From sideshow to art form: Drag performances have a colorful, long history in Cincinnati

For city's queens, shows once could bring trouble
Posted at 7:56 AM, Jul 20, 2017
and last updated 2017-07-20 07:56:31-04

CINCINNATI -- It’s 11:30 on a Saturday night and The Cabaret’s dark, intimate space is packed with people. Three or four herds of bachelorettes and their companions are already dancing in their seats to the booming music. Most people are equipped with a drink and a stack of dollar bills.

Brooklyn Steele-Tate emerges from a curtain – aquamarine hair piled high on her head, lashes fluttering, curves hugged tight in a little black dress. The crowd screams for her and thrusts money high in the air. As she takes a step forward, her gait is a little off – she’s wearing a medical boot.

“My foot’s broken. I really shouldn’t be walking on this,” said Steele-Tate. “But I’m here. I’m here for you!”

The crowd screams, and the show begins.

More than 100 years ago, Cincinnatians were just as excited to witness the magic of a drag show. Despite the city’s buttoned-up Midwestern reputation, locals packed The Orpheum for famed female illusionist Julian Eltinge.

An article from 1910 in The Cincinnati Post described Eltinge’s success triumphantly: “Julian Eltinge, female impersonator, completely overshadows everything else on the program in both art and originality.”

Through acts like Eltinge, Cincinnati accepted drag in limited terms. Although Eltinge was considered one of the most popular shows in town, his manager made sure to broadcast his athleticism and masculinity. Another Cincinnati Post article from the same year depicts Eltinge landing a punch in a public boxing match against retired world champion Jim Corbett.

“Well, if anybody thinks Julian Eltinge, just because he is a female impersonator, is not there with muscle, he is muchly mistaken,” the article declared.

Cincinnati maintained an uneasy relationship with drag long after the era of Eltinge. Before 1974, Cincinnati law decreed, “No person within the city of Cincinnati shall appear in a dress or costume not customarily worn by his or her sex, or in a disguise when such dress, apparel, or disguise is worn with the intent of committing any indecent or immoral act or of violating any ordinance of the city of Cincinnati or law of the state of Ohio.”

However, in Cincinnati v. Adams, the court determined that the law was too vague to be constitutional. The ruling said that the terms “indecent” and “immoral” represented “an unascertainable standard,” stating: “It goes so far as to bring under suspect the woman who wears one of her husband's old shirts to paint lawn furniture, the trick or treater, the guests at a masquerade party, or the entertainer.”

Jonathan Byard, a.k.a Pissonya Peeples, remembers a time when it was illegal to be a man dressed as a woman. Byard is retired from drag now but performed for 25 years in Cincinnati and New York. As Pissonya, Byard performed at clubs all over the city including The Dock, Metro and Shooters.

“We paved the way for what’s going on now,” said Byard. “Because back in those days, if I was stopped by a police car, you had to have at least three articles of men’s clothing.”

Despite the stigma against drag queens, Byard said Cincinnati’s drag scene was patronized by some of its most famous citizens.

“My very first dollar I ever made in Cincinnati was Irma Lazarus at The Metro,” said Byard.

In the days of Eltinge, the idea was to trick an audience into thinking he really was a woman. Byard said that sentiment faded; when he performed, drag was less about female illusion and more about the way the queens made people feel.

“It was more about the entertainment value rather than looking like a glam woman,” said Byard, who liked to impersonate infamous Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott. “We made people laugh and forget problems for five minutes.”

One of the queens who was famous for making Cincinnati laugh was the city’s godmother of drag, Peaches LaVerne. With her snow-white bouffant and custom-made clothes, Peaches LaVerne lit up the stage with her bawdy song parodies like “Red Hot Nuts.”

“Peaches was the city’s queen,” said Truly Friendship, a local drag queen. “She was around the longest.”

Truly Friendship described himself as “probably the oldest drag queen in the city” and performed at The Subway, where LaVerne hosted a drag show for decades.

Friendship wasn’t sure when LaVerne started drag but said she won Miss Varga 1945, a pageant in Kentucky. LaVerne had been around so long that she started drag shows before there were gay bars, often meeting in the lobbies of local hotels.

“She was the last of her breed of drag queen because she sang live and had an act,” said Friendship. “It wasn’t stealing someone else’s persona, it was you.”

The year Peaches LaVerne died, she was given a lifetime achievement award from the Imperial Sovereign Queen City Court of the Buckeye Empire (The Court).

The Court is composed of local drag performers who work to raise money through drag shows for local charities and causes. Since 1992, it has raised $1.2 million for charities in the Tri-State.

“The Court of Cincinnati exists because no one was doing anything to help people dying of AIDS in Cincinnati in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s,” said Friendship. “Caracole was founded through seed money of the Court.”

Brooklyn Steele-Tate, the aquamarine-coiffed queen from The Cabaret, is a member of the Court. Steele-Tate uses his desire to entertain not only to emcee at the Cabaret but to enact change in the city. 

“People think all drag queens are catty and mean,” said Steele-Tate. “They want to help people and do things for their community.”

Steele-Tate said there are other misconceptions about drag queens and their gender identity. In drag, gender is tested, deconstructed, mocked and imitated. However, echoing Eltinge’s overtures to his own masculinity, most queens don’t actually identify as female.

“Most drag queens don’t want to be women,” said Steele-Tate. “Transgenders are different than drag queens. My goal is to entertain.”

Cincinnati has gradually become a space where drag queens can perform safely as themselves and not as a sideshow curiosity.

“Back in the day, people (queens) were looked at as freaks, as weirdoes,” said Steele-Tate. “We’re just guys that do this. I’m not trying to be you. I’m trying to be me, and we can live together cohesively.”

Quasi Powell, a drag queen who performs under his given name, said some people don’t understand that drag is as much of an art form as other kinds of performance.

“Sometimes I think they still see us as circus clowns rather than appreciating the art form,” said Powell. “If you go to the Aronoff, you go for the show. People that go to a drag show, go for the circus.”

Powell believes Cincinnati could embrace drag for something other than the sideshow it was in the era of Eltinge.

“I hope people come out and support the art that it is,” said Powell.