By Leigh Armstrong
The warmness of the night impressed me. As I went to Skagway’s annual drag show at the Red Onion on Aug. 17 and saw the line stretching out beyond the AB Hall, I knew this had to be one of the must-see events of Skagway’s summer.
Of course, the charitable nature plays a part of the turnout. For 15 years, the Red Onion has put on a drag show and each time raises money in support of a local family or individual in need. This year, the recipients — William Lockette, who lost his hand earlier this year, and Lea Maudlin, who’s undergoing treatment for cancer — received $7,362 from the men and women performing.
The entire saloon seemed transformed. Gone were the tables and chairs carefully placed to allow tourists to enjoy food and drink during their travels in Skagway, and in their place was a long runway for the drag queens and kings to dance and perform on.
As the show was set to start, I was wondering what type of drag show Skagway would put on. Drag, like any art form, has a multitude of styles and variations.
While pageant, which is a based on look and performance of a drag queen, and comedic drag, which focuses on campy performances akin to vaudeville, have made their way in the pop culture through the success of the reality competition show “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” the world of drag encompasses much more. Some other styles include ball culture, traditionally found in bigger metropolitan cities like New York, that has men and women competing in walks that put dance, costuming and attitude on the judging table.
Typically, the contestants will be part of larger houses, performers who train together under a leading member and signified by their drag last name, and asked to vogue, which combines catwalking and floorwork to create a unique style.
The term vogue blasted into pop-culture awareness after Madonna’s song of the same name and the documentary “Paris is Burning,” directed by Jennie Livingston, chronicling the New York ball scene, both found fame in 1990.
As with any art, there are misconceptions about what qualifies. It’s the same with drag and the culture of crossdressing. While drag is a form of crossdressing, its subset is based on the performance and attention to detail. Anyone can put on an outfit of the opposite gender, but drag is based on utilizing that outfit in a transformative experience to create a performance mixing the lines between feminine and masculine.
As the show got into gear, it became clear with the first performance by a group of four men, in various stages of feminine dress, that Skagway chose to have its own unique form of a show, with a focus more on entertainment and gender-bending fun.
With a mix of drag queens and drag kings (females performing in a masculine manner), the show allowed the participants to freely traipse between the lines of gender as dollars flowed in the air and onto the stage. From the traditional drag queens who took the stage to lip-sync and dance to music, to artistic pieces that highlighted the use of drag against sexual abuse and as part of the #MeToo movement, Skagway’s drag show was like a buffet of all styles of drag that the participants served to the viewers.
While the United States has made great strides in accepting drag as a legitimate part of the LGBTQ community, men and women drag performers across the country still deal with threats, violence and isolation. With the LGBTQ community, crossdressers and drag queens have been at the forefront of the equal rights, notably during the 1969 riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, which ignited the gay pride movement. Drag and gay rights have been intertwined since their beginning in the U.S.
Even with movement forward, there is still work that needs to be done toward equal rights in the U.S.
With the current presidential administration asking the U.S. Supreme Court on Aug. 16 to allow businesses to fire individuals because they’re transgender, and LGBTQ members across the board more than twice as likely to experience sexual assault and rape in the U.S. compared to heterosexual cisgender (those who gender identity matches their physical sex) people, according to report by the Center for Disease Control, it’s clear that there still a need for drag to exist and be the stark visual that people can tie to members of LGBTQ.
So, while the Skagway drag show was far from the most polished event I’ve been to, it had a soul to it, which I wouldn’t normally expect.
If someone had told me last year that a small waterside town in Alaska, a predominantly red state, had a drag show every year that people went to by the hundreds and spent thousands of dollars on, I would have laughed at the concept of it. It’s an event that seems unreal, but for the people it helps and the LGBTQ community as a whole, I’m delighted that it’s just another part of what makes Skagway special.