Chouteau Avenue is deserted at night. Only the occasional headlight breaks the stillness of industrial buildings and signs for automated equipment. You'd never know that behind one blank facade is a bar full of men and women, gay and straight, white and black, who have come to see drag.
Drag queens call them "drag muffins," "panty sniffers," "trade." Whatever the name, drag fans have one thing in common: a taste for gender-fuck, for men who bend genders, for queens who color outside the lines. On any weekend, and some weeknights, at least five St. Louis bars offer shows to accommodate them. They've spawned a series of drag-friendly benefits that continue Nov. 28 with female impersonator Christopher Peterson in his one-man show Eyecons.
In terms of audience, talent and venues, St. Louis is one of the top 10 U.S. cities for drag, says Howard Meyer, owner of the Complex. "Don't ask me why. Maybe pumps are cheaper here."
As the crowd gathers Sunday night at the Complex, Leon, Sable, Bobb and Roger are under construction. Hidden behind the dressing-room door, they fluff wigs, glue on cat-scratch nails, wriggle into the sheer sheaths and leather that will transform them into Dieta Pepsi, Sable Sinclair, Khrystal Leight and Vicki Vincent. As Miss Gay America in 1989, Vincent is a crowd favorite and gets many of their kisses and bills.
Pepsi ("I never drink Coke") emerges in heels and a thigh-high sequined dress. To an ear-splitting beat and flashing lights, she lip-synchs, "I feel a change," and glances knowingly down at her/his crotch. Her image is reproduced on 16 television screens behind her. As she "sings," she points a flirting finger at a fresh-faced man in the crowd, whom she easily outweighs by 150 pounds. She gets a wink in return, then moves on to work a group of men standing on the stairs. Several kiss her and slip bills into her palm. The song ends, and she calls out, "Hello, children. Hey." The audience, about 60 percent regulars, knows the drill and dutifully returns the volley in unison: "Hey."
As sweet as it all seems, this isn't all innocent boys and girls at play. Sex is sometimes part of the scenario. A small percentage of the audience -- men, women, gay, straight -- are smitten by the queens and do hit on them after the show. "You will get the occasional bisexual or curious man," Sinclair says. "It may be easier for them, when they experiment, to see a girl."
Don Conway-Long, an adjunct professor of women's studies at Washington University and of anthropology at Webster University who has studied drag from an academic perspective, says that drag viewers are titillated by the "confusion" of gender and sex. "The attraction is to the external image," says Conway-Long. "But then when you get down to the nitty-gritty of the genitals, it's like, 'Whoops!'""
The reasons people watch drag are as varied as the watchers themselves. Some, like Jerry Thayer, come for the crowd. "There are some very weird people here, but it's fun," he says. "You don't get the diversity per square foot anywhere else in St. Louis."
Others come for the glitz. "It's all the glamour and the sparkles and diamonds, even though it's all fake," says Jamie Thurston. "But the bar lights always make them look good."
DJ Robert comes to hear new music that he imports to Club 747, a gay club where he works. "You can come here and get the dance version of whatever's going on," he says.
Unlike prepackaged entertainment such as movies, drag shows provide the unexpected, says Marc Laraway. "Dieta Pepsi is always emceeing, and you just never know what she's going to say. Sometimes it's rude or vulgar," he says, "but that's much more entertaining than sitting there for two hours knowing what you're going to see."
Regulars come for the queens' inside jokes and innuendoes, says Jay Dodson of Suragold Productions, who is producing the Eyecons show. "(The queens) are just such an integral part of the community that it's like going to the high-school talent show and seeing your friends up there."
It's also the queens who provide the opportunity for vicarious and not-so-vicarious living. Amateur nights put some viewers on the road to impersonation, although most queens confide that they started out on Halloween. Meyer first dressed in drag as member of a male Halloween bridal party. "We sat down and made the bride's dress, made the bridesmaids' dresses. And I won the grand prize."
Under it all, drag-goers are fascinated with the transformation from "male" to "female," says Thurston, who is sitting out the show in a quiet section of the bar. "I'm Sable's boyfriend, and even I'm not used to it."
The illusion starts with foam rubber, and lots of it, Meyer says. "You carve out hip pads or butt pads that you place under eight or 10 pairs of pantyhose to hide all the hair, and you shape and form and cut that with razor blades until it actually gives you the hip. You wear them higher on your own hips, because a woman's waistline is higher than a man's."
Most queens call the foam rubber "body," except for Leight, a zaftig Bette Midler look-alike who sometimes sews two dresses together to drape over her rotund curves: "I call mine 'buffet.'" Other materials are equally crucial. "Duct tape, hot glue and safety pins are a drag queen's friend," continued on page 34continued from page 32Leight says as she squeezes herself into a spangled bra that she glue-gunned herself.
Duct tape is used either to push the breasts up or tape the penis down. The layers of pantyhose usually flatten any manly bulge. But when a bulge does ruin the line of their skimpiest outfits, queens fix the problem by "tucking," or stretching the penis out and then tucking it under the buttocks, secured with duct tape.
It's just that kind of gender-bending that attracts us to drag, says Conway-Long. He calls it gender-fuck, or gender transgression. That means, for example, the postoperative male-to-female transsexual who is a lesbian and a bodybuilder, Conway-Long says: "And she wears a Hooters T-shirt."
A note of explanation: "Gender" does not mean "sex." "Sex" means what type of genitals you've got, whereas "gender" means the characteristics that are associated culturally with those genitals, says Conway-Long. "We talk about someone's gender is male or someone's gender is female, and that's wrong, wrong, wrong. 'Gender' is the cultural stuff; it's the masculinity and the femininity, which is not the same thing as sex. And the gay and bi community knows this a whole lot better than the hetero community does," he adds.
Our society segregates genders to such an extreme because the more socially complex a society, the more some of its members yearn for structural order, Conway-Long says. "And so you start imposing the most fundamental order, that men are better than women, and men are stronger than women, and men are more rational than women, and blah, blah, blah and all the other bullshit that goes along with these concepts."
And that's why playing with transgression, as drag queens do, sends shock waves through the mainstream. "One of the most powerful restrictive forces in our lives is gender," Conway-Long says. "It's probably the most dangerous thing on the planet."
Despite the taboo, the recent upswing in drag images in films such as The Birdcage and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is nothing new. They are part of a cycle in film history that returns every decade or two. Drag images in film may take on greater importance than those in literature because of the nature of the medium, Conway-Long says: "The silver screen is magical, that larger-than-life projection onto the huge screen in front of us, in the dark, where we can fantasize. You're very passively receptive to the film, in a very different sort of way than reading."
Nonetheless, drag remains mostly forbidden territory.
But maybe it shouldn't. If America did a better job of accepting transgender behavior, the range of behavioral possibilities would be much wider, says Conway-Long.
"We would stop destroying children by forcing them in little boxes, saying that if you're a boy, you've got a certain pair of genitals, you're going to grow up tough and ugly and mean and beat up on people. And if you want to be really gentle and soft, that there's something wrong with you. And it's the opposite for females.
"People would have more choices in terms of fully developing their individual needs, their individual selves," Conway-Long says. "I think it would be a lovely way to live."
Eyecons features female impersonator Christopher Peterson as Lucille Ball, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, Madonna, Joan Rivers and others. Eyecons takes place at 8 p.m. (doors open at 7 p.m.) Saturday, Nov. 28, in the Casa Loma Ballroom, 3354 Iowa at Cherokee. Tickets are $25; they're available at MoKaBe's and Our World Too, or charge by phone through MetroTix at 534-1111. Tables seating eight to 10 may be reserved by calling 383-0042. Drag shows can also be seen at local bars, including Alibies, the Complex, Faces, the Grey Fox Pub and Magnolia's. n