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Small town drag performers return to the stage with big aspirations

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DURANGO, Colo. — Aria PettyOne knows they wouldn’t stand out in their hometown of Baltimore, Maryland.

But in Durango, Colorado, with their face painted bright green and a bevy of wigs to rotate through, this small town drag queen knows they can make a big difference.

“Durango is a growing ‘queermunity.’ There are so many queer people in this town and I think a lot of the times they feel like they do have to hide, or they have to only do things with their friends or small groups,” said PettyOne, whose real name is Jake Riggs. “I want people to know that you can be loud and be proud and be queer. You can be queer as hell in this small town. And you can find a community.”

PettyOne and their partner ElectriX Cute (real name Ryan Garcia), agreed to speak with me and my fellow Fort Lewis College student, Peyton Rutkowski, for a short film for Rocky Mountain PBS about Durango’s small town drag culture.

PettyOne and Cute were excited to share their art and stories with the hopes of growing Durango’s queermunity.

“Drag is so much more than just entertainment,” Cute explained. “Drag performers have always been at the forefront of change.”

“I mean, if you go outside looking like this,” PettyOne said, referencing the green makeup and flowing blonde wig, “you better not be afraid to stand up and speak your mind every now and then.”

PettyOne and Cute met us at Durango’s Starlight Tavern to share their stories about gender, sexuality and identity while living in a small town.

Starlight Tavern is a good example of the type of allyship PettyOne cherishes in Durango. PettyOne makes it clear that Starlight Tavern is not a gay bar. But by hosting and promoting drag shows, "it tells [members of the LGBTQ+ community], 'I can come here with my partner and hold hands, and it's okay, and no one's going to mess with me,'" PettyOne explained.

“I kind of approach the queermunity, along with the drag community, as being like a garden,” Cute explained. “And we just need to grow it. We just need to plant these seeds, and slowly people start to feel more comfortable.”

PettyOne and Cute are happy to be back to in-person performances after months of pandemic restrictions.

“I was tired of being inside, I know a lot of people were, and I know there is a way we can do shows and still be safe and be cautious with what we are doing,” PettyOne said.

Both PettyOne and Cute agree the entertainment aspect of drag performances are important, but that they also see themselves as a sort of beacon to other LGBTQ+ members of Durango, a sign that they belong.

“I do see a benefit to us being a smaller community, I think it makes us a lot tighter, I think it makes us trust one another a lot more,” PettyOne said.

The drag queens have donated their tips to other institutions that support the LGBTQ+ community including the Four Corners Rainbow Youth Center and the National Suicide Prevention Line.

“I always knew I was meant for something great. I went through a lot growing up, and I feel like you don’t go through a lot of bad things, to not have something amazing waiting for you on the other side. And this has definitely been that amazing thing waiting on the other side,” PettyOne said.

PettyOne took on their extraterrestrial persona in September of 2019 when people were jokingly—then seriously—planning on raiding Area 51. It was around that time that PettyOne heard the David Bowie song “Life on Mars?” and decided it would be perfect for a drag performance. And so they decided to do it themselves, right here in Durango.

“People in this area aren’t really used to seeing drag people: kings, queens, things, and in-betweens,” added Cute. “And whenever they do, they love it. Durango has been such a welcoming and accepting community.”

“We need more of that,” PettyOne said. “You shouldn’t have to go away to a big city to live your life as a queer person. You should be able to stay where you are, or find a small, beautiful little mountain town that gives you everything that you want in life.”

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