The sound of the crowd reverberated backstage like a mallet roll on a timpani drum. Wim tried to calm his heartbeat with large gulps of air, but the sweat that slid down his spine let him know there was no calming this frazzle. Stage time was in less than ten minutes.
“Hey Travis, can you grab the dark brown eyeliner? I think I need your help with a touch-up,” Wim said as he picked at the top of his white V-neck. Travis rushed to his aid to touch up swirls of chest hair on Wim’s décolleté with the kohl pencil. Wim’s mouth felt full of cotton balls and his hands like room temperature clams, but there was no turning back. Travis sprayed the faux hair with aerosol hairspray to set it in place.
Wim shook his arms to force out the jitters before he peaked around the mauve velvet curtain to see what he was up against. Of course the damn house was full. Wim was second-guessing his choice to debut on the event’s first anniversary, but there he stood. Behind the curtain. He had plenty of chances to back out, but those chances had run out. The microphone squealed as it was picked up by the Saturday night MC. Wim’s debut was next.
(Fifteen months prior)
Closing hour after the Saturday night drag shows were hard for Sam. They were the loudest, the most alive nights at Neon Gold. But the hasty switch from colorful and alive to dead and empty sort of made her feel well, maybe not dead but certainly a little empty. The front door opened, and the clustered sea of elaborately colored clothing melded together as the crowd would funnel out the door taking their confidence and flair with them. Waves of pompadours, chignon’s, and French twists would all crash into each other as they drunkenly stumbled in the same direction, following the smell of freshly lit cigarettes outside.
“Wow, working here and seeing behind the scenes is just as wonderful! Tonight, was just. Just Incredible!” Travis, the new bartender, exuded from behind the bar. An aged brass bar top really set the club’s tone.
“Yeah. It’s something, isn’t it?” Sam said looking down as she swept the loose beer caps and soggy napkins.
“Are drag nights here always this exciting?”
“Every last one of ‘em,” Sam said, as she dumped the dustpan in the trash bin.
The truth was, a drag night anywhere is exciting, even the little clubs in the smaller southern cities. A queen is a queen, is a queen. They don’t need the glamour of a downtown stage to enchant you. They bring that themselves. A true queen doesn’t even need a stage; they’d stand on an old milk carton and make you listen. But lord when they’re given a stage, it sure was spectacular! And Neon Gold had the best stage for drag in all of Nashville.
Sam’s adoptive fathers bought the building after it had been foreclosed on. The building was used for pageants and debutant balls, which meant the building had a permanent T-shaped stage—perfect for a drag runway. Now, the organization that used to have this building got in a bunch of trouble for, well, let’s say misconduct. The folks running it had also been vocal about their disapproval of the queer community, which made buying the place that much sweeter for Sam’s dads. The idea was first a joke made with their friends over a bottle or so of Sauvignon Blanc, but damn if it wasn’t a superb idea.
And it was. They had anticipated opening night to be crazy and packed. It wasn’t an expression that all the gays know each other, it was true, especially in the South. Safety came in numbers, and some folks down there were just hellbent on letting you know they think you’re livin’ in sin. But more than that it was about feeling like you’re accepted for who you are, and, well, acceptance comes in numbers too.
Sam remembered that every queen in the city showed up that first night. They all wore spiked heels that made them two feet taller than her. Most of them in floor-length faux fur like they were gonna walk the red carpet rather than a golden-stained concrete floor, but confidence doesn’t need a red carpet. Opening night of Neon Gold had long been waited for, by the community, by her fathers, even by the “Not Adam and Steve” picket-fencers ready to picket, but Sam had no idea about the glitzy world she’d be brought up in until she saw her first drag show.
The pretty cameras, the flashy lights, the glitter, the gold. There was so much to look at for a ten year old. And then there were the queens. If anyone could get Sam to talk about it, she’d always bring up the cars. She’d say, “You’d forget they stepped out of worn-in Hondas with peeling tint and sunken cloth ceilings because the second that car door flies open and out swing the shoes followed by the legs and gown, nothing else was important.” A real queen demanded your attention with their presence, and as far as Sam could tell, everyone there opening night was a glamorous queen—toe to tiara.
Sam did the bulk of bar cleaning after drag shows, but thankfully the new fella was there to help. The staff always wanted to continue the party with the queens after the show. Sam didn’t mind but Travis had been eager to work behind the bar and she’d be lying if she said she wouldn’t like to get home before 3 a.m. Sam typically worked during the day, getting the orders put in and the books in check, but she always worked Saturday nights. Even if the shows were only a few hours, it was a few hours she could bask in a room full of people loving and celebrating themselves. She just wished she could borrow that confidence outside of the walls of Neon Gold.
“Sam, I’m all finished with the bar-cleaning checklist. What else can I do to help?” Travis asked
“Oh, I don’t know.” Sam looked up from sweeping. “You’ll have to forgive me. I’m not used to having help on Saturday nights.”
“You do all this yourself??”
“Well, sorta. Just the floor, the glasses, and the bar top. Before you started, we had been a skeleton crew, so everyone only gets one day off a week. It makes me feel better knowing they all get to go out and have fun together after the drag shows. The tradeoff is they have to finish cleaning Sunday, before we open.”
“Saaaam, ugh! That is so sweet of you. Y’all must really be like family here.”
“That’s the only way I like things. I’m really not a tough boss to work for, I’m sure you’ve already picked up on that.” Travis nodded along as Sam poured both of them an after-shift sangria. “But I am a stickler for selfishness. You know as well as I, the gay community has come as far as it has because of community and mutual respect. You can feel it in the right gay bars.” Sam looked down at the wine-soaked apple chunks in her glass.
“I do know what you mean. Believe it or not, I didn’t come out of the closet until my mid-twenties. Back in my early bar days, gay bars were like my little escape. I’d usually tell my friends I was gonna call it an early night but pull a double-party shift and sneak off to a gay bar alone. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Sue Ellen’s out in Spring Hill, but that place…”
“Sue Ellen’s?” Sam said with a smirk. “Yeah, I know Sue Ellen’s. You know the main bartender that worked there up until last year? Looks like she’d kill ya for looking at her the wrong way but is really sweet as peach pie.”
“The butchy one?”
Sam laughed. “Yeah. The butchy one.” And then she playfully rolled her eyes. “Anyway, she was the first masculine lesbian I’d met with such… style. I mean honestly, I grew up thinking all lesbians wore one of those mullets with the top basically a buzz cut and worked on cars for a living.”
“Well, hun, we are in Nashville after all. That’s probably all you’d seen.”
Sam choked back what she wanted to say for the new guy’s sake, and continued with, “Maybe. Or maybe that’s what I was conditioned to see.”
Sam cleared her throat. “Anyway, I mean you gotta admit, she dresses sharp. That bartender.” Travis listened as he topped off his sangria with the bottom of the pitcher. “Seeing her opened up a world of possibilities for me. Growing up with two dads and around drag queens all the time, in flippin’ Nashville! I guess I just didn’t realize butch could be fashionable too. Maybe one day I’ll try her funky suspender look.”
“Mmmm,” Travis agreed while he took a gulp and walked around the bar to be closer to Sam. They both sat down on the bar stools. “Yes, you should. I mean, even with this business-caj, hostess kind of look you got going”—Travis said as he analyzed her clothes—“could be zazzed up with suspenders.” Sam was used to the gay men in her life feeling inclined to offer fashion advice, almost always of the backhanded variety.
“Yeah, yeah... You were saying about Sue Ellen’s?” Sam said as she fidgeted with her straw.
“Yes! So! My first night there, a cute little number in hoochie-daddy khaki shorts and a tight coral button-up walked up to me and just… kissed me. Right there. Right on the lips! I never got his name, but that kiss”—he slammed his palm on the cocktail table as he took another swig—“like, changed my life! I mean, I may have been in the closet for years after, but your boy knew he was into boys. He just didn’t want his mama to know.”
Sam and Travis finished cleaning up around 2:20, but they stayed until 3:00 chatting about their baby-gay days. The two of them sat at the end of the brass bar top, closest to the stage. They sat with their drinks between their legs on the bar stool. That bar top was a staple of Neon Gold, but damn was it hard to shine. Once the drink rings and finger smudges get buffed out, no one had better set anything on its top, but especially not a sweaty glass. Sam made sure Travis learned this the easy way. The new fella was nice. She didn’t want to let him ruin the shined bar his first night.
After locking up and walking Travis to his car, Sam walked home like she always did. Just like the bar, she had inherited her dads’ old house when they relocated to open another Neon Gold. The walk home was only four short blocks into the neighborhood. The stillness of the night air was always a shock in February, especially after it snowed. The snow on the ground seemed to amplify the silence that filled in between her crunchy steps on the sidewalk. The nighttime silence usually felt like loneliness to Sam; she’d strain her mind far into the morning hours but that night she fell asleep with ease.
Sam woke up a smidge before noon. Normally she liked to sleep through most of the afternoon on Sundays, but the sun had broken through the week-long dreary sky and snuck its rays through the cracks in her blinds. Sundays were the days that Sam told herself she’d clean her own place. This Sunday she actually did. It was one of those David Bowie and scrub-brush microphone kind of cleaning days. “Rebel, Rebel” was her karaoke jam even though she’d only ever sung it for her cat. It was a good day. She even had time to swing by Lucky Dog’s Thrift before they closed.
By the following Saturday, it seemed Travis had made a friend down at the bar. When Sam showed up, Travis had his chin resting in the palm of his hand as he leaned over the bar, wide-eyed, to listen to a wig-capped Rhea Ranged tell a story. Rhea Ranged had been the drag show host for the last six years and second in charge since Sam’s dads left. People love to drink and sing along to Madonna and Dolly, but the regulars came for Rhea.
“Well, look what the cat dragged in! Oh hunny, how are you?” Rhea said as Sam strutted into the bar.
“I’m actually doing pretty well. How—”
“Um, yes, you are. Look at those mustard oxfords! Are those new?” Travis interjected.
“Oh yeah, I don’t know, last Sunday I woke up a little early and had time to run down to Lucky Dog’s and found these. Thought they were kinda snazzy,” she said as she twisted her right heel, toe in the air.
“They are flippin’ adorable, look at you!” Travis said as he came around the corner of the bar.
Rhea looked down at the shoes. “Yellow might be your color, toots! I think someone finally got a tickle from the fashion fairy.”
“Hey, I like fashion. It’s just easier to keep it simple.”
“You’d think being around drag queens since you were a kid would have taught you more. But I guess you’re a lesbian. What do y’all wear again? Blazers, flannel, and denim?”
Sam opened her mouth to speak but was cut off by Rhea. “But you did good with the shoes! I’ve known you for what, six years now? And this is the first I’ve seen you in a pop of color! Ahh! Bar mom is all grown up!” said the queen of backhanded compliments as she patted away fake tears.
“Always with the drama,” Sam muttered.
“You know me.” Rhea gave a wink. “Alright ladies, time is ticking. It’s Saturday night so Imma go pretend like I’m getting ready for my sugar daddy’s funeral. Ciao darlings!”
Rhea strutted back to the dressing room like she wasn’t wearing just panty hose and a robe. A queen is a queen, and Rhea was one with a capital Q.
As the evening progressed, Sam and Travis filled the dance floor with cocktail tables and chairs. They set up the tables with a tea candle and a glass ashtray with gold flakes. Sam’s dads always wanted the place to be both more than what’s expected and less. Folks in the South tended to associate anything gay with being over the top with rainbows plastered on everything, not Neon Gold. Neon Gold was swanky. Its identity was rooted in the artistry of drag with a 1920s touch. A place to make you feel as much like a queen as the ones that grace the stage.
Rhea came on stage with her Virginia Slim in a Hepburn style cigarette holder in one hand and a microphone in the other. She walked out with her silk crème colored gown with a slit up to her left thigh, gracefully gliding across the stage until she tripped over a microphone cord and flung her cigarette holder at a table in the front row. Sam and Travis were at the bar sending cocktail waitresses with drinks, when they overheard the—“Oh shoot, hunny, can you get that for me? Manual labor isn’t really my thing” before the crowd roared with laughter.
“How the hell does she do that?” Sam let out.
“Well yeah, but it’s like she refuses to get embarrassed. If I tripped over a cord as I walked on stage, I’d probably… I don’t know, throw up or something,” Sam said laughing it off. “But then again, I don’t think I’d even have the courage to lip sync like the other queens do.”
“What! You’ve never thought about getting all dragged up and goin’ on stage?”
“I wouldn’t say never, but I don’t know. I like watching other people do it. That way I get to live through their confidence for a few hours but don’t have to spend the entire night awake with anxiety, thinking about all the ways the crowd was judging me.”
Judging Sam like she was judged the last time she was on stage, which coincidentally was also the first time she’d been on stage. Everyone at her Jr. High listened to country music, practically everyone in Tennessee did. Just as most things in the South, it had always been better to share the likes of the majority, helped if you look like them too. They don’t care for folks that are different. But as a seventh grader entering a talent show with her best friend Amber, Sam didn’t take any of that into consideration. Amber just loved Whitney Houston.
Sam had gotten used to the remarks about her gay dads from classmates. Kids were mean, but the extent of their ridicule didn’t go past name calling like fairy, or the other “f” word that was meant to hurt a little more. The adults are the ones that stirred up the real problems, accusing folks of being perverts and sinners. This kind of talk picked up when her dads opened Neon Gold. It picked up again after Sam and Amber’s talent show performance.
Rumor had spread quick that Amber and Sam were lesbians, and their performance was a gross display of the homosexual lifestyle. Folks also started using it as a reason why gay men shouldn’t be allowed to adopt children. Clearly this had been proof that because Sam grew up in a gay household, she was destined to the same life of sin as her fathers. Truth be told, Sam and Amber weren’t interested in boys, but they weren’t interested in girls either. They were only twelve years old. The two of them just thought they had a super fly dance routine to “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” Amber thought it would be a good idea for them to hold hands for the big spin so if one of them stumbled, the other could help pull her right back up. But the parents in the crowd didn’t care about practicality. They spread a different story around the neighborhood and Sam had been mortified.
As the show came to a close, waves of pompadours, chignon’s, and French twists crashed into each other as they drunkenly stumbled in the same direction, following the smell of freshly lit cigarettes outside. Same as every Saturday night. Trailing behind the after-party crowd was a drunken Rhea Ranged, still in full drag, stumbling up to Sam and Travis.
A little tipsy, and still insistent, Travis turned to Rhea. “Rhea, OMG, girl. You were great! I’m trying to convince Sam that she’s gotta give drag a shot, even once!”
“Oh hunny, no. You don’t want to be a drag king. That’s not really for you.” Sam knew better than to get into it with Rhea once she’d had a few drinks. As usual, she swallowed her pride. Not that she had the chance to say anything anyway. Rhea had quickly dismissed the idea before turning the conversation into an invitation for Travis to ride with her to the afterparty.
“Uh, my second week here and I’m already invited to the afterparty?! Y’all really know how to make a girl feel welcome. I’ve gotta clean up but give me your number and I can totally meet up,” Travis responded.
“Travis, if you want you can go with them. I want you to get to know more of the staff.” Sam was irritated with Rhea and just wanted her to leave.
Travis looked at Sam and then back at Rhea. “You know, that’s okay. I’m gonna stay and help Sam.” Travis caught Sam’s jaw drop and shot her a grin.
“Ohhh, what a gentleman!” Rhea sassed before she wrote her number on a cocktail napkin and slid it to Travis. “Ciao!” And she was gone.
Sam grabbed a recycling bin and went around to pick up the empty beer and wine bottles while Travis got a head start cleaning glasses. She was thankful Travis stayed but also a little shocked. Sam wouldn’t have minded if he had gone but she was glad he didn’t take off with Rhea after what she said. Rhea, or Billy—out of drag—was second in charge and there wasn’t much she could do about the microaggressions; she was almost always the only one to notice them anyhow. Her dads would say, “Oh that’s just Billy,” but she would hear the undertone, “boys will be boys.”
“Fuck!” Sam let out as she noticed one of the wine bottles had leaked on her left shoe. She’d done one thing nice for herself and gone and fucked that up too. Sam pulled out a chair and sat down at the closest cocktail table. “Hey Travis, could you grab some club soda? I spilled some fucking red wine on one of my new suede oxfords.”
Travis scurried around the bar. “Girl! You did not tell me they were suede. I’m coming!” Travis dabbed the club soda-dipped cloth on the stain with the attention of a surgeon. Apparently, fashion emergencies take a lot of focus. Who knew?
“Where did you find these again? I’m uh… I’m not sure this stain is gonna come out,” Travis said with clenched teeth.
Sam sat there with her arms folded over her stomach. Staring at the stain she muttered, “I got them from a thrift store last Sunday.”
Travis stopped scrubbing and laid his hand on her knee. “Oh Sam, I’m sorry. You know, yellow is not easy to pull off, but you really did it with these.” Sam put her hand on top of Travis’s. She knew he was just trying to comfort her, but she already felt defeated.
“I actually went to Lucky Dogs, that’s the thrift store,” Sam said, tucking loose strands of hair behind her ears. “I got them last Sunday because of our talk about Sue Ellen’s. I went in there to see if they had any suspenders. They didn’t, but I saw these shoes in my size and, I mean—honestly, they’re more me than suspenders are anyhow.”
“Oh my god, stop it right now. Sam, that’s so sweet, did I inspire you?” Travis said with a wide grin. Way to make that about you, Sam thought, but chose to keep to herself.
“Yeah, yeah. I guess the conversation reminded me of my early gay days. I remember wanting to be that bartender at Sue Ellen’s so bad. She wore her chin-length black hair slicked back in place. You know, with that like permanent wet look. It was like her hair and her attitude made her confidence look endless,” Sam said fidgeting with her stained shoe.
“I’m sure it helps that she’s comfortable in her own skin.”
“Well exactly, which got me thinking, maybe if I had some more clothes that made me feel good, I could work on that whole self-esteem thing. And to be honest, I thought they were helping. I felt, I don’t know… proud wearing them, like I looked good. I probably sound dumb, they’re just shoes.”
“You’re not dumb, Sam. You’re describing confidence, and I’ve known shoes a plenty that have made me feel that way. I think we just need to get you on stage. Most people think you need confidence to get on stage, but really—it’s the stage that lends the confidence. You just have to be willing to take a chance. My ex-boyfriend was a drag queen and said drag is meant to be ridiculous.”
“This may be the city, but we are still in Tennessee, Travis.”
“I get where you’re coming from, but you could do it here, where it is safe.”
“Safe, sure, but we’ve had a couple of drag kings pop in over the years, usually ones just moving through town, but I remember their performances. I remember how everyone spoke afterwards. I’m not sure I want to be talked about like that in my own bar,” Sam added as she got up to help finish some of the remaining sangria.
“You wouldn’t! You see Rhea and the others perform all the time. You know this crowd. You could use that to your advantage!”
“I guess, but gay men have it easier than us. It’s not the same for lesbians. Hell, it’s commonly accepted for gay men to be vocal about disliking lesbians and we all pretend like it’s not the patriarchy rearing its ugly head in our world. You know, gay men sort of have a monopoly on the gay world, especially with drag. You could look into the audience here and see a crowd full of mostly gay men like you. If I were up there in drag, I’d be looking at a crowd of people unsure of how they feel. I’m just not what they come here to see. Plus, it’s a lot harder to put yourself out there when you’re not a part of the majority.”
“Harder maybe, but not impossible. You know, drag kings have been around since the beginning of time, it’s not anything new.”
“Honestly that kind of makes it worse,” Sam said before she took a deep breath. “I know it’s not impossible, but for me it feels pretty close.”
“Sam,” Travis said. “I hope you know I’m not one of those gays.”
Despite his subtle backhanded compliments, Sam could tell Travis meant well and thought maybe he just lacked in delivery. With an exhaled breath she said, “I know, Travis.”
Sam and Travis finished cleaning up mostly in silence. Sam kept thinking about their conversation and had found herself getting upset. She prided herself on maintaining a space for every letter in the LGBTQIA family, but how could she if she didn’t even feel like drag kings could feel appreciated there?
After the trash was gathered and the bar was shined, they left for the night. The wind had picked up quite a bit since the bar closed, making the air chill you to your ribs, so Travis offered to give Sam a ride home. It took longer to heat up the car than the actual ride. In fact, Sam could have made it home by the time it took to heat up his car, but it would have been much more uncomfortable than the silence they sat in. As Travis pulled up to the neighborhood intersection close to where she lived, Sam signaled for him to stop.
“Thank you, Travis, I know I’ve been quiet, but I do appreciate the ride and everything you do at the bar.”
Travis reached over to put his hand on her shoulder and said, “And I appreciate you letting me in and treating me like family, even if that means putting me in my place.”
“Haha, well I wasn’t trying to put you in your place. It’s just that certain struggles are a little more obvious to those they affect. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Well, give yourself some credit, nothing is easy for a gay person in the South. You wanna know what I do anytime I’m treated poorly for how I identify? I think about Marsha. That’s right, Marsha P. Johnson and what she did for us at Stonewall. It may be cheesy, but if I can picture the courage it took for her to stand up for herself and our cause, I know I can stand up to a stupid bigot at Winn Dixie.”
“God, Travis, you’re right. You’re so right.” Sam took a deep breath to ease her stomach.
Travis leaned over to give her a hug. As she sat there with Travis’s arms around hers, she laid her head on his shoulder and thought about how the night unfolded. And how she was quick to pin everyone against her before she even gave herself a chance to try. She knew everything she said was true, but it didn’t have to be. She didn’t have to lock herself into failure without making an effort to make a change herself. After the hug, Sam got out of the car and said, “For the record, I can do a mean David Bowie!” before she slammed the door shut.
The next few days Sam couldn’t get the conversation she had with Travis out of her head. She hadn’t even realized it until she said it, but Neon Gold wasn’t as inclusive as it could be. It wasn’t even inclusive enough for her, and she basically owned the joint. When her dads opened Neon Gold, their vision was to have a safe place for gays to be themselves and to show that drag deserved a place in the South as well. A wholesome vision brought to life, except not really. The bar was a success, and many felt the safety of the Neon Gold’s walls, but Sam thought about how a vast majority of its patrons had always just been gay men. Maybe that’s why in the comfort of the queer bar she owned, she still felt like an outsider. Certainly not a part of the majority. Sam thought about calling her dads for their advice. They were always supportive of her ideas for the bar and seemed to have a better way of executing them, but she needed a different perspective. She needed to hear from someone like her. That Thursday night she took the bus out to Spring Hill to visit a familiar place of comfort.
Sam walked through the doors of Sue Ellen’s for the first time since she took control of Neon Gold, but it still felt like a home away from home. Sue Ellen’s was much more of a down-home kinda place where country music and rainbow flags weren’t a part of different cultures. Folks were on the dance floor two-steppin’ with each other in Stetson hats and Wrangler jeans, but the best part was that Sam couldn’t see a clear majority in the room. People all around the bar were swaying their hips and sippin’ from amber-colored bottles, a variety of different genders and identities in every section of the bar, just existing and having a ball.
Sam headed to the far back wall, where the bar was. As soon as she plopped down on a stool, a cocktail napkin was slid in front of her.
“What ya havin’ tonight?”
“I’ll have a whiskey and seven with a lime,” Sam said as she looked up to see the bartender already plunging her scoop into the icebox below the bar. The girl was wearing a navy-blue pair of mechanic coveralls with the sleeves rolled up and unzipped enough to see the top of her muscle shirt. Her hair—shaved except for the top—had the most perfect curly ringlets.
The bartender sat the whiskey and seven on Sam’s cocktail napkin and asked, “So, you new in town, or just moving through?”
“Oh, I actually live right outside Nashville, but I used to come out here in my early gay days and thought I’d pay the place a visit again.” Sam grabbed for her drink.
“Oh cool, a semi-native. Well, welcome back. Anything in particular bring you all the way out here tonight?”
Sam cracked a smile. “You know, funny you should ask. I run a drag bar out in Nashville, and I think the place is due for some change.”
“You’re not talkin’ bout Neon Gold are you?”
Sam nodded. “That’s the one! You’ve been?”
“You could say that. I went there to support my girl perform drag a year and some change ago. We didn’t stay much long after the show. The crowd didn’t seem too interested in a drag-king performance.”
“Fuck,” Sam said bowing her head over her drink. “See. That’s the issue.”
“Well, not to kick you while you’re down but you got some work cut out for you.”
“I know, a drag king hasn’t even tried to perform in over a year. You know, when my dads opened Neon Gold in the early 90s, people talked about it like it was a beacon of light for gays in the South. Now, it feels more like…”
“An exclusive club for gay men?”
“I wasn’t going to say that, but fuck. You’re right… An exclusive club for gay men, ran by a lesbian.” Sam tilted her drink back to finish it off and signaled for one more. “I mean hell, what if I think drag kings are more entertaining? What if I want to be one? Wouldn’t even feel comfortable trying it, and I own a drag bar. What kind of shit is that?”
“It’s fucked up. I mean you think we have enough to deal with being gay in the South,” the bartender said as she grabbed drink orders from a waiter. “I’ve always hated the stupid gay hierarchy. If you’re not the right kind of gay, well too bad. It’s not about being yourself, it’s about being easy to digest. And I hate to say so, but Neon Gold is sort of the pinnacle of that kind of shit here.”
“See, this is why I need more lesbians in my life.”
The bartender chuckled and held out her hand. “I’m Mika by the way.”
“Sam. Nice to meet ya,” she said as she shook Mika’s hand.
The two of them chatted for an hour between Mika filling drink orders. It was reaffirming to hear another lesbian confirm Sam’s thoughts. She needed more lesbian friends in her life. She had been in the gay world since birth, but a male gay world. No wonder she hadn’t been pushed to make changes before now. Since Neon Gold’s patrons were all men, she might come off as self-serving and her thoughts of change normally ended there, but not this time.
The bus ride home felt much quicker between the two drinks and her new ideas. Sam got home a quarter after midnight, a much earlier night than she was used to. She sat down at her dining room table with a spiral notebook to jot down the ideas she had scribbled on a napkin during the ride home. The more she wrote, the more she thought about Travis and their conversation in the car. Sam pulled out her phone and shot him a text asking him to give her call when he got off work, but of course he didn’t wait.
“Hey, I thought I said after you close,” Sam teased.
“Okay, but we are like so dead, and you can’t just tell me you want to talk to me in a few hours. You got me all anxious so spill the beans, sis!”
“Neon Gold is going to start hosting drag-king nights. The only performers on those nights are going to be kings! I don’t know how often we are going to do it, but I was thinking about how supportive you’ve been on the subject and… I want you to co-manage the events with me, whadya say?”
“Welcome, gaybies and theybies, thank you for coming out tonight for Neon Gold’s first annual anniversary of King Week! Oh my god, it’s here, can you guys believe it?” Rhea said to the crowd with a hanging jaw. “We’ve all been waiting for it. I know I have. Sam is like my little lezzie sister, and I’m so proud to announce she will be making her grand debut tonight, joining the ranks of the Tennessee chapter of Drag Kings as a mister Wim N. Love!”
Behind the curtain Sam’s stomach turned to knotted dough when she heard her stage name announced.
“As policy, I’d like to remind you. If you don’t have anything nice to say, shut your mouth. But then again if you do, I’ll be sitting at table number five. Come buy mama a drink.” Rhea winked to the crowd and the sound of organs began to play as George Michael’s “Faith” came over the speakers.
Wim threw on his faux leather jacket and shook his shoulders to let it settle in place. It was time. The curtain was pushed open and backstage flooded with blinding stage lights and cheers from a full house. Wim N. Love was ready to meet the world.