Makeup cases, hairspray, wigs and costumes fill the dressing room. Men are walking around the room wearing only nude colored tights and women are starting to apply facial hair. The transformation process has just begun.
Josh Holmquist sits in a chair wearing a black, one-shouldered dress, black leggings that are covered in silver sparkles and black lace gloves that don’t fully cover his finger tips. He leans up against the backrest of the chair as a man stands over him applying bright blue eye shadow to his eyelids. His makeup artist is preparing him for the biannual drag show that takes place at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He sits there patiently yet nervous because he is s a “drag virgin” as the host of the drag show referred to first-time drag performers.
“I kind of had an idea of what it was going to be like because I’ve helped out, but actually having it done to me is a whole different ball game,” Holmquist said. “It’s a lot longer process than I thought it was.”
Holmquist began transforming into Lady Gaga two hours before the start of the show. Dark blue eye shadow is now being applied over the bright blue, and a thick line of eye liner is added to the edge of his eyelids. Artificial eyelashes are glued to Holmquist’s top eyelids and pink blush is added to his cheeks.
“I’ve never worn fake eyelashes before,” Holmquist said. “Every time I blink, it’s a fight to get them open.”
Although the process of changing into a drag king only took two hours, Holmquist has been preparing for this event for more than four months. He started choreographing his routine right after the fall 2009 drag show, which took place in November. According to Natalie Klueg, chairperson of QASU, this is the ninth year the drag show has taken place at UMD. However, the drag show has only been put on biannually for the last few years.
Drag shows are interactive performances in which the performer usually dresses as the opposite sex and struts and dances down the runway-styled stage. Audience members can walk up to the edge of the stage and hand performers tips. Drag shows often take place at bars among a drunken audience. Klueg stressed that although drag shows are meant to be fun, bringing them to UMD was meant to normalize the gay culture and allow gender expression to be a performance.
“It was about bringing it to students as a culture and not just a party,” Klueg said.
Dressing in drag allows people to express their gender identity and their sexual orientation. According to George E. Haggerty’s book, Gay History and Culture, drag also empowers people by allowing them to obscure their identity.
According to transgendered motivational speaker and author, Kate Bornstein, “from the 1960s through the 1970s, most all of the male-to-female spectrum of gender outlaw began their transition in the fabulous world of sexy, over-the-top drag performance…The majority of MTF (male to female) transsexuals just wanted to live their lives as closely as possible to whatever their notion was of ‘a real woman.’”
The minute hand ticks by fast as Holmquist touches up his makeup, readjusts his curly, blond wig and does mini motions to mark his routine even though he knows he has it down.
“I’m absolutely terrified right now,” Holmquist said. “But I think it’ll be a whole different ball game when I get out there. I know my routine. I think a lot of it is just getting out there and doing it.”
There is only 10 minutes until the opening act. Klueg stands up on a chair and begins making announcements in a very authoritative voice. She introduces herself, and she lays down the rules. Klueg stresses that although it is an interactive show, QASU doesn’t want any of the audience members to feel uncomfortable at any point during the show.
“Take the money from their hand, and if you want to kiss them, that’s fine,” Klueg said. “But no touching the audience members. If it happens tonight, we can’t let you perform here again.”
As she wraps up her speech, she yells “Ten minutes ‘til show time!” Everyone in the dressing room cheers and claps with excitement.
The lights in the Kirby Ballroom dim. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple streamers hang from the ceiling to the floor at the back of the stage. The columns supporting the ceiling throughout the ballroom are wrapped with streamers as well, and rainbow-colored balloons are taped along the walls. The drag performers waiting to take the stage stand at the back of the ballroom to watch their peers perform. Alyssa Longley, a second-time drag performer, stands behind another female student with her hands placed around the girl’s waist. The girl is pulled close to her body and they are swaying back and forth to the beat of the music. Two male student performers kiss each other backstage and say “I love you” to one another as they depart.
“It’s amazing how the atmosphere can be so different,” Longley said. “For once I’m in the majority, and I’m always a minority. Everyone here is an ally.”
Holmquist paces back and forth between the dressing room and the ballroom as he waits for his turn to perform. Finally, the moment has come.
“Please welcome to the stage, UMD’s little monster, Eva Destruction!” the emcee shouts into the microphone.
Lady Gaga’s song “Bad Romance” pours through the speakers. The second Holmquist takes the stage, he is Lady Gaga. Josh Holmquist doesn’t exist anymore. He struts down the runway like he owns the place. He shakes his hips and lip-synchs to the song lyrics. The audience is screaming. Twenty-six audience members are standing by the edge of the stage to give him tips. The second the music stops the audience stands up and claps with their hands above their heads. Holmquist receives the first standing ovation of the night.
At least 10 audience members compliment Holmquist on his performance before he has the chance to leave the ballroom. “You were awesome!” one audience member said. Longley, Holmquist’s friend and fellow QASU member and drag performer said, “You made everyone in here who didn’t like Gaga, like Gaga.”
Most importantly, Holmquist’s mom and sister run up to him wearing brightly colored T-shirts that read “Gay? Fine by me” and congratulate him on his wonderful performance. Holmquist’s mom, who saw her son dressed as a woman for the first time, throws her arms around him and holds him tightly. As she backs away from the embrace, she wipes a tear of joy away from her eye.
Holmquist exits the ballroom to remove his makeup and change into the outfit for his second performance, in which he will be playing Romeo from Taylor Swift’s song “Love Story.” He sits down at a round table in the dressing room to catch his breath and get ready for his next performance.
“So, how fun was it to take off your shoes?” a drag queen wearing a red and black outfit with a short black wig asks Holmquist.
“My feet are still gaining my color back,” Holmquist says as he shows his friend his foot. “I pulled them off, and I went ‘thank you for letting me breathe!’”
“You didn’t look like you were in pain on stage,” another one of his friends says.
“Adrenaline does wonders.”
Holmquist’s adrenaline took over during his performance, and he didn’t remember much of it once he strutted off stage. Even though he may not vividly recall the three minutes he was on stage, the process of transforming into a drag queen and expressing his sexuality to hundreds of people will always be a monumental chapter in his life.
“It was almost hard because it was kind of like closure of who I am as a person,” Holmquist said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been as close to my mom as I was after the drag show. It was one of the most pivotal moments I’ve ever had.”
One of the most important aspects of Holmquist’s performance was that he was able to transform into someone else and he received a tremendous amount of support while doing it. Holmquist chose to perform as Lady Gaga because he loves her music, her style and everything she advocates.
“She’s standing up for everyone who has ever been called a freak and letting them know it’s OK,” Holmquist said. “How she represents herself and why she represents herself means a lot to me.”
Prior to attending UMD, Holmquist completed his first two years of college at St. Cloud State University (SCSU). He transferred to UMD for his junior year of college because he found SCSU to be a very conservative community, and he wanted to be a part of a culture that was more broadminded. Holmquist only came out one year ago. He was not part of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Alliance (GLBT) at SCSU because he was worried about the lack of support.
“I wasn’t out yet, so I had my reservations about joining,” Holmquist said. “I felt like if I joined, it automatically outed me.”
Holmquist hadn’t yet disclosed his sexual orientation to his parents, and he was afraid that the truth would somehow trickle back to them. He was afraid that the social ramifications of disclosing his sexual identity would be upsetting. He was afraid of being disowned by the people he loved.
Two weeks after his final semester at SCSU, he came out to his family. He revealed his deepest secret to his mom via email because he knew then she wouldn’t be able to walk away from him. Typing his feelings came naturally, but hitting send was the hardest part.
Transferring to UMD resulted in a positive experience for Holmquist. He felt accepted by the UMD community, and he no longer felt like he needed to hide his sexual orientation from his peers.
“To be able to come out, it was really refreshing and nice,” Holmquist said.
As Holmquist was removing his black nail polish from his Gaga performance, he mentions that he recently attended a presentation made by Kate Bornstein. It was at this presentation that Holmquist heard the quote that he lives by.
“I’ve learned to survive in a world that would rather see me dead.”
Being gay hasn’t always been easy for Holmquist. He has been harassed and hazed and treated unfairly. He was once drugged at a bar, dragged outside, beaten and left for dead in the woods in Duluth. He has lived in fear. Fear of social rejection. Fear that his family would disown him. He was once fearful of being himself. Through the support of family and friends, Holmquist has learned how to accept himself and he has learned how to endure the lifestyle that many people view negatively. He came to Duluth as “Josh Holmquist, who is gay” and he doesn’t let the opinions of others affect his opinion of himself.