This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.
Cumberland lists “once the second largest city in Maryland” in its highlight reel. It’s on its Wikipedia page and is mentioned by nearly everyone I meet here. When Baltimore was the king city, Cumberland was her queen. This immediately endears the town to me. I was raised in southern West Virginia and lived for several years in the coalfields of eastern Kentucky. I feel most at home in towns that have seen better days, and there may be no more universal Appalachian truth than nostalgia for the bygone booms of our now-struggling communities.
The remnants of a more prosperous past linger in Cumberland’s downtown architecture, full of regal brick buildings—undulated stained-glass windows in some, ornamental carvings on others. More than a few storefronts hold bizarre combinations of things. In one, a taxidermized rendition of a cobra fighting a mongoose—apparently, in this case, played by a weasel. A few doors down, another storefront displays a postwar TV and radio, along with fake houseplants, with a sign on the TV that reads: mullaney farm family museum. by appointment only. Multicolored party lights spin dizzily above the collection. This kind of quirkiness also feels familiar, where “museums’’ are often an eccentric collection of marbles or old canning jars. I easily develop a crush on Cumberland’s contradictions. Even her grit reminds me fondly of home.
I’ve been invited to town by Mike Snyder, a photographer raised just up the road in Frostburg, Maryland, who’s been working to document Cumberland’s drag queens for nearly a decade. In 2011, while home visiting their parents, Mike and his sister went to a drag show at Cumberland’s Embassy Theatre and were blown away by the thriving drag community in town—the energy and charisma of the queens, the robust and adoring audience, none of which he’d imagined were possible in the conservative and largely rural county where he was raised.
Since 2013 I’ve been gathering oral-history interviews with rural and small town LGBTQ+ folks across the continental United States for a project called Country Queers. I grew up on a sheep farm in southern West Virginia in the 1990s, and I’d never met an out queer person before I left for college in Massachusetts in the early 2000s, where I quickly discovered my own queerness and bought into the long-standing narrative that queer people don’t—maybe even can’t—live in places like where I had come from. Not if we have a choice. Not if we want to survive.
After a decade away—first at college, then dancing in gay country bars in Austin, Texas, trying to piece these seemingly opposing parts of my life together while always aching with homesickness—I finally moved back to West Virginia. I started to see queer people around town, started to hear stories about unrelated women and men who had lived and farmed together in the county where I was raised. And I grew frustrated that we’d been so thoroughly eradicated from local and national histories that the only easily accessible stories of rural queerness centered around violence and death—like the murders of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, and Brandon Teena in Falls City, Nebraska.
So I set out with no money, no experience, no clear plan, and an overly ambitious goal of documenting our stories. I needed to affirm for myself and for other rural queers that we do exist in places like my home, that we always have. I needed proof that violence and harassment are not the only experiences of rural gay people. I needed to learn how others were making it work.
I’ve interviewed more than ninety country queers in twenty-one states in the past decade, and I now know without a doubt that we are everywhere. I no longer question our presence in these places, but I still worry about young queer and trans people here, and I still feel an absence of queer and trans community in my own rural Appalachian life. I try to keep a low profile locally around my radical queer podcast and internet presence. I’m not closeted, exactly, but I don’t talk about Country Queers around town much—memories of rampant homophobia and transphobia at almost every local job I’ve ever had still haunt me, keeping me hesitant and private at times.
So I was intrigued by Mike’s photographs of Cumberland’s drag queens performing in front of silos, and his descriptions of what seems to be a thriving drag scene in a small northern Appalachian Rust Belt city. But I was not at all surprised that this community exists in this place. If anything, I continue to be frustrated that so many people both within and beyond a national queer “community” continue to find it strange that we are here. I was bratty in my West Virginian skepticism about whether Maryland actually is Appalachia, and slightly wary about working with a straight man on a story about queer people.
But I was excited too. I spent the entirety of the pandemic living alone, way out in the mountains, with a chronic illness and immunosuppressant medications that meant, in an era defined by isolation, I was more isolated than many. I also couldn’t remember the last time I went to a drag show. And I was concerned that despite all the work queer and trans community–based historians have done to document our presence, recent sweeping legislative attempts at banning drag and trans people from public life seem aimed at erasing us from the future too. While New York and San Francisco were the centers of the gay liberation movement of the 1980s and 1990s, today, the new frontline in the battle for queer and trans rights is in rural areas, small towns, and cities across the South and Midwest.
Nestled in the flat stretches of a wide river valley, Cumberland sits at multiple crossroads. The North Fork of the Potomac River and Wills Creek converge downtown and then flow southeast along the C&O Canal all the way to Washington, DC. This confluence was once home to a Shawnee town called Caiuctucuc that, by 1751, according to accounts by European settlers, had been “deserted” by its Indigenous founders—a story that, absent any mention of colonial violence, seems strikingly suspect.
In the mid-1800s, Cumberland’s Emmanuel Parish of the Episcopal Church was a stop on the Underground Railroad. For many people who’d escaped slavery, it was the last stop before crossing the Mason–Dixon Line, which sits just four miles to the north. When steam trains replaced mule-drawn barges in the early 1900s, Cumberland became a railroad hub; wide, highway-like expanses of tracks still carry freight through the southern part of town. Cumberland seems to exist between the North and the South, between Appalachia and the flatlands rolling out toward the Chesapeake Bay, between city and town, between thriving and simply surviving.
On June 1, 2022, Mike and I meet in the parking lot of a discount home-goods store in downtown Cumberland. We walk around for a bit, chatting and planning our schedule for the week, which we’ll spend following the queens during Cumberland’s fifth annual Pride celebrations.
Just before 7 p.m. we walk over to the Embassy Theatre, which sits on Baltimore Street, a cobblestone road that’s been transformed into a pedestrian mall. The Embassy has been home to countless drag shows over the years. This evening, large black-and-white photos decorated with neon paint have been propped up against the building, depicting queer icons who’ve gone on to join the ancestors. Marsha P. Johnson is among them. Frida Kahlo too. Matthew Shepard and Brandon Teena. Claude Cahun. Jean-Michel Basquiat. As a small crowd slowly gathers outside the theatre, candles are lit and passed around. This is the kickoff event to the week of Pride festivities, a “Speak Their Names” vigil. Finally, as dusk settles in, organizers Heidi Gardner and Kijana West begin to read aloud the names of trans people who’ve been murdered in the past year, most of whom were young, Black, and femme.
Later, at the Corner Tavern & Cafe, I meet a few of the queens: Aradia LaFay, tall and striking; Christian Diane, one of the original Queen City Queens who’s been performing since the eighties, though tonight she’s not in drag. I meet Mary Jane LaFay, Aradia’s drag sister, whose look and persona are fabulously sassy and glittering. I also meet Jacqie Mackenzie, a photographer who moved home to Cumberland in 2017 with her kids and found herself accidentally organizing its first Pride festivities after a simple post on Facebook: “When’s Cumberland Pride?” To which someone replied: “Now you have to start it.”
Everyone I meet at the bar is welcoming in a way that’s often missing in city queer scenes. They tell stories about the town’s better days (how it was bustling in the twenties; how it thrived in the sixties and seventies), and about its quirkier charms (the old amusement park; the caged bear in town; a tame pet deer in the park). I listen to all of it, relishing the details. Over the next eight days, at half a dozen performances and events, I record over forty-five hours of audio, from intimate oral histories to raunchy shit-talking backstage. No account of a small town’s queer scene is complete without the sacredness of our gossip, in my mind, and I feel like a VIP getting immediate access to it, although the last thing I’m here to do is air anyone’s dirty laundry. Over the next several months, the queens and I stay in touch, and Mike and I travel back and forth to Cumberland. With each visit I soak up decades of local queer history through stories the queens share about how they’ve been boldly and publicly claiming space while protecting and caring for one another in the way that queer and trans people always have. I hear stories about how they’ve created the gathering spaces they needed—that innovation born of absence which is so common among rural and small-town queers. And I am reminded that there are no sweeter humans on the planet than a group of country queers who have welcomed you into their fold.
Before the Embassy Theatre became Cumberland’s home for drag, there was Cooper’s, a bar on Cecelia Street. By all accounts, there would be no Queens of Queen City without the legendarily rowdy bartender Rhonda Joe, who organized and performed in drag shows at Cooper’s in the mid-1990s. Born Ron Fleming in Clarksburg, West Virginia, in 1954, he spent much of his life in Cumberland before succumbing to cancer in 2010. Cooper’s shut down in 1998, but the bar and Rhonda Joe still feature prominently in stories of the town’s queer history.
One of the queens who Rhonda Joe recruited to perform at Cooper’s in the nineties was Mona Lott. Mona is the creation of Eric Detrick, who is fifty, with clean-cut silver hair and a warm smile, his arms brightly tattooed with elephants, sunflowers, and regally crowned honeybees. Eric grew up Mennonite in Springs, Pennsylvania. When we first met, he told me the story of how he came out to his mother. “How can you be gay if you were raised Mennonite?” she asked. “The only thing that’s Mennonite about me now is I like three men a night!” he replied.
Mona Lott possesses the same biting humor as Eric, but she’s flirtier and raunchier than he is. For some of the queens, the distance between their personalities in their day-to-day lives and their drag personas seems ever so slight, sometimes nonexistent. But Eric sees Mona as an entirely different person.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself to be successful as me,” Eric tells me. “And Mona…she’s my fun side. I can let loose. I can be somebody else and just be completely crazy, and people seem to love her. Those five minutes of ‘fame’—it makes me feel like I’m somebody. I don’t have that kind of confidence. Mona has all the confidence in the world.”
We’re seated on opposite hotel beds in the room he’s staying in for Pride week, the recorder resting on the bedside table as he talks about Rhonda Joe’s impact on the scene, and on his life in particular. “When I came out she was kind of my big gay mother and father all in one. She was the best—but her makeup wasn’t always the best.” He laughs and looks past me, as if he can see her standing by the window. “She was the first person that taught me how to paint—but how she painted, her version. She took clown white—like, theatrical clown white—and she did a whole base of that. And then she put Maybelline pan stick makeup over top of that, and then powder. But no matter how much powder you put on, you’re still kind of strikingly white.”
Like Mona, Christian Diane is also one of the original Queen City Queens. Now sixty-four, Christian grew up in McKee, Pennsylvania, and had been performing drag for several years in Florida in the 1980s before moving back home to take care of her aging parents. Christian soon became part of the Cumberland troupe after performing in a show Rhonda Joe organized at Cooper’s in the mid-1990s. It wasn’t long before she, Mona Lott, Rhonda Joe, and Ursula Kitt became the orginial Queens of Queen City.
Mary Jane’s pretty much Mary Jane, just no wig and makeup. I dressed as a woman 24-7 before I started drag. I wore a wig and eyelashes and all to sixth grade. So, drag kinda made me question more, because there for a while I was pretty sure I was trans, and I couldn’t leave the house without makeup. Then I started drag and I was like, You know what, I’m pretty comfortable with who I am. I’m just going with it for now. I’m still figuring it out. And when I know, I’ll let everyone else know.
— Mary Jane LaFay
At Sunshine Daze, a gift shop where she works, Christian tells me stories about how the queens have been taking care of their community for decades. In addition to performing around the area, the queens stepped in where the health care and political systems failed them during the HIV/AIDS crisis—fundraising for their community members in need and providing HIV/AIDS testing in small towns. “At one point we got funding and was doing testing up in Johnstown. Little town. And what we did was, when you came back for your results, you got a gift card for the one grocery store. What was shocking was how many who never had testing before, and it came back positive. They were shocked at how many people, and I said, ‘Well, when you’re in a small town, everybody’s…with each other.’ ” She tells me that she and the queens helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars over the decades for groups that supported people living with HIV/AIDS, and to pay the funeral costs of community members who died of AIDS but whose families of origin wouldn’t pay for their burials.
What Rhonda Joe was to Cooper’s, Mark Baker was to the Embassy Theatre. Mark was born in Cumberland in 1946 and left at a young age for New York City to pursue a career in theater. After decades away, he moved back home and reopened the Embassy, which had been closed for years. Mark was a friend and former roommate of Baltimore’s most brazen drag queen, Divine, perhaps best known for her outlandish appearances in multiple John Waters’s films. “Mark absolutely loved drag,” Mona Lott tells me. “He made the Embassy a safe place for gay people to come out, especially once we no longer had gay bars.”
After soaking up these stories about Mark and Rhonda Joe, after learning about their legacies, I try to imagine what it might have been like to come up in a town big enough to hold a gay-owned theater that hosted regular drag shows in the early 2000s, or a bar like Cooper’s where a drag queen in clown-white slung drinks every night. I try to imagine growing up knowing queer adults in and from the same county as me. Even after a decade of Country Queers interviews, I still feel starved for stories from our queer elders. Every time I interview one, I break down in tears while driving away. At the center of this feeling is a deep grief at how little we will ever know about the rural queers who came before us because of how thoroughly they’ve been written out of history. One of the most pernicious outcomes of homophobic narratives has been to rob us of our queer elders. And this grief only deepens each time new legislation aimed at keeping queer and trans youth away from queer and trans adults is introduced in one state or another—bills aimed at unraveling the intergenerational connections we’ve worked so hard to claim.
While Cumberland may seem like a small town to people whose references are New York, Dallas, or even Nashville, to those of us raised in rural Appalachia, Cumberland feels more like a small city. And our regional cities are the places rural queers have flocked to for decades. The difference between growing up in a small city and growing up on a sheep farm an hour’s drive from a small town, like I did, is profound, and after hearing these stories, the Embassy now feels like a sacred place to me, a pin on my internal map of the spaces that have held us in these mountains, of the spaces where we have kept one another safe, danced together, loved one another for decades. No matter how they have tried to wipe us out.
I like to teeter on that kind of gender spectrum, especially when it comes to drag. My big thing is, like, what is gender? What’s “normal”? I think drag really depends on what you want out of it, and what your expression is. Jeffrey would never do half the things that French does. It goes back to deconstructing what gender is. I pull a lot of my influences from what I feel like are the roots of drag: the grungy, the gender-fluid, the trans side of everything. Deconstructing everything we know about gender in general.
— French Silk
It’s Friday, June 3, 2022, and what is likely Allegany County’s first-ever ballroom event is about to start inside the Stephanie Ann Roper Gallery at Frostburg State University, just up the mountain from Cumberland. The ball is hosted by Kijana West, a New York City–raised African American queer woman in her late forties whose family goes back generations in western Maryland. She spent summers here with her great-grandmother, remembers her uncle playing the banjo, bountiful gardens, the joy of running around outside with her cousins. Back in New York in the early nineties, a new mother at sixteen, Kijana began claiming her queerness and got involved with the vibrant ballroom scene birthed by Black and Latinx queer and trans youth, many of whom were homeless after being kicked out by their families of origin. Out of survival and love, they reinvented family by way of ballroom houses.
Tonight, Kijana is bringing the rich legacy of ballroom to this small mountain town. All of Cumberland’s younger queens are here. The audience sits on low benches and beanbags along the gallery’s walls, while multicolored lights spin overhead and loud gay anthems blast through the speakers. Outside the gallery, in the hallway beneath fluorescent lights, the queens chat with nervous energy. French Silk is the crew’s only bearded queen, her facial hair framing an elaborately painted face. Over by the entrance to the building, Envy Divine chats with friends. Her cheeks are painted with big white half-moons and exaggerated eyelashes. She’s dressed like a doll. When I snap a picture, she holds her hands as if her fingers are melded together, made of plastic. Violet LaFay and Andy Darling are here, and so is Maxine Young, who until tonight has been the group’s only Black drag queen. In daily life, Maxine’s face has a sweet and feminine aspect to it; tonight, in full makeup and wig, she projects a reserved but striking elegance. I run into Claire Raven Bishop, who confesses that she’s never done a drag performance until tonight. Outside of drag, she’s both extremely shy and quite butch, and when I ask how she’s feeling now, just minutes before going on, her answer has the gruffness of a coach being interviewed at halftime.
“I’m nervous, but at the same time I love it, and I told myself, ‘If I don’t do this tonight, there may not be another opportunity.’ My thing is just to keep muscling forward, keep moving forward, just go right through whatever’s happening. I think we’re about to start.”
For Claire’s first number, she emerges in skin-tight black leggings and a black long-sleeved shirt with a white spider printed on the front. She’s swinging a chain above her head, and when she dips—down onto her back, heeled legs angled around her—the crowd goes nuts. The House of LaFay, featuring Aradia, Violet, Mary Jane, and Claire Raven Bishop, bring us hit after hit and we shower them with adoration. The ball stays this way, joyful and rowdy, and at the end of the night Claire takes home a trophy. Her first performance and already she’s a star.
The next afternoon, all the younger queens head over to Lashbaugh’s, a bar just outside of town with a gravel yard and picnic tables clustered around an outdoor stage, for Drag Bingo. By the time I arrive the picnic tables are filling up with customers. Haley Hemorrhoid, wearing a vibrant pink wig and fringe-covered leotard, is on stage as part of sound check. Haley, who has come over from Hagerstown for the weekend, will emcee the drag sets between rounds of bingo, and serve as bingo caller too. The waitresses carry pitchers of beer and platters of fried food. The crowd looks surprisingly country to me and appears to be mostly straight. I scan the tables to see if I can spot anyone who looks uncomfortable in a way that could become aggressive, a sixth sense that’s a queer birthright, at least for those of us raised in conservative places.
Horror is such a big thing in the queer community in general. I feel like it’s—this is gonna sound really morbid—like, queer people are very regularly living in a space where we’re kind of feeling threatened. And horror just allows us to see that and have an example of that where we’re not the target.
— Envy Divine
The bar doesn’t have a room big enough for the queens to change outfits, so they improvise in the parking lot. Between sets, Aradia and Mary Jane hunker behind a car with its doors splayed open so they can peel their dresses off and pull new ones on; sequins and heels and cases of makeup are scattered across the back seat. People pull in off the highway, gawking at the half-naked queens. The glittering chaos of outfit changes, a frantic shedding and adornment that usually unfolds out of sight, is on full display here, and the queens have no choice but to ignore the cars and stares, trying not to break a nail or an ankle as they slip into bedazzled heels and thigh-high boots on the uneven gravel.
The backstage area is a white tent with a foldout banquet table and chairs, where the shade offers a much-needed respite from the relentless sun. Mary Jane walks up and says she wants to organize a hat-and-glove drive this winter for the unhoused folks in the area. “There are so many homeless people in our town,” she tells me. “There are so many homeless gay people in our town. That kid was just murdered. Literally a month ago. The one guy that’s been with me, Tobi, it was his boyfriend. He was shot, and he was a gay kid. That’s why Tobi’s been with us all week at the drag events, trying to keep his mind clear. I couldn’t imagine. I’ve just been trying to make sure he’s been eating. I’m like, ‘You good? You cry! Break down! It’s fine!’ you know?”
I can’t help but think about the conservative argument that drag queens, queer people generally, and especially trans people, are a threat to children and youth. There has been a rabid escalation of attacks on drag shows and trans communities in recent months, in the form of armed protesters showing up to shut down performances and in sweeping anti-trans legislation that proponents insist is aimed at protecting children—a worn-out argument that frames queer and trans people as sexual predators, and which feels indescribably heavy to see returning in such force after a relative lightening over the past two decades. I don’t know what circumstances led to this young gay man’s murder. What I do know is that, on a larger scale, the true crisis at the center of these current culture wars around queer and trans people’s right to exist isn’t that children need protection from queer and trans adults. The truth is that queer and trans youth need protection from a violence that constantly surrounds them in myriad forms. It’s a violence that manifests as legislation banning their ability to access gender-affirming care and penalizing the adults who support them—if they’re lucky enough to know any supportive adults. It manifests as conversion-therapy camps aimed at praying the gay away; as bullying at school and at home; as rejection and alienation; as outright attacks on their bodies. According to the Trevor Project—whose mission is to end suicide among LGBTQ young people—these layers of violence result in queer and trans youth being more than four times as likely as their non-LGBTQ peers to attempt suicide and experiencing higher rates of homelessness and housing insecurity in the United States than their straight and cis peers. These rates only increase for queer and trans youth who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color. Queer and trans youth are navigating daily a violence that is both subtle and brutally direct, both personal and systemic, much of which those who’ve never experienced it themselves will tell you doesn’t even exist.
This isn’t the first time that crime has come up in my interviews with the queens, either. Many of them mention Cumberland’s reputation for being less safe than it used to be because of the opioid epidemic, of which central Appalachia is ground zero. Mona Lott, who moved away from town several years ago, tells me she thinks Cumberland has gotten more dangerous over the past five years. Maxine, who is forty and has lived in Cumberland her whole life, tells me she no longer goes out after dark in the neighborhood where she grew up. “In certain parts of town it’s like little Baltimore, and we don’t feel safe right now. But the thing now is, it’s more of a ‘white druggie’ thing than a ‘black thug’ thing. It’s like, the white person has the gun for the drugs.”
Mary Jane and Ty Walker, who performs as Claire Raven Bishop, are partners. Both are in their thirties, and both grew up in Baltimore before moving to Cumberland together in 2018. They describe challenging childhoods in Baltimore. Mary Jane, who’s white, grew up homeless at times, with parents in and out of prison; she herself was in and out of juvenile detention from the eighth grade on, before ultimately getting her GED. Ty is Black, and describes a childhood full of trauma: an abusive home life, an older brother shot to death, a deep rage at the world after the police murder of Freddie Gray. Ty tells me what he enjoys about living in Cumberland. “I like the fact that when I come outside, I can see mountains, and I can see clouds over the mountains, and the sun peeking over the mountains. It wasn’t like that in the city. All you saw was tall buildings and broken neighborhoods. That’s it. But the thing I hate about Cumberland—I hate the fact that when I go in stores, I’m always getting dirty looks. If I could change the racist looks, I would, but that’s something I can’t change.”
Mary Jane tells me that moving to Cumberland and finding the drag community here changed her life. “I’ll go to every event in drag, I don’t care what it is. Because somebody there is gonna see it and say they want to do it, and it’s gonna save their life, like it did us. Every drag queen is so willing to teach you and talk to you. Go up to a drag queen to be like, ‘I’m struggling with this.’ They’re gonna talk to you! So, I believe it does save lives. That’s why I do it. I seen kid prostitutes in town and I want to change things. We’re trying. We are working hard.”
After the sets, the bingo, the beer, and burgers, members of the audience form a line to take pictures with the queens, who stand patiently in the sun, arm in arm with each other, arm in arm with every fan who steps up for a picture.
The final day of Pride begins with a march. The queens lead the way, carrying a banner that reads: cumberland pride: equality for all. People of all ages follow them down the street chanting. I run up the sidewalk to get to the front of the march and turn to face the approaching crowd, a voice recorder in one hand and my iPhone in the other. A group of teens caped in rainbow and trans flags waves at me, and in that moment I realize that I’m now one of the visibly queer, nonbinary adults I wish I had seen in these mountains when I was their age. I am grateful for this festival. I am grateful that they have access to their queer elders.
Before I went in the army I had messed around with a friend of mine a couple of times at parties, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about everything. But I get to AIT, I throw my rucksack down on my bunk, and the guy beside me goes, “Heeeeeyyyy!” He was a very out gay. So I started to accept more of my homosexual side when I was in the army. Realizing that I really am…whatever I am that’s not straight. I like a lot of things, and the army just kind of forced me to see it. I tried to avoid it, tried to avoid it, tried to avoid it and go in the damn army thinking, “It’s a straight man’s world.” And here we are! There’s a lot of homosexuals. “Oh, you’re a lesbian? You’re a lesbian? I don’t know what you are, but you’re something!” You know, like, there are a lot of us in there.
— Aradia LaFay
Dozens of tents are set up in a wide field with an open-air stage that backs up to the C&O Canal. For several hours under the summer sun, the queens perform to a crowd nearly five thousand strong. Miss Toto, a tall and muscular Chicago-based queen, serves as emcee. She grew up in Cumberland—her grandparents owned Cooper’s bar. “I never thought this would be possible in Cumberland when I was growing up,” she says into the mic. Mona Lott, tears running down her face, says she wishes Rhonda Joe could see this.
I’m not really a Pride gay; I’ve mostly lived too far from a parade or festival to bother going, and my occasionally obnoxious radical politics include a healthy dose of critique for rainbow capitalism. But throughout the day I find myself wiping away tears too. I hadn’t realized how much I needed this celebration of queer joy, of queer existence, this claiming of public space together. This unabashed, unafraid declaration of our humanity and collective fabulosity that no amount of legislation or attacks on our bars or drag shows can stop. Somehow, as the day unfolds, I don’t get too sunburned or dehydrated. I don’t even get glitter in my eyes. Instead, I laugh and smile so much that my cheeks begin to hurt.
The afterparty at a brewery near downtown is like a bawdy family reunion. Mike Snyder sets up a backdrop in a brick alley a few blocks away for portraits with the queens in their Pride finest, and I volunteer to wrangle them over for this last photo shoot of the week. Trying to get drag queens who’ve spent a long day performing in the heat to leave a bar where the drinks are flowing is no easy task. “I’m herding queens,” I tell Mona, who’s waiting patiently to walk over with me. “Good luck with that,” she laughs.
The problem is, I still barely know my way around. I lead Envy Divine, Violet LaFay, and Mona Lott on a wild-goose chase, searching for the right alley but only getting us all lost. My phone is dead after a day of recording videos, so I can’t call Mike. Mona is still in heels. I’m apologizing profusely. In the end, though, we make it, and framed by four-story brick buildings on either side, the queens somehow find the energy to flirt and strut for Mike and his camera. Those who aren’t in the spotlight sit on cement steps nearby, chatting and rubbing their sore feet. I join them on the pavement. We’re all tired but grinning. The sound of our laughter bounces between the buildings.
WE KEEP US SAFE
Over the next several months, I keep in touch with the queens sporadically on Facebook. Meanwhile, conservative panic over drag queens and trans people ramps up intensely. Legislatures across the South and Midwest introduce laws targeting trans youth and adults: Many bills are aimed at banning gender-affirming care—including mental-health services—for minors; others would make it a felony to expose minors to drag queens or trans people—which would effectively criminalize gender nonconformity in public. Late in the evening on November 19, 2022, on the day before Trans Day of Remembrance, Anderson Lee Aldrich opens fire at Club Q—then one of two gay clubs in Colorado Springs—killing five people and injuring at least nineteen. Not two weeks later, on December 3, a power substation in Moore County, North Carolina, is shot up, leaving around forty thousand people without electricity for days in the middle of winter. Locals say it happened during a drag show, after online promotion for the event had captured the attention of conservatives on Facebook, one of whom posted a comment that some read as a coded threat to shut it down. That same Saturday, a Drag Storytime in Columbus, Ohio, is canceled when armed Proud Boys show up to protest. I am on the phone daily with queer and trans friends across the country. None of us is doing so great. There is a collective fear, even among rural queers who tend to be tough as nails, that I can’t remember in my lifetime.
On December 6, Mary Jane shares a Facebook post from another queen featuring a photograph of a small purple gun. The post reads, “Drag entertainers…it’s small, it’s light, and concealable. And goes with most outfits. Get your carry permits! Just remember don’t take them in the bars!” One commenter responds: “But the bars are where they’re needed.” Every queer person I know is feeling shaken and on edge.
Later that month, French Silk organizes a Drag Family Holiday Story show at a bar in Frostburg, Maryland. In the weeks leading up to the event, the show flier is shared around Facebook by conservatives saying the queens are targeting kids with a “family story” event. I make the drive back up to Frostburg, where the storefronts are strung with lights and wreaths are tacked onto the light poles, and meet Mike at the bar.
The whole crew is here except for Envy Divine, who’s sick at home. The Allegany County NAACP provides security for the event, rather than local police. The venue is mostly empty when I arrive, so Mike and I go back to the tiny “green room,” which is once again chaotic with shimmering dresses, glittering heels next to muddy leather boots, wigs, makeup, jewels. Mona Lott and Christian Diane are already dressed and chatting. I ask them if the escalation of right-wing panic scares them.
“No,” Christian says. “I went through it in the eighties in Florida. To me, it’s just like, I’ve been through it. It just feels old and tired, like you’re just rehashing things I’ve heard for years.”
Mona tells a story about Anabaptists protesting a show they did in Pennsylvania years ago. She says she spun her sequined panties around in the air and flung them at the protesters.
Mary Jane, her face covered in glitter, wears a commanding red ball gown. Ty, who performs as Claire Raven Bishop and is Mary Jane’s partner, isn’t performing tonight, and so has come instead in his suit, to take pictures. A few days later in their kitchen, I ask the couple if the increased intensity of these protests have them freaked out.
“I’m not freaked out, I’m mad and hurt!” Mary Jane says. “They’re shooting my people! All the things of them canceling shows and things? We wish they’d try that here.”
“No, we don’t,” Ty says. “Knock on wood. We don’t want them to try here.”
“I’m not canceling shit! We’ll start scheduling gun fights with them.”
“No,” Ty repeats.
“I’m not gonna let them stop drag shows!”
Are they worried about somebody showing up with a gun?
“I try not to think about it,” Ty says.
“Part of you has to worry,” says Mary Jane. “Like, when I started drag, it was still taboo. Just in the last year it became popular, and people are like, safe spaces! Drag was never safe. Going home after drag shows was never safe. We’ve always had to be careful. As a gay person? A gay man in women’s clothes?”
“I mean, the women don’t take it as much as the men do, I’ve noticed that,” Ty says. “It shouldn’t happen in general, but I guess it’s something about a gay man that protesters hate.”
“And trans women also,” I offer.
“Now that shit is fucking atrocious,” Ty says. “I mean, you gonna hurt a trans woman? For what? It’s too much.”
“I felt like we never stopped fighting, you know?” I nod and Mary Jane continues. “And people wanna celebrate all this pride. If it’s gonna be like Stonewall, you still gonna be there? Are you gonna be at Pride when it’s unsafe? Then we’ll see who really cares.”
Back at the holiday show, French calls all the queens up on stage at the end of the night. “This turnout is ridiculous,” she says, and the crowd screams. “Regardless of what they’re saying out there, drag queens just want to be part of a family, because they may not have a family! They may have lost their family! We aren’t trying to do anything. If anything, we hate your kids!” The cheers are deafening.
In the morning, I meet Kijana at Safe Space Cumberland, which she opened in late November. Kijana spent years as a social worker in Manhattan and launched the program here after realizing how badly the queer community in Cumberland needed one. “Moving here humbled me,” she says. “I grew up in New York, and I realized I was spoiled in a lot of ways.”
Safe Space Cumberland is one half of a duplex on the south side of town—there’s a living room, dining room, and kitchen downstairs, three bedrooms turned into offices upstairs, a fenced yard and garage out back. A few queens performed in the backyard for its soft opening, despite threats of protests. Programming has begun online, and Kijana says she hopes to open the doors for in-person events—drag story hours, counseling services, art classes for youth—in summer 2023.
The duplex sits on a sleepy street; only a handful of cars pass in the hour we spend talking. Rainbow Pride and Black Lives Matter flags wave gently in the breeze on the porch. Queer art covers the walls inside, along with framed postcards of Black social and political leaders past and present. I take a picture of a print of hands gripping one another in a greeting that reads: we keep us safe.
I hug Kijana on my way out, climb into my truck to begin the drive back home. I head slowly through town all the way to Route 68, which will carry me to Morgantown, West Virginia, where I’ll pick up 79 South. It’s snowing, and the mountain ridges are frosted over and glittering. Driving up the mountain toward West Virginia, I look out over the town one last time. Maybe Cumberland herself is like an old drag queen: quirky, resilient, tough as hell, quick with stories of joy and indulgence and heartbreak and abuse. An eccentric old queen who doesn’t fit into favorite gowns from her youth anymore, but who still knows how to throw a party. Put on her jewels and wig and laugh, spilling all the tea, wiping away tears for those we’ve lost with long glittering nails. And reflecting on her legacy in her old age. What will she leave behind for the younger queens who follow her? How can she ensure that queer and trans youth never have to survive the kinds of shame, grief, and struggle she has? How can she convince them that, no matter what anyone says, they are deeply perfect, exactly as they are, in this very moment?
It got to the point where we were constantly doing benefits to raise money to bury somebody. My friend Billy Boots, when she died, there was no money to pay for the cremation. She laid at the morgue for like a month till they finally got enough money raised up to have her cremated. And that’s somebody that gave so much back to the community. It was sad how many entertainers had died from AIDS, especially ’cause they were in their twenties and thirties. A friend of mine, his other half died, and they wouldn’t let him in the hospital. The other guy’s family came and threw him out of the house with basically just his clothes, even though they’d bought everything together. We all figured it should have went to him. But you couldn’t do anything legally back then. You just look back and you get sad. But, you know, you live. You just got to keep going on. And that’s why I always joked: I’m a survivor. I’ve survived a lot. And you just gotta find out where you’re happy.
— Christian Diane