Since 1972, men have studied, sewn, and strutted their way to victory in the Miss Gay America pageant, a celebration of drag and female illusion.
Contestants are born males who perform in drag, donned in sparkly, beautiful gowns, dazzling makeup and hairdos that blow audiences away.
Whoever wins the national crown will get cash, jewelry, gifts and attend events throughout the year. Miss Gay America can earn as much as $70,000 during their tenure as queen, organizers said.
But first, they compete in preliminary competitions, hoping to advance to the national pageant so they can reign as Miss Gay America for an entire year.
The pageant was first held in Tennessee in the 1970s. Nashville native Jerry Peek started the pageant after his own bar struggled to draw crowds during the week. He heard about a bar in Indianapolis with female impersonators and went to check it out himself, he told OutVoices in 2013.
Norman Jones, also known as Norma Kristie, was crowned the first-ever Miss Gay America in 1972. Jones later bought the pageant himself. The competition had another set of owners before landing in the hands of Michael Dutzer and his husband Rob Mansman.
Through the years, the pageant has faced its obstacles in the wake of tumultuous political climates, with far right groups becoming more and more comfortable expressing their disdain for such celebrations. Last year, organizers had to hire security because the Proud Boys threatened to show up.
The next national winner will be crowned in January in Little Rock, Arkansas, where organizers say they've received lots of support.
Arkansas is affordable and 'very welcoming' for performers, hosts
Dutzer, current co-owner of the pageant, said he and his husband were promoting local pageants and wanted to get more involved when they found out the pageant was up for sale.
They wanted to help preserve its legacy and put more money into the pageant because previously, it had been on a “very strict” budget.
The pair chose Little Rock to host the national pageant because it’s very affordable for both contestants and attendees.
And despite Arkansas being a Republican state and very anti-LGBTQ, the city has been “very welcoming” to the pageant and its hosts, said Dutzer, who testified in front of the Arkansas senate to speak out against the state's proposed anti-drag law.
“Little Rock offered us a great deal on the theater for the week,” he said about the upcoming pageant in January. “Take a hotel room in Phoenix at the same time a year … that hotel room could be over $300 a night where we could get the rooms for $99 a night in Little Rock.”
Drag is huge, he said, which means performers are traveling with lots of suitcases. Performers are responsible for funding dancers, costumes, wigs, gowns, a week of travel, hotel rooms and they have to feed people on their teams.
The Little Rock hotel where the pageant will be held is also connected to the theater, which helps make things safer for attendees, 'not having to travel outside in drag or open up to the public where they can possibly be victims of attacks or slurs,' Dutzer said.
Dutzer said some parts of the pageant have changed since its beginning in the 1970s. Categories have evolved and currently include: personal interview, presentation, evening gown, on-stage interview and talent.
One of its categories, “male interview” was renamed a few years ago. Contestants can identify as anything they’d like, including trans or nonbinary, Dutzer and Mansman, his husband, said.
The category is an opportunity for drag queens to be vulnerable and share sides of them they’ve never revealed. Some contestants have shared their HIV status, talked about suicide attempts and being forced out of their homes as teenagers. It’s the only category contestants do out of drag.
“Right there is where the growth happens and that is why personal interview is so very, very, very important,” Mansman said.
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Drag pageants are nothing new, experts say
Craig Loftin is a Cal State Fullerton lecturer in American Studies. Drag pageants within gay culture date back as far as the 1880s complete with categories and awards, he told USA TODAY.
During the Harlem Renaissance, he said, many people were "challenging sexual mores," especially in non-white communities. In 1940s Los Angeles, there were drag balls in prominent Black clubs and hotels advertised in Black newspapers, he said.
And much of the backlash happening today has already taken place, he said. During the Great Depression, there was a “moral panic,” Loftin said, where laws were adopted banning drag. Then came the “very repressive” 1950s which forced people to host events in underground or out-of-the-way speakeasies.
Loftin said 1972, when Miss Gay America was founded, was a huge step in LGBTQ history and possibly the biggest development in terms of public visibility that the country has ever seen.
Theo Greene is an associate professor of sociology at Bowdoin College in Maine and said Miss Gay America was created at the height of the Gay Liberation Movement.
“This is also one of the very first kinds of nationwide opportunities where you see the spread and diffusion of people coming out, celebrating the art of female illusion or what we now think of as drag,” he said.
He also said Miss Gay America and female illusion is just one form of drag.
Other forms of drag include classic drag, comedy drag, and even political drag, where performers tackle social issues and protest, reported Florida-based outlet OutCoast.com.
Do people feel safe competing in drag pageants?
Deva Station, 52, is a Columbus, Ohio native who was crowned Miss Gay America in 2018. Until a few years ago, he didn’t take safety into account when competing. He had been to Pride celebrations crashed by protesters but in small numbers.
“Now, we have armed militia and Nazis and things that I thought were a thing of the past picketing and standing strong against drag,” he told USA TODAY. “It's become very scary and very concerning, not only for myself, but for others, for spectators, for fellow queens, for fellow fans.”
Dextaci, a Louisiana native and Miss Gay America 2022, said 10 years ago he didn’t look over his shoulder at pageants. That has changed in recent years.
“I always map out the exit,” he said. “How do I get out of here in the event that something goes haywire?”
Miss Gay America organizers always have great security though, he said.
Drag pageants give people a sense of community, create opportunities, owners say
Dutzer and Mansman, current owners of Miss Gay America, bought it in 2016.
They say drag pageants and their participants become families for some people, especially those who are shunned by their society and their biological families. The pageants also help people develop and sharpen their skills.
“People work really hard on interview skills, their interpersonal skills and speaking publicly,” Dutzer said. “They not only speak to a panel of judges for their interviews but they get on stage and speak to an entire audience.”
Miss Gay America winners have gone on to appear on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and open their own businesses as well.
Many drag queens compete year after year for the top spot, including Deva Station, the Ohio native who took the crown in 2018. He started to perform in drag as a dare.
“I said that if I ever had to do this for a living or if this was something that I did consistently, I would be devastated,” he told USA TODAY. “That is where the name came from. I definitely came at it from a very biased angle and an uneducated (angle).”
He didn’t understand drag initially but once he started doing it, he realized the men who compete are true artists who put in tons of work.
“I guess Deva Station started from a bad place but actually led me to a really good place,” he said.
Deva Station won Miss Gay America 2018 after competing multiple times, starting with Miss Gay Ohio America.
“Then I went on to Miss Gay America and it was a whole different world,” he said. “I absolutely did not win that the first time but I learned a lot and studied a lot.”
He recalls sitting in front of a panel of judges to talk about his goals, what he could do for the Miss Gay America system and how he embodies leadership.
“I love that they looked at your male persona and then the transformation into the character,” he said. “That's kind of what made me fall in love with Miss Gay America.”
Performing is almost like therapy, he said.
“I had a great career as a dancer but I was also aging,” he said. “Miss Gay America gave me the opportunity to continue dancing, to continue entertaining, but be ageless.”
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Standing tall in the face of hatred
Dextaci, 35, was crowned Miss Gay America 2022. The Louisiana native started doing drag shows in March 2009 and shortly after, began competing in local drag pageants.
Dextaci is also one of two plus-sized drag queens to win in the contest’s 51 years. He said it has been challenging to compete against smaller contestants.
“That was something that I always found very challenging, was me being a size 3X or 4X t-shirt having to compete against guys that are in small and medium t-shirts. But in turn, it was actually a me thing. It was something that held me back because it was a mind game.”
But Dextaci has learned that Miss Gay America was never pushing him away because of his size. That’s not what the pageant is about.
“The Miss America system does judge a person on their merits and their good qualities, not the size of my body,” he said.
To Dextaci, Miss Gay America is so sacred because it’s the oldest pageant system in the world for female impersonators, allowing participants to celebrate the artistry of female illusion. You can live your life as a man and create the illusion of a woman, he said.
Dutzer, co-owner of the show, is thrilled because for the first time ever this year, Miss Gay America will be represented in Alaska. He wishes people would make an effort to learn more about drag.
“The fact that people think that we're out there hurting people or grooming people is ridiculous,” he said. “We are out there to have fun and entertain people.”
Drag has raised money for LGBTQ youth, hurricane victims and more, he said. Drag has also allowed contestants to grow, which he loves seeing.
“It's a very personal journey for us, getting to see how good people are,” he said. “Overall, goodness wins out.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Miss Gay America: The female illusion pageant's 50-year journey