By Noah Alexander
For many drag performers, their passion is also the means by which they make a living. “Or many have to work part-time jobs, and then use drag to supplement their incomes,” says Sister JFB (short for Just Fucking Bubbles), mistress of propaganda for the Rock and Roll City Sisters, Cleveland’s chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.
But for some, their art is about something much more. Beneath the hair and makeup often lies a serious political or charitable cause. Encores, shows and entire troupes are dedicated to raising money for HIV/AIDS services, anti-bullying and anti-violence efforts, marriage equality, and other LGBT issues.
“Drag isn’t just an entertainment art,” says Nina West, a Columbus drag queen and local celebrity whose performances often involve a bit of charity. “It’s a social art form for people like us.”
She intended for activism to be part of her persona ever since she first entered the drag scene. “I grew up with a partisan family of Republicans, so I was raised in a very political environment,” West says. “When I first started out [in drag], I saw a real lapse in involvement with the community.”
In a December holiday show with Virginia West, the duo raised $4,000 for Kaleidoscope Youth Center. In June 2013, after three gay men were attacked in Columbus, West organized a show that raised more than $12,500 for the Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization. Last March, she donned a sequined Hillary 2016 dress at a Columbus fundraiser for group that’s urging Hillary Clinton to run for president.
West also been able to bring together her love of drag and desire for political activism with her own charity, Project: Zero, which raises money to help people living with HIV who can’t afford to pay their medical bills. West started the organization with Dr. Randy Sharma, a Columbus family physician, when a mutual friend tested positive and had trouble paying for treatment.
Similar efforts take place regularly across Ohio.
After Candice Milligan was punched and kicked repeatedly on a Downtown Toledo street in November by three men shouting transphobic slurs, Toledo drag queens staged an “Ignorance Is Not Bliss” benefit and donated all tips to help toward her medical bills. Legends Showclub, which hosted the show, matched performers’ tips.
In Dayton, the Rubi Girls sell hundreds of tickets for shows and have raised more than $1 million for HIV/AIDS services over a quarter-century in heels. A Newbi Rubi Pageant on Jan 24 (tickets are $20 and available at arcohio.org) will end with a new member of the troupe.
Every weekend in Cincinnati, a drag show somewhere in town raises money for causes dear to the Imperial Sovereign Queen City Court of the Buckeye Empire. The chapter is part of a national organization that turns 50 this year.
The Queen City Court, the only chapter in Ohio, has raised more than $1 million over 23 years, says Brooklyn Steele-Tate, who bears the title Empress XVI, meaning she wore the crown during the chapter’s 16th year. The court’s charities include food pantries, Planned Parenthood, breast cancer research, the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Greater Cincinnati and more.
“People don’t realize we’re doing this a dollar at a time at the bars,” she says.
For the Rock and Roll City Sisters in Cleveland, charity and political advocacy are at the forefront of their work, de-emphasizing the performance aspect to the point where they don’t even fully identify as “drag.” Members identify more with the street-theater tradition, rooted in spontaneity.
“The white [makeup] and habit are a political statement,” says Sister JFB. “Through the spectacle, and in trying to get people to laugh … we want to rid people of their stigmatic guilt.”
Forgoing the “drag” qualifier, the Sisters instead prefer to see themselves as “missionaries for the community.” They’ll host their inaugural event of 2015, called Bring in a Full Year, on Jan 10 at Cocktails Cleveland.
The Sisters are all-inclusive; women are welcome, and female inductees are known as Guards. In Cleveland, the chapter even includes a straight couple: The wife is a Guard, and the husband is a Sister.
While the Sisters’ main concern is AIDS awareness and prevention, they also organize and sponsor events throughout the year that benefit a range of marginalized populations in Cleveland, from the gay to homeless to trans communities.
“Any place where we are needed,” Sister JFB says.