You enter through a narrow door and slink down a flight of stairs, walls confining you on both sides. As you descend the steps, you feel a beat thumping against the soles of your shoes. It’s a Wednesday night, and the street outside is mostly empty — nothing special seems to be taking place in this small college town tonight.
But what shines in this underground bar is so much more.
At the bottom of the stairs, you’re greeted by pop music, two bouncers and zero windows. Warm string lights adorn the ceiling, complementing the colorful party lights flashing on and off repeatedly — a textbook dive bar. Five high-top tables and one long bench surround a cement dance floor, and seats are quickly snatched up. Two pool tables sit to the left of the door, but right now, not a single person is playing. Now is not the time for billiards.
It’s the night before Valentine’s Day, and outside, it’s cold and dark. But after getting through the line and entering the bar, you don’t think about the gloomy weather or tomorrow’s Hallmark-card holiday. Anxiety seems to evaporate as empowerment fills its place.
As the clock ticks on, the bar begins to fill rapidly. This is Bar 1868, and tonight, there’s a drag show in Oxford, Ohio.
It’s fitting that the only regular drag shows in Oxford take place in a bar that’s beneath the surface, because that’s where the root of modern drag comes from: underground. In back-alley bars and dance halls, drag grew into itself.
That’s not to say drag culture didn’t exist before it made a home in bars — it’s been around for millennia, and has evolved throughout time.
“Men have been dressing in what’s considered ‘women’s clothes’ and vice versa for probably as long as human beings have been wearing clothes,” said Trixie Mattel, the winner of “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars” season three, in an interview with Allure.
However, the term “drag” originates from the theatre world. Centuries ago, “drag” was primarily used to describe a man or woman dressed in clothing typically donned by the opposite sex, usually for plays. The name “drag” is a reflection of itself, describing long skirts and dresses dragging along the floor.
In the early 20th century, drag culture became an underground scene, where queens felt safer to express themselves in a time when homosexuality was outlawed. In the second half of the century, drag balls soared in popularity — a viewing of the 1990 documentary “Paris Is Burning” gives a front-row seat to Harlem drag balls, featuring legends like Pepper LeBeija and Willi Ninja, as well as several iconic drag houses.
We can thank 1980s drag balls for today’s go-to sayings like “yas queen,” “spill the tea” and “throwing shade.”
Mother Flawless Sabrina, Dame Edna Everage, Divine, Lady Bunny and RuPaul are just some of the queens who helped pave the path for drag throughout the late 20th century.
As the decades passed, drag became more and more mainstream, with several queens taking lead roles in film, TV and theater (think Hedda Lettuce, Miss Coco Peru, Miss Understood, Candis Cayne and Joey Arias).
Today, “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” a reality TV competition in search of “America’s next drag superstar,” has been widely credited for bringing drag into mainstream culture. The show has aired for 10 years and displays no signs of slowing down. Over the years, the show has won nine Emmys and boasts a half million-plus viewers.
With drag becoming bigger and bigger, it’s no wonder, then, that Bar 1868’s monthly drag shows bring in an ever-growing crowd.
As the minutes pass on this particular Wednesday, a line of people eager to hand over their IDs and a $5 bill for cover fills the stairway.
On drag show nights like these, Bar 1868 hosts an open stage beginning at 9 p.m., which gives rising queens the chance to perform. Shortly after 10 p.m., more experienced queens take the spotlight.
P.H. Dee, a drag queen local to Cincinnati, Dayton and Oxford, is the emcee for tonight’s open stage. She scans the room and slides between two rows of people to the center of the spotlight.
“Y’all texted your friends [to come], didn’t you?” P.H. Dee asks the crowd a quarter after 10, noticing every seat had been filled. The crowd cheers in affirmation. “Y’all havin’ fun?” The crowd woos louder.
Yes, they did, and yes, they are.
Just last October, P.H. Dee performed for the very first time on this exact concrete floor at the open stage.
Five months later, she’s officially on the cast at Bar 1868, and consistently performs at several bars and events in the greater Cincinnati and Dayton areas. In February, she was even crowned Miss Red and White, which is a title for the Imperial Sovereign Queen City Court of the Buckeye Empire, a Cincinnati-based nonprofit that raises money for a variety of local charities.
Tonight, she introduces rising queens to a room full of college kids.
“These are our fierce queens who come out for the love of drag,” she says to the crowd. “If you may, kindly tip them a dollar or tip them a $20, or buy them a shot.”
Almost everyone in the room collectively lifts their vodka sodas and cheers for what seems like the millionth time that night. Positivity radiates around the room, and you can’t help but feel it.
Once the open stage ends, the more seasoned queens perform. Close to midnight, P.H. Dee takes the stage for her first performance of many that night.
She dons long yellow hair that drapes down to her waist, a black statement necklace, a silver-studded bodysuit, fishnet tights and shiny thigh-high boots, finished with a leather jacket.
She struts down the concrete dance floor as the crowd cheers her on, holding out dollar bills for the taking. She lip-syncs along to “Woman’s World” by Cher.
“Torn up, busted, taken apart / I’ve been broken down / Left with a broken heart /
But I’m stronger / Strong enough to rise above / This is a woman’s world / This is a woman’s world.”
P.H. Dee is the stage name of 30-year-old Joshua Jones, who’s always had an affinity for drag culture as an audience member, but is new to the scene as a performer.
“Drag is a staple in gay culture,” he says. “I go to drag shows all the time and for a long time, it’s just been something like, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to do that? Wouldn’t it be fun to do that? Wouldn’t it be fun to do that?’ And the timing was right last semester. … [My drag debut] was back in October, and it just kind of snowballed from there. I just went hard.”
He says he wanted to give drag a shot shortly after beginning his tenure as a doctoral student in Miami’s English department.
“Grad school forces you to kind of be on 24/7,” Jones says. “Even my advisors were like, ‘What are you doing for yourself outside of this? ’Cause, like, you’re kind of a workhorse.’”
Jones realized he didn’t have an answer to that, and wondered if drag could be that outlet. After his very first performance, he says he knew he’d immediately found something he loved.
“The second I stepped out on the stage and just heard the cheering — it’s like a high,” he says. “That kind of got me going.”
P.H. Dee serves as Jones’s alternate ego.
“She’s a character, but she has so much more confidence than I do as Josh,” he says. “I’m actually pretty reserved and kind of shy and timid, but P.H. Dee is just very willing to dance around. She just has a badass energy that I wish trickled into my boy life.”
But Jones’s journey to emitting such courageous energy in P.H. Dee’s performances hasn’t come without difficulty in his day-to-day life.
“The number of times I was called the f-slur just walking down the street on and off campus, in the grocery store and wherever is wild and disgusting,” he said. “They don’t necessarily have to say anything [for me] to know what they’re thinking, you know? Even if they aren’t calling me that as I’m walking down the street, the side glances, the double takes — like, I’m very visibly queer. I mean, I wear clothing that conforms to the gender that I identify with, and so I kind of have privilege that goes with that, but my behaviors and my mannerisms are pretty flamboyant. … I don’t quite have the straight-passing privilege that a lot of people feel pressured into performing.”
But Jones persists, despite the undeniable hardships he’s faced.
“I actually saw a really beautiful meme that said something to the effect of … living your true self, for lack of a better term, is an act of bravery,” he said. “It just really resonated with me because, like, I could work really hard to be hyper-masculine and try to fit in, or I could just be me and say, you know, fuck the haters.”
Drag is a source of pride and fun for Jones and other queens in the spotlight, but also for those watching and cheering from the sidelines. Lucas VanArsdalen, a 22-year-old senior at Miami, has gone to every drag show, every single month, since last fall.
“October, November, December, January, February,” he counts on his fingers. “And I’ll for sure go to the other ones. They’re already in my calendar. The moment I found out when all the shows were, I immediately called off of work [for those dates] for the whole semester,” he says with a laugh.
While VanArsdalen has been to drag shows before in New York and Columbus, Ohio, he says going to his first drag show in Oxford back in October carried extra meaning for him.
“It was one of the few times that I’ve felt, like, very comfortable being gay in Oxford or at Miami in general,” he says. “[The shows] are just fun to see, and it’s one of the few times that there’s any kind of LGBTQ-themed event, not just at Miami, but in Oxford in general.”
The feeling is mutual between the audience and the queens who perform.
“Any show in general is a privilege to be up on stage,” says Scarlett Fever, a drag queen on the cast at Bar 1868 and one of the show’s hosts. “The crowd here is absolutely amazing. They’re accepting and everything … I’ve been doing this for 10 years, and the crowds never cease to amaze me here and there. Absolutely incredible.”
But behind the positive energy and elaborate wardrobes, being a drag queen is far from easy. For the majority of queens, performing is a labor of love without much financial kickback.
“It’s very expensive. You have to do it for the love of it,” Jones says. “For local queens like us, it’s a hobby. It has to be a hobby.”
“It can at most maybe be a part-time gig, but it’s not really sustainable,” he says. “You put much more money into it then you get out of it.”
Jones says that while an average performance will rack up $20 in tips for P.H. Dee, he’s easily spent $1,000 in the last few months building up a wardrobe and buying makeup.
“Drag queens have the hardest job in show business,” said Randy Barbato, the co-founder of World of Wonder, which produces “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” in a phone interview with The New York Times.
That they do. At tonight’s show, Scarlet doesn’t let the crowd forget it, either.
“It takes a lot of money to look this cheap,” she says into the microphone. “I got feathers around my goddamn neck!”
Tonight’s crowd at Bar 1868 is notably bigger than the ones at last semester’s drag shows. And just like at this show in Oxford, the global audience of drag shows has amplified exponentially.
Most of us know about the huge success of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and its spinoff, “RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars.” But beyond that, events like DragCon are soaring in numbers, and are projected to keep getting bigger. Last year’s DragCon racked up “$9 million in merchandise sales on top of the $40 entry fee paid by more than 40,000 people last year,” according to an article published by the BBC.
But does bigger always mean better?
“I think the mainstreaming of anything is a double-edged sword,” Jones says. “On the one hand, it brings visibility, and with visibility comes empathy, inclusion, acceptability. But … mainstreaming anything kind of has a history of [something] losing its roots.”
“I think it’s good drag is becoming mainstream — in parts,” VanArsdalen says. “You still have to remember to support your local drag queens, because otherwise they’ll never become that famous if that’s what they desire to do. Sure, go to events where these famous drag queens are at, but definitely go support the local ones. Support the ones that are just doing it for fun.”
Jones says that while woman-passing drag (like you might see on “RuPaul,” for instance) is becoming more culturally popular, other forms of drag are often swept aside.
“Acknowledge that drag can look any way,” he says. “A lot of the drag that gets the attention is like, the feminine side of drag. But there’s non-binary genderfucking drag, there’s drag kings, there’s whole slews of manifestations of drag that don’t get the recognition.”
Jones also points out the importance in acknowledging drag’s rich history and all its parts.
“I think RuPaul, for example, has kind of opened a gateway to visibility of drag in mainstream communities. I think that as one of the trailblazers, he has a responsibility to acknowledge other types of drag. … Drag is not just men in dresses, right? Drag is an art form that has a history and that is very closely related to trans identity,” Jones says, noting that while drag and trans are two very different things, they have a big overlap that can perhaps is forgotten in the mainstream culture.
Several professional drag queens have publicly spoken about the mainstreaming of drag, too. An article published by Vox notes that a “RuPaul’s Drag Race” contestant spoke out against the show: “Jasmine Masters stated that ‘‘‘Drag Race” fucked up drag’ by creating a culture wherein queens who haven’t been on the show get shut out in favor of anyone who has, regardless of their other qualifications or lack thereof.”
Mainstreaming is, no doubt, tricky. But, in the growing world of drag, this tiny bar in Oxford and its cast of drag queens pushes calmly against any negative tides, promising to always offer an exciting, accepting place to escape.
“You have the big development of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race,’ and you have a lot of development of certain mainstream gay cultures,” Scarlett says. “[But] there’s not a lot of places still for people of a younger age or mid-age even to go out and just celebrate who they are and who they want to be. And we’re here to celebrate that comfortability.”
To Bar 1868’s owner Lee Ann Shoker, the drag shows are a success.
“It is always a fun night for the talent, audience and staff,” Shoker said. “Generally a high-energy event.”
Kisha Summers, another drag queen at Bar 1868 who’s in charge of organizing the shows, says that the cast holds warm regards for the bar.
“Every time we come here, there’s something new. There’s something better,” Kisha says. “The management, the bar staff, the crowd, it always treats us exceptionally.”
VanArsdalen, too, says he enjoys the setting of the shows at this underground dive.
“This [bar] is just so much fun because it’s so small,” he says. “Like, you’re so close to the drag queens, which makes it really enjoyable. There’s a sense of being so close to them, surrounding them in a circle, in Bar 1868 that makes it really cool. The ceiling is so low that one time a queen’s high heel hit the lights on the ceiling.”
For so many, this bar is more than just a bar, and these drag shows are far more than just performances.
“This is the getaway from any of your day-to-day problems, any emotional things you might be going through,” Kisha says. “We’re here to lift your spirits.”
“If [you] appreciate what we do, no matter if you’re straight, gay, bi, trans, whatever you are, then come here to have fun,” Scarlett says. “This is kind of a place where we keep reality outside.”
The night continues with more pop anthems and dollar bills flooding the dance floor, but, as all things do, the evening eventually comes to an end.
Kisha and Scarlett perform one last song, dancing and lip-syncing together. Then the music fades, and the lights come on.
“Thank you for coming out,” Scarlett says to the audience, smiling. “Thank you for being yourself.”