In recent years the LGBTQ community has seen a massive rise in visibility in the media. Where remaining closeted was once crucial to the success of someone’s career there is now a large and growing population of artists, singers, and actors who are out and proudly showing the world their true selves. Pioneer artists like Elton John, Sir Ian McKellen, Ellen DeGeneres, George Michael & Gianni Versace came out in the 1980’s and 1990’s when the reaction could be shock, disgust and rejection. Now, motion pictures are released with lead gay males like “Love, Simon,” the leading daytime talk show host is Ellen Degeneres and some of the highest rated TV shows include Queer Eye, Orange is the New Black, Rupaul’s Drag Race, and Modern Family. An artist like Troye Sivan can be openly gay and release an album that tops the international charts while he proudly sings about dating and love in the same way any heterosexual pop star would describe their love life.
I can’t explain the love the LGBTQ community has with expressing ourselves through all forms of art; singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, writing, fashion, playing an instrument, or some combination of all of the above. Artistic talent is obviously not something that is mutually exclusive to the LGBTQ community, but I have found a large percentage of our population turns to art in some way to represent who they are as an individual. One might assume that one of the reasons why the design, music, and film industries are so much friendlier to the LGBTQ community is because there are so many of us working in those fields and interacting with people on a regular basis.
I will start by telling you how I was drawn to art personally and how it matters to who I became as a gay man. Maybe my story will give a small window into the shared struggle all LGBTQ youths face, some worse than others. I was not particularly good at art when I first started drawing pictures as a child. All my same-age cousins were typical boys that liked sports and being outdoors and my twin sister was a Tom Boy who would always join them. I always felt out of place because I did not share the same interests as other boys my age.
One day, while sitting inside with my mother, trying to avoid going outside, I watched her draw a picture of a house. I started to match her drawing on my own sheet and she began to help me; this is the moment I fell in love with drawing. I had found a connection with my mother and grandmother, both extremely artistic people. As my talent grew, my family gave me leather bound journals to keep my drawings safe.
I carried these journals everywhere, so when I was in an awkward situation I could stay in the car or sit in the corner of a room and quietly draw. As a teenager my art became a safety blanket for my social anxieties and eventually the drawings became a topic for conversation. I knew that even if I felt different and felt like I didn’t belong, that I could be seen at least as artistic. Art became a tool I used to direct my life narrative into something I was proud of and also something I tried to hide behind.
My father was a kind and loving person but as I grew into a teenager I knew we did not have a whole lot in common. My constant fear of what I was always on my mind during every conversation. My art helped bridge the gap between my dad and me and for the last couple of years before he passed. We had some of the best conversations I’ve experienced in my life and I can still remember them to this day.
I have known I wanted to be an architect since I was 7 years old. I have known I was attracted to men since I was around 11. As I began to figure out the reasons why I always felt out of place, I also focused my attention and skills towards being the best student and artist I could possibly be, in an effort to reach my goal of getting into architecture school. I think the LGBTQ community has a very hard drive to prove ourselves after so many years of hearing negative comments that made us feel less than a person. I can proudly say that I am a happy and successful adult who loves my job in the design community and I have a great friends surrounding me and a loving husband. I definitely believe that the happiness I have in my life is, in some way, thanks to what a wonderful city Knoxville is and to the artistic endeavors I made to get me here.
For this week’s article I highlight two major LGBTQ oriented forms of artistic performance in Knoxville: Drag Performance and the Knoxville Gay Men’s Chorus.
Knoxville has a very well-established drag scene that has been around since the 1960’s. Previously mentioned bars like Trumps, Europa, Rainbow Club, & Carousel 2 have hosted shows for decades, featuring some of the best drag performers to be found for hundreds of miles. The drag community in Knoxville is an extremely tight knit group of performers operating more as a family. Interviewing people like veteran Drag Queen and Knoxville native, Angel Collins, I learned that these drag performers were the original ambassadors of “Gay Knoxville” in an era when it was otherwise difficult or impossible to be an out gay person. Through the art of makeup, drag, comedy, singing, and dancing these queens entertained the local community through times of celebration and also times of hardship.
Today, if you want to see a drag show in Knoxville, you would find yourself at either Club XYZ on North Central Street or Edge Knoxville off Kingston Pike across from Tomato Head. Both of these clubs offer exceptional choices to see the art of drag by a variety of different queens every weekend. Edge Knoxville also regularly hosts former RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants who have gone on to become celebrity drag queens themselves.
I interviewed local Queen, Diana Hart, about the art of Drag and what it means to him as a member of the LGBTQ community.
How would you explain Drag?
It’s not often nowadays that I have to explain to people what Drag is, because shows, namely “Ru Paul’s Drag Race” have brought it out into the mainstream. When I do find myself explaining, it’s mainly to those who identify as cis-heterosexuals, who have never seen a drag show before; or maybe only witnessed it once or twice. The thing is it is becoming increasingly more difficult to quantify it, because the definition—really the horizons of what “Drag” is considered are changing vastly. “When a gay man has way too much fashion sense for one gender, he is a drag queen,” said Wesley Snipes’ character Noxema Jackson in “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar”, but that doesn’t even touch it. Drag is now becoming all inclusive, whether you’re a gay cis-man, or transgendered, or even a heterosexual cis-woman, the game has definitely changed, and in some ways, “Drag Race” hasn’t even unveiled to the world what is going on, on a local level in drag communities all over the world.
What led you to begin performing Drag?
What I can say is that no matter how you identify in terms of gender or sexuality, for drag performers, their approach to drag is highly personal to them. I first started doing drag 12 years ago, when a good friend asked me to participate in an amateur drag show fundraiser while I was a student at UT. Initially, I was a bit hesitant, because I’d never really given it any thought—even though I was a big fan of anything associated with the theatre. But after I did it, I was smitten. Over the years, I’ve always regarded drag as a chance not only just to step into the spotlight, but to tell tales through the songs I choose by playing them out with my emotions. My stage persona as Diana Hart just happens to act as a mask, if you will, to separate myself from reality and to immerse myself whole-heartedly into my performances.
Even though you’re a younger Drag Queen you’re also a title holding Drag Queen with a loyal local fan base. What advice would you give to future LGBT generations about being gay and pursuing the arts as a career or creative outlet?
As someone who has stepped into a profession with decades of established history & talent, I would say that I still have more experience to gain. One title doesn’t make me an expert. But if the question is, “What would I tell those individuals who are considering stepping into drag on how to be successful?” I would say this: First and most importantly: stay true to yourself—in and out of drag. When creating your drag character, don’t be afraid to stand out and embrace the parts of who are at your core and carry that through into your drag persona. It’ll set you apart, in a good way. But as liberating as drag can feel and as successful as you can be in drag, don’t forget to remember who you are outside of all the makeup and the costumes. At the end of the day, that is all material. It’s taking care of the heart and soul behind of it all that is the most important. Secondly, be prepared to invest your time, energy and money into it, because if you really want longevity in your career, it’s going to take a lot.
Why do you think so many LGBT men and women are drawn to singing, acting, dancing, and other artistic trades and careers?
I think those who associate somewhere on the LGBT spectrum, do well in creative mediums such as music, film, dance, drag, etc, for a few reasons. First, would be that we are a community that often times is defined by the people we love, or the people we feel we are inside. We are not defined by a physical attribute, religious belief, country of origin, etc. We are defined by the emotions we feel in our hearts. If art is any good, it has to have emotion behind it, in my opinion. I also think because of the history of the LGBT community, and the never-ending torrent of oppression to be who we are, it makes us want to work that much harder to be brave and express who we are.
How well do you feel shows like RuPauls Drag Race, Modern Family, and Queer Eye have done to make gay figures more mainstream? What are your opinions of the image they project?
Yes, there are most definitely obstacles against the LGBT community and there will always be—no matter how much relative exposure one might think we are receiving in the mainstream. It is great to see shows like “Modern Family”, “Queer Eye” and “Drag Race” to show just how multi-faceted and real the voices inside our community are, but it still doesn’t even scratch the surface for those who identify as lesbian, transgendered bisexual, etc. and I hope that more people will stand up to tell our narrative. I believe that the more people that stand up and tell our story, the less likely it is that we can ever be silenced.
The Knoxville Gay Men’s Chorus could merit an entire article describing their history and the amazing journey they have made since forming less than a decade ago with only a handful of local gay men. (Ed. Note: I did write one!) The KGMC has since performed dozens of shows at the Bijou Theater, a variety of smaller shows for local charities and events like the Rossini Festival, Positively Living Fundraisers, & Knox Pridefest. In 2016 the KGMC participated in the National Gay Men’s Chorus event “GALA Festival,” the only group to represent the state of Tennessee. The efforts of these men to express their love of music and share in spreading a positive LGBTQ message cannot be over stated. The KGMC just finished a state-wide Summer Tour and they have an upcoming concert on August, 11th at the KMA. This weekend you will be able to see the KGMC perform at the Pride Festival following the parade.
I reached out to my friend, current President of the KGMC, Kyle Schellinger, to get his thoughts on the art of singing and performance and what that means to him as a member of the LGBTQ community.
What kind of impact do you think KGMC makes to the surrounding community, both gay and straight?
KGMC has a lot of impact on both the LGBT community and the straight community, the most important being one of visibility. We are a group of 70 men with 70 individual stories, but we come together as one to show a united front with a message. We’ve often been asked “Why the Knoxville GAY Men’s Chorus? Why not just the Knoxville MEN’S Chorus?”. If we were to remove that one descriptive word, Gay, we would be denying our message and purpose: to be a group of gay, or ally, men who come together as one. Visibility is really important, especially good visibility, and that’s what we show to our audience, gay and straight.
What made you decide to join the chorus?
I joined KGMC because I felt alone and isolated in Knoxville. It can be hard within the LGBT community to find a way to belong or a group of friends, but the chorus helped me find both. I was nervous when I joined, not knowing anyone, but I was quickly embraced by everyone.
How does performance and singing play a part in your life and how you project yourself as a gay man?
Many people in the LGBT community live a good deal of their early life in performance – trying to “act straight” or “masculine” or “feminine”. We aren’t, however, in control of this performance – the lines were written by society in general and correlate to the specific expectations of others. Singing and performing with a group like KGMC we are finally allowed to perform as our genuine selves.
Being a member of an all Gay chorus group obviously means you must be open about your sexuality to perform. Has KGMC helped you with being a more openly gay man?
Members of KGMC are encouraged to be comfortable in their sexuality, but we don’t have expectations for everyone to be screamingly out and proud. Everyone comes out at their own pace, and no one in the chorus forces anyone. We’re a safe space for all. It might be assumed that every member of the chorus is gay, but it isn’t true! We have straight allies as members too! The only requirement for active singing membership is that the voice fits within the male voice type.
What’s the best moment you experienced as a member of KGMC?
I’ve been an active member of KGMC for almost 6 years and I’ve been a part of some amazing moments. The best was probably when the chorus attended the GALA Festival in 2016. We were all backstage in a huge theatre in Denver with a standing-room-only audience out front. Before each chorus performed there was a short video about each group. Our video was pretty special (below). Mayor Rogero narrated it and as it played, we could see it on tiny video monitors backstage. So many of us were crying. At the end of the video, she said “I’m Madeline Rogero, Mayor of the City of Knoxville,” and we could hear the audience gasp and applaud. After our performance, we went out to the front and people were in the lobby, on balconies three stories high clapping and cheering. I was so happy and proud to be one of these wonderful men.
Could you explain KGMC to someone that isn’t a member but was thinking of joining?
Joining any group can be scary, but for anyone thinking of auditioning for KGMC, it will be one of the most life changing decisions you every make. Several years ago, KGMC sang a song by Stephen Schwartz called “Testimony”. It is one of the hardest songs we’ve ever done, not just musically, but because of its message. It was commissioned by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus and is inspired by the “It Gets Better Project” and deals with the depth of sorrow and feelings of hopelessness that many feel when they begin to accept their sexuality or gender identity. At the middle of the song, the tone shifts to one of hope for the future and these are some of the lyrics:
“I have been brave
I grew and so did those around me
And now look what a life I’ve earned
It gets more than better
It gets amazing and astounding
If I could reach my past, I’d tell him what I’ve learned:
I was more loved
Than I dared to know
There were open arms
I could not see
And when I die
And when it’s my time to go
I want to come back as me.”
That perfectly encapsulated what the chorus means to me. For me, they were the open arms I couldn’t see, and as soon as I found them, I realized that I was enough. Anyone who joins the chorus will find that as well.”
One last thing: Thank You to our local politicians & allies that support Pride and help with furthering equality in all minority communities, not just the LGBTQ. Happy Pride Weekend, Knoxville!