Opening Letters

COLUMN: ‘Dragging' Mom Into The Nightlife

drag shows are amazingly accepting places – even when you're a senior citizen

James Johonnott, illustrated by Lydia “Nibs” Noble |

It’s late January, and I’m helping two senior citizens with mobility issues (one of whom is my mother) navigate snowbanks and weave through the crowd at The Red Mixer to get to their seats at a drag show. “I haven’t been to a bar in nearly 30 years,” said Peggy, my 72-year-old mother. She’s never been to a drag show, either. I’m not sure how this night is going to go.

But let’s back up a bit. Drag performances have been sashaying their way into mainstream culture for a while now, and they’re no stranger to Eau Claire, either. I can hardly imagine the wide acceptance of drag when I moved here nearly 15 years ago. As Bob Carr said during his impromptu speech at this year’s UW-Eau Claire Fire Ball drag show, “Things are changing.”

My partner Tabitha has had a knack for introducing me to spaces where my chronic worrying tells me I don’t belong. She’s been friends with drag performers for years, has worked with them as a backup dancer, and recently started helping collect tips during shows. Since going to my first drag show at Fire Ball in 2015, I’ve grown to really enjoy them. Which is strange, because I’m pretty anxious person; often very uncomfortable in new spaces, and more comfortable with worst-case scenarios than reality. Simply put, I find ways to not enjoy things that I enjoy.

Two Seniors' quick guide to a drag show:

1. Hearing aids. It's going to be louder than you expect. You probably won't need the hearing aids to have a great time.

2. Know Your venue. Call ahead and see if there is seating available if you can get there early. Otherwise, expect standing room only.

3. bring help. If you've got mobility limitations and you're headed to a packed venue, bring an able-bodied friend who can help you get to your seat.

So on Jan. 28 when my mom and her visiting friend, Bill Eddy, asked what we were doing that night and discovered where we’d be, they decided they needed to go. Bill, 84, gay, and raised in the metropolitan upper East Coast, has certainly seen far more than I have of the more mainstream acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals and culture. He was also flummoxed that “little Eau Claire” would have a drag show and was genuinely concerned that people were going to protest it. I reassured him that Eau Claire has drag shows frequently and really doesn’t face such opposition much anymore. Peggy decided it was time to both put an item on her bucket list and cross it off in one fell swoop. Tabitha helped them get some seats in what was largely a standing-room-only event, and we were off.

My surging anxiety made me feel like I had some reasonable concerns. I’d never been to The Red Mixer before, and it usually takes me some time (and social lubricant) to overcome my worry and enjoy loud, exciting venues. And I’ll admit a little apprehensive defense on my part. I’m used to helping my mom overcome mobility challenges to go places, but this was new, and new is concerning for me.

But of course, none of my worst case scenarios came true. The usher at the door was very helpful and helped us find our way to their seats. The crowd was accommodating and made plenty of room. Even nearby patrons were very kind and asked my mom and Bill if they were having a good time or if they could help get them a drink. So as I got myself a drink to adjust, I wondered why I had forgotten two things I already knew to be true: Eau Claire is among the most deeply welcoming places I’ve ever been, and drag shows are equally welcoming.

I’ll never get over the look of delight on the performers’ faces as they saw my mother and Bill. “I’m so glad you’re here!” they’d say. My mom wondered why, exactly, they were. I think really they were just glad that they felt like they could come. That they felt welcomed. I was, too.

I fielded questions about tipping etiquette. Peggy remarked on the unbelievable talent the performers had at makeup, dancing, and sewing, and Bill and I bet on whether he’d recognize any songs from the night. (I won that bet when the Village People made an appearance.) My mom said she had a thrilling time and she’d never seen anything quite like it, and Bill was amazed at how open and accepting everyone was.

There’s some magic in drag. It doesn’t take long for it to drag an anxiety-riddled mess like me into having a good time. But more importantly, it’s a celebration of pride, freedom, and uniqueness. And in that space, you can’t help but feel welcome.