Featured image courtesy: The Sarah Isom Center
By – Daniel Dubuisson
When we think of queens, we are instantly transported to a time of innocence and youth. The times when our parents would sit us down in front of the television, pop in one of the classic Disney princess films, and leave us to sing along with the characters. We think of the heroic men who protected their fair maidens and the women who got the beautiful gowns and fairy protectors.
Films like those raised us to place each gender in a box. One would never dream of stepping out of that box, male or female. It was never conventional to do so.
Men around the world are embracing their affinity for glitter, lashes, heels, contouring, drawn-on eyebrows, etc. These men have become queens in their own right…drag queens that is.
In the last decade alone, a shift towards the acceptance of this lifestyle has been smeared all across popular culture.
Whether it be on television like “RuPaul’s Drag Race” or on Broadway with “Kinky Boots,” the popularity surrounding drag culture has experienced a somewhat sudden spike, even in the South.
It was not that long ago that even considering putting on women’s clothing, let alone performing in it, landed you in a first class ticket to ostracization. The men of the region are noticing a change and they are far too excited to embrace it.
“When I was a little baby drag queen, it was bar by bar…now it’s city by city,” Eric White, aka Miss GoDiva Holliday (pronounced “like the chocolate but more gay and with southern sass”), said.
“I mean that is a huge deal. We live in world today where men can dress like women for a night…and get paid to do it!”
Countless hours of practice are spent in front of the mirror to get to that level, and sometimes years are needed to perfect the delicate science that is drag. The intention is to ultimately become a drag superstar, but that may take tireless work and hundreds of frequent flyer miles.
That it is why drag queens across the region are rejoicing over the latest event setting up shop in North Mississippi.
The glitz and glam of the drag world is making the street of Oxford its stiletto-stamped runway for the weekend while also serving as a connection for many visiting queens .
LOU Pride, short for Lafayette, Oxford and University Pride, is the four day festival organized by the Sarah Isom Center, OutOxford and the UM Pride Network to “create inclusive, welcoming spaces for the local and surrounding LGBTQ+ community” according to the Sarah Isom Center’s website featuring the event. Three of the six sponsored events feature drag in some capacity.
Though only in its second year, the entire weekend is expected to draw in a significantly larger attendance than last year.
Perhaps that has something to do with the beaded and “beat” line-up of local and visiting queens.
“We estimated about 1,500 people participated in Pride last year between parade-viewers and party-goers,” Jaime Harker, director of the Sarah Isom Center said.
An impressive number for the inaugural year, no doubt. People from all over the South congregating in one place to watch a parade of queens and then sticking around after to watch them perform is not your typical Saturday in good ol’ Mississippi.
As the show director for Saturday’s drag extravaganza, White says he knows the fact that this is even happening, and in a town with such contested history, is a victory for the entire LGBTQ+ community.
“Things are clearly progressing,” White said. “Some really cool people got together and said, ‘You know what, we can do this here to make this huge event for people who just want to love.’ That’s started to spill over…so instead of looking at it as being ironic because of the past, you should think of it as being refreshing and the start of something new in Oxford, and in the South.”
Crowds throughout the shows last year threw him for a loop as well. He did not expect the turnout that materialized.
“I mean I knew it was going to be a good show because I created it,” White said, “but the boys and girls were lined up all night out around the corner to get in.”
Having that support is what inspired him to reach out to other up-and-coming local queens and offer them a spot in the 2017 lineup. Two Oxford queens answered the call and are featured in not one, but two of the festival’s drag showcases.
One of those drag darlings is junior art major Spencer Pleasants. You probably recognize him from the numerous Code Pink events he has MCed at Proud Larry’s as Miss Amnesia Devereux alongside his drag sister Jake Stewart aka Miss Beverly Hellz.
“My name is Spencer Pleasants and drag is my life now.”
“Being given this kind of spotlight really cements things for me. I am a drag queen,” Pleasants said.
It is the “sisterhood” White inspired that encouraged this year’s organizers to also cross state lines and reach out to other notable names within the drag community. Thanks to OutOxford Director, Blake Summers, a few special guests have been added to the production.
“I reached out to the queens from Orlando’s Pulse nightclub on a whim,” Summers said. “I asked their management if they’d like to join us in Oxford and they responded so fast…they said yes!”
Pulse experienced a tragedy the night of June 12, 2016 when 49 lives were tragically lost in the nightclub. An active shooter’s attack in the space devoted to the safety of LGTBQ+ people and their friends became the most deadly shooting spree in U.S. history. Since that disastrous night, these queens have traveled to nearly all 50 states to perform and remind folks of the impact that massacre had on the LGBTQ+ community.
“I’ve been to Memphis, Nashville, and even Orlando…before I came back to Tupelo,” White said, “but I have never seen anything like the show these girl put on. It’s just the right balance of serving looks and giving context.”
That is what the entire festival is about, after all: members of the LGBTQ+ community and their allies coming to together to show just how far they have come with drag at the forefront.
Drag queens will be leading the parade on Friday in a caravan of vintage hotrods donated to the cause by supporters based in Memphis.
“The goal is to promote the new normal,” Pleasants said. “We want to ride past the crowd and have them know the queers and queens are here to stay.”
In fact, Oxford may soon be welcoming an LGTBQ+ friendly bar. White has long considered the placement for “queer watering hole” and with the headway the town is making, he has upped the ante.
“I just recently asked a friend of mine who used to own a bar in Tupelo if he’d consider being business partners…and he seemed very interested,” White said. “You can bet if that became a reality, Miss Godiva will be on that stage every damn night.”
Oxford and the University of Mississippi are making steps towards a more socially moderate climate in the South. With their help, things like LGBTQ+ pride and drag queens are on track to be around for more than just a weekend.