“Kings, Queens, & In-Betweens” examines Columbus’ drag culture

At the intersection of the blatantly socio-political, the intensely personal and the supremely theatrical is where you’ll find drag culture.

At the intersection of the blatantly socio-political, the intensely personal and the supremely theatrical is where you’ll find drag culture.

Gender performers in Columbus use terms like “community,” “safe space” and “beacon” to describe how drag culture has been embraced and fostered in Columbus, home to a vibrant scene documented by local filmmaker Gabrielle Burton in “Kings, Queens, & In-Betweens.” Burton’s film examines issues of gender, sexuality, identification and more through the lens of performers in the city’s diverse and creative drag scene.

The film receives its local premiere next week at the Wexner Center for the Arts. Burton and many of the performers featured in the film will be on hand for discussion.

“A friend invited me to a drag show [because] she thought it would make a great documentary,” Burton said. “There was a huge audience, and I wondered, ‘What was it getting at?’ I thought there are a lot of presumptions we make culturally that are incorrect. And then I thought about raising my own children and how, culturally, we think of gender in a totally binary way. You have this performance that opens up this safe space, and it seemed like a great way to engage people in a conversation.”

Of course, drag performance and the issues it can raise are not new, Burton said, but conversations about these issues are being had in many places and in many ways – legislative among them – right now.

“Especially where we are as a nation right now,” said Liz Balk, who performed here as Cool Ethan until her recent move to Connecticut. Balk is among the performers featured in “Kings, Queens, & In-Betweens,” nearly all of whom interviewed for this story mentioned “bathrooms” in one way or another.

“I thought it was going to be just a documentary about the drag scene in Columbus, but it ended up being this really beautiful piece about gender and how far we’ve come and what we’ve had to overcome,” said Virginia West, whose real name is Chris (he asked to have his last name omitted because, while he’s nearing his 20th anniversary as a drag performer, he hasn’t told his parents about it).

Virginia West, Balk and Andrew Levitt (Nina West) each came from a theater background. For each, getting started in drag was a way to be onstage.

“I had zero desire to be a drag queen,” Virginia West said. “But after we did our first show we thought we were the greatest things ever. Eventually, we realized [drag] actually is an art form.”

“I just wanted to perform,” Levitt said. “The world of drag was so different from any other, and the people become your friends, your family.

“It’s also this bizarre, subcultural art form where what you do makes a statement, has a meaning and purpose.”

Drag served much the same dual purpose for Julia Applegate, who helped found one of Columbus’ most notable drag king outfits, H.I.S. Kings.

“There was a group of young lesbians interested in culture and nightlife, but we felt the options open to us were limited,” she said. “We wanted to create different options for ourselves and the community.”

At the same time, she said, “Community, music, sexual orientation and gender are all important to me, and they all came together in drag. Drag was a way for me to be political and to exhort social change.”

“When we started, we didn’t have the dialogue around issues like transgender and female masculinity,” said Sile Singleton, who founded H.I.S. Kings with Applegate. Singleton, who said she identifies as trans-masculine, performed as a drag king who then performed as a drag queen.

“There is a sense of freedom, a sense of representation,” said Becky Harrison, who led the Royal Renegades drag king troupe for more than 10 years as the Reverend Roy Rogers. “Drag offered a chance to be the person you weren’t sure if you could ever be.”

“The [drag] community [in Columbus] is this safe space where we were able to express ourselves, to feel comfortable,” said Stella Law, who performed as Pepe Pocketrocket with the Renegades. “I was able to process a lot of stuff, to realize, ‘I’m not the only one going through this.’ I switched off being gay and switched on being this other persona.”

“It helped me learn about myself and how Liz fits into the gender spectrum,” Balk said.

“Our performers were very diverse [in terms of] race, class, gender identification, sexual orientation,” Applegate said. “We were purposefully very inclusive, and we nurtured that.”

Burton filmed for more than five years, capturing along the way the earliest collaborations between the queen and king scenes.

“It was this perfect storm of all these theatrical people with the exact same intentions,” Harrison said.

“There had been this weird gap,” Balk said. “It was this really big shift when Andrew and Chris and Becky and I started to do things together.”

“The crowds are so mixed now, and so many straight people are coming out to our shows,” Virginia West said.

That Columbus is a place that embraces the drag culture is significant beyond the drag community, Burton said.

“It’s important for Columbusites to realize that there is this groundbreaking culture that has morphed over time,” Balk said. “So much of the straight community is embracing what even 10 years ago would have been freaky and weird.”

“It has to be good for the city,” Singleton said. “To be on board with diversity you can’t just talk about it, you have to be it.”

“I’ve seen that evolution firsthand,” Levitt said. “A lot of people helped make this happen.

“To me, the whole film feels like a love letter to the city.”

Source: http://www.columbusalive.com/