Washtenaw County drag performers push back against critics with positivity-fueled activism

Local drag performers have struggled with a recent wave of national backlash against drag, but they're forging ahead with a mission of community activism, education, and fun. 
Most drag performers in Washtenaw County feel confident they don't have to worry about legislation banning drag shows here. But that doesn't mean local drag performers don't face other challenges, from accusations that drag content is unfit for children to being stalked by a white nationalist group.

A number of anti-drag bills have hit several state legislatures recently, and one passed in Tennessee. Many of those bills are seeking to stamp out drag shows by regulating where they can occur, defining drag as "adult-oriented performances" similar to a strip club. 

Jadein Black, local drag legend and founder of the entertainment troupe Boylesque, says similar legislation was floated in Michigan last year but a drag ban has little chance of passing. However, Black isn't immune from political backlash against her art.

"Last year, I hosted a storytime in downtown Ann Arbor as part of [Ann Arbor Summer Festival], and the Proud Boys met me in the parking garage," Black says. "Drag is a target right now. I think of it as a political move, very like a genocide, not having gender-reaffirming care and not being able to live your best life."

While some drag performers are trying to raise awareness and tolerance for the LGBTQ+ community by hosting family-friendly offerings like Drag Queen Bingo or Drag Queen Story Time, some critics of drag see that as sinister, implying that drag queens are "grooming" children or trying to "recruit" them.
Sir Guy performing at Planet Ant in Hamtramck.
Mo Hoeffel, who performs locally as drag king Sir Guy, finds this baffling. When not performing as Sir Guy, Hoeffel also visits pediatric patients and children in hospice dressed up as princesses, superheroes, or other characters.

"I don't understand how that's any different than what I do with drag. I dress up in a costume and provide entertainment for people who need it or want it," Hoeffel says.

Hoeffel says they feel "very lucky to live in a state where our governor is actively making life safer for queer and trans folks and drag performers."

"But that doesn't protect me against every person I come across," Hoeffel says. 

Black and other local drag performers note that some performances are more risque than others, but most performers know where to draw the line.
Miss Faguette performing at Drag Bingo at Conor O'Neill's.
"Some drag definitely isn't for children, but drag queens know that distinction," says local performer Miss Faguette. "No drag queen is going to a brunch wearing nipple pasties when we know kids are there. We're well aware of the boundaries. It's a ridiculous, fear-mongering tactic."

Several local drag performers say that family-friendly drag events are necessary so that kids are exposed to "queer representation."

Washtenaw County-based drag performer Maxi Chanel calls drag queens "frontrunners and cheerleaders for the gay community."

"When drag queen story time first started becoming a thing, it was so exciting," Chanel says. "I love that parents are exposing their kids to us early on because the sooner they're exposed to that, the less taboo it is. We're only about positivity. We might be a little sassy or spicy, but nothing detrimental to you or your children."

Black notes that she and other drag performers often work as activists in the community and support charities, raising funds for groups that range from youth charities like Ozone House to fraternal organizations like Moose and Elk Lodges.

"I've always been about making a change in the community and making the world a better place," Black says. "When I stop focusing on that, drag becomes boring. I'm more than a drag queen. I'm an activist for the community."  
Maxi Chanel performing at Drag Bingo at Conor O'Neill's.
Chanel remembers doing a charity event for a nearby Moose Lodge, and seeing hateful messages directed toward the event organizers on social media. 

"They were saying she was going to hell and talking about us being groomers," Chanel says. "Not that we were doing anything that would be bad for anybody's kids, but it wasn't even open to children! People have their ideas about this all askew."

Black says she thinks some of the backlash stems from jealousy.

"A lot of it is that, as a drag performer, you're able to be whoever you want to be. It's full of rainbows, happiness, and smiles," Black says. "But these bills are picking at a scab that's been trying to heal since the first brick thrown at Stonewall. It was a drag queen that started the movement for LGBTQ rights."

Black says she tours the country and a lot of her performances take place in areas more conservative than Ann Arbor.
Jadein Black performing at Drag Bingo at Conor O'Neill's.
"My favorite thing about drag is connection. It's a joy to talk about my life experiences and connect with my audiences," Black says. "I hope it helps people in red states think about my rights."

Hoeffel also says they hope that more people with a "fear of the unknown" will experience a drag show for themselves and talk to the performers. 

"Find out more about us and see that we're good people who want to be respected and accepted like everybody else," Hoeffel says.

Black says she thinks the current backlash against drag will likely only result in queer people getting more rights. 

"The thing is, every time I post an ad in a group or city, there's some kind of bigot that does not agree with me and likes to get everyone fired up. But you know what happens?" Black asks. "There's more people who support me, and then it sells out."

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.