SMITHSONIAN CENTER FOR FOLKLIFE & CULTURAL HERITAGE
The Little-Known Story of Drag Kings in Gun Barrel City, Texas
Despite a long history of lesbian-identifying and trans-masculine individuals who used masculinity for artistic performance, today’s representation of the drag king show arose only in the 1990s.
This article was originally published on October 27, 2021, in Folklife Magazine.
Dildo in hand, Carmella, the event coordinator and host of “The Baby Daddy Show” at Garlow’s in Gun Barrel City, Texas, begins the night by declaring, “I will probably say, do, and think something that will offend you.”
I’m standing behind the crowd, listening to them cheer. Under the lights, Carmella’s orange dress throws multi-colored reflections across the dimly lit bar. The air is smoky. I hope I’ll get good photographs of the show. Tonight, the gay bar will feature drag kings who will lip sync to popular hits.
Drag kings are masculine performance artists, most often associated with being assigned female at birth. Among the six performers Carmella will introduce, all from across Texas, are local drag kings and best friends: Rocky and Kody. Five months ago, Kody began to transition. Rocky, on the other hand, says that while it’s possible he might be trans, for now, he identifies as a woman—though he uses he/him pronouns while in drag. His family wouldn’t accept it, he says, and family is more important.
Rocky and Kody stand outside the dressing room door, making small talk as they wait for Carmella to introduce them. Kody’s silver sequin jacket shines in the light. A black feather boa drapes his shoulders, and he wears a large, glittery pair of silver glasses that have no lenses. Rocky wears a white T-shirt, a black blazer, and jeans. A cross hangs from a chain around his neck.
A young drag king, Avery, stands by my side, adding a red flare to the room through hair that stands nearly a foot tall, distinctively bold facial hair makeup, and a silky jacket. He tells me that this is his first all-king show; in fact, it’s the first for most of tonight’s performers. Earlier, Carmella told me that this was only the bar’s second all-king show. The first time, she unintentionally hired a lineup entirely of drag kings rather than drag queens.
Someone who mentors a drag performer is known by participants as a “drag mother.” Carmella’s drag mother identifies as a cisgender woman. One of the early lessons she imparted was how essential it is to include diverse groups of drag performers, given that performers who share some identities are not given the same opportunities as others. From those experiences came tonight’s debut of “The Baby Daddy Show.”
Garlow’s takes as its slogan “Where friends become family.” It’s located on Main Street in Gun Barrel City, a rural, predominantly conservative town of 6,084 that runs with the motto “We Shoot Straight with You.” The bar, a bit lonesome on a wide, mostly unkempt lot, would appear to some as a barn or warehouse if it weren’t for the bright coat of teal paint laid over the sheet-metal exterior and all the cars. The building is nearly impossible to miss. Next to Garlow’s sits a liquor store, a military surplus, and a boarded-up Tex-Mex restaurant. Nonetheless, the bar is crowded. About a hundred people have come just for the show.
I first heard about Garlow’s two years before while researching queer bars in rural Texas, but it wasn’t until I contacted Carmella and she invited me to attend “The Baby Daddy Show” that I finally made the four-hour drive. I found the very idea of Garlow’s encouraging. As a trans person from Texas, I felt that I had been taught that queerness and Southernness cannot coexist; the idea of such an unapologetically queer community residing in what many would call an unexpected place filled me with hope. At the time, the Texas Legislature was hearing a record amount of anti-trans legislation. Multiple bills appeared likely to pass that would cause severe and tangible harm to trans Texans. While I am not from a rural area and not a drag performer, I was thankful for the opportunity to listen and learn from the people at Garlow’s. I saw my visit as a chance to prove to myself that the sentiments expressed on the legislative floor weren’t representative of the Texas I knew.
I arrived three hours before the show so I could talk to Carmella, the owner, and others involved with the bar. The owner was a former builder, a heterosexual man named Michael. He discovered Garlow’s when, one night, he was looking for a drink and all the other bars were closed. Surprised by how many people he knew in the crowd, he found himself frequenting the place. When the old owner decided to sell, Michael’s name came up. He was hesitant to share too much more with me, but introduced me to Ashley, one of the bar’s regulars.
Ashley, a straight woman, began coming to Garlow’s as a teenager. Noticing I had run into a number of straight-identifying people at the bar that night, I asked Ashley about the relationship between the bar and straight people in Gun Barrel City. She told me there were probably more straight people at Garlow’s than gay people. “I’m a straight girl who comes to the bar and I love it, and all my other straight friends, they’ll be here tonight, too.”
She emphasized that Garlow’s welcomes everyone, a feeling most people seemed to share. And unlike in most queer urban spaces I have experienced, many made it a point to mention that Garlow’s isn’t a political space. In almost all cases, patrons said that as long as you’re respectful, Garlow’s is a place to put differences aside and become family.
“We don’t really share our political opinions with each other,” Rocky said. “I’m Republican. I was raised Republican. There’s probably quite a few here that are Democrats. But at the end of the day, we try and not talk about it because we don’t want it to get in the way of what we have.”
Curious about Garlow’s as an apolitical space within the conservative backdrop of Gun Barrel City, I spoke to Emily Suzanne Johnson, a professor of women’s and gender studies at Ball State University. She pointed to the role of religion and Christian Conservatism in rural settings, such as Gun Barrel. “There is a language within Christian Conservatism of marking very conservative politics as apolitical. The idea of conservatism is that you are trying to preserve something you believe existed in the past, so they tend to see activism as progressive activism that is trying to push things in a new direction. They believe they are not political as they just want things to stay the right way, the way they should have been.”
Johnson’s ideas resonated. Many I spoke with within the Garlow’s community claimed to stay above the political fray and to accept a broad range of political viewpoints, even very conservative ones that might directly harm many patrons of the bar. Maybe this accommodation was itself a political choice.
At the show, Kody performed to an Elton John mashup and Rocky to a remix of “Beat It” by Michael Jackson featuring Chris Brown. Patrons clamored to tip the performers, throwing dollar bills across the bar floor and competing for space to let the performers grab the tips from their hands. The audience was made up of a wide range of generations, sexual orientations, and appearances. However, as I watched the crowd’s support for these performers in a month that saw so much statewide anti-trans legislation, I began to wonder: what is the difference between setting aside differences and making space for the discrimination of the very people being celebrated in this bar?
Both Rocky and Kody prefer simplicity in their onstage personas. Kody’s makeup routine is modest; Rocky’s is hardly one at all. Staring into the dressing room mirror, Kody applied a minimal contour to his face; Rocky doesn’t contour at all. They both create their facial hair by using eyelash glue to attach hair clippings that they save from their haircuts.
Nearby, Avery’s drag family prepared in more extravagant ways, applying colorful, glittery, and boldly shaped beards and makeup. One member glued to his face a beard, mustache, and eyebrows made entirely of black lace.
Kody said that his performance is about being true to himself. He no longer employs the bold makeup techniques of his early drag career. “When people see me perform, I want them to see the real me as opposed to all the glitter glam. For me, being authentic and true to myself means not using the makeup, not that there’s anything wrong with it.”
Despite a long history of lesbian-identifying and trans-masculine individuals who used masculinity for artistic performance, today’s representation of the drag king show arose only in the 1990s, according to Jack Halbertson, director of the Institute for Research on Women, Gender and Sexuality at Columbia University and co-author of The Drag King Book. As a result of the AIDS crisis, performance space became available for lesbians in queer nightclubs. So many gay men had passed away.
“Drag king culture is at the very edge of lesbian cultures,” Halbertson said. “The emergence of drag king culture in the 1990s really came out of a whole set of debates about trans-masculinity and whether masculine women were butch lesbians or whether they were on their way to trans-manhood. Drag was a part of that discussion.”
Kody says that his own trans-masculinity emerged out of drag, which provided him the space, comfort, and safety to discover himself. “I’m more comfortable in being a drag king than being a female. If you see me out somewhere, I’m pretty much a quiet person and keep to myself, but if I’m as a drag king, getting to be who I really am, I’m very comfortable. I’m not shy.”
It took Kody years of thinking before he came out as a trans man. That night at Garlow’s, he revealed I was only the fifth person he had talked with about being trans. He had told his wife only a few months before.
Kody goes by he/him pronouns, but for a short period after I first met him he began using they/them pronouns as well. After trying it out, he decided those did not fit him as well. As he does more research, he’s able to find what feels right for him. “All of this with pronouns—it’s very new,” he said. “It’s not something I’m used to.” Kody said that he’s learning and in the process of becoming himself, but that his transition is helping him to become more comfortable. “It actually was making me a very angry person because I didn’t know who I was.”
Drag similarly played a part in shaping Rocky’s identity. Out of drag, he identifies as a woman, despite being happiest when he is in his drag persona. “I didn’t think I could be as happy as I am,” he said. “This is fun, and I enjoy doing it. It’s making me think about possibly doing transgender. Like maybe that’s where I’m supposed to be.” He repeated that for years, he’s been thinking about the possibility of transitioning but hasn’t out of fear that it will harm his relationship with his family. “My family means everything to me, and if me transgendering is going to cause me to lose them, then I’ll sacrifice happiness for them.”
Moments before Kody ascended the stage to perform, I watched Rocky help him into his silver sequin jacket. As Rocky looked into his eyes, he put a hand on Kody’s shoulder, then gave him words of affirmation.
Throughout the night, it was difficult to find one of them without the other. When they weren’t performing, Rocky and Kody were out in the crowd; neither could walk across the bar without being stopped by a friendly face. Both spoke of how important the community of Garlow’s had become for them.
Rocky spoke fondly of Gun Barrell City, as well. He feels welcome at Garlow’s, more so than at gay bars in other cities. “In Dallas, it’s not like this. If you go to a bar and you’re not a frequent flyer at that bar, let’s just say every weekend, and talk to the same bartender or manager every time you go in and say hi just so they know your face, they’re not going to know you from a man and a moon.”
Contrastingly, Kody said he has always felt welcome in larger cities they’ve lived and performed in like Shreveport, Galveston, or Houston, but he doesn’t feel welcome in all parts of Gun Barrel City. “There’s one bar in town where I’ve never gone to because it’s kind of a biker bar that if I went to, I could not be who I am.”
What Kody loves most about performing is hearing from the community. Multiple Garlow’s patrons have told him that his performances inspire them to become drag kings. Similarly, Rocky feels grateful for an occurrence as simple as someone recognizing him at the grocery store.
They both emphasized the support they’ve received from their workplace communities. “I was talking to my boss at my old job, and he’s in his early sixties, and he actually came out to me almost a year and a half ago,” Kody said. “He actually told me how unhappy he was with himself, and through speaking to other people, and even speaking to me, as a drag king, he saw how happy and comfortable I was and how confident I was. He came to realize that he was trans and started going through the transitioning. For him, the pronoun is no longer he, but she. She’s going through transitioning, and she’s in the process of helping me because there’s not many people in this area who actually know what it takes to do the transitioning.”
Every day and in every space they inhabit, Kody and Rocky work to negotiate their identities and examine how drag plays a role in those negotiations.
Katie Batza, a professor in women, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of Kansas, offered more historical context. During the HIV/AIDS epidemic, urban communities were able to reject the systems that were failing them by forming their own communities and healthcare based on mutual aid. But rural queer communities didn’t have this option. The number of openly queer individuals was too small and there were few safe spaces for them to gather. “It became a really weird story of a handful of queer people who were having really hard conversations with folks who normally don’t interact with queer folks and trying to create spaces within a really politically conservative and often religiously conservative backdrop where they can exist and have their needs met.”
For Batza, the phenomenon persists. “In small or rural areas, the reality is that queer people are going to have a need, and they’re either going to have to either find out how to get that need fulfilled from the community they’re in, which means to become legible to them, or leave.”
Looking back at the lip syncs in Garlow’s, remembering the diverse audience so proudly celebrating these queer performers, it seems apparent that the bar has managed to form a space where people can, to an extent, understand each other, allowing nearly everyone to claim the slogan: “Where friends become family.” As I look at that slogan, and think about my own biological, conservative family who I estranged myself from as they refused to accept my queerness, I wonder if friends becoming family would be something I would want for myself.
The slogan rings true to Rocky and Kody, who met performing in Garlow’s two years ago. There are many contrasting facets between them: their styles of drag, the ways they identify, the feelings they have toward Gun Barrel. Nonetheless, they agree the friendship they’ve formed and the community they’ve helped build has helped them discover themselves.
Kody talked about the night he came out as trans to Rocky. Rocky responded by saying that he’s his brother and that he’ll love him regardless. “Rocky is very supportive. I call him my brother because he is my brother and he’s going to be there.”
“Kody is not just my drag brother but my brother brother, and I consider him to be a mentor, really,” Rocky said. “He’s my mentor, he’s my best friend, he’s my brother. He’s my family.”
A part of me relates heavily to Rocky. Years ago, I told myself that I would never come out in order to preserve my relationship with my family. Then I went to college. I found that the further away I got from my family, the closer I was to becoming myself. But now I realize that I am privileged to have my own support systems that are not accessible everywhere.
Just five months before I met Kody, he had yet to identify as a trans man, which he says he was able to do with the support of those around him: his boss, his supporters at Garlow’s, his friend Rocky. The relationship between identity and geography seems like a paradox at times; I can’t help but wonder how going forward, their communities will influence Rocky and Kody’s personal identities and ideologies, as well as shape the spaces, people, and beliefs around them. But it’s clear that the community they’ve found in Garlow’s and in each other has been a necessary support system for them both, in and out of the small-town gay bar.
Epilogue: Several months after “The Baby Daddy Show,” Rocky wrote me to say that he is beginning his journey to transition as a man. He had told his mother on his wedding day and was surprised and grateful to hear her say in front of everyone that she accepts him. He recently received a clinic’s approval to begin the process of medically transitioning and is thrilled to explore this process with the guidance of his best friend Kody.
Adrienne Hunter is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. As a trans woman born and raised in Texas, with a background in journalism and queer studies, she has a specific interest in documenting Southern and rural queer stories.