Looking beyond gender stereotypes: Drag shows about art, not orientation

_Editor’s note: A previous version of this article stated that Kenneth Johnson’s stage name is “Kelasia Karmichael.” The correct spelling is “Kelasia Karmikal.” The Daily Illini regrets this error._

Meet Marcus Wilder. During the day, he works as a bartender in a sports bar and pool hall. At night, he works for Caterpillar, Inc., building dump trucks. Students and community members met Wilder on Friday night at the Illini Union but may not have realized it. At the Drag Race last Friday, the audience met Wilder as his alter-ego Ceduxion Carrington.

The show, which students and Champaign-Urbana residents attended, was sponsored by the Illini Union Board.

The audience members greeted the seven female impersonators with applause, cheers and monetary tips as they performed to songs by Britney Spears, Whitney Houston, Beyoncé and more. On stage, the performers elicited reactions from the audience. Off-stage, they talked about the art of drag and its purpose in society, breaking down the stereotypes associated with it.

“Gender identification is a part of (what) it is,” Wilder said. “And I think a lot of people think, because we do this, we want to be women. I think we want to be respected as impersonators and the males that create our alter-egos.”

Wilder said this is the biggest misconception about drag queens. He specified that Ceduxion is “only out on the weekends” and that the rest of the time he is Marcus. Wilder noted that female impersonators are stereotyped as feminine, but he believes most of the people he performs with are “pretty masculine gay men.” He said that femininity is something they actually have to tap into.

“That’s another stereotype: everybody thinks all drag queens are feminine in and out of drag, which is not the case,” Wilder said.

In addition to misconceptions about drag queens, Wilder said there are also misunderstandings about drag shows. He said many people view drag shows as a “gay thing,” but they are not orientation-based. Citing the movie “To Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar,” starring actors Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes, Wilder classified drag shows as entertainment forums.

“We can get Hollywood’s macho guys to do it,” he said. “Don’t look at it as an orientation-based event. Look at it as entertainment — something new, something refreshing.”

Beyond the stereotypes, another challenge that accompanies the drag community is dealing with family and friends. Kenneth Johnson, also known as Kelasia Karmikal on stage, said he has consistently had support from his family.

“There obviously was that whole coming out, mom crying, all that stuff,” Johnson said. “And then nothing ever changed. It was like ‘I still love you no matter what, etc.’ Sometimes she doesn’t understand it still, but she definitely has never ever stopped loving me and being there for me. And the rest of my family, for that matter, too.”

Johnson said he knows people who do not have the same support system as he and that some people don’t tell their families that they do drag. Although he is able to invite his family members to watch him perform, not everyone is in the same situation. He said, “It sucks to see that side of it as well.”

Johnson’s mom, Tamara, attended the show Friday night, along with other members of the Johnson family. She said when her son came out to her, she felt sad and shocked. Johnson said he assured her that she was “the best mom in the world” and that it was just who he was, she said.

Tamara Johnson said she enjoys watching her son perform.

“I love it, and I believe one day he’s really going to be big-time,” Johnson said. “I’m just glad that he has that attitude where he doesn’t care what anybody thinks or has to say about him. He’s always going to be Kenneth.”

Wilder said he has similar familial support, and his family comes to see his shows, too.

Drag isn’t all about overcoming obstacles, though. Wilder described drag as an art form and a movement and said it serves as an outlet for expression.

“This is an art. It is taking your natural-born face and sculpting it to try and look like someone unrecognizable,” he said. “A lot of people don’t recognize me outside of drag. So it’s definitely a contribution to a craft.”

Drag involves many avenues other than dressing up and disguising oneself, Wilder said.

“If you sew, there’s another craft there. If you want to do make-up, that’s another craft there. If you do hair, that’s

another,” he said.

Wilder said drag has been a part of society for years, and he thinks people’s understanding has been growing.

“It’s kind of pushing and opening people’s eyes,” he said.