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'A form of activism': Student drag troupe fights against drag bans

Terra Byte, Gemma Tolstoy and Alexis Carr, members of Chapel Heelz, celebrate after a show at The Station in Carrboro, N.C., on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023. Photo courtesy of Ira Wilder.

As students filed into Cat’s Cradle last month, they filled the air with an anticipatory buzz. Crowding around the stage, some students began to drum on the surface while waiting for the "Riot Night" show to start.

In the balcony above the crowd, drag kings and queens donned fake beards and intricate, glittery eye makeup that twinkled in the dim lights of the bar. While some performers put the finishing touches on their makeup, others hung out with friends and warmed up for the show. 

The drag artists of the UNC drag troupe Chapel Heelz were intent on “crashing the cis-tem.”  From the splits of co-host Terra Byte to the pants-dropping number of queen Alexis Carr, the performers were lip-syncing for a cause — raising money for those affected by recent anti-drag legislation in Tennessee.

Tennessee Senate Bill 3, commonly referred to as the Tennessee drag ban, was signed into law on March 2. The bill explicitly condemns “adult cabaret performances” on public property or in places where they could be viewed by minors. 

Tennessee is not the only state to propose drag bans. Similar anti-drag legislation has been introduced in 14 other states. 

Jenna Gartland, one of the founders of Chapel Heelz and co-host of Riot Night, performed as her drag persona Gemma Tolstoy at the event. Gartland was born in Siberia and later moved to the United States and said that her drag persona projects a personality that she might have had if she would have stayed in Siberia. 

“She’s funky, she's a little bit bratty, a little bit insane, but she's just kind of a Soviet-inspired punk rock girly,” she said.      

Drag has been a part of Gartland’s life since she discovered its existence. 

She said the drag community provides an opportunity to explore interests she’s had since her childhood — such as makeup, sewing and costume creation. Gartland has pursued the passion since. 

She noted that the ability to escape into a "fantasy world” by doing drag is a huge privilege. The power Gartland finds in drag is why — as a queer person — she considers the rise in anti-drag legislation from conservative lawmakers unsurprising. 

“It means that they know the potential that drag has to be making positive change by allowing people to express themselves,” she said.

For Logan Dosher, another founder of the club, drag has been a form of gender expression that allows him to play with gender binaries and provides a way to reckon with their religious upbringing. They began doing drag under the name Lilleth after watching Chapel Heelz’s first show.

Like many others, the rise in drag bans has been emotional for Dosher. 

“It feels like a tug – it feels like someone’s grabbing my shirt and whipping it back,” they said.

He noted that, for many, drag does not just serve as a hobby but also functions as a form of existing and supporting one's self.

Even if performers don’t explicitly engage in advocacy, Dosher said that activism is in the very spirit of drag. 

“I think that drag is fundamentally revolutionary and fundamentally a form of activism. I think the very act of engaging in drag and engaging in radical gender expression and rejecting the norms that we are fed has activism at its core,” he said. 

Activism and fundraising is not new to Chapel Heelz. Mutual aid has been one of the main tenets of the club since its inception in the spring of 2022.

Jax Zhang, a founder of Chapel Heelz and a drag king who performs under the name Bulimia Rhapsody, saw drag for the first time in an underground queer club in Shanghai. After watching the performance, Zhang shaved their head, lied about their age and performed for the club’s amateur night. 

They said that as queer people and as members of marginalized communities, the performers have a responsibility and a need to advocate for others. For them, taking action is empowering and makes their hardships worth overcoming. Zhang said that this need is part of the reason that Chapel Heelz has always centered around fundraising.

The goal of mutual aid has grown along with the organization — last semester, the group raised over $1,300 for gender-affirming care. In their next performance, a burlesque show this Saturday, the club will be raising money for reproductive rights. 

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Despite the politics surrounding drag, Zhang said it is important to continue doing drag to express their creativity and to acknowledge queer voices.

“First of all, we're artists, and we absolutely are just going to do it anyway because it's part of us,” they said. 

Gartland said that drag doesn’t always have to be about making an artistic statement. She thinks that a majority of drag performers are individuals who want to have fun by creating original pieces.

“I think now, more than ever, it is the time for us to really stand up, strap on our heels and get to work,” she said. 


Lauren Rhodes

Lauren Rhodes is a 2023-2024 assistant university editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as a senior writer for the university desk. Lauren is a sophomore pursuing a double major in media and journalism and political science with a minor in politics, philosophy and economics.