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The lights dimmed, the crowd let forth an appreciative cheer, and onto the stage strolled the confident, swaggering, decidedly masculine figure of a dapper gentleman in a three-piece suit, complete with fedora.
He launched into a convincing, swoon-worthy rendition of Michael Buble's "Feeling Good" that had everyone in the packed Majestic Theatre enthralled by his charisma and charm.
Only, this guy wasn't really singing. That was well-rehearsed lip-synching. And this guy wasn't really, well, a guy. Sydney, a.k.a. Syd Duecer, is a drag king.
I can't exactly remember the first time I encountered an honest-to-goodness drag king. Certainly, I'd bumped into women dressed in traditionally male clothing (heck, that's pretty much how I dressed all through grade school), but it wasn't until college that I saw my first drag king show.
Then, four years ago, I met a whole community of drag king performers when my sister took me to the International Drag King Extravaganza, which that year was in Chicago. Held annually since 1998 (this weekend's meeting in Columbus, Ohio, is the conference's 10th anniversary), IDKE offers a weekend of workshops and performances for the drag king community. It draws participants from as far away as Ireland and as near as Columbus, where it was founded.
At the conference, I was amazed by the dizzying diversity of types and styles of performance, by the dedication to stagecraft, by the willingness to glue real human hair to faces - and, most importantly, by the hospitality and friendliness of the community.
Unlike drag queen shows I'd been to, where the focus is usually on individual performers and their outrageous outfits, drag king shows more often focus on group acts, many of which boast actual plotlines. What I saw in Chicago was engaging, humorous, sexy and often challenging. I was hooked. And so I set about putting on that show at the Majestic Theatre, partly out of some bizarre desire to torture myself (I am not otherwise an organizer of drag king shows), and partly to bring something of the larger drag king and burlesque community to Madison.
Through the endeavor, I met some of the area's finest drag king performers, people like Syd Duecer, who, though born and raised in Madison, now belongs to Milwaukee's Miltown Kings troupe. It was the Miltown Kings' performance at Madison's Pride Fest three years ago that led to the formation of Madison's own troupe, the Mad Kings.
Two original Mad Kings members, Crash Deep and Justin Sider (their stage names, of course), saw the Miltown Kings' show, and they were inspired to start kinging for themselves. The Madison group has performed regularly at Club 5, and you can catch them at various LGBT events downtown and on campus. The Mad Kings combine humor, politics and theatricality in their stage shows, along with a healthy dose of disregard for gender norms.
I should address what a drag king is before we go further, but it's a tricky proposition.
A lot of people probably know a little something about drag queens, biological men who dress in stereotypically female clothing. Drag kings, on the other hand, are relatively unfamiliar. And they're difficult to define.
Technically, drag is the donning of any outfit or personality that is the opposite of what you normally define for yourself, and drag kings are usually women dressed as men. But the lines get very blurry very quickly, and that's just how most drag performers prefer it.
There is no one type of person involved, and the drag king scene, with troupes and conferences and individual performers spanning the globe, can't easily be boiled down. It's as diverse as can be, with women, men and transgendered people taking on traditionally masculine roles, others doing "femme" work in feminine roles, and still others going for what they call the full-on "gender fuck" treatment.
Crash Deep is an example of someone who likes to play with gender as much as possible.
"I'm sort of more fluid," he says. "I really like doing numbers with gender fuck where I can do a little bit of both [male and female]. Also, I really like dancing and being on stage. People can deny that being a component, but it is. It's something I really enjoy, but I'm also really attracted to drag kings, so it's a good place to be for me."
Then you have someone like Christa Lowe, a.k.a. CeeCee Erotica, who initially got involved with the Mad Kings as a groupie.
"I liked to tip them and I liked the sexual ambiguity," she says with a smile. "Then I found out they needed 'girls,' and I like to dress up and pretend to be naughty. I occasionally will throw in...drag things when they need me, but mostly I do femme."
Elsewhere on the spectrum, there's Andy Lixer, who intends to transition from female to male and considers himself transgendered.
"It's helped me really with my own issues and coming into my own," Andy says of his drag king work. "And knowing that there are people out there who are either kind of like me or are like me and also people who accept me for who I am - which is something I'd never had in my entire life. It's just really great to have a group of people who love you for who you are."
More than that, Andy notes, it's fun. "I get to be different people on stage all the time," he says. "I can be this bigoted, chauvinistic asshole, and I can be this romantic guy or this gay guy or whatever. I can be anything and everything, and it's a lot of fun."
The drag king community not only helped Andy with his own identity, but it seems to have helped his family become more accepting of him, too.
"I told my father, which was the scariest thing in the world for me, and I didn't want to do it, but he's totally okay with it," Andy says. "And I'm so glad about that because unfortunately, my mom passed away when I was much younger, so I had to basically prepare myself to lose my father as well in this. And I didn't have to, which is wonderful. He actually wants to come to some shows!"
Not everyone quite knows what to make of the kings, though. At shows in less gay-friendly locations, people have been known to walk out in confusion, expressing frustration over not knowing who "the real guys or girls" are. That's exactly the attitude the Mad Kings are seeking to overcome, even eradicate. At the same time, some performers find in drag a supportive community and an outlet for self-acceptance.
"I love performing as a drag king, because it helps me express a side of myself that wouldn't normally get to see the light of day," relates Syd Duecer. "In my heart, I've always been a performer. When I was 6, my grandmother gave me a top hat, a cane, and spats for my shoes. She loves musicals, and so I did a rendition of 'Hello, Dolly!' for her on her birthday. Performing was always something I wanted to do, but I felt most comfortable in tuxedos and top hats. Since 'women' areusually expected to adorn themselves with jewels and gowns, I didn't think I'd be able to perform at my full capacity in any other setting. I found thatdrag was the perfect platform."
For all of the international conferences and festival performances, though, holding a drag king troupe together isn't easy. Members come and go, as do regular gigs. The Mad Kings used to have a standing, monthly slot at Club 5, but due to scheduling conflicts and other factors, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain.
Also, Crash Deep says, the Mad Kings are looking for a venue that will be able to accommodate their underage members and fans: "We really want to get a place that's accessible to people without cars and that's in the campus area - and where we can get the 18-and-up crowd, because they're just so adorable and enthusiastic."
At the start of the fall semester, the Mad Kings performed in the cavernous Great Hall of the UW Memorial Union. Billed as the After School Special, the show was aimed at providing queer entertainment for students, especially incoming freshmen seeking activities they wouldn't have access to back home.
Competing with several music festivals and other campus events, however, made the event a tough sell, and the audience was sparse. The kings are pros, though, and every performance is worth their best efforts. Their beards applied and chest bindings secured, they put on a good show, busting out a rendition of Michael Jackson's "Thriller," complete with full zombie choreography. There were some politically charged numbers, and one piece that was, for all intents and purposes, a primer in bondage play and S&M.
It really does take all kinds.
"I think drag in general helps the queer community have an outlet for queer entertainment, in essence by queers for queers," says Miss B. Haven, of Milwaukee's Miltown Kings. "It provides entertainment that the community can relate to that isn't prime time, like Will & Grace or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."
Unlike those shows, drag doesn't trade in stereotypes, Miss B. Haven says: "It's more like queer theater, and I think every community should have that kind of representation. Some form of art they can view and say, 'Hey I can relate to that.' It's important and makes us stronger as a community."
Finding a niche
In recent years, some members of Madison's LGBT community have lamented the lack of queer-friendly activities, especially for younger people. Despite the recent near-demise of Madison Pride, those complaints have led to action. The promoters of indieQueer host parties and other events, gay sports leagues have proliferated (there's even a gay sports bar, Woof's), and Madison now has its own LGBT magazine, Our Lives.
Still, finding a place to feel comfortable isn't always easy, and not everyone wants to party or play sports. The Mad Kings provide another option.
Danielle Hartman-Semtry, a.k.a. Max Delvin, says even the UW's LGBT Campus Center didn't feel like a good fit for her when she was in school. "I first was out as bisexual in college, she says, "but because I was in an open hetero relationship, I got a lot of the 'oh, you're just playing around' attitude from certain people. It wasn't very welcoming."
The Mad Kings, however, provided both an outlet for her theatrical urges and a supportive environment where "people don't care about the pronoun that's used, or the pronoun doesn't go anywhere near maybe what they look like or express, and it just doesn't matter."
This weekend, a handful of Mad Kings will be in Columbus, Ohio, for the International Drag King Extravaganza. It's a chance not only to show off what Madison has to offer, but also to network with other performers. When the conference is over, the Mad Kings hope to bring back new ideas and fresh inspiration
And maybe some cool new ties.
The Mad Kings