After returning from a college semester in the San Francisco bay area, I found myself researching Tucson's nightlife and culture, eager to see what my hometown had to offer. As I obsessively combed coffee shop poster boards, fliers for Boys R Us, a gender performance troupe, caught my eye. The fliers were intriguing, featuring women with handlebar mustaches, men with bare chests and whips. One of the ads read, "International Drag King Extravaganza XI: Boys R Us presents NO BORDERS."
After a few conversations with the people involved, I ended up volunteering as a photographer and promoter for their events. Soon, IDKE became my primary focus. As the conference occurs this week, I will co-host the art exhibit at Dinnerware Artspace downtown.
Organized and hosted by Boys R Us, this national conference is in its 11th year. A drag king is usually a female performer portraying a male character on stage. The performances can range from very serious to flat-out campy and sexually suggestive. They can include lip-synching, singing, dancing and narrating. The first IDKE took place October 1999 in Columbus, Ohio. After the first few years, the conference began traveling to other cities, attracting more attendees and hosting more and more visiting performers. The conference has since evolved and expanded, each hosting troupe of drag kings changing the theme. This month, IDKE XI will take place in downtown Tucson.
While Tucson's proximity to the U.S./Mexico border makes the "No Borders" theme especially relevant, breaking down and crossing borders can mean anything from questioning the rules that govern religion, gender, race, politics and sexuality to whatever else conference-goers can dream up. IDKE offers workshops on "dragdom" that teach people how to dress and perform in drag. Some of the workshops are geared specifically toward youth, ages 17 and younger.
Dante Celeiro (aka "Big Papa"), the manager of Boys R Us, says, "As performers, we are really trying to put ourselves out there to bring (in) more kings and other generations, because who else is going to perform after us?"
The attention paid to youth is what makes this conference special to me. Growing up, I was the socially awkward 13-year-old who spent time in detention for drawing "inappropriate" pictures. I was the kid who received the evil-eyed, purse-lipped answer from the teacher for asking questions in sex education class. I never wanted to join the girls' volleyball team or wear my Catholic school's skirt uniform on church days, and adults often asked my mother if I was a girl or a boy. I learned very early on that the world is a different place for men and women. To look through the eyes of the other gender is like hanging upside-down on the monkey bars. And just like hanging upside-down, a new perspective, while fun, can also be a little scary.
Now, as a young adult, I find that my explorations with gender are actually a way for me to fit in, thanks to groups like Boys R Us and events like IDKE. Questioning boundaries and taboos is now an adventure, not a trek through pain and ostracism.
It takes courage to see the world in a new way. I know that the performers who will be featured at IDKE will demonstrate their courage and, in turn, give me the inspiration to keep on questioning and keep looking deeper.
IDKE XI runs through Sunday, Oct. 25. For more information about the conference or registration, visit idkexi.com. Isabella Soto, 19, is a student at Pima Community College. She is a participant in the VOICES Community Stories Past and Present Inc. program. For more information, visit www.voicesinc.org.