By Daniel Jenkins, Olivia Suarez, Shelby Custer, Omar Longoria, and Briana Denham
Eric Barber polished his routine to a fine sheen, carefully assembled an outfit to wear and spent weeks preparing for this moment. As the house lights dim, the audience’s laughter and cheers drop down to a whisper and Barber takes his position in the spotlight. But he’s not Eric Barber anymore. He is Belle Bottom
Barber performs as a drag queen known as Belle Bottom in shows put on every month by the student-run organization, Queens of Texas, at the University of Texas at Austin. Barber says he loves doing the shows for the audience’s reaction and smiles, but the real reason he dons the wig, make-up and heels is a bit more personal.
“It is an exploration of things I don’t get to do in day-to-day life,” Barber says. “But it’s also more of a reflection of things that do happen in my everyday life as well.”
Barber explains he has always had bad hearing so sometimes he doesn’t know what’s going on around him and, in his drag persona of Belle Bottom, he is able to incorporate that feeling into Belle’s typical “clueless” demeanor.
“Most of the time it will get to the point where I’m just like, ‘I don’t know where I am,’” Barber says with a laugh.
Despite the funny persona he becomes on stage, Barber thinks drag should be taken as a serious art form that people should try to approach like any other creative performance.
“I want people to come with an open mind and actually see our performances and all of the work that we put in,” Barber says. “Because it’s not just about getting in a dress and lip syncing to a song, there’s a lot more to it than that.”
Queens of Texas is trying to do its part by getting more people to attend its monthly drag shows. The organization successfully packed the auditorium last year in April during its “Drag Race” competition, where over a dozen performers competed against each other with routines, choreography and costumes that they individually created.
Austin Culver, the co-founder and event organizer for Queens says he originally started the organization to provide spaces for performers like Barber to hone their craft.
“We want to provide a chance for the queens to show whatever it is that’s in their wheelhouse,” Culver says. “However, in the interim between these shows and the ‘Drag Race’ competition in May, we provide themes to try and get queens to perform things outside of the box.”
Culver also says the club organized with the premise that the performances could allow gateway opportunities for queens to perform without going through the hard-to-break-into realm of the downtown drag community.
“It can be either knowing the right people, or you end up hitting the ground running, and that can leave a bad taste in people’s mouths afterwards,” Culver says. “So we try to give the queens a stress-free introduction to drag.”
The club’s September performance attracted about 20 people, but Culver is optimistic that the future of current, mainstream drag will continue to catch on.
The increasing popularity of drag is recognizable. Rudy Ramirez, a Graduate student studying Queer Theory at the University of Texas at Austin, says recent shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and Drag U have been creating more of an audience for the drag community.
“A lot of younger gay people who didn’t necessarily know about drag balls got into them, embracing the competitive format that RuPaul himself based on both regular reality TV and the competition of drag balls,” says Ramirez.
But, the history of drag goes back much further than RuPaul’s infamous shows. Some think that the orders against cross-dressing in the Old Testament stemmed from priests who practiced polytheistic religions and dressed as women in order to symbolize goddesses.
As time went on, drag continued to be seen in theatrical performances. “In any environment when only men were allowed onstage, a number of them dressed and performed as women,” says Ramirez. “Also in mixed-gender theatre, you have a tradition of women performing as young men or boys.”
The history of drag is rich, but it continues to be a disputed topic within society as well as amongst gays. Some individuals in the gay rights movement think that the practice of drag is keeping gays from being accepted by society.
“It’s important to remember that drag queens and kings have often been at the forefront of queer liberation,” says Ramirez. “Drag queens—both men and trans women—were leaders of the Stonewall Riots that sparked the modern gay liberation movement.” If not for the drag queens who threw their heels at cops during the Stonewall Riots, society would be years behind in starting to accept the LGBT community.
Regardless of the denial by gay rights leaders for their actions, if not for the drag queens who threw their heels at cops during the Stonewall Riots, society would be years behind in starting to accept the LGBT community.
As for drag culture’s future, Ramirez remains unsure of what performers like Barber or Culver could expect in the years to come.
“I can’t predict the future of drag,” states Ramirez. “I hope that it will continue to challenge its audiences, but I also hope that drag performances will always think about how to make their pieces more liberating without making fun of potential allies in the trans community and communities of color.”
With plans to one day be a teacher, Barber knows that his love for drag might not be in the cards. While he enjoys expressing himself through drag before he goes out into the world, he remains unsure about whether it is something he could do for the rest of his life.
He adds in a quip that he might consider it if he became really good or famous because of his drag, but states, “I don’t—I’m not sure that is going to happen, but we’ll see.”
Barber ends with a casual shrug and laugh that seems to embrace the hopeful thought that there may not only be a future for him, but also for drag itself.