When I was an active Mormon, it never crossed my mind to go to a drag show. Come to think of it, I probably didn’t even know that drag shows were a thing. I guess I hadn’t been paying attention.

It turns out the Santa Barbara French Festival has been hosting a drag show (organized by Les Femme Fatales) for nearly two decades! Although I’ve lived in this city over three years, I’ve never gone to anything like this.

I would have missed this year, too, but fortunately, I was tipped by some good friends who are patiently teaching me how to be an LBGTQ ally. I readily admit that in my Mormon years I was ignorant about just about everything connected to the LBGTQ movement.

Now, I’m learning.

I have a lot more to learn, but already the process of opening my mind to the beauty of difference has been exciting, joyful, and freeing. I’m meeting amazing people and I love it.

In this post, I’ll share what I learned from attending my first drag show.

Drag show basics

In general, performers lip sync to music (all kinds) while demonstrating creative artistic expression. Creative is the essential word. Part of the fun of drag is never knowing what you might see next. One performer might look like the statue of liberty, another like a popular star or even an exotic dancer.

The performers that create a hyper-feminized look are called queens and during the show are referred to as she/her. A person of any gender or sexual identity can be a drag queen, but it’s pretty common for drag queens to identify as either a gay male or transgender female when they are not in drag attire.

And drag queen attire is most commonly pretty flamboyant: bright colors, a ton of make-up, wigs, false eyelashes and everything eye-catching. This is all about pushing the boundaries of gender identity and expression. This is where over-the-top is both accepted and praised.

A drag queen may show up in more than one outfit during a single show. Here is the same dancer showing how versatile she can be:

Note: Sometimes drag shows include kings, performers that dress in a hyper-masculine way. There weren’t any drag kings at the show I attended.

Drag show audience etiquette

You can wear regular everyday clothes to a drag show. This event is all about the performers and the point is to shower them with attention and respect.

If you plan to sit in the front row, near an aisle, or in the back, bring dollar bills for tipping. Performers walk all over the stage and move up and down the aisles in order to interact with the audience.

Some people show appreciation for a performance by handing dollar bills to a queen during her act. She may stuff these bills in her cleavage or bra strap.  [I didn’t know ahead of time to bring dollars. Fortunately, my friends had me covered. I’m told this type of tipping doesn’t always happen, but if you want to fully participate in the show you should be ready just in case.]

It’s possible that a queen will interact with you in some way; she may even sit on your lap. Let her take the lead and don’t touch her without permission.

It’s ok to take pictures or video. But don’t let your phone get in the way of showering the queens with attention: clap, smile and shout out expressions of admiration.

The symbolism of drag

One reason drag shows are important to the LGBTQ community is that drag queens played a significant role in the stonewall riots and other crucial moments in the fight for equality. You can learn a little more in this video:

Drag shows create an environment where people who have traditionally been marginalized by mainstream culture can tout uniqueness as a badge of honor. No matter how different from the mainstream you are, drag shows offer everyone acceptance. No. Exceptions.

In this way, drag shows are fundamentally a celebration of the courage it takes to step out societal norms: gender identity norms, sexual identity norms, and even culturally established beauty norms. These performances are an artistic and creative way to remind the world:

It’s people, not norms that matter.

And that’s a message that’s worth supporting.