On February 13th the United Multicultural Council of the University of Wyoming will be hosting its first Drag Show. However, the history of drag performance in Laramie can be traced to the Cowboy Saloon on October 22, 2005. On that day Laramie’s homegrown drag troupe, the Stilettos, took the stage and entertained Laramie audiences for the first time.
Although drag in Wyoming has only been popular since the 1990’s the practice of men dressing up as women has been a performance tradition for over three hundred years. Traces of this practice can be seen in ancient Roman and Chinese theater productions. At that time, men would appear as women in theater productions because women were not allowed to perform on stage. To be an actress was seen as crude and un-lady like. The etymology and application of the term drag queen is uncertain, but scholars believe that it derives from the usage of hoop skirts, by men dressing as women, in the late 1800s. It is believed that the term emerged because these hoop skirts dragged along the floor.
Modern day drag shows, like the one performed in Laramie on that October day, most often consist of a variety show that include performances and sketches. This particular aesthetic can be traced to the early 20th century with vaudeville artists like Julian Eltinge. These types of vaudevillian performances were quite popular, so much so that by the 1920s drag balls were being hosted by theaters and local establishments.
In the 1930s and 40s a double standard emerged in American and British society. On the one hand, if a drag queen was perceived to be a homosexual, or was seen as dressing as a woman for enjoyment, she was shunned and could face retaliation resulting in arrest and violence. However, if a man was seen as wearing drag for the sole purpose of entertainment, then it was possible to maintain an audience and make a living as a drag performer. The public was comfortable with men in women’s clothing, as long as the sole purpose was entertainment that did not radically subvert gender roles.
In the 1950s the stigma of drag performance heightened due to an increase in conservative values brought about by the era of McCarthyism and fear of subversion of the postwar American national identity. Although some drag performers continued to be popular in the mainstream limelight, trans women like Marsha Johnson, gay men who impersonated women, or who enjoyed presenting as female for pleasure, suffered great discrimination. By the late 50s and early 60s safe spaces such as the Casa Susanna, Stonewall Inn, and Compton’s Cafeteria we established as violence and discrimination against the LGBTQ community became prominent. These safe spaces functioned through obscurity, attempting to be ignored by the largely intolerant mainstream communities they inhabited.
During the 1960s drag queens became more prominent in the public eye, due to evolving social and moral standards. Locations like Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco and the Stonewall Inn in New York City were the epicenters of LGBT activism and visibility, in part due to being targeted for police violence for their acceptance of drag performers, trans men and women, and sex workers. It should be noted that although these spaces began to emerge and be established, the LGBTQ community itself still faced immense amount of discrimination in societal and lawful settings that persists to this day.
The emergence of drag in Wyoming in the 1960s and 70s is quite uncertain, because of lack of documentation. However, Jim Osborn believes that drag queens did exist here in Wyoming in the 1970s because, as he chuckled in an interview, “the 70s happened here in Wyoming too.” Jim Osborn, also known as Martina Gras, has been a drag performer in the Laramie community for over a decade, and is a founding member of the drag troupe the Stilettos. He is one of the brainchildren behind the first drag show in Laramie, Wyoming; and he gave us the pleasure of allowing AHC archivists to interview him for the Out West in the Rockies collecting initiative.
The idea to have the first drag show in Laramie emerged out of the annual AIDS walk. In 2001, Laramie hosted that annual event for the first time. As a means of promotion, a group of Laramie residents including Osborn went down to Tri City Shots, one of the popular lesbian bars in Fort Collins, Colorado. It was at Tri City Shots that they encountered a group of drag queens, and it was this meeting that sprung the now known, and beloved, annual Laramie event of Drag Queen Bingo. The first few years Drag Queen Bingo was hosted by drag queens, from Denver, Colorado, that would drive up to Laramie to participate in the event. However, in 2005 Osborn and two of his friends decided that they could, and wanted to, partake in the art of performing in drag. The idea was to host a drag show that would serve as a fundraiser for the Rainbow Resource Center at the University of Wyoming.
The show was held at the Cowboy Saloon on 2nd street on October 22, 2005. According to Osborn, the crowd was such that it only allowed for standing room and featured one of “the most gay and diverse audiences the Saloon has ever seen.” The Stilettos opened the performance with a video which told the story of how the queens had gotten to Laramie and it featured, among other acts, a version of “You Don’t Own Me” from the film the First Wives Club.
Prior to 2005 and the AIDS walk, drag queens had had an appearance in Osborn’s life. The first drag queens that he remembers hearing about in Wyoming were involved in an incident in the mid-1990s at the Ranger Bar. It was an otherwise ordinary day in Laramie, Wyoming. The local movie theater was playing The Adventures of Prisicilla Queen of the Desert (1994), one of the prominent films about drags queen released that year. Apparently, a group of drag queens had gone to see the film, in drag, and afterwards headed to the Ranger Bar. At that time the Ranger was regarded and seen as the safe place for members of the LGBTQ community. At some point during the drag queens visit at the Ranger there was an altercation. This resulted in the drag queens being asked to leave, and told that they were not welcomed at the Ranger any longer.
In the mid-nineties the Ranger was regarded as one of the de facto gay bar of Laramie; the others being Club Retro (now Shocktoberfest) and the Fireside (now the Library). Laramie has never had a bar, bookstore, or location (outside the University) that has been regarded as an official space for members of the LGBTQ community. Meaning, that there has never been a space claimed by the LGBTQ community in spoken and institutionalized policy, in Laramie or Wyoming for that matter. When asked to comment about why that is, Osborn states that he believes it is the lack of population “there just isn’t enough people to sustain something.”
The issue of creating a safe space for the LGBTQ community has been taken up by members of the LGBTQ community in Laramie, including Osborn. The University of Wyoming Rainbow Resource Center and Safe Zone training are examples of the initiatives that have been put in place due to the lack of community safe spaces. It was one of the reasons why the fundraiser for the Rainbow Resource Center resonated with the Laramie community, and why the presence of drag queen in Laramie is so astonishing, yet necessary and important.
The community of drag queens in Laramie is small but strong. The Stilettos take their art quite seriously to the point of ensuring that their performance, their imitation of women, is empowering to females in body and mind. They use their stage time to educate and entertain individuals about the issues surrounding the LGBTQ community. They include the trans community and ensure that people understand the difference between performing femininity and living womanhood.
Jim Osborn and the Stilettos will not be taking the stage on February 13th at the University of Wyoming, but their contribution to the show cannot go unnoticed. They are the first home grown drag troupe of Laramie, Wyoming, and they can be credited for bringing drag to Wyoming. The Stilettos broke down barriers that have allowed for the show that will be hosted Saturday night to happen. Although they will not grace the stage with their presence, they will grace it with their historical contribution, and later in the year with the fantastic Drag Queen Bingo.
We here at the American Heritage Center Out West in the Rockies, are extremely lucky to now have a tiny piece of the Stilettos history and hope to continue to document the incredible history of Wyoming and the West LGBTQ community. If you or someone you know has information about drag queens and/or drag history in Wyoming please contact us!
-Irlanda Jacinto, University Archivist