Johnny Spritzer's black collared shirt is frayed at the edges where the sleeves once attached. It's also unbuttoned, leaving his pale flat stomach and sports bra exposed. A white belt with black skulls keeps his oversized black pants from falling as he hops across the stage of Missoula's Fox Club Cabaret, lip-syncing to Black Stone Cherry's "Blame it on the Boom Boom."
"You're so sweet, from your head to your feet, when I'm giving you the Boom Boom," Spritzer mouths, pointing his dainty white hand at the crowd of women in suits, men in dresses and the character in a pink tank top and a skirt sporting a five o'clock shadow, hanging out beside the stage.
A star made of many small silver stones adorns the crotch of Spritzer's slacks. Low-top Converse sneaks with rainbow laces cover his feet, which never stop moving. A woman who sits in a chair just beneath the stage reaches up to touch the star on his crotch. She giggles, rubbing it. Another woman, holding a dollar bill between her teeth, offers Spritzer a tip. He moves in. Crouching down, his lips linger momentarily in front of hers before he takes the bill and spits it out in time to rejoin the testosterone-fueled narrative of how good it feels to be bringing on the Boom Boom.
Spritzer is one of about 15 men and women who took the stage of the Fox Club last month for a Pride Foundation benefit. The artists included a "bio queen," which is a biological woman impersonating a man doing female drag (think Victor Victoria); a handful of traditional drag queens; and seven kings—women like Spritzer who bind their breasts, don facial hair and typically perform hypersexual parodies of male behavior.
Spritzer's had several rum and Cokes tonight. "Quiet and reserved is not so much on Johnny's menu," he says.
That's an understatement.
Spritzer is also 23-year-old University of Montana student Breanna Barber. She's the daughter of a Miles City pastor in the socially conservative Assemblies of God Church who was raised to be meek and pious.
Being a drag king seems to suit Barber better than Sunday school did. She wasn't timid, as her father said she should be. "I wasn't submissive. Actually, my dad told me one time, he's like, 'You are never going to find a husband. Because you just won't submit to authority.'
"I looked at him and said, 'Well, if they want me to submit to authority, they're not going to want me.'"
She's a fan of feminist literature these days.
Barber came out as a lesbian in 2006. She saw her first drag show in Missoula, in 2007. She took the stage as Johnny Spritzer in 2008. She and the other women who perform as drag kings in Montana are part of a cultural phenomenon that largely sprouted in urban centers in the 1980s.
King culture has now taken root even in small communities across Middle America, and it's helping transform the way that rural Montanans like Spritzer, along with the audiences he entertains, think about gender.
But this is not entirely academic. Drag also gives young women like Barber an opportunity to be assertive, raunchy and domineering—all the things that a young lady from Miles City isn't supposed to be.
"Once I came out, there was no going back," she says.
Between masculine and feminine
Breanna Barber hung a picture of President George W. Bush in her Miles City high school locker not that many years ago. She thought the photo provided a cover, a testimony to her supposedly conservative values. If her classmates had known "any part of what I was," she believed, "they would somehow deduce that I was not like them. And that would be a horrible thing."
Barber says she knew early on that she was gay, but coming out just wasn't doable. She didn't feel safe. "I was a very different person. I was really, really scared of people finding out about me being gay. I just knew that there was this really horrible thing called homosexuality [and] I happened to be a part of it. And for some reason I couldn't choose not to be. It was this inner struggle."
Suzie Reahard's story is similar to Spritzer's. Growing up in Savannah, Georgia, she had temper tantrums when her mother forced her to wear a dress, she says. She retaliated when her parents gave her younger brother all the cool toys—trucks and racecars—and she was left with Barbies. "I would beat him up and steal his stuff."