Youth celebrate the art of drag at William Way

    Two hours before the show, the room inside the William Way LGBT Center looks like any other town hall — one can imagine it hosting a bake sale or Bingo or a Bar Mitzvah reception. Parents set up snacks and baked goods on two long, plastic folding tables. Others set up black folding chairs facing a temporary stage. A woman hooks up DJ equipment next to the small stage, the piano pushed off to the side.

    Feather fans begin to cover a table. Dozens of curling irons, combs, make–up mirrors and brushes emerge on another, along with make–up and glitter in every color, and a Hello Kitty box. A bearded man in studded leather platform boots approaches and begins to apply make–up to the face of a little boy.

    This is Esai, and he is 11 years old. According to his mother, Dre, he has been sneaking her heels into his bedroom since he was much younger. Dre is a drag performer herself, having produced another drag show by the name of “Fierce” — the only queer burlesque festival in the world. She also produced the first non–gender binary talent show for kids, “Twinkle.”

    “Burlesque is the art of the strip tease,” she explains, “and drag is the opposite because you’re putting on a different gender.”

    Esai’s birthmother, who is transgender, is now his father.

    Dre said she hopes her son will perform in “Twinkle” next year.

    When Esai slides down from his chair, his blonde hair is in tight curls, his lips are purple and his eyes are lidded with pink and silver eye shadow against his rosy face. He teeters by in heeled boots far too big for him and changes out of his purple “We Are Made of Stars” T–shirt. He could be any little girl playing dress-up, save for the expert cosmetic application.

    Sofia, 12, is at the table too.

    “Hold still,” she says to her little brother Max, 8, as she powders his cheeks. Having grown up with two mothers interested in drag and even attending “RuPaul’s Drag Race” shows as a family, Sofia and Max each have their own drag personas. Max goes by “Moulin Rouge” because he likes the color red. Sofia’s faux drag — the art of a woman “dragging up to drag-queen level” — name is “Lady Poison,” which she developed after an assistant at a make–up store misread her surname. When it came time to choose a Bat Mitzvah project for her progressive synagogue, Mishkan Shalom in Mt. Airy, Sofia opted to combine her love of make–up with her family’s shared passion.

    “Which was drag,” she said.

    Part of the purpose of a Bat Mitzvah project, Sofia explains, is to “give back to the community.”

    She believes that, by organizing and developing a youth drag camp program, she can “help kids figure out who they are through the art of drag.”

    This whole event is her brainchild.

    “I don’t have another wing,” Max whines when Sofia turns from his uneven eyes to greet an attendee. “Just a minute,” says Sofia. “No glitter glue!” their mother, Lady Desire, warns. “I had to duct tape that off you yesterday.” Every few minutes you hear “hold still” or “ready?” — followed by the spray of a hairspray canister.

    Many of the adults present, aiding with make–up and setting up chairs, are burlesque performers.

    “Burlesque is fancy strippers singing a comedy story,” explains Lascivious Jane, the faux drag queen who donated the costumes. “But yes, we do go down to a G–string normally.”

    LJ, who is also a Ph.D. student of human sexuality at Widener University, believes that being exposed to drag offers young children a chance to explore and gain a “wider understanding” of gender.

    “They see the fabulous hair, the costumes, the rhinestones and that fuels creativity,” she said. She is careful, however, never to perform in front of her step–children. “I don’t talk to them about the burlesque,” she said. Her friend, Buster Britches, has developed a separate routine for underage audiences — he has performed at daycare centers and family events. He also works as a magician.

    “My partner has the same Muggle name as me so now my drag name is my Muggle name,” he said. “Now I’m Buster all the time.”

    Max emerges as Moulin Rouge in a long strapless ball gown with gloves. All red, all not quite fitting his prepubescent male body. LJ rushes over to tape the chest of his dress down. Max squats down to a mirror to place a gray feather in his hair and throws his bare shoulders and gloved forearms out in a pose. He spins around, then stops. “Oh God,” he says. “I’m dizzy.” He regains his balance and struts over to Desire, striking a pose for the camera.

    “He just chooses to express himself in this way,” Desire said. “He isn’t gay. He crushes on girls.”

    It’s time to prepare for the show. LJ takes the children and a few of the volunteers into a back room. She gives all the children a stern look. “No more glitter throwing,” she says. “That’s non-consensual glittering.”

    Then she has them join hands to perform a ritual she does in preparation for her own burlesque shows.

    “Now,” she says, “we thank the god of glitter and goddess of moustaches.” She asks who else the children would like to thank. They name Sofia and the bearded and heeled make–up artist. “I want to thank everyone who put this together,” one child says.

    The children line up at the entrance to the hall and Sofia sits down to put on her black stilettos. “How is there glitter in my shoe?” she exclaims, holding one up. But she fastens the straps because it’s time for the show.

    “It’s been a pleasure to see how passionate and fierce they already are,” says Desire into the microphone, before Sofia comes out to dance and lip-synch to Shania Twain’s “Man, I Feel Like A Woman.” She has a remarkable dexterity with heels for a girl of 12. Esai kicks off his heels as he lip-synchs to “Cheap Thrills” by Sia. Max dances to “No” by Meghan Trainor, periodically dropping into the splits in his long red dress. None of this is choreographed — it really is just kids dancing around, playing dress–up, having fun.

    During the break, the children run to the snack tables. Esai shoves harvest cheddar potato chips into his purple mouth. Max models the purple glitter on his back for a family friend.

    “So many of us had a hard coming out because we came from more traditional families,” Desire says. “I think that Disney [and various other television networks] doesn’t address sexuality but it implies sexuality by featuring only heterosexual coupling. There’s still an implied sexuality.”

    And this can narrow children’s understanding of gender and sexuality, she contends. She believes that projects like “Fierce” have the power to break this cycle.

    “I think allowing kids to find out what makes them shine is really what a parent’s job is: being able to say, ‘You know, that skirt is a little too short right now,’ being gentle with them, being able to tolerate their fits when they come, to just let them know that they’re loved. They can withstand anything that comes from the world, because they have safety at home.”

    When the show starts up again, Esai and another child run in screaming, early on cue. They turn around, giggling. Now it’s time to “lip synch for your life.” Three children dance around in front of the stage. Esai and another child follow each other around, while Max struts away to isolate himself and strike poses.

    They all win, of course.

    Stephanie Barron, 21, is an English major at University of Pennsylvania, pursuing a career in journalism. She is the culture editor of 34th Street Magazine.

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