This story was originally published by The Buckeye Flame, an online platform dedicated to amplifying the voices of LGBTQ+ Ohioans to support community and civic empowerment through the creation of engaging content that chronicles their triumphs, struggles, and lived experiences.
On the second floor of a small-town burger joint, anticipation fills a dark room. The crowd waits, cash in hand, to see some of Ohio’s best drag performers. The host, Anonymous Cvnt, happily introduces each performer and works crowd members into her shtick, teasing someone who tipped in quarters and someone who couldn’t hear her clearly.
Draped in lavish outfits, drag queens and kings showcase their dancing, singing and lip-syncing skills. Each performer travels the room to collect dollars, closely followed by a volunteer with a bucket to grab any loose bills. Audience members celebrate performers’ seamless use of glamor, humor and social commentary.
This is rural Ohio drag culture.
The exhilarating show takes place in Chillicothe, Ohio’s first capital, an area in the southern part of the state covered in farmland and conservative yard signs. Despite the city’s traditional roots, drag shows thrive without much resistance. But they have recently become the target of hate groups and anti-LGBTQ+ Ohio legislators.
House Bill 245, introduced in the Ohio Statehouse, would prohibit any drag performances in locations other than “adult cabarets.” The bill specifically singles out performers who “exhibit a gender identity that is different from the performer’s or entertainer’s gender assigned at birth using clothing, makeup, prosthetic or imitation genitals or breasts, or other physical markers.” Drag story hours at libraries and public drag performances – including at Pride events – could be felony offenses if the bill becomes law.
The wave of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment in Ohio’s Republican-led legislature is already having an impact. “We just don’t have enough people on our side, said drag king Miles N Sider, portrayed by Sara Banks, 33. “We don’t have enough advocates,” Sider said.
More Enthusiasm, More Hate
Anonymous, portrayed by Silver Alexander, 31, is a Chillicothe native and drag performer. After spending several years away from their hometown, they returned to see a huge difference in the city’s LGBTQ+ culture—a large turnout for pride events, out and proud LGBTQ+ youth and a blossoming drag scene.
Chillicothe’s drag scene is populated with performers of all shapes, sizes, identities and talents, which Anonymous said helps overcome the “big-bodied, big-boobed and Top-40-dancing” drag performer stereotype. The shows feature dancing, comedy, singing, lip syncing, aerial stunts and more, providing a valuable venue for performers to share culture and creativity.
First Capital Pride Coalition (FCPC), a Chillicothe-based LGBTQ+ organization, typically hosts three to five drag shows each year. Board Member Gregory Routt coordinates the shows.
Before the FCPC shows, Routt remembers seeing drag shows in Chillicothe going back 15 years. He said shows draw a crowd, with little to no pushback from residents, until a recent incident.
Despite the generally positive reception, FCPC and the LGBTQ+ community faced homophobic backlash in August when a white power group stood outside of Chillicothe’s Pride festival. The hate group members hid their faces while shouting threats and insults and holding degrading signs.
With similar occurrences involving neo-Nazis and white supremecists protesting Pride and LGBTQ-related events all across the state, Sider now describes performing drag in rural Ohio as playing Russian roulette. “Every show, you never know what kind of crowd you’re gonna get.”
Creating a Family
Chanel Cherry, portrayed by Brent Sebastian, 24, said they have never dealt with tough audiences in Chillicothe. On the contrary, she has felt incredibly welcome in the rural community.
“There’s not a huge drag scene, but when there is a drag show, it’s electric. It’s absolutely fire,” Cherry said. “This is probably the most I’ve seen crowds be interactive.”
Regardless of the reactions of the community, performers are always available to provide support, acceptance, understanding and the occasional snide remark to each other and the audience.
Devin Tyler, portrayed by Deb Wagoner, 68, started performing drag after retiring in Chillicothe about five years ago. He said all the drag performers in Chillicothe know each other and have created a tight-knit family.
Being in a small city, Routt said, it can be difficult to find a community. He said FCPC and drag shows are a way to bring awareness, resources and safe spaces for both drag performers and the LGBTQ+ community.
DRAG QUEEN CHANEL CHERRY
“There’s not a huge drag scene, but when there is a drag show, it’s electric. It’s absolutely fire. This is probably the most I’ve seen crowds be interactive.”
The Shows Bring Safety
Justin Allen, 28, attended four Chillicothe drag shows this year. Living in a rural town that he describes as, “the middle of nowhere,” in southern Ohio, he can’t come out as gay to his community. Chillicothe drag shows give him a safe, social environment to be himself.
Allen said seeing a good turnout at the events, especially with older people attending, gives him hope for wider acceptance of drag culture.
Chillicothe resident Madelyn Good, 92, describes herself as, “Good only in name.” Although she has been to many drag shows before, she attended her first Chillicothe drag show to spend time with friends. She said she loves to see the creative outfits, makeup and hair of the drag performers.
During the show, Anonymous sat and joked with Good. “Can we get a really quick, momentary volume spike on the mic… We want to accommodate our MVP guest of honor,” they quipped to the crowd, causing an abrupt volume increase from the microphone and the crowd. After a fair amount of teasing, Anonymous offered Good free entry to future First Capital drag shows.
“We love energy, especially when it comes from a more seasoned generation because some of y’all are bitter when you get old. Y’all hate anything that you didn’t grow up with and that shit is [aggravating],” Anonymous said. “That’s what we all need in life—to age gracefully, understandingly and caringly.”
Routt encourages anyone unfamiliar with drag culture to attend a show to understand the love and positivity.
“Queer people exist. We are not an idea in somebody’s mind. We are living, breathing people and nobody is in any way trying to force a lifestyle change,” Routt said. “The only thing people are trying to do is be present, show people that ‘Hey, people like you exist and you’re not alone,’ and just spread some joy.”