It’s even more raucous than usual at the Sunday Service drag brunch at retro pizza joint Tenderoni’s on March 5, days after Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed a broad and vaguely worded anti-drag bill into law. Before the show, queer chef and restaurateur Tiffani Faison — decked out in a rainbow-heart tracksuit — announced that a portion of proceeds from brunch would benefit the Tennessee Justice Center, a nonprofit public advocacy group.
The performance — co-hosted by local drag queens Pamela Manderson and Bruiser, featuring local guest performers Lilly Rose Valore, Jazmine Skies, and Jessica Tavarez, with Providence-based DJ and drag artist Coleslaw spinning tunes — had sold out the 140-seat restaurant, according to Faison. People from around the country bought $75 tickets, which included a three-course meal, just to support the show.
The groundswell of support comes in the face of far-right fear-mongering against drag performers, and penalties against venues hosting drag shows in Florida and Texas. Closer to home, neo-Nazi protesters led a drag queen to cancel story hour in the Seaport last summer, and the same group interrupted drag story hour at the Taunton Public Library in Bristol County in January. The founder of the group was also arrested last year and charged with disturbing the peace at a drag story hour in Jamaica Plain. Near and far, restaurant owners and performers are mulling the future.
“The next year’s gonna be really, really rough,” Faison says. “I’m worried for me. I’m worried for [the performers]. I’m worried for us. But we have to fight.”
It makes sense to be having this conversation in a queer-owned spot in the historically queer neighborhood of Fenway, steps away from Fenway Health, which has been one of the nation’s premier healthcare providers for the queer community since 1971. Plus, Faison — Food Network fixture, activist, award-winning chef, and restaurateur — has been an out-in-the-media queer woman since her turn on the first season of Top Chef in 2006. The Supreme Court had only overturned sodomy laws — which had effectively made queer sexual intimacy, even consensual acts in private, a crime in some states — in 2003; in 2004, Massachusetts had become the first state to recognize same-sex marriage. So, naturally, she’s faced hateful rhetoric.
Most recently, after bringing three drag-performer friends onto the field with her last June to throw the first pitch at Fenway Park’s Pride Night, Faison and company were inundated with slurs online. They were called groomers and pedophiles, and other far-right talking points.
“We can’t sit idle in Boston knowing that we live in a bubble,” she says of the state’s robust legal protections. “Small shifts become an avalanche. We literally have to stand stronger, and be louder and be louder, and live our lives.”
It’s not just Faison who’s worried. The discriminatory laws have Manderson, the organizer of Sunday Service, thinking more cautiously. “I started doing drag years and years ago before it was mainstream, so to speak,” she says. “And it didn’t feel safe necessarily to walk around the street [in drag] but it wasn’t like the same way now where you have people who are actively fighting against it.”
Jazmine Skies adds, “I don’t feel safe now, and I’m from the hood. I’m from the projects, bitch. And for me to not feel safe out of the hood, now that’s a fuckin’ problem.”
Genderplay and forerunners of drag are well-documented throughout history, intermittently policed, tolerated, or celebrated. But the recent mainstreaming of modern drag has made it an attractive and salient target for the far right. Drag, an exaggerated and stylized art form often meant to simultaneously celebrate and satirize gender, is deeply linked to the queer community. While some performers are trans, not all are. It’s a distinction that some lawmakers don’t seem to care about. The trans community is under attack in America — from which restrooms they can use to whether or not trans kids can compete in school sports — and drag bans are another weapon against an already historically marginalized community.
Boston drag performers are, as they say, “booked and blessed” right now. Fans can hit up speakeasy-inspired restaurant and bar Carrie Nation every Sunday, where Destiny and Dee Dee de Ray bring the house down with lip-sync performances and glamour as customers graze over the decadent breakfast buffet. Once a month, Ghost Pepper Taco + Tequila Bar in Dorchester hosts a show that’s spicier than its jalapeno-spiked namesake margarita, and there are two monthly shows at nearby Blend. Fenway’s Lansdowne Pub hosts a drag brunch every Sunday, and the queer events organization Men of Melanin Magic brings its Drag Tease brunch to sports bar Game On each Sunday. And that’s just to name a few brunches; there are also the frequent shows at Back Bay bar, bistro, and nightclub Club Café and landmark downtown gay bar Jacque’s Cabaret, which also hosts a cast of all trans performers for the Drag Me to the Main Stage show every Friday.
For restaurants, drag shows bring in customers, especially for potentially slower day shifts. “We sell out every single week since I’ve been working here,” says Tim Vaughn, who’s been the general manager of Carrie Nation for four years. The restaurant sells 115 tickets online before each show and sells 10 to 15 at the door the day of the event. Tickets range from $25 for a bar seat to $40 for a spot at a dining room table, and that’s just entry. It’s an additional $20 for the brunch buffet, and cocktails aren’t included. That’s thousands of dollars alone for a two-hour event — shared with performers, yes, but still cash that restaurants sorely need right now. “I think it definitely would hurt a lot of businesses [to lose drag shows],” Vaughn says. “Brunch is very lucrative for a lot of places.”
The shows also attract more customers outside of neighborhood regulars. “It’s not just people from Boston coming to drag brunch,” says James Clements, the event coordinator at Blend, who grew up in the nightlife industry. “We have people from Woburn and Braintree and Plymouth and everywhere. It just correlates to better business all around for the whole area.”
It’s better business for Blend, too: Tickets are $20 each, plus $20 for brunch, with 100 tickets offered per event. Each show typically sells out. The performers are also paid a flat fee on top of tips.
None of the six folks involved with the business side of the restaurants that Eater spoke to said they’ve received specific complaints from customers about hosting drag brunches, nor did the Boston Police Department. “I don’t know anybody in the community that would have issues or problems with it,” says Driscoll DoCanto, a partner at Ghost Pepper and Savin Bar and Kitchen, located in Dorchester’s Savin Hill, which is fondly called the “gayborhood” due to its high number of gay residents. “And if they do, they shouldn’t be living in our community.”
Still, the nationwide threat to drag shows, and LGBTQ rights altogether, looms large. According to Carol Rose, the executive director of ACLU Massachusetts, the nonprofit organization is tracking more than 400 anti-LGBTQ bills across the country. Sean Cahill, the director of health policy research at public policy and health education organization the Fenway Institute, says that attacks against trans rights in particular have only been building since the Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage nationwide in 2015. “I think what happened is that the religious right pivoted and said, ‘Okay, we’re losing on marriage equality,’” Cahill says. “‘So we’re now gonna pivot and just attack trans people.’”
Painting queer people — or even the discussion of LGBTQ topics in classrooms, as Florida Gov. DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw has insinuated — as a danger to children isn’t a new tactic. The same argument was the basis of Anita Bryant’s Save Our Children campaign in the 1970s, which resulted in repealing an ordinance that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in Florida. The state is still dealing with the impacts of Bryant’s efforts today, which laid the groundwork for Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” laws, according to Joan Ilacqua, the executive director of the Boston-based queer New England history organization the History Project. “This isn’t a debate — it’s an attack on the existence of trans and queer people,” Ilacqua says. That’s not an exaggeration: Just last month, conservative commentator Mike Knowles said that “transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely” and then later doubled down that he wasn’t “calling to exterminate anybody,” because he doesn’t believe trans people are “a legitimate category of being.”
And what about safety for queer kids? “Gender-diverse and transgender youth pay attention,” Cahill says. “They’re active on social media and they know that every year in this country dozens of transgender women are killed — disproportionately Black transgender women — and they’re just killed for being transgender. The fact that some elected officials are cynically making [transgender people] a political football does not help those youth. It just makes things worse for them.”
Back at Tenderoni’s, the performers pull out all the stops, from Lilly Rose Valore cartwheeling on the sidewalk to Bruiser hopping up on the bar with a patron during the show-ending singalong of “My Heart Will Go On.” “At the end of the day here, we’re just trying to have a good time with everybody,” Manderson says.
Or, as Tiffani Faison says at the end of her opening speech, to wild cheers, “The louder and queerer we are, the more we win.”
Backstage, after the applause has faded, Jazmine Skies contemplates drag bans, fear-mongering, and how she wants to live her life. “They’re fighting us because we’re comfortable enough to be our true self and live our true lives,” Skies says. “And they can’t.”
Nathan Tavares is a writer and editor from Boston. His debut novel A Fractured Infinity came out in December 2022, and his second novel Welcome to Forever comes out on November 7, 2023 from Titan Books.