SDSU drag show organizers and performers explain their “kid-friendly” show

Some legislators have called the event inappropriate for a campus setting
Published: Nov. 16, 2022 at 10:11 PM CST
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - A drag show that took place at South Dakota State University in Brookings on Wednesday evening is under the spotlight after a state lawmaker raised questions from constituents about the funding of the event and whether children should be included.

An earlier version incorrectly stated that Rep. Chris Karr said the event was funded by the university. The original description of the event said it was sponsored by the Multicultural Affairs Office of the university, but was later updated. Dakota News Now regrets the error. You can read more information about Karr’s letter to the university and the Board of Regents here.

At the heart of the issue is a part of the drag show’s promotion on its’ sponsor’s website, encouraging crowd members to bring $1 and $5 to tip performers, and also a claim that the show will be “kid-friendly, so bring the whole family for an evening of entertainment.”

The program was sponsored by the Gender and Sexualities Alliance, a “legitimate student organization” with the First Amendment Right to do so, Board of Regents Executive Director Brian Maher told Dakota News Now.

And the show looked exactly like the drag shows performed at SDSU for over 20 years, and like a similar event at the University of South Dakota that has taken place for several years. Also, performers said, it looked like what parents and children have seen at the Sioux Falls Pride festival or Sioux Falls Canaries Pride Night in broad daylight for multiple years — age-appropriate attire, music, and behavior.

The “tipping” with dollar bills is not the kind of tipping people might associate with a typical drag show. Tips were given to dancers for appreciation of their efforts and abilities —”it’s time-consuming and expensive to do drag,” one performer said — and the tips were put into tip buckets in the same manner as tips are given at a coffee shop to cashiers.

Tips were not given to performers via physical contact. In fact, no physical contact between performers and the audience was allowed.

“This isn’t Scarlett’s,” said show organizer Joe McCulley, referring to the adult strip club in Sioux Falls. McCulley was also one of the performers and has been producing family-friendly drag shows across the region for years.

“I help take care of two small children. They’re 10 and 12. If I wouldn’t expose my second cousins to it, I wouldn’t expose anybody else’s child to it.”

So what does go on at “kid-friendly” drag shows like SDSU’s?

“Stuff like lip-syncing, singing, dancing, just fun activities,” said Alyssa Gonzales, the GSA program coordinator. “They do it for the performance and for gender expression...

“You see twirling, and dancing, and a ‘death drop’ move, where the performer drops backward, flat to the ground. It is amazing to watch, and it takes (athletic) skills to do it.”

Most of the audience at the SDSU show in the past, predictably, was college students, Gonzales said. But families and children are encouraged to attend, and “it is a show that parents would allow kids to watch, like any you’d see on The Disney Channel,” Gonzales said.

It is no different from your typical talent show, Gonzales said, other than the performers portray a member of the opposite gender via their costumes. Think movies like “Tootsie” and “Some Like It Hot” and “Too Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything,” McCulley said.

The attire required for the performers at a kid-friendly drag show meant exactly what it says — kid-friendly.

“We are more covered up. This is not your normal drag show,” said Devin Basart of Sioux Falls, a drag performer for 10 years who goes by the stage name “Devondra Shakers.”

In fact, Gonzales said, the performers at the SDSU drag show are more clothed than what any all-ages audience would see from athletes at the youth, high school, college, or professional wrestling, swimming, and female cheerleading or dance team events.

At the most, “you might see a leg, or a midriff,” said McCulley, who goes by the stage name Martina Shakers. “You will see more revealing things on regular television than you will on this.”

McCulley produced and coordinated the event, and has been putting on “kid-friendly” drag shows for several years at places like private and faith-based Augustana University, the Sioux Falls Pride Festival, and “ultra-conservative” Orange City, Iowa.

“The only complaints come from people who didn’t attend,” McCulley said.

And those are the people, McCulley said, who have R-rated images dancing in their heads, perhaps of drag shows they have seen in movies, or heard about.

On the scale of movie ratings, McCulley gives the SDSU event a “PG-13.”

“We’ve even gone as far as to make sure that anything in the music that may have a slur or a curse word be deleted,” McCulley said.

There is a wide spectrum of types of drag shows, Basart said.

Yes, an 18-and-over show at Club David on a late Saturday night will involve more scantily-clad performers, and performances that fellow drag performer Devin Basart calls “sexualized.” At those shows, tips are exchanged via contact with the dancers, sometimes in a sexual manner.

But that is not what goes on at the SDSU show, or anything in the area McCulley or Basart knows to be “kid-friendly.”

“It’s a performance art,” Basart said. “It’s theater. Not all theater is for everyone. With this one, I have performed in other (kid-friendly) shows, we interact with the children appropriately. It’s, ‘Hey, thank you for coming out and having this moment with me.”

Occasionally, Basart will participate in “drag storybook” time at local schools or daycare centers, wearing a full-length dress and reading children’s books.

“We’re educating children to love who you are, and we don’t force them to do or think anything,” Basart said.

That is at the heart of all drag shows, performers and organizers said. The experience to gain — beyond the athleticism, talent, and regal costumes — is the feeling of inclusion. It is a feeling many in the LGBTQ+ community don’t get all the time in their lives. The depression and suicide rates of LGBTQ+ youth are significantly higher than the national average. Bullying — both in-person and online — and images they see and hear in the media, is a common culprit for depression and suicide in South Dakota’s LGBTQ+ youth.

But at drag shows, the performers are accepted by the audience for who they are, and are made to feel comfortable for expressing their interpretation of the opposite gender.

The audience in the kid-friendly shows — including parents or children who may have never seen or met a cross-dresser, or a transgender person — is exposed to a group of people it has never seen or known. Typically, there is mutual warmth and appreciation felt by performers and the audience. Barriers between, and perhaps stereotypes and stigmas of, the LGBTQ+ community or drag artists come crumbling down.

It’s the same mutual warmth and appreciation felt in a talent show, musical concert, or athletic event where the crowd reacts favorably to a performance.

“It’s a lot of fun, a lot of joy, and we want (the audience) to come and have a good time,” McCulley said. “And if it’s not for them, hey, you tried it. You don’t like it. Hey, it’s like sushi. You don’t have to eat it again.”

The show went on.

Rep. Karr told Dakota News Now that he is “having a productive conversation” with Board of Regents members about whether shows should be allowed in the future on state public university campuses.

Executive Director Brian Maher told Dakota News Now that there is a possibility that the board may discuss the topic at its next meeting on December 7 and 8.