Drag queen RuPaul towers over the legendary Milton Berle as they prepare to present the Viewers Choice Video Award category during the MTV Music Video Awards at the Universal Amphitheatre at Universal City. Calif., Thursday, Sept. 2, 1993. (AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian)
Drag queen RuPaul towers over the legendary Milton Berle as they prepare to present the Viewers Choice Video Award category during the MTV Music Video Awards at the Universal Amphitheatre at Universal City. Calif., Thursday, Sept. 2, 1993. (AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian)

What some may consider raunchy humor is actually more focused on activism, inclusion, and expression. Here’s a taste of what drag shows are really like in Michigan—no moral panic required.

MICHIGAN—In June, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel made a comment that launched a thousand reactions: “Drag queens make everything better. Drag queens are fun.”

Nessel—the state’s first openly gay attorney general—was responding in jest to a serious topic: a claim that children were being exposed to drag queens in school (for which there is no evidence, even from those making the claim). In her speech, Nessel was calling out the “fake issues” that divide Michiganders, yet have no impact on the very real issues facing the state.

Still, radical conservatives rallied against Nessel’s drag queens comment. Some legislators and candidates for political office are now actively working to ban drag performances entirely, and drafting legislation banning performers from public schools (again, there are no drag queen performances happening in public schools).

So let’s set the record straight on drag: Drag performances are simply another form of artistic expression. And like most art forms, some versions are inappropriate for children. But there’s nothing inherently “inappropriate” about the centuries-old practice of drag performances.

Barry Humphries Queen Elizabeth II
FILE-In this Nov. 24, 2003 file photo Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, left, meets Barry Humphries, aka Dame Edna Everage, at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh for the start of the 75th Royal Variety performance in Edinburgh, Scotland. Dame Edna Everage, the Tony Award-winning drag act known for her purple hair and oversized rhinestone eyeglasses, will soon open her final stage show tour in Australia. (AP Photo/David Cheskin, Pool, File)

Where do drag shows come from?

Drag performances date back centuries to the early Greek and Elizabethan theaters. At the time, women were not allowed to perform onstage—so it became necessary for men to perform as female characters. This idea, known as cross-casting, still exists in theater today with characters such as Peter Pan and Edna Turnblad from Hairspray, who are intentionally cast actors for characters of a different gender. It’s also common to see women cast into male roles as a form of social criticism, or as an artistic choice.

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Minnesota’s Flora Dora Girls, 1908. Source: The Minnesota Historical Society

Drag isn’t just for queens. Performers can also be any gender, including women dressing up as men being called “drag kings.” Other drag performers maintain the same gender they identify with, too.

It’s also not just for LGBTQ people. Drag shows became engrained into the gay community in response to the “homosexual panic” and dated laws against “deviance” in the post-Prohibition era, which came to include dressing as the opposite sex. This forced drag performances—which were already quite popular—into nightlife spaces, such as bars. This meant drag performers naturally occupied a space of activism and charity, a legacy that continues today and continues to chip its way into mainstream culture.

Bob Hope, Milton Berle
Milton Berle, in drag, performs a skit with Bob Hope during taping of the “Bob Hope Buys NBC” special at NBC Studios in Burbank, Calif., Sept. 8, 1985. June. (AP Photo/Shin)

Most of today’s drag performances have expanded outside of bars and nightclubs, and often carry a positive message of diversity and inclusion—yes, even for a family-friendly audience. Events such as Drag Queen Story Time, Drag Queen Bingo, and Drag Queen Brunch have expanded into restaurants, cafes, and even some libraries in Michigan.

Here are a few of Michigan’s drag troupes that you can see today:

Beauty Beyond Drag (Grand Rapids)

This Grand Rapids-based troupe is dedicated to bringing drag performances to all communities—and they’ve already started blazing that trail across Michigan and beyond.

A video of performer La Reine Divine recently went viral that shows the performer crying (tears of joy) during one of the city of Lowell’s first Pride celebrations. 

“It was the moment I got off the stage and I got to see the kids’ faces in the audience…seeing some of the parents start to choke up, it really hit me that this is important,” Divine explained.

Beauty Beyond Drag has continued to offer shows and charitable support to the Grand Rapids community and beyond—offering an inclusive experience dedicated to supporting good causes.

Visit the Beauty Beyond Drag website or Facebook page for more information about the shows.

Michigan Drag Brunch (Grand Rapids)

Michigan Drag Brunch is a traveling drag group that performs across the state. They are known as the first recurring brunch show in West Michigan, having had their start in Grand Rapids. 

The project’s founders, performer Gabriella Galore and CEO Trevor Straub, wanted to bring Grand Rapids’ great talent in an unfamiliar art form to more groups of people. So since then, Michigan Drag Brunch has expanded to spaces across the state, with proceeds donated to local non-profit organizations. Don’t bring the kids, though: Michigan Drag Brunch is strictly for adults.

Visit the website, Facebook, or Instagram pages for more information about upcoming shows.

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Hamburger Mary’s opened this year in Ypsilanti. (tempesttea/Flickr)

Hamburger Mary’s (Ypsilanti)

Originating in the fabulously gay-friendly city of San Francisco in the 70s, Hamburger Mary’s is a national franchise chain of drag-themed burger restaurants. Hamburger Mary’s was formerly a feature of the Grand Rapids nightlife scene, but this location has indefinitely closed. Fortunately, the Ypsilanti location remains, built this year to merge businesses with the local Tower Inn Pizza.

The restaurant specifically focuses on creating an accepting space for local college students from Eastern Michigan University. Weekly theme nights feature regular drag performances— including Drag Bingo, multiple brunch performances, and an Open Stage Night for everyone.

Visit the website, Facebook, or Instagram pages for more information about upcoming events.

Boylesque (Ypsilanti)

Though this drag troupe overlaps with Hamburger Mary’s, they organized long before the chain restaurant came to town. Started by Jadein Black and Chanel Hunter, Boylesque has been performing in the Ypsilanti area and beyond for years—typically raising money for a charitable cause, like to support local teachers, Alzheimer’s research, or Planned Parenthood of Michigan.

Visit Black’s website or Boylesque’s Facebook and or Instagram pages for more information.

The Dark Art of Michigan (Lansing)

If you’re more of a fan of The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula instead of RuPaul’s Drag Race, then you’ll love The Dark Art of Michigan. Though not exclusively a drag troupe, the Dark Art of Michigan brings “spooky artists” together, which sometimes includes drag performers.

Co-founders Teisha King and Sean Peters created the space to form an artististic community where local creators could grow their skills and confidence. You can catch these delightfully macabre performers regularly around Greater Lansing at places such as the Avenue Cafe.

Visit the group’s Facebook or Instagram pages for more information about upcoming events.

Haus of Salad (Port Huron)

A new arrival on the Michigan drag scene is Haus of Salad, a troupe started by drag queen Supa Salad. And she brings a whole new level of performance to the drag stage—in the form of parenting. Supa Salad brings her real life young daughter to the stage to perform as Silly Salad in a family-friendly show, while also offering a platform to other local drag performers.

Using the platform of local businesses like Raven Café and Citadel Stage, Supa Salad has also helped organize other performances from the Glamorous Ladies and the Lads of Wrestling.

Visit Supa Salad’s website, Facebook, or Instagram pages for more information and a schedule.