“I was twenty two years old when I first arrived in Key West, it truly was an amazing place to be. Drinks at Claire’s, tanning on the Pier, playing Pac Man at Delmonico’s and of course, dancing at The Monster. Tea Dance at LaTeDa’s and those boring yet somehow comforting nights at Papillon’s.”
–Luc from Canada
When conjuring images of the copious Key West drag scene, unquestionably the first image that comes to mind is Sushi–the legendary queen–riding down a red stiletto pump to ring in the New Year at the Bourbon Street Pub on Duval Street. Who needs giant balls in icy Times Square when you can have heels in the Keys!
While Sushi may be the most broadcasted drag queen of Key West, particularly on raucous New Years Ever, the storied Key West community boasts a long history and support of drag performance.
Asserting the significance of drag queens to the bohemian cultural legacy of Key West, which includes, of course, literary greats such as Filthy Dreams’ preeminent filth elder Tennessee Williams (or TW as we call him) and Ernest Hemingway, the Key West Art & Historical Society presents What A Drag! at the Custom House Museum, a multidisciplinary exhibition of the past and present drag scene in Key West.
As you may have noticed faithful Filthy Dreams readers, I abandoned our intrepid blog for two weeks for some rest and relaxation in the Keys. Well, imagine my surprise when I learned the Key West Art & Historical Society featured a show on the importance of drag and nightlife to the city. It’s like they knew I was coming! Who was stalking me?!
Exploring the place of drag queens in Key West’s cultural landscape, What A Drag! features a wide range of drag-related ephemera from costumes such as Faith Michaels’ lip-covered jumpsuit, accessories including a set of Barbie head-filled platform heels, headdresses by iconic queen Vanna Black worn at Key West’s notorious annual party Fantasy Fest, ephemera from local bars and clubs and even, photographs of Sushi riding that shoe on New Year’s Eve.
With quotes from famous queens such as RuPaul and Dolly Parton (let’s be honest, she’s a queen too) adorning the walls, as well as local testimonials like Luc from Canada’s about the vibrancy of Key West’s gay nightlife, the exhibition rightfully places the often overlooked and dismissed as pure frivolity drag scene into the artistic milieu of Key West, as well as its community activism.
Perhaps my favorite part of the exhibition–other than the trash Oscar the Grouch gown from drag performer Boo that would make John Waters green with envy–was the history of the bars and clubs in Key West, as evidenced by a vitrine of calling cards, matchbooks, beer cozies and other ephemera related to these nightlife locales. With a rich history, the gay scene in Key West, according to the Key West Art & Historical Society–was encouraged by our own TW and cemented by the formation of the Key West Business Guild in 1978, which encouraged the establishment of gay-owned and friendly businesses.
Hence, the clubs arrived in the disco-fevered 1970s in clubs such as Delmonicos, the Monster and the Copa, where Divine, Grace Jones and the Queen of Disco herself Sylvester frequently performed. Today, some of these bars and clubs still remain such as the 801 Cabaret, which opened as a piano bar in 1987. Evolving over time to become increasingly drag-centric, paintings of the 801 Cabaret Girls continue to leer beautifully over the tourist-lined Duval Street.
However, drag isn’t just all campy fun and games as shown in What A Drag!. Like many queer nightlife scenes, drag in Key West has a strong tie to local activism, an aspect of nightlife that often goes under-appreciated amidst all the partying. As one wall label reads, “drag queens have always served the dual role of entertainer and advocate, often becoming the centerpiece during significant LGBT battles for equality.”
One of these fundraising efforts is the Queen Mother Pageant, an annual drag pageant that began during the height of the AIDS epidemic in 1983 as a means to raise money for people with AIDS. Now the Queen Mother Pageant raises funds for a number of causes including the One Human Family Campaign and the Visiting Nurse Association & Hospice of the Florida Keys.
My particular preferred charity event is the local drag races. Not to be confused with Ru’s Drag Race, the KW drag race forces queens in towering heels to clomp their way through an obstacle course with car tires, hurdles and even, shopping carts the queens are forced to ride down Duval Street to support AIDS Help.
Even though they represent a smaller bohemian enclave, the Key West Art & Historical Society has deftly approached a subject that not even larger New York cultural and historical institutions have investigated. Can you imagine the New York Historical Society applauding the place of drag in New York’s artistic and activist history? I can’t. But What A Drag! firmly declares drag as a meaningful and absolutely necessary form of art and activism in their local cultural community.
As RuPaul says, “You’re born naked and the rest is drag.”