Drag in Utah is older than the state itself

Recent controversies make drag seem like a new phenomenon. In fact, drag has been crossing into arts and politics for ages.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Krysti Kreme performs during the Bes-Teas all-ages drag show at Sugar Space, on Friday, March 10, 2023.

The year is 1910 and the nation’s most celebrated drag queen, Julian Eltinge, is set to perform in the Beehive State in the most unlikely of places: The Salt Lake City Tabernacle.

“He was a closeted gay man who built an empire on his drag performances, both onstage and then in Hollywood. … He was the queen that performed the most time on Utah stages,” said Connell O’Donovan, a professional genealogist and historian who is writing a book about the history of drag in Utah from 1871 to 2001.

Days before the troupe — headlined by the popular singer Harry Lauder, who hired Eltinge as a marquee act — arrived in Utah, the performance was canceled on the order of Presiding Bishop Charles W. Nibley.

Nibley was quoted in the Salt Lake Telegram (the afternoon edition of The Salt Lake Tribune): “We have seen some pictures of this act and while it may be refined in every way, we feel that it is one that we could not permit to be given in the tabernacle.”

It wasn’t the first time a drag performer sparked controversy in Utah — historians note that one of Brigham Young’s sons, B. Morris Young, performed as a female impersonator under the name Madam Pattirini — and it wasn’t the last.

In the last year, there have been complaints and protests against drag performances across Utah. The Utah Legislature took up a bill to require signs to warn against “adult content” at events in the public square.

An uproar in St. George over an HBO reality show shooting a drag performance in a public park led to a city manager’s forced resignation — and the city paying that manager a $625,000 settlement. The drag show also spurred introduction of a bill in the Utah Legislature to “require a public entity to provide public notice for a permitted event with an adult theme.” The bill, HB329, failed to pass.

In Salt Lake City in January, armed members of the Proud Boys protested outside an all-ages drag show at a Sugar House tea shop. When the show’s organizers regrouped in a new venue in March, armed supporters patrolled outside.

Across the country in 2022, 141 drag events in 47 states saw protests and threats, according to the LGBTQ media advocacy group GLAAD.

Yet, drag was being performed back when Utah was still a territory.

“There is a massive history of drag in Utah,” O’Donovan said.

Utah’s drag history

Utah’s first known drag performance was in June 1871 — a quarter-century before Utah became a state — by William Horace Lingard at The Salt Lake Theatre. In addition to dressing as a woman, Lingard was known for his quick-change impersonations of such newsmakers as Otto von Bismarck and Brigham Young.

In 1882, Evan Stephens — who would become the director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in 1890 — sang soprano in a “full lady’s costume” during a concert at the Salt Lake Theatre, backed by a choir of 200 children.

O’Donovan’s research has found more than 200 men performed in drag on Utah stages between 1871 and 1931.

“[Those] are all over the territory,” he said. “In little mining towns — Beaver, Logan, St. George, Provo and Ogden. Of course, by far most queens performed here in Salt Lake City.”

In 1923, Italian queen Francis Renault (born Antonio Auriemma) — a contemporary of Julian Eltinge — transformed into drag in a performance on a packed Main Street, in the showroom window of the Walker Brothers department store. She walked out and then led the women in the crowd to the old Pantages Theatre for her matinee show.

When Nibley canceled Eltinge’s 1910 performance at the Salt Lake Tabernacle — the largest performance space in Salt Lake City at the time, seating 8,000 — several reasons were reported for the cancellation.

“Short skirts are the cause of the trouble,” The Salt Lake Telegram reported in 1910. “True they are worn by a man in the Lauder company, but that fact didn’t appease the shocked feelings of the authorities when they learned just what the program was.”

O’Donovan theorized that the reason for the cancellation was because Eltinge was set to perform in a women’s bathing suit and woolen hose. “They were told that he could not appear, because he would be showing too much of his leg,” O’Donovan said.

“He is said to be so fair of skin, so plump of cheek and so swan-like about the neck and shoulders that when he puts on the feminine disguises he calls forth exclamations of admiration from the men, who think he is a woman, and choruses of comment from the women, who wonder how ‘she’ keeps such a beautiful complexion,” The Telegram reported.

While Nibley acknowledged the act was “refined,” the idea of Eltinge doing his female characters on the same stage where the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performed was a deal-breaker.

“We didn’t want to have the word go out to the world that the Mormon tabernacle had been used for a vaudeville performance,” Nibley said to The Telegram.

The Tribune later opined that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as owners of the tabernacle, canceled not because of Eltinge’s act, but because “church authorities feared that the Tabernacle and the several amusement halls which the church owns would be assessed for taxes.”

Drag in the arts

Actors performing in drag predate Utah history by centuries.

“If men did not play women’s parts in Shakespeare’s time, all of his plays would have been about men at war,” Derek Charles Livingston, interim artistic director of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, said in an email.

“We would have been denied such great characters as Viola in ‘Twelfth Night’ — a double cross-dressing role — Juliet in ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ Beatrice in ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ Helena in ‘All’s Well that Ends Well,’ or Hermia and Titania in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and… well, the list goes on,” Livingston said.

With Salt Lake City’s Out of The Shadows Theater Group, co-founder Jen Ogle’s group has been staging shadowcast performances of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” in Utah since 1993. (The performances, done during screenings of the cult classic musical are now staged every October, on and around Halloween.)

“It is the longest running film in cinematic history, running every weekend around the globe since 1975,” Ogle said of the film, a parody of old-time monster movies with Tim Curry as the outrageous Dr. Frank N. Furter, creating a muscleman in his castle laboratory and seducing the newly engaged Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon).

“The last scene in the movie: Everybody’s in drag, in corsets and fishnets,” Ogle said.

Ogle said her players are concerned for their safety. The “Rocky Horror” screenings have drawn protests over the years, and the troupe and the venue perform security checks.

Recent debates aren’t keeping Utahns from seeing plays that include drag. The touring production of “Hairspray” played at the Eccles Theatre this week, with Andrew Levitt — aka Nina West, once a contestant on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” — as Edna Turnblad. Earlier this week, Pioneer Theatre Company announced its 2023-2024 season, including an October production of “The Rocky Horror Show.”

Jerry Rapier, the artistic director at Plan-B Theatre, said his company has explored its fair share of drag-related themes. For example, Plan-B’s first original musical, “Kingdom of Heaven,” told the story of a Latter-day Saint housewife exploring gender identity.

Rapier said he would never worry about backlash from audiences about drag themes when selecting shows. “The whole idea of theater is to suspend your disbelief and lose yourself in a world that isn’t quite real,” he said.

Rapier also pointed to Plan-B’s productions of the rock musical “Hedwig and The Angry Inch.” “[In] the world of the play, Hedwig is truly neither male nor female,” Rapier said. (The movie version of “Hedwig,” directed by the character’s creator, John Cameron Mitchell, had its world premiere on Jan. 19, 2001, in Park City, at the Sundance Film Festival.)

Aaron Swenson, the marketing and communications coordinator at the University of Utah’s theater department, has played Hedwig, the transgender East German rock singer, in all three of Plan-B’s productions. He also helped promote the U.’s staging in March of Shakespeare’s comedy “As You Like It.”

“The binary is strong in the language in the original text,” Swenson said, and that was something they wanted to take on when restaging the play. The actors who played Rosalind — a woman who masquerades as a man — and Jaques, the nobleman who delivers Shakespeare’s “all the world’s a stage” speech, are both nonbinary.

Dragged into politics

Earlier this year, PEN America — which champions writing and free expression — reported eight states had introduced legislation to restrict or censor drag shows.

Much of the recent attention has focused on Tennessee, the first state to outlaw drag shows in public spaces. A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order to block the ban hours before it was to take effect on April 1.

The bill debated in this year’s Utah Legislature session, HB329, did not use the word “drag.” But it was prompted by the drag controversy that boiled over in St. George.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Colin Jack, R-St. George, said in a House committee hearing that the bill was meant “to protect minors, and to empower parents” by having government entities determine whether an event was “adult-oriented,” and should post warning signs if it was.

The bill, Jack said in the hearing, did not have a blanket definition for what would be considered adult-oriented. “We’ve only said each town would have the ability to be themselves but to provide warning to parents as they bring children to public spaces,” Jack said.

Jack did not respond to requests for comment.

Bill Hoster, the mayor of Leeds, is among those who supported the bill. He expressed concern that people might “unknowingly be exposed to things that are mature content.” Hoster declined to be interviewed.

Marina Lowe, policy director at the LGBTQ+ advocacy group Equality Utah, was among those who spoke against the bill. She said the bill failed because the “adult content” description was too vague and would have prompted lawsuits.

“The problem with a vague law is that it doesn’t give any notice to the prescribed behavior,” Lowe said. “If you can’t really understand or anticipate what sort of behavior is being targeted, then it’s really difficult to conform your behavior accordingly.”

Bills like HB329, Lowe said, target free speech and expression, while asking government entities to decide for themselves what they think adult content is.

“What seems problematic about this particular moment in time and this wave of drag panic that we’re seeing spread across the country,” Lowe said, “is that these bills are masquerading as efforts to protect children, but really seem to be anti-LGBT bills at the heart of it.”

Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, the House minority leader, voted against HB329. She said she feels people are misusing drag to address other issues, especially fear of the unknown. That, she said, can lead to dangerous territory.

“We started off with ‘if you’re trans, you can’t play sports.’ Then we went to ‘now you can’t transition,’” Romero said. “We’re erasing individuals within our community because it makes certain individuals uncomfortable.”

That doesn’t match, she said, the way Utahns talk about supporting individual rights and personal freedoms. “We talk about our personal liberties all the time here in Utah,” Romero said, “but when it doesn’t conform to a certain opinion of those freedoms, then we see people trying to legislate, which I find problematic.”

What drag is — and isn’t

Defining drag can be challenging, Swenson said, because one of its core factors is that it defies characterization.

“The language to describe what we’re talking about keeps shifting and never existed in the first place,” Swenson said. “Drag, to me, at its essence, is a performance of gender.”

Some people do drag for entertainment, or for activism, or just general expression, said Keygan Miller, a public training manager at The Trevor Project, a nonprofit that helps LGBTQ+ youth in crisis.

One of the misconceptions, Miller said, is that drag is often confused with transgender identity.

“There’s a lot of confusion around gender identity to begin with,” they said. “Then when we add something like drag — which is more based on gender expression — and people are apt to mix those two things up because they’re so nuanced to one another.”

There’s an overarching fear, Miller said, that by playing with gender expression, drag inherently makes someone trans or queer.

The vast majority of drag performers, Miller said, don’t identify personally as their performance character’s gender. “It’s still a character: This expression of gender in a way that doesn’t always go with a person’s identity,” they said.

There are examples in pop culture of characters who identify as straight performing in drag: Bugs Bunny dressing as a woman to confound Elmer Fudd, or the actor characters played by Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie” or Robin Williams in “Mrs. Doubtire” portraying women for a paycheck.

“We’re OK with it because they’re not gay, or if they are gay, they’re respectable gay,” Miller said.

Another misconception about drag performances, particularly all-ages shows, is that there is inappropriate content, such as stripping, Miller said.

“There’s been a conscious effort from the drag community to even tame down [content] that I would consider to be mild to begin with,” Miller said. (In Utah, Tara Lipsyncki has done this with the all-ages Bes-Teas shows, which moved from Sugar House after January’s Proud Boys protest.)

Not everyone who partakes in drag art does a stage show. Utah queen Petunia Papsmear (aka Courtney Moser) — one of the stars of the troupe The Matrons of Mayhem — hosts drag bingo nights, with proceeds going to such charitable causes as animal rescues, mental health issues and homelessness.

“What the Matrons of Mayhem do, it’s made to be comedic,” Moser said. “Most drag queens are just wanting to put on an entertaining show, for whoever the audience is: whether they’re lip-synching, storytelling or playing bingo. We just want the audience to have a good time.”

The ‘fiction’ of ‘grooming’

Lisa Diamond, professor of developmental psychology at the University of Utah, said the idea of drag — as a way to play with gender through performance — is one of the oldest things in the human species.

The latest response to all-ages drag shows — the idea that the performers are “grooming” children — first came up, Diamond said, in the 1970s. That’s when Anita Bryant, for years a popular singer and pitchwoman for Florida orange juice, led a group called “Save Our Children” to fight an ordinance in Dade County, Florida, that prohibited discrimination based on one’s sexual orientation.

“She created this kind of fiction of the predatory gay adult, trying to recruit young children,” Diamond said.

Grooming doesn’t apply to drag shows, Diamond said, and making that argument is “disturbing.”

“Actual grooming is a form of psychological manipulation that occurs often over months and sometimes years. There is no grooming by going to a drag show,” Diamond said. “That threat usually comes from [a] trusted adult in the child’s life, not performers at a show.”

Diamond said there is no research that shows introducing children to the LGBTQ+ community — or to drag shows — makes them more likely to identify as part of those communities when they grow up.

“The only thing that exposure to LGBTQ+ reliably does is: It makes kids more aware that LGBTQ+ individuals exist in the world,” Diamond said. That kind of diversity, she added, is the point of human development.

“It’s how our brains grow, expand and get stronger,” she said. “So parents should be looking for opportunities to show as many new types of humans to their kids as possible, instead of going in the opposite direction.”

Diamond called the threat to children from drag shows a fiction. Data shows the dangers to LGBTQ+ youth are real. A 2022 survey from The Trevor Project reported 36% of LGBTQ+ youth reported they have been physically threatened or harmed because of their identity.

The fights over drag are another avenue in which such challenges to identity play out.

“At the end of the day,” said Miller, from The Trevor Project, “this is just one more way that politicians, in particular, are attempting to divide us a bit more and to other us a bit more.”

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

Utah’s drag history: A timeline

A sampling of events involving drag performance in Utah over the state’s history, taken from the research of historian Connell O’Donovan and from The Salt Lake Tribune’s reporting.

June 1871 • William Horace Lingard became the first actor to perform in drag at the Salt Lake Theatre.

July 1882 • Evan Stephens — who in 1890 became director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir — sang in soprano in “full lady’s costume” during a concert in the Salt Lake Theatre, backed by a choir of 200 children.

1885-1900 • B. Morris Young, a son of early Latter-day Saint leader Brigham Young, performed as Madam Pattirini, an opera singer with a convincing falsetto. Young also was a founder of the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association, the precursor of the Young Men program at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

January 1910 • The most famous drag star of the era, Julian Eltinge, was scheduled to perform with singer Harry Lauder’s touring troupe at the Salt Lake Tabernacle, but Presiding Bishop Charles W. Nibley canceled the booking a few days before the troupe was to arrive in Utah. Nibley released a statement a few days saying Eltinge, who was to appear in a woman’s bathing suit and woolen hose, “is not of a character in keeping with the sanctity of the Tabernacle.”

July 1919 • Salt Lake City’s Orpheum Theatre held a variety show headlined by a troupe of 17 female impersonators, all of them soldiers from the 27th Infantry Division who had just returned from fighting in France.

January 1928 • Joseph F. Smith — a drama professor at the University of Utah who years later was named patriarch to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — organized an all-male drama club at the U., called The Mummer’s Club. The club gave all-male performances, with men taking on the men’s and women’s roles.

July 1928 • Jarahal, born Joseph C. Hall, was the first Black queen to perform in Utah, at the Pantages Theatre on Salt Lake City’s Main Street.

Summer 1978 • Midnight screenings began at Salt Lake City’s The Blue Mouse for “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” By the 1980s, fans were performing along with the action onscreen, first at The Blue Mouse, then Cinema In Your Face and later at the Tower Theatre. In 1993, the shadowcast became formalized, put on by Out of the Shadows Theatre Group. The screenings initially were weekly, then monthly, and in recent years, in October around Halloween. The movie was many Utahns’ first exposure to the notion of drag, and the word “transvestite.”

Jan. 19, 2001 • The movie adaptation of the musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” had its world premiere in Park City, at the Sundance Film Festival. The show’s creator, and the movie’s director and star, John Cameron Mitchell, wins the festival’s Directing Award.

2007 • Actor and playwright Charles Lynn Frost introduced his trademark character, Sister Dottie S. Dixon, a Latter-day Saint mom with a big mouth and a bigger heart. Dottie first appeared in a half-hour show on KRCL community radio, and then in two one-person plays staged by Pygmalion Productions. Frost kept the character going until his death in 2021.

May-June 2022 • The HBO reality show “We’re Here,” in which drag queens visit a rural town and stage a drag show, visited St. George to film an episode (which aired in December). The resulting uproar from City Council members and others led to the city manager, who approved the permit for HBO to stage the show in a public park, to resign and take a $625,000 settlement for being forced out.

September 2022-March 2023 • A monthly all-ages drag show at TeaZaanti, a local wine and tea shop in Sugar House, sees backlash from online platforms after sharing a video on social media of a child dancing with a drag queen at a show. At the January show, TeaZaanti saw a protest outside by armed members of the Proud Boys. Show organizers moved the event’s venue in March to Sugar Space Arts Warehouse in Poplar Grove.

— compiled by Palak Jayswal and Sean P. Means