Lessons from a Drag Queen

There are two things I believe without question: 1) everyday there is something you can be thankful for; you just have to pay attention; and 2) sometimes the best teachers are also the most unlikely.

Two seasons ago, my favourite NHL hockey team was simply awful. They couldn’t even spell “net” let alone find it, and “win” was something that appeared only in a dictionary, or a dream. It was the last game of the season. The team was just flat out awful and a friend of mine called just after the start of the third period to tell me she was going out with a couple of friends and would I like to join them? Well, the game was dreadful, it was early in the evening so, why not? Sure, I told her. I’d love to go. Did it make a difference to me that they were going to a drag show? Not if they didn’t mind me being decked out in hockey gear. So it was settled. I met my friend and her date in the lobby and so it was that I found myself standing in the back of a packed room at Hamburger Mary’s, wedged between two lesbians on my right, a group of four or five gay men on my left and an animated (and probably inebriated) bachelorette party in front of me.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that more than once I wondered what in the world I had gotten myself into? This was not a world I had been invited to visit before. I didn’t speak the jive, I didn’t know my way around, and I was sure there was sign reading “Straight, drag show virgin” in bright orange neon flashing over my head. But you know something? The evening wasn’t about me, it was about something else and when I stopped obsessing about how awkward I felt (which was 100% on me), I found that I could and did learn a few things from the performers that night.

Whatever you do, go all in. Don’t be half-assed about it.

Each performer had her own fabulous wardrobe (and I was jealous of a lot of it) but what struck me was they wore each dress, each cat suit, every pair of heels like they were born to wear them. Plunging necklines, hip-high slits, body-hugging materials, jewelry, boas, the whole nine yards. They had made a commitment to their art, to their craft and it showed. Whatever else was true of these performers, they went all in all the time. If a performance “missed” somehow, it wasn’t because the queen didn’t give herself every possible chance to nail it.

Where is it that I don’t show up? In what facets of my career or my calling do I shave a little corner here or there? Why do I do it? It’s too easy to blame it on fear. I think it’s an effort to remain small, to keep hidden. To buy into the lie that I am not enough.  I set my sights a little lower than I want to, than I’m capable of. I talk myself out of going big. The queens taught me that if you’re going to do something, make a commitment to do it as well as you can.

Which leads me to lesson #2:

Don’t be afraid to let your inner diva shine.

I don’t know how long each of the five performers had been honing her craft, but you could tell the ones who had been at it the longest. They owned the stage as soon as they stepped onto it. The audience HAD to watch them, their stage presence demanded it. It was compelling and beautiful and terrifying all at the same time.

I sing. I love to sing. Most days I’d rather sing than eat. But I am not a diva. Being a diva requires a certain attitude, a certain sass that I don’t have.

Or do I? My Dad used to tell me, “It’s not bragging if you can do it.” If you’re good at something, I mean genuinely good at something, there is nothing wrong with letting it show and letting the whole world know it. I need to own whatever stage I find myself on. It’s okay. The experience is not going to destroy me. You never know, it may actually be something compelling and beautiful and terrifying all at the same time.

Everyone has the right to feel beautiful. It may not be comfortable but don’t think for one minute that you don’t deserve it.

The MC for the evening was a tall, striking redhead. The fact that she looked better in high heels and a short skirt than I do? I wanted to hate her for that, but she was so darned personable. At one point in the evening, she had changed into a gorgeous brown sequined cocktail dress that played up her auburn curls magnificently. Before introducing the next act, she made a confession. Normally she wore a size 16 but she could find the dress only in a size 14. “The hell with it. I look good in it, so I bought it. I can’t move. I can’t breathe but damn I look good!”

Now, I am never going to go quite that far for the sake of a brown sequined cocktail dress, no matter how good I look in it. But I get the point. Feeling beautiful can sometimes feel a little uncomfortable if you’re not used to it, and particularly at first. It isn’t something that comes naturally to me but I have at least allowed myself to acknowledge that sometimes I am beautiful and it is always something I have a right to feel, even when I don’t (or somehow can’t) feel it.

And it really doesn’t stop at how I look. I have the right to own my giftedness and wear it well. It feels very odd to me to have friends, whose own giftedness and skill I admire greatly, tell me how much they enjoy the words I write, the photographs I’ve taken. It is uncomfortable, it feels too tight, like I can’t breathe, but it’s because I don’t own my giftedness. And for those friends who believe in me when I can’t believe in myself, thank you for continuing to tell me how beautiful I am. I think I am beginning to believe it.

Well, that beautiful, 6 foot plus, gorgeous redhead was feeling so good about that brown sequined cocktail dress that she proceeded to strut her stuff around the stage, to the enthusiastic appreciation of the audience. Even the awkward, straight woman decked out in hockey gear. And that led me to lesson number 4.

It is okay to strut: There’s nothing wrong with a little swagger.

Now I make a difference between letting your inner diva shine and strutting a little bit. Being a diva is all about being good at what you do, knowing it and showing it. Strutting is all about how you feel, regardless of what you’re doing. I don’t strut enough. I keep my swagger under control, like I do most other things in my life. Would it really hurt for me to let my guard down once in a while and let the whole world know that today is the day that the world belongs to me? Even if only for a little while? I don’t think so. Maybe by giving myself permission to strut, I may give someone else the freedom to strut a little themselves. Swagger appears to be a little contagious.

I’ll be honest, I don’t understand the appeal of drag shows; they aren’t a normal part of my world. But there is something about them that I do understand very well. The performers that night had a wonderful rapport with the ones who go down to Hamburger Mary’s every week to see these undeniably talented performers do what they do. There was a lot of love flowing back and forth, and an electricity that I’ve not been privileged to witness very often. It was there in abundance that night.

And probably the most profoundly insightful lesson I learned from a drag queen was this:

Not everyone will get it. That’s okay – speak to the ones who do and be patient with the ones who don’t.

The queens weren’t on that stage for me. They were on stage for my friend and her date and the woman who was running sound and guys tending the bar, and the bachelorette party in the back corner and any one of the several dozen people who got it. And for the rest of us? They welcomed us, included us, and let us figure out for ourselves where we were on the spectrum. And that was perfectly okay. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll count myself among the many who get it.

Not everyone understands why I do what I do. They don’t understand what drives me to create, what pulls me back to my guitar or my computer or my camera. They don’t get the hunger that compels me to try to bring beauty and thoughtfulness, and even a sense of wonder to my world. And that’s okay. I just want them to pull up a chair and sit a while. And by the way, if you are one of the ones that don’t get it, just know that I’m glad you’re here.  Who knows?  Maybe one day you’ll count yourself among those who do.


What about you? Who have been your most surprising teachers and what did you learn from them?



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