Drag Shows in Champaign-Urbana: Interview with Amy Myers

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Amy Myers onstage

Drag is an art. It is a culture.”

As a cis, straight woman, I did not fully understand the cultural importance of drag shows until 2019, when I was managing a community center that has a wonderful zine collection and venue space. 2019 was the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising; Krannert Center hosted Sasha Velour’s “Smoke & Mirrors,” and with Sasha came books and zines. The community center was rented out for Gay Ball on the date of the anniversary . . . and the Urbana police were stopping people as they came to the ball. That was the year that I learned why queens had to be fierce, strong, and fabulous.

Of course, queer culture is much bigger than drag shows. However, without question drag shows play a significant role in gay tradition throughout the world. Drag, along with “Voguing” and “the Ballroom Scene”—which developed in New York when Black and Latinx queer folks were not welcomed by the white queer communities—are essential to queer culture.

Champaign-Urbana has a long history of gay bars and drag shows. Just like other US cities, some were underground when they needed to be, and others were openly gay when allowed to be—by laws, statutes, and community approval. One of the bartenders from Chester Street Bar (aka C-Street), Amy Myers, still hosts drag shows.

I spoke to Amy in August, 2022 to ask her about the old days and about her current projects.

Myers told stories about the underground drag shows in Peoria in the early 1990s when she and a friend were looking for a place where they felt understood. Then, as young adults, they began driving the 90 miles to come to Champaign to visit the person Myers was dating. They discovered Chester Street Bar. With the younger community, C-Street instantly felt like home, as if they had found a whole room full of people who were like them.

Myers moved to Champaign and was bartending at Chester Street when drag queen Anita Mann needed backup dancers. Mann convinced Myers she could do it. Myers started doing “boy drag” (Drag King) and “ended up getting the microphone” and enjoyed it. She found herself hosting the weekly drag shows at C-Street for the next 20 years, until C-Street closed in 2017.

Other local bars and businesses then invited Myers to produce drag shows. More recently, Myers found that renting out a third-party venue gives her more freedom to use her vast experience, but it also means that she is taking on all the financial risk, and “I take a chance on the community to purchase tickets.”

In September, the historic Fischer Theater in Danville hired Myers to host a drag show as a fundraiser for them. The event went well.

Myers often rents the City Center at 505 S. Chestnut St., Champaign as her venue of choice. Once she finds a good working team, she feels like they are family—they take care of her, and she takes care of them. She knows every drag queen that she books, she knows the special skills they bring to the show. “Everyone takes care of each other,” she says. “The girls definitely get treated very, very well.” The queens get paid for their art, travel expenses, “whatever they request.”

Juanito’s Tacos regularly caters Myers’s events. “I want to make sure everyone is fed. I love Juan, and the venue doesn’t have food.” Myers also hires a professional photographer, Lindsey Taylor (they/them), and their photos are posted to Myers’s Facebook page so people can remember the evening. Taking your own photos is also encouraged.

In some ways, Myers says, “Drag is more evolved,” more mainstream now. We see drag on TV: shows like “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” “The Boulet Brothers’ ‘Dragula’,” “Call Me Mother,” “Queen of the Universe,” “We’re Here,” “Pose” (about the ballroom culture), “Legendary” (reality TV show), and “Hey Qween” (a talk show)—numerous documentaries, drag competitions, drag paint-and-sips, and the list goes on. One can find family-friendly events as well, but the party scene is Myers’s forte. “Who doesn’t like to party with the gays?”

I asked Myers for etiquette advice for attending drag shows.

Bring one-dollar bills for tips. The performers don’t necessarily expect tips, but as Uniting Pride writes, “Drag performers are multi-talented […] They are makeup artists, costume designers, dancers, lip sync assassins, comedians, improvisers, actors, writers, marketing and publicity gurus, and more. To tell them how much we appreciate their amazing work, we hand them tips as they perform. These artists are often underemployed and underpaid, especially considering all their hard-earned skills. So when you love what they’re doing, show them with those dollar bills!”

Myers says, “Please don’t touch the performers. We are not the petting zoo over on Duncan Road. Do not dance with the performers. They will let you know if they want to interact with you.” Let them do their performance. Hold up your dollar bill; they will come to you. The key word is consent.

For her October 1, 2022 show, Champaign County Health Department was invited to hand out goodie bags of female and male condoms and lubricants, and to bring the testing van for HIV testing, “because I am really big on Know Your Status.” Tito’s Handmade Vodka had a sampling area; and the Greater Community AIDS Project (GCAP) Board of Directors (of which Myers is a proud member) had a table with information about the services they provide. NuEra Champaign was also tabling with special goodies from the medical marijuana side.

I asked why it is important for straight people to support queer spaces and queer events. Myers replied, “Well, if you are an ally, it is not just a bandwagon for the June month, so you should be supporting all the time. ’Cause I’ve got my pride 365 days a year, so if you are an ally, you should be supporting at all times. That doesn’t mean that you have to be at every show, but I mean just support what we do. We already have so many people against us. It’s just really nice for everybody to unite.”

Myers used to travel 90 miles to find community. We know many other stories of people who used to come from other communities—just for the feeling of being able to be themselves.

For practical tips on ending online harassment see https://www.vpnmentor.com/blog/lgbtq-guide-online-safety/

Straight folks have a responsibility to know about and protect safe gay spaces in other ways too. C-U used to have nightly gay events, why doesn’t it now? Are we driving gay culture underground? Jacqueline Hannah wrote that C-Street’s owner thought that his clientele was more becoming fraternity houses rather than the gay crowd. It is easy to lose queer-safe places by overtaking them with straight people. According to the ACLU, “the annual number of anti-LGBTQ bills filed has skyrocketed from 41 bills in 2018 to 238 bills” in the first three months of 2022. About half of the bills target transgender people specifically.

So adjust your crown. We have work to do.

Karen Medina grew up in Champaign, served in the Peace Corps, has degrees in Animal Science and Library and Information Science, and is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

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