of fear a little bit.” Cylie thinks for a second and continues, “Growing up where I grew up, it’s all just talked about in hushed tones and whispers.”
“I would say that our shows, especially having rural shows, allows for an experimental art aspect where there are a lot more constraints on the show you are at and on what you can do,” Lee says. “There’s an art aspect. There’s a storytelling aspect. There’s really room for it to be performative storytelling.”
Back at Giselle’s apartment, she’s all finished getting ready: big faux fur coat like the Hollywood starlets of old, and practical shoes because there’s still snow outside. And if there’s one thing living in Wyoming teaches you is to be prepared to push your car out of the snow.
We climb in my RAV 4, I’m driving, Slaytan is in the back seat. Giselle is feeling excited. She’s always been down for an adventure. We’ve had to travel together before to get to doom-metal concerts and other drag shows. While it sucks the concerts and shows are not in our back yard, the inspiration we take from city shows we can bring back and incorporate into our own performances and artwork and podcasts here in Wyoming.
But still, there are frustrations.
It’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive to Denver from Laramie. While we drive across the plains and up over the mountains, Giselle tells me about the time she participated in a stand-up comedy competition on the University of Wyoming campus.
“One of the comics before me gave an anecdote about walking into what he said was a gay bar, which in reality was just a venue that held the drag shows, just a regular restaurant and dance venue,” Giselle says. “He says he came into this bar not knowing it was a gay bar and that he said he saw a bunch of big drag queens walking around. And one of them came up to him and started hitting on him.”
Giselle says it was just another example of people encountering a gay person for the first time. And it also shows how there’s no place in rural towns where queers can openly flirt and get to know each other. That fear is real.
Looking down at her phone Gisselle guides me through the city, “We are taking exit 214 A on the right.”
We drive into Denver and see the skyline and I still get chills. It’s embarrassing to admit but when I moved to Laramie one of my first thoughts was “Ah, the city. You finally made it, kid.”
It’s laughable now but I never really saw big buildings for a lot of my life, so if Laramie blew my mind, Denver seems like a whole other planet.
So, before we hit up the venue, we check out a lesbian bar where everyone but me grabs a drink. I’m the D.D. but still, it was just nice to see familiar faces.
On the wall, there’s a picture of a familiar painting, “Icarus” by Henri Matisse, a minimalist painting with bold colors that I would recognize anywhere. It was on the cover of one of my favorite books, The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel Van Der Kolk. It’s a book that has gotten me through many traumatic experiences.
The last time I participated in a drag show I was performing as Bob Ross, the guy with the bushy hair who taught painting on PBS stations in the 80’s. It was with the Dragonettes in the Spring of 2019. I was coming off a really rough winter. A few weeks before, I had been sexually assaulted and I almost didn’t perform. It seems dumb to prance around stage in a wig and paint when something so dark had just happened.
But I did. And I proved to myself that my attacker didn’t take my ability to be seen. I wasn’t going back to always hiding who I was.
I talk about it with Giselle at the bar.
“It made me really try to be out there,” I tell her. “And made real life a little bit more bearable. Knowing that I could do some of the weird shit I was doing on stage.”
Giselle smiles and says,“Yeah, it didn’t take away your ability to be yourself”
That night as Bob Ross, I remember there was paint and money flying everywhere. People were screaming, and it felt like a turning point. Just having fellow queer people around helped me feel less alone. I had felt alone for so many years growing up in Riverton. And I’m sure any queer person with pain can relate to holding it in at the convenience of a state or a town, or a family that does not want to recognize who you are.
I follow my friends out of the lesbian bar with that Matisse painting in my head, knowing I had done a lot of healing in the last year. It made me all the more excited to get to Weirdo to see Giselle perform.
You’re Not Alone
The venue? Packed. Parking? Limited. Morale? Extremely high as our group settles into the tall chairs close to the stage. The MC came striding out onto the stage. They had striking eye makeup and a dashing three-piece suit, with a booming voice that made everyone start to get rowdy.
“Hello, hello, Gladys! How are we doing tonight? Are ya’ll mother fuckers ready for competition? Tonight, we are paying an extra special tribute to David Bowie who passed away two years ago on this day? David Bowie was a badass mother fucker who pushed all the boundaries!”
Before she goes on stage, I ask Giselle, “So now that we are here, what are your thoughts?”
“I’m excited, just did a mic check. Sounds like its going to be good. I went backstage, it was really nice seeing everyone’s costumes and we all love Bowie and this is going to be fun. I’m still nervous, but a couple more sips of my tonic and we should be just fine.”
“Good,” I tell her. “You’re going to break all the legs.”
First in the competition is Nixi Theodora Pixi who does a gorgeous Lazarus rendition with big beautiful golden wings. This was a re-creation from off of Bowie’s last album, the one he made before he died of cancer. Even while dying, Bowie was a force to be reckoned with.
The way this drag show works is that the audience gives the performers feedback and a score, and then the performer who gets the most points at the end gets to lip sync for first place. Pixie gets a perfect score. Seriously, I almost cried.
Another notable performance is a drag king who made a convincing Jareth from Labyrinth. His stage name is Dustin Shlong and he does “Dance Magic Dance” with a baby doll in tow and an enormous Bowie bulge. We all go wild.
Then it’s Giselle’s turn.
Giselle takes the stage as Deadgirl for the first time. I can tell she’s feeling confident in her red disco leotard. As she sings, we throw tips and cheer. “Rock and Roll Suicide” is a really powerful song that closed Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust album. It was hard for me not to get emotional when she sang “You’re not alone!” It’s nice to be reminded I’m not alone. Small town gays meet, talk, and form whole-ass communities with bonds stronger than family.
And nobody knows that better than the queers of Laramie, Wyoming.
And The Winner Is…
After that, the MC comes out and congratulates Giselle for her performance.
“Alright Gladys, are we ready to give Dead Girl their scores,” shouts the MC. “On the count of three, I want to see those scorecards. One, two, three! I gotta nine, I gotta eight, I gotta eight, I gotta eight, I gotta nine, and an eight. Which brings the score to fifty!”
A score of 50 put Giselle up against Nixie and Shlong in the final lip sync battle. The song? “Rock n Roll with Me” off of Diamond Dogs, a classic.
In her big faux fur coat, Giselle passes out red roses to the audience and fellow performers. People scream and sing along. She’s half-naked and really channeling old Hollywood femme-fatal, mixed with that Bowie swagger.
Everyone is excited to find out who won.
“Alright, if I can get my three competitors on the stage. Alright. I’m about to announce the first winner of Weirdo for 2020.”
The MC pauses for effect, then screams, “And your winner is… Nixie Theodora Pixie!”
Nixie had won, but while Weirdo is a competition it’s easy to see Giselle is happy for her extended drag family here in Denver. She’s happy for all the competitors because even though Denver feels like another planet to me, this is still the American West too. I’m sure many of the audience here came from small towns all over.
While we get ready to head out, we feel happy but excited to get back to our own small town.
When it was all said and done, we left for Laramie around 1:30 in the morning. Dominique dozed in the back seat while Giselle and I started talking about what David Bowie meant to us as kids. My relationship with David Bowie was through Labyrinth. The man had such a gravitas to him. He could be wearing or doing anything and look like the coolest person in existence. Being awkward growing up, Bowie’s confidence was inspiring to me. Giselle loved his music and she speculates about his queerness. Then she says, she’s proud of how unapologetically queer she became as she got older. And she should be. It’s been amazing to watch her grow throughout the years.
“I think that high school me would be really proud of how uninhibited I have been presenting myself as a social freak. I’m really not caring so much about how I’m perceived by the straight world.”
At around three in the morning, we see Laramie. The lights and buildings are smaller than Denver’s but I’m still so excited to see them with more context of how big the world really is outside my own hometown. Going to a show in Denver is awesome, but what the queer community built here in Laramie is just as awe-inspiring. Laramie now has a whole week of pride in June with community events and burlesque shows. All of them are full of drag performers battle-ready with that special brand of Wyoming grit.
Blue Dot Sessions