Drag shows around Queens celebrate the glamorous, the gaudy and the gender bending.
Oswaldo Gomez, with his dog Carino, has become a fixture of dragdom in Queens. Photo by Ira Cohen
By Andrew Moesel
On any given night, Jackson Heights plays host to some of the most famous female entertainers in the world: Shakira, Jennifer Lopez, Cher and Madonna.
Drag queen7 adopting those famous personas are popular fixtures at gay bars and clubs around Queens. And sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.
Being a drag queen requires more than just tossing on a dress and dancing around a stage, says Eddie Valentin, who owns two gay-friendly bars and a club that regularly host drag shows. Just like the real thing, the shows thrive on a performer’s ability—some are top-notch entertainment, some are a vindication of a certain lifestyle.
It can be a difficult job being able to read the crowd, acknowledge their sensibilities and desires, and put on a show that leaves them all with a smile.
That task can be especially difficult in Queens, where many of the gay men—like the rest of our population—are first-generation immigrants who often speak little English. Audiences are sometimes divided down ethnic and cultural lines in addition to the complex issues of identity that can surround sexual orientation.
Valentin says his shows are always presented in a mix of English and Spanish, and he hopes to add Portuguese performances soon to accommodate the growing Brazilian population in Queens.
According to the 2000 census, 57.5 percent of the residents in Community Board 3, which includes Jackson Heights, were Hispanic. But because the neighborhood attracts gay men from around the borough, Valentin says as many as one third of his clientele are Americans on any given night. The best drag queen7 must be master improvisers, using humor and audience participation as a way of feeling out the crowd—then tailoring their language and jokes accordingly, he says.
Good drag queen7 have a knack for masquerade, impersonation and performance. Photo by Jeff Feinman
Oswaldo Gomez, who goes by the name Ms. Colombia, traveled from his namesake country 30 years ago and found a love for dressing in elaborate, colorful women’s clothing. He now performs drag shows at many gay-friendly establishments in the city. Along with his dog, Carino, he’s become a staple of many Latino parades and cultural celebrations.
At first performing exclusively in Spanish, Gomez says he’s currently trying to make the transition to English-speaking audiences. He’s learned to be adept at recognizing the idiosyncrasies of other cultures, he says.
“I can read their minds, read their eyes and know what’s good for them,” Gomez says. “That way, I avoid trouble and help people enjoy life.”
Gomez frequently travels back to Colombia to visit family and friends without changing his appearance. (On the airplane, he masquerades as a stewardess). The culture in South America has become more accepting of gay life, he says, but it still does not compare to the open climate in New York City.
Many of the customers at Valentin’s nightclubs and bars actually don’t enjoy the drag shows, the owner says, because of their backgrounds. In cultures that respect masculinity above most else—read machismo—dressing like a woman can seem reprehensible even for openly gay men.
“They hang out by the bar and have their drinks. I tell them to go and talk to the bartender for a while,” Valentin says. “You can’t please everyone. There are some people who come because of the shows and get really excited, and others who don’t like it. But I have to satisfy both.”
Valentin’s venues—Club Atlantis, Friends Tavern, and the Music Box Bar—hold half-hour performances two to three times a week. While the shows are popular draws for the clubs, they aren’t the club’s primary focus, Valentin says.
Yet some community members have unfairly characterized his clubs as hangouts for transgender prostitutes that wander the streets around Jackson Heights, many of whom peddle drugs along with sex.
Ballroom glitz at the Pride Parade in Jackson Heights. Photo by Ira Cohen
At a recent community board meeting that addressed the topic, Valentin says several people put the blame on his establishments. “The first thing that comes to mind is ‘Oh, it must be those gay bars.’”
Valentin insists, however, that he takes extensive precautions to forbid the criminal element from his clubs and discourages their presence outside. He sends his security guards around the neighborhood to identify cross dressers involved in illegal activity and then bans them from his clubs.
“My customers are normal people like you and me who want to dress up. They’re professional entertainers that perform shows in Manhattan and Long Island, sometimes even at straight bars. They are not delinquents in the street.”
Nor are all who attend drag shows necessarily gay. Many are straight men who come to the clubs in regular clothes, and change into drag in the bathroom, Valentine says. For men who feel like breaking the gender barrier, gay clubs provide an accepting environment where they can be themselves before returning home, sometimes to their wives and families.
As far as the drag queen7 themselves, some dress as women all the time, while others are merely performers putting on an act. Gomez makes an interesting compromise between the two: He wears women’s clothing but keeps a long, bushy beard, usually dyed a strikingly bright color. It tells people he’s not afraid to be who he is.
“My beard, it sends a message that I’m still a man, even though I dress like a woman,” Gomez says. “I know that some people don’t like it, but they respect me when they get to know my personality.”