The Americans - Nikki & Emoji
Drag queen. The term can be quite polarizing. When asked what they feel at the mention of drag queens, most people will respond in one of two ways: a) discomfort at the mere thought of a man parading around in stilettos, outlandish wigs, and heavy make-up, or b) an absolute love for drag queens. Very few people are “middle of the road.” In my opinion, drag queens represent something fiercely admirable—the courage and boldness of some humans to value authenticity and self expression more than acceptance, and even—sometimes—more than personal safety.
But I never knew a queen personally. My experience was limited to drunken nights in Reykjavik and Key West, and a few episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Even with all that love and acceptance in my heart, I have to admit, I never really contemplated drag queens as regular, every day people. I’m endlessly preaching about equality, and how we all (Muslims, Christians, black people, white people, gay people) just want the same things in life—to be safe and loved and accepted. But what about drag queens? Aren’t they performers, entertainers, caricatures of “real” people? Even the most open minded among us can be in the dark about how to make a real connection. But why?
Maybe we fear saying the wrong thing…or we simply have nothing to say. I mean, seriously, what do I have in common with a drag queen? What could we possibly have to talk about?
Turns out, we had a lot to talk about.
I first learned of Nikki Champagne and Emoji Nightmare—two of Burlington, Vermont’s most famous queens—in an article about Drag Queen Story Hour in Seven Days, our local paper. DQSH, which is happening at libraries across the country (and not without controversy), is just like any story hour, except the book is read by a drag queen and the story usually has a theme of inclusion, tolerance, and acceptance. The Ugly Duckling, for example. Amid loads of acceptance and some very vocal criticism, Nikki and Emoji did their first DQSH in the small Vermont town of Cambridge, which also happens to be where Emoji lives.
I arranged an interview with the two of them over dinner at Nikki’s house in Winooski. I’m not going to lie, I was nervous. My husband Jesse was joining me as the photographer. He was also nervous. What are we going to talk about until the interview starts? You know, that period of small talk at the beginning? What do we say? I didn’t know, he didn’t know. We just decided to wing it, to hope for the best. Honestly, I didn’t even know if they would be in plain clothes or in drag. Were they always in drag? Should I refer to them as he or she? Probably safer just to avoid pronouns altogether. Did I mention we were nervous?
When we arrived, I texted Nikki who buzzed us into the building and said she’d be right down (I later found out that “she” is the right pronoun to use, at least for Nikki who identifies as trans). We entered the lobby and stood at the elevator doors, waiting. A few seconds later, the doors opened, and there they were—Nikki and Emoji—in full drag. I had been mentally prepared for this moment, but still, it was kind of surprising to see two drag queens step off an elevator in a residential apartment building at mid-day, without colored lights, loud music, and the brain fog brought on by multiple vodka cranberries.
Our unlikely quartet rode the elevator to Nikki’s floor in relative silence. We all did our best of course, engaged in the usual niceties, commenting on the weather and the traffic on the way over.
I will always think of the moment when they opened the door to Nikki's apartment as the moment my mental veil lifted, and drag queens became just ordinary, every day people. Of course, they always have been ordinary people. But for me, realizing this took more than just a progressive mindset.
Nikki’s apartment is great—an open-floor plan that is at once minimalistic and super chic. We were greeted by two friendly dogs, Theo and Rosco, and two equally friendly men, Adam (Nikki’s partner), and their roommate, Wes. They were putting the finishing touches on dinner when we arrived, a “mini” themed feast patterned after a gag on RuPaul’s show where she shares a very mini meal of, say, an orange tic tac with guests. Fortunately, Nikki and Emoji didn’t go quite so mini…in fact, both Jesse and I could barely move when it was time to go (apparently, eating large quantities of mini food items does not equate to eating light). But the food was amazing—fried mac and cheese balls, mini stuffed peppers, mini bottles of champagne, and mini, homemade strawberry tarts with ice cream. Dare I say it was my favorite interview meal yet?
Nikki, whose real name is Taylor, works in Health and Wellness at Pride Center of Vermont, where her job is split into three main areas—HIV prevention and outreach, reducing barriers to health care access, and tobacco cessation. The center's work to curb tobacco use in the LGBTQ community is especially important because of SCUM. What is SCUM, you ask? Well, in short, it stands for sub culture urban marketing. Basically, it’s the tobacco companies saying—Let’s start targeting LGBTQ youth with freedom to marry ads, put same sex couples on our posters, use pride themes in our advertising when no one else is doing it at that level. Then they’ll start smoking tobacco, and we’ll have them hooked for life. “Seriously, some of the advertisements out there look like PSAs for the right to marry,” said Nikki. “It’s ridiculous.”
“Fortunately,” Nikki said, “when it comes to HIV, Vermont is considered a low prevalence state.” In fact, she and others working to eradicate this disease from Vermont hope to reach zero new diagnoses by 2020. Even those living with HIV have options that were unheard of 30, 20, even 10 years ago. It’s no longer a death sentence. I asked Nikki if it was akin to living with diabetes, or if that was a gross understatement. She said that as long as patients take their antiretroviral therapy regularly, they can live perfectly normal lives with no symptoms of the disease. In fact, the CDC has reported that a non-detectable HIV status means that it’s not transmittable. There is also a prophylaxis medication that can be taken when someone without HIV comes in contact with it, reducing their risk of contracting the disease by over 90 percent. (Disclaimer—if you are HIV positive, talk to your physician, and your partner, before having sex with someone who is uninfected).
“Problems arise, however, when people cannot access the medication because they are not connected to available health care services,” said Nikki. She went on to say that we are lucky to have organizations such as the Ryan White Foundation, which have played an integral role in transforming HIV from a death sentence to a manageable health condition. But, she says, it’s a shame that it took the death of a white, presumably-heterosexual boy to get funding for HIV prevention work. “Gay, bi, and trans men were dying from the disease for years without anybody doing anything.”
These days, anyone in the United States who contracts HIV—including those in the LGBTQ community—can receive full coverage for all medical expenses through the Ryan White Foundation, if they know that this resource is available. That is why outreach is so important.
Emoji’s real name is Justin. He identifies as a gay man. Justin owns a marketing firm in Cambridge, Vermont called Typha Marketing. Typha does graphic design, public relations, social media, and website management for mostly business-to-business clients. Emoji doesn't dress in drag for work, but she wouldn't be caught dead without a little bit of eye shadow or mascara. When I asked Emoji how her family reacted when she first told them she wanted to do drag, she said she never really came out and told them. “In fact, I never even said I was gay. They just kind of did the math.” Emoji was actually living with her family when she started doing drag. She would get dressed at other places so it wasn’t weird. “It was easier to just kind of avoid the discussion. Which is pretty much how my whole family does everything. They know about it, they are ok with it, but they don’t really want to have a long, serious conversation about it.”
Emoji’s mom and grandmother did come to one show; they even got her grandma up on stage. “It was, like, her first and last show…but yeah, they came, and that was cool.” Her brother and his girlfriend and their kids go to Drag Queen Story Hour. “So, yeah, they are kind of supportive from afar…but they’re supportive, and that’s something.”
Nikki’s family goes to just about everything she does. “But it definitely didn’t start out that way,” she says. “The night I came out to my mom, I started by saying I was bisexual. We were watching Jeopardy, eating dinner on those old t.v. trays, and I remember freaking out, like, ok, I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it. It was right before final Jeopardy, I said, ‘I’ve got to tell you something,’ and she was like, ‘you’re getting really serious while we’re eating dinner,’ and I said, ‘I’m coming out as bisexual,’ and she said, ‘oh, ok,’ and she picked up her plate and put it in the sink and walked upstairs to her room. That was it, nothing else was said. But about a week later, I was like, ‘sooooo, what are your thoughts about that thing I told you?’ and she said ‘so, you’re not really bisexual, you’re just gay, right?’”
But when Nikki told her mom she wanted to do drag, her mom was like, “no, no, you’re not doing that.” As with all things in life, however, sometimes acceptance just needs a little time. A few weeks later, her mom’s friend came over to do make-up. The friend asked Nikki’s mom if she wanted a smoky eye, and Nikki’s mom looked at Nikki and said, “Do you want a smoky eye?”
We Don't Know What We Don't Know
Being an open-minded person doesn’t mean you don’t have biases. It doesn’t mean you are immune to engaging in harmful stereotypes. It doesn’t mean you understand the world. The most important lesson I’ve learned in my 40 years is how little I know. Even with traveling the world and interacting with different kinds of people, the amount of things I don’t know shocks and humbles me every day. The moment I am 100 percent certain that I understand something, I remind myself of this important lesson.
If you had asked me what I thought of drag queens, before I met Nikki and Emoji, I would have answered like I did at the beginning of this piece—that they embody courage and beauty and make me hopeful for the future of our society. I stand behind that statement, but I was speaking as an advocate for human rights, not from experience. I would have been scared to randomly walk up to a drag queen and start a conversation. What would I say? But that fear is gone.
Now that I’ve spent time with two drag queens— laughed with them, learned from them, heard about their families, used their bathroom, scratched behind their dog’s ears, ate their stuffed peppers, met their friends, looked at their art and the books on their shelves, hugged them…now that I’ve gotten to know them as humans—that feeling of mystery has disappeared. Sometimes the lesson is in the questions, not the answers. When we open our world to different types of people, we will inevitably have more questions. And with questions, comes growth. This sentiment brings to mind a quote by the Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke.
“I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke
“Live the questions now.” To me, that means we must experience things to find the answers. We must meet the people we don’t understand.
Men (and women) who dress in drag want the same things as everyone else, to be loved, to be accepted, to be safe. They are regular people, like you and me…just with more fabulous wardrobes.