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Often a political target, drag performers share art form at Farmington Hills event: 'We're here to spread love'

Hannah Mackay
The Detroit News

Farmington Hills — The platform heels were high, the wigs pristine, and the gowns sparkling as Boylesque drag troupe performers Jadein Black, Maxi Chanel, Hershae Chocolatae, and Kristina Kelly got a sold-out crowd at the Hawk Community Center moving at Friday night's Pride event.

The Hawk's Black Box Theatre fit the theme of the day — Pride — and was decorated with a rainbow balloon arch and streamers. Packed with more than 150 people of all ages, Friday's drag show was the culmination of a day full of Pride events, including a drag story hour attended by around 70 people.

Maxi Chanel of Ann Arbor performs during a drag show hosted by The Hawk Theatre on Friday, June 7, 2024 at The Hawk in Farmington Hills.

Boylesque is an Ypsilanti-based drag troupe founded by Black over 10 years ago. The troupe consists of drag performers from around the state and works to raise money for different nonprofits and community centers and educate people about drag.

"Drag is a source of an art form," said Black, who performed in a sparkling midnight gown and bedazzled, fringed golden bodysuit, among other outfits. "Promoting positivity and being your best self is very important, especially during Pride month. And in Michigan it's important throughout the whole year, because we are a safe haven for other states around us that do not have laws to protect the LGBTQIA+."

Last year Gov. Gretchen Whitmer expanded Michigan's Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.

Drag performers nationwide are facing threats, harassment, and violence in response to practicing their art form, on top of efforts in some states to pass legislation restricting their performances. While drag ban bills have passed in at least five states, courts have halted enforcement on some. Still, the idea that drag performances pose a threat has caught on as another form of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, some say.

"Different drag has different ratings just like different movies and so, some people fail to realize that," said Black, who quipped during the show that people never worried about Robin Williams in the movie Mrs. Doubtfire.

Karen Kessler of Farmington Hills smiles as Kristina Kelly of Battle Creek performs during a drag show hosted by The Hawk Theatre on Friday, June 7, 2024 at The Hawk in Farmington Hills.

Some conservative activists and politicians have accused drag performers of "sexualizing" or "grooming" children at popular events such as drag queen story hours, despite a lack of evidence to support the claims. Last year a drag queen story time at Royal Oak's Sidetrack Bookshop drew a small but vocal protest as well as a large crowd of people supporting the event.

At the Ann Arbor Summer Festival’s Drag Queen Story Time in 2022 Black was confronted by members of the Proud Boys, a violent, extremist right-wing organization, . The group was dispersed by police, and Black said since then there have been more threats online than in-person.

"I think there's more of an online present threat than an actual physical threat, especially at all of my shows that even the storytimes that we do," Black said. "They can choose whether to come out and support or not. But they'll realize that most of this world supports drag."

Jadein Black of Ypsilanti performs during a drag show hosted by The Hawk Theatre on Friday, June 7, 2024 at The Hawk in Farmington Hills.

Chanel, who performed in a technicolor gown, agreed that most of the threats the group has received are online.

"I'm going to live in my truth. Obviously, you must not have anything to do if you have to mess with me. I suggest you go find your own business because I'm over here minding my business," Chanel said. "We're not messing with people, we're just here to spread love and entertain you and make you have a good time."

Friday's performers were met with only cheers and support from the crowd, which they led in sing-alongs to "Tomorrow" from the musical "Annie" and “This is Me” from "the Greatest Showman."

They took turns performing different musical genres, complete with entire outfit changes between sets. Chocolatae was given a standing ovation for her performance of Donna Summer's "Last Dance," which included high kicks, cartwheels, splits, and a backflip.

For Farmington Hills native Linda Thomas, 74, this wasn't her first drag show or even her first time seeing the Boylesque group perform. She caught a show in Ypsilanti and also attended drag queen bingo with them, and brought her best friend of 50 years Barbara Rayford, 76, with her.

Maxi Chanel of Ann Arbor performs during a drag show hosted by The Hawk Theatre on Friday, June 7, 2024 at The Hawk in Farmington Hills.

"All of a sudden the leader appeared in the Farmington Hills news and I go, 'Oh my god, I remember them,'" she said.

TJ Sapyak, of St. Clair Shores, 38 and her friend Caitlyn Bonanni, of Milford, were kicking off Pride month at the Friday's show after Bonanni, who works in Farmington, got an email about it. Sapyak, 38, has already gone to several local shows from Royal Oak to Mount Clemens.

"It's art, obviously, they're just so much fun," Sapyak said.

The event kicked off with Farmington Hills Mayor Theresa Rich who said the city was one of the most diverse ones of its size in the United States. The city's Cultural Arts Coordinator Sam Koeppe helped organize Friday's Pride events and said the city is lucky to have its own municipal cultural arts division.

Farmington Hills Mayor Theresa Rich, right, and City Councilwoman Jackie Boleware, left, introduce the performers for a drag show hosted by The Hawk Theatre on Friday, June 7, 2024 at The Hawk in Farmington Hills.

"You bring your community to work no matter what and it's important, there are gay people in every community that you go to," Koeppe said. "Farmington Hills is one of the most diverse cities in Oakland County. So we definitely have a responsibility to program accordingly."

The show concluded with an impromptu runway walk competition between volunteers from the audience, judged by the queens. This Pride month Black encouraged people to support local drag shows. Boylesque will return to The Hawk on Oct. 6 and the venue announced its last week.

"I want people to know that most drag performers are there as the spearhead of the gay community, you know, we lead the charge and therefore I feel that we need to lead by example, with love, acceptance," Chanel said.

The Associated Press contributed.

hmackay@detroitnews.com

Jadein Black of Ypsilanti performs during a drag show hosted by The Hawk Theatre on Friday, June 7, 2024 at The Hawk in Farmington Hills.