The smell of Mexican food and hairspray filled the air. Backpacks overflowed with wigs, heels and makeup as performers traced eyeliner or snacked on catered chips. A hung portrait of a buxom and big-haired Dolly Parton smiled approvingly.
Maria Corpuz stepped through the curtain into the improvised backstage. The drag performers gathered around her in their sequin dresses, multi-colored wigs and crisp suits.
“Let’s hope we all receive some healing tonight,” she said after running through the night’s schedule.
Outside, a crowd of about 30 people at Tiny House in Little Bohemia on April 15 was seated for a benefit organized by Corpuz and Megan Malone, co-owner of Tiny House. The night’s goal was to raise money for kids who would be affected by Nebraska legislation to ban gender-affirming care for transgender youth as well as ban minors from drag shows.
But the mood Saturday night at Tiny House was anything but somber.
The crowd laughed over cocktails. Drag performers greeted old friends. The venue filled with loud music, dancing and a flurry of dollar bills. The legislation they’re fighting against might be new, but the attitudes underneath it, and the way the community stands together, is business as usual.
“Everyone deserves to be represented,” said a performer who goes by Azalea Spanx. “What makes us any different?”
Nebraska has found itself at the center of a national debate over LGBTQ+ legislation with the Let Them Grow Act, which would ban minors from receiving gender-affirming care, introduced by state Sen. Kathleen Kauth of west Omaha and LB371, which would ban minors from drag shows, introduced by state Sen. Dave Murman of Hastings. As of this writing, both are still being debated in the Unicameral.
During floor debate on April 13, Sen. Kauth cited the International Journal of Transgender Health’s standards of care, which says while there is a growing body of evidence supporting gender-affirming care for kids, there is little long-term research on outcomes into adulthood.
“We cannot give these to kids,” Kauth said. “We need to protect the children from getting these types of cross-sex hormones, puberty blockers and surgeries. We need to encourage them to get the therapy they need to deal with the issues that they’re experiencing.”
While other states have passed similar legislation, filibusters from Democratic Nebraska senators have made national headlines for bringing the body to a standstill.
“No one in the world cares less about being petty than me,” said state sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha.
Hunt is one of several Democratic senators who’ve led the filibuster, which earned a feature in the Sunday New York Times. Hunt also has a 12-year-old son who is transgender. Their efforts have may be making headway as they recently celebrated killing a bill that would have outlawed abortion after six weeks.
Despite that, the Let Them Grow Act has still inched to a final vote as of this writing. Opponents say legislation like this will worsen already much higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide among LGBTQ+ kids.
“I grew up not being able to express how I felt or not being able to show any signs of femininity,” Spanx said. “It’s extremely damaging to children. I just don’t think they’re aware of what they’re doing.”
While the debate on LGBTQ+ legislation rages in Lincoln, the performers in Omaha fight back in their own way.
Donna Resuscitate hit the floor in pink heels. Pike Heller, who performs as Annie Christ, stripped to the sounds of Finnish glam metal. CC Pebbles took the crowd’s dollar bills in a satin leopard-print nighty.
Justin Witthuhn, who performs as Babygirl, sashayed to Diana Ross’s “Carry On.” Dakota Chambers, who performs as Trade, flashed his abs as Bando Jonez sang “Has anybody sexed you lately?” The crowd screamed as Celeste Starr Quinn stripped down to little more than her lilac platform heels. Spanx ended the night with a back handspring into the splits.
In total, the event raised more than $5,000, according to Corpuz. That was split between Youth Emergency Services (YES), which helps homeless youth in Omaha; Omaha ForUs, an LGBTQ+ organization raising money to create a resource center; and OUT Nebraska, a statewide advocacy organization.
For Corpuz and Malone the night was exactly what they’d hoped it would be — a celebration of community.
“[The people] forcing this divisive issue are wrong,” Malone said. “The community is stronger and wider than they can imagine. And we’re not going backwards.”
Other states have already moved forward with similar, or more restrictive, legislation.
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In March, Iowa made it illegal for minors to receive gender-affirming care as well as for trans students to use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity. Heller has a friend in Missouri who had to stop transitioning after the state severely restricted gender-affirming care for both minors and adults in April.
Speaking out on these issues can also carry side effects. Heller was bombarded with hateful comments on social media after posting about performing at a trans rally in Iowa in early April.
One question they don’t have to grapple with is whether or not they want to stay in Nebraska to stay in this fight.
“I feel like I would just be leaving a bunch of people just like me basically defenseless,” Spanx said. “Every voice needs to be heard.”
It also feels like this is an important moment in history, Chambers said. Like those who fight for civil rights, workers rights, voting rights and all other social movements, the members of this community are not only fighting for themselves but also for future generations.
“I think that [conservative politicians] are used to being the loudest people in every room,” said Donna Resuscitate. “And they’re finding out very quickly … that we are very good at being louder, and we will continue to do so until they finally turn their hearing aids on.”
It’s why events like those at Tiny House are important, Heller said. They bring the community together to celebrate, focus their anger or be themselves in a welcoming place. They refuel the drive to spread the message that someone, somewhere accepts you for who you are.
“The more that we have events like this, the more people will eventually realize we’re here,” Heller said, “and we’re not leaving.”
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