DENVER — When Ms. Jessica glues on her eyelashes, straps up a pair of heels and carefully places her wig, her goal is to make a difference in someone’s life that day.
Jessica, a drag queen in Denver, knows if she grew up around other drag queens or simply LGBTQ+ people living authentically, she could have embraced herself much sooner.
Now an adult who performs at kid-friendly and adult events, Jessica hopes to be the person she wished she had as a child.
“If I had more accepting parents that put me in spaces or environments where queer individuals were more prominent, I probably could have saved a lot of time discovering who I was meant to be to begin with,” Jessica said. “It would have saved me probably 10 to 15 years of trauma and self-hatred if I had role models or even knew about drag.”
A drag performer in Denver, Jessica said she feels lucky to be in a state with progressive laws about drag and LGBTQ+ people, but has still faced vitriol during her performances, especially when working around kids.
Most notably, after attending a literacy event at Rocky Top Middle School in Thornton, Jessica was met with backlash from parents who felt her presence was inappropriate for children. The school later changed the way it notified parents of guest speakers.
Still, Jessica’s kid-friendly events center around anti-bullying, embracing yourself and accepting those who are different from you, which she feels are not only appropriate but essential lessons for children.
“When kids see drag entertainers or any kind of artist, they’re being opened to a discovery of possibility, and if they’re meant to find that as a job, a hobby or an identity, they’re going to find it regardless,” Jessica said. “We’re just the role models that are helping influence something that’s going to happen anyway.”
Republican lawmakers in Texas, Florida and Arizona have proposed legislation to ban children from drag shows, with some lawmakers threatening to involve law enforcement when children are found in the presence of drag performers.
Drag queens around the country have also been met with protestors. In a recent incident in San Francisco, members of the Proud Boys, a right-wing extremism group, disrupted a drag queen reading event.
Though Colorado is often pointed to as a progressive, accepting state, Jessica said she frequently deals with protestors at her events, though she described them as “not as extreme as you might see in other states.” During Pride month, the Denver Botanic Gardens abruptly canceled a drag queen story time event. Advocates say it was due to hateful comments and emails the gardens received; the Denver Botanic Gardens did not respond to request for comment from Colorado Newsline.
[Related: Colorado drag queen events face online hate and protests, leading to cancellations]
While drag performers were always careful about making sure family-friendly events included appropriate language and outfits, Jessica said performers are now on extremely high alert to avoid any harassment from those who do not agree with their expression.
“Not that we weren’t cognizant of it before, but I feel like we're being watched with a microscope for every tiny little thing for people to use as a reason to support what's happening,” Jessica said.
After Jessica’s Sunday show at Hamburger Mary’s, several fans said hatred toward drag performers is a distraction meant to divide people.
“There are so many other things that people are being taken advantage of, so they’re finding a way of dividing us and saying ‘the fight is over here,’” said Taylor Dobson, a Denver resident. “That's all it is.”
Meghan Nutting, another fan, said drag and other means of expression are just that: a way for people who don’t fit traditional molds to express themselves without fear.
“You can be whoever you want, you can dresses up or not, wear a wig or not, be straight or gay or in between,” Nutting said. “People are afraid of people who aren’t exactly like them, which is too bad, because people who aren’t exactly like you are interesting.”
Samora Kash, another drag queen at Sunday’s show, said families that have come to her kid-friendly events have been nothing but supportive, which she sees as a luxury when so many performers are being harassed.
“I love that energy and I love being around children, so it’s sad that this is the dynamic that we’re living through,” Kash said of the negativity surrounding drag performers. “It’s ultimately about promoting love, peace and joy and giving that back out, because I know there's so much negativity out there in the world.”
Ultimately, Kash feels the negativity comes from a place of misunderstanding.
“I think people have a misconstrued notion of what it is or they’ve never been to a drag show, they only know what they see or what they hear,” Kash said. “I find that disheartening, because if people just came out and understood how hard we work and what an art form this is and all the things we put into what we do, I think it would make total sense to everyone else.”
Alison Berg is a multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.