Stage presence, makeup and body technique: Your average young thespian may get quick pointers on all these for that first school play. But the guidance of seasoned drag performers can change everything, elevating a costume into a character and helping young people transform their bodies to express their truest selves. Or, it can just be a campy good time. Whatever their ambitions, young people ages 10 to 21 have been flocking to workshops hosted by the Raven Project in preparation for the region's first youth-run drag show on Feb. 19.
"They're just super excited to play with gender, to turn it on its head," says Jen Benoit, an outreach worker with the Raven Project. "They're excited, and a little nervous."
The Raven Project — an outreach program for at-risk youth — has hosted a spring event called Queer Prom for several years as part of its Queer Youth Coffeehouse program, a confidential, weekly get-together for local LGBTQ youth. This year, Benoit says, participants asked if they could do something a little different.
"A lot of the youth had talked a lot about gender and their experience with gender and gender roles," she said. "So we decided to do a drag show."
The show, titled Color Me Queer, will be drug-and-alcohol-free, and open to all ages. Like the Raven Project, it is being billed as a safe space for "queer and trans individuals." Benoit says that local performers have been very generous with their time, with veterans of the Humboldt drag scene volunteering to lead the workshops and help youth develop their costumes and routines. Humboldt Pride has donated money to support the show.
"Our goal is not to teach them how we do it, but to say, 'here are some fundamentals that you can build your craft on,'" says Josh Tillett, who is helping lead the workshops. "Drag is art. Drag is unique."
Tillett, who will emcee the event as his drag persona Fuscia Rae, has been performing for two years. He credits drag with helping him find both a confidence and community he didn't previously have. Around the same time he began to perform as Fuscia Rae he experienced some severe health problems.
"Coming into this community, I found people who were there for me on so much a different level," he says. "The community I gained was priceless. And drag came with this confidence, you can put this mask on and be somebody else. When I was Fuscia Rae, she didn't have health problems, didn't have insecurity. At this time in my life when everything was challenging and difficult, everything cost money ... I had this escape, I had this vacation I could take from my life. The things I could do in drag that I didn't think I could do as Josh, all of a sudden I could do in life. I started getting the confidence as Josh that I had as Fuscia."
Tillett says a big part of the workshop is helping young people avoid some of the "rough lessons" he and his cohort had to learn, as sophomore performers getting makeup tips from YouTube and struggling to pull thrift-store dresses over their ribcages.
While drag queens learn to contour and tailor, drag kings have another set of challenges. Improper breast binding can actually be dangerous, for example. Kara Randolph, who has been performing under the name Justin Cider for the last year, says she wishes she'd had some guidance when she first began transforming into Justin.
"There's a lot of really unsafe ways that people use to bind their chest that can cause a lot of medical issues, make it hard to breathe," she says. "Some people can use tape, which causes blisters. But they feel like it's worth it because it's so hard to live with breasts. I didn't have anyone to teach me, so I got a lot of blisters in the beginning."
Randolph says drag kings are a "rather new thing," and there is less information about how to do their hair and makeup. She had the benefit of guidance and support from her theater friends, but for young people whose family might not be supportive, things can be harder.
"You have to know where to get [clothes and makeup], have to have a safe space to watch videos. It's so hard, having to explain it to your family," says Randolph, adding that the 15 young people who showed up to the first workshop were inspiring.
"It's been so amazing; I get emotional just thinking about it," she says. "I didn't expect so many kids to be so brave. They were able to open up. I felt they had so much more insight into their gender identity than I did as a teenager. A lot of them don't want to be drag queens or kings, they want to be gender queer."
One of the workshop's attendees is local high school student Mason Trevino, 16, who identifies as genderfluid, a word used to describe people whose gender identities fluctuate. Some days Trevino feels like a girl and other days a guy.
"I came out about my gender expression when I was 14," Trevino says. "I was super surprised because everybody welcomed me with open arms. I thought I would receive a little bit of backlash, but everyone was super accepting."
Besides explaining the concept of gender fluidity and stating their preferred pronouns (Trevino prefers "they"), many people who are transitioning, genderqueer or simply enjoy dressing in drag also have to navigate educating people about the non-correlative nature of gender expression and sexual orientation.
"Who you feel like you are inside isn't the same thing as who you're attracted to sexually," explains Randolph. "Just because you feel like you're a woman and want to exude these traits doesn't mean you're gay or want to be with a man. That's a common misconception. Just like gender is on a spectrum, sexuality is on a spectrum, too."
While these weighty topics are discussed at the weekly Queer Youth Coffeehouse and during the workshops, Trevino and others say the solidarity and community they have found with other LGBTQ youth have been the most important part of the experience. Many of the kids are shy, Trevino says, and nervous about performing, but they are also excited about showing off their costumes and dance moves in front of an audience. Trevino plans to go as a "feminine drag king" with a pink, sparkly beard. The song for the performance is top secret for now. Trevino, who was also once very shy, says they have reached out to help the kids who were "closed off" at the first workshop. The staff and volunteers at the Raven Project made them feel comfortable, and soon it was like any other kids' party.
"We all ate pizza," Trevino says. "We were all having fun, like you do when you find people who are just like you."