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."
As a teenager, Reahard invented boyfriends so people wouldn't bother her about not dating. She came out at 19—to herself, at least. She told her parents when she was 20, she says, and they sent her to counseling.
Over the past several years, Reahard, who lives in Missoula now and performs as drag king "Stanley Upstanding," has become progressively more comfortable with her sexuality. Being a man onstage also helped her embrace the fact that she lives somewhere in the middle of masculine and feminine, she says. "It's made me more comfortable with who I am and how I am. I'm not somebody who's offended if somebody calls me 'he.' I don't really care. I'm not really connected to either gender."
The thrill of getting on a stage, of having adoring women grope and whistle, is also a significant lure. "I get cocky...I feel super-sexy," she says. "There's something about just going full-on dude that is totally empowering and fun."
Upstanding's blond hair is distinctly boyish. Compared to many of Missoula's "baby dykes," however, he's an old-timer. The 32-year-old co-produced Missoula's first all-king show in 2005. Drag queens dominated the drag scene then, he says, and he's happy to see that changing.
Upstanding says he loves watching shy young women like Spritzer assume a king's swagger. "They get up there, and they rock it. You see a smile on their face. They're so stoked. I think it's huge, especially because all these kids are shy and they've been picked on or they've been invisible most of their lives. They get onstage and they can be out there and just be themselves and not get judged, but be applauded and get dollar bills shoved down their pants."
It really isn't new
Annie Hindle made as much as $150 a week in the late 1800s performing as Charles Ryan in New York City on the vaudeville circuit. Faded black-and-white photos show Hindle with short dark hair and wearing a suit. Originally from Britain, Hindle was the first full-time male impersonator to gain a following in the United States. As Charles Ryan, she exuded bravado and flirted with ladies. According to an 1891 article in The New York Sun, she had no shortage of paramours: "Once, she compared notes with H.J. Montague, that carelessly handsome actor at whose shrine so many women had worshipped; but Hindle's admirers far outnumbered his, and they were all women, strange as that may seem."
Hindle married three times. The first two times were with men. The third, she married her female assistant. That wedding took place in a hotel in Grand Rapids, Mich. with a Baptist minister officiating. The bride wore a gown. Hindle gave the minister her stage name and wore a suit.
Such high-profile trans-machismo was unusual in 19th century America. Yet cultures throughout history have comprehended gender diversity, or fluidity. Anthropologist Will Roscoe estimates that more than 150 North American tribes recognized gay, lesbian and gender-mixed or "two-spirited" people before Europeans arrived in North America. Colonialism and Christianity wreaked havoc on such traditional communities. And in the 1900s, Puritan values lingered in America.
The Old Testament stipulates that wearing the clothes of another gender is an abomination. During Annie Hindle's time, cross-dressing was illegal in many American communities. The cult of domesticity lingered in middle- and upper-income households: Men went to work and women tended to the home and children. The ideal female was submissive and meek. If social pressure didn't restrain her, tight corsets did. The undergarments made it tough to breathe.
Alongside the lingering stigma and laws that banned it, cross-dressing became fashionable in artistic circles in the early part of the 20th century. In New York, Gladys Bentley performed bawdy blues songs while wearing a tuxedo. Author Radclyffe Hall wore suits while mingling in Parisian salons. Bentley and Hall were considered "sexual inverts," a common term for homosexuals of the time derived from a psychological theory that homosexuality stemmed from an inborn reversal of gender traits.
Hall's best-known book, The Well of Loneliness, drew a loosely autobiographical portrait of her own life. Published in 1928, it told the story of a masculine lesbian who struggles to reconcile her identity with social expectations of sexuality and gender. Though the book was not sexually explicit, Britain banned it after finding it obscene. It was only published in the United States after a protracted court battle, whereupon it sold 20,000 copies in its first year.
Cosmopolitan subculture showed up on the big screen when Marlene Dietrich donned a tuxedo, top hat and tailcoat to serenade a nightclub crowd in the 1930 movie Morocco. The scene ends with the first on-screen kiss between women in American history. Dietrich was nominated for an Oscar for her performance.
During and immediately after WWII, gender roles in the U.S. underwent significant transformations. As men went off to war, Rosie the Riveter put on her overalls and called on women to get to work. Females left the kitchen and gained relative freedoms in factories and the military. It became socially acceptable for them to wear pants—to work, at least. That shift enabled butch women, many of whom were lesbian, to forego frilly clothing without facing condemnation.
In 1955, the first lesbian social group, the Daughters of Bilitis, formed in San Francisco. The group aimed to assimilate with mainstream culture. DOB leaders asked members to keep their hair long and wear feminine clothes.
Nicole Murray-Ramirez presides over the International Court System, which hosts drag shows through its roughly 70 chapters in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. The 60-plus drag queen won't disclose his precise age, but he says he hasn't forgotten those days. "You've got to remember the atmosphere in society," he says. "Shock treatment was given to many. And it was all sanctioned."
After living through that, Murray-Ramirez appreciates the anger that boiled over in 1969 when, on a warm night at the end of June, police raided New York's Stonewall Inn. Police told the press that they'd stormed the Stonewall because it was selling liquor without a license. There were additional factors. Cross-dressing remained illegal. Same-sex dancing was also a prosecutable offense. Police harassment was common. But this time, rather than going quietly into the paddy wagons as they had so many times before, butch women threw stones and the queens took off their high heels. They fought back.
Police reports indicate that one female cross-dresser in particular escalated tensions. Some speculate that Storme DeLarverie, the lone king in a drag queen troupe called the Jewel Box Revue, was the troublemaker. DeLarverie expressed no remorse when remembering that night in an interview with the Stonewall Veterans Association years later: "A cop said to me, 'Move faggot,' thinking that I was a gay guy. I said, 'I will not' and, 'Don't you touch me.' With that, the cop shoved me. And I instinctively punched him right in the face."
Four police officers were injured the first night of the uprising. Thirteen people were arrested. The riots continued for six nights, signaling that LGBT people would no longer submit to harassment from the police or anyone else. Gay rights groups sprouted across the country in the months after Stonewall. A year later, New Yorkers marked the anniversary of the uprising with the country's first gay pride parade. "Our revolution and our Boston Tea Party," Murray-Ramirez says, "was started in many ways by drag queens and butch dykes."
The fresh slate
University of Montana Women's and Gender Studies department co-chair Elizabeth Hubble recalls it was a fall day in 2008 when a student approached her after class and said, "'I might be trans. I didn't even know such a thing existed.'"
"It brought tears to my eyes," Hubble says.
The sudden disclosure came after a female-to-male transsexual spoke to Hubble's class. Prior to that moment, the young student, from a small town in Montana, didn't have the vocabulary to express one of the most fundamental parts of who he was. "If you don't have the language to even talk about yourself, that's very dehumanizing," Hubble says.
The language and culture is out there now. It's just a matter of finding it. What happened in Hubble's classroom that day reflects a slow shift that is reshaping the way Western civilization thinks about gender. In the '70s, mainstream attitudes that directed women to be weak and submissive and men to be strong and stoic began to change. Androgyny came into vogue. Pop icons such as David Bowie, The New York Dolls and Patti Smith consciously worked to steer mainstream culture from traditional notions of gender. Smith, for instance, appeared on the cover of her 1975 debut album, Horses, in a white collared shirt, black slacks and a suit jacket slung over her shoulder. Her neck-length dark hair and angular face are neither feminine nor masculine. Smith said she was "beyond gender."
In the '80s, women for the first time began forming drag troupes in New York and San Francisco. This provided an outlet for a handful of butch women to express artistically their masculine sides. In 1989, Diane Torr began her New York-based "Man for a Day" workshops, giving king culture a significant boost. She taught women the basics: how to bind breasts seamlessly and apply natural-looking facial hair, as well as the most practical way to "pack." (Torr recommends a condom stuffed with cotton wool.)
Torr also used performance to poke fun at the implied power of masculinity. Adopting one of her many male personas, Jim Cross from the American Society of Men, she explained the body language one must have to be truly manly: "Don't let anybody enter your space...Don't be intimidated. Everything you look at, you could own, or you do own. That is the sense you want to convey...Rule number two: stop smiling. When you smile, it's an act of friendliness; you're conceding territory. It could make you open for exploitation. It's very nice to see women smiling; it makes them appealing, unthreatening. But as a man, it's important that you allow no way that somebody can permeate you..."
In the 1990s, a new wave of academics ushered in a fresh school of thought that gave a larger vocabulary and broader perspective to the rules governing gender. University of California, Berkeley professor Judith Butler was among the earliest academics to discuss "queer theory." In her 1990 book Gender Trouble, she chronicles a problem with the status quo: most people see biological sex shaping gender, which naturally leads to desire for the opposite gender. Butler argues that that doesn't fit many of us, saying there are infinite combinations of gender and sexuality. In an interview with The Believer magazine, she contended that limiting gender expression does significantly more harm than good. "Our notions of what a human being is problematically depends on there being two coherent genders," she said. "If someone doesn't comply with either the masculine norm or the feminine norm, their very humanness is called into question."
Hubble appreciates the new world that queer theory opens up to her students. "It gives people names and labels to give to themselves beyond the male/female, straight/gay," she says. "Queer theory, to me, opens up the door for people to talk about themselves in more liberating terms, but also in ways that are truer to who we are."
Queer theory complements drag. Both theory and performance strip away the social structures shaping gender. Deconstructing them exposes a bare slate that invites a world of possibilities.
"Drag allows people to explore gender in new and different ways," Hubble says. "It also shows the rest of us how we are performing our genders every day without even thinking about it."
Barber keeps Johnny's tricks in a small blue bag with a Chicago Cubs insignia. She uses an eye pencil to draw her sideburns, applying saved haircut trimmings between the lines. The end result is Elvis-like big black chops. Then there's the bulge in his crotch.
"I pack," Spritzer says. "This one's a sock, because it's comfy."
Barber studied the lyrics to "Blame it on the Boom Boom" for a few days before the Fox Club show, listening to the song over and over in her Northside home. Even with the preparation, she still gets stage fright, but, she says, "Once you get out there, the words disappear."
She has two Facebook pages, one for Spritzer and one for Barber, but says she rarely visits her "girl profile" anymore; it's mostly for family friends who "don't really know Johnny." Over the past five years, Spritzer has cut her hair progressively shorter and her street clothes have become more masculine. She doesn't want people to call her Breanna anymore. Johnny is better. "I get kind of weirded out when people call me by my girl name."
Even without the chops and swagger, Spritzer is androgynous. It can sometimes be tough for people to discern her gender, she says. "I actually see that in Wal-Mart all the time. First, [mothers] count all of their children, make sure, do a head count. Then they gather them up and put them behind them, like, 'I am a mother bear. Stay away from my children.' It makes people very uncomfortable."
That discomfort can engender violence. According to a 2003 survey by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, 55 percent of transgender youth—queers like Spritzer, intersex individuals, transsexuals and the gender ambiguous—reported being physically attacked. "People like Johnny are taking a risk in our society," Elizabeth Hubble says.
All my children
Johnny Spritzer is a member of the Imperial Sovereign Court of the State of Montana, which is part of a nonprofit organization that hosts drag shows all over the country and donates the proceeds to gay-friendly organizations. Its membership elected Spritzer as royalty in 2010 (new royals are voted in every year). He served as a prince and toured the Northwest with other members of Montana's court. During the coronation ceremony welcoming this year's new royals at the Holiday Inn Missoula in early September, Spritzer wore black armor that Barber fashioned from football pads spray-painted with wall texture and affixed with silver rhinestones. A silver poster-board dragon on his chest completed the look, which was something like a more martial Lady Gaga. It was a very gender queer ensemble.
When Barber came out as queer, she says, she felt alienated from her family. The court filled that void by providing Spritzer with a new drag family. It's customary for court members to create their own. "A lot of them had broken families, or couldn't really talk to their families, or didn't really understand," Spritzer says. "And so, we just form this family unit."
Drag queen Kiara Drake LaRose is Spritzer's wife. The young king has also "adopted" multiple "children," fledgling drag performers that Spritzer is helping to "bring up," he says. "I do that for a ton of new performers, just to show them that somebody's there."
Barber reconciled with her family this year, which means she now has two families. When she returns to Miles City these days to visit her parents, they love it when she shows them pictures of herself in drag, she says. They've even become de facto parents for some of Spritzer's court family, and her mother bought a new dress for one of Spritzer's drag queen daughters, marking a transformation that reinforces Spritzer's belief that society will one day accept and even welcome others like him.
"They've come past that organized religion into what Christianity was actually meant to be," Barber says, "the actual teaching philosophy behind it: 'Love thy neighbor.'"