Deep in the far north, amidst the clutches of arctic winter, a solitary figure approaches an LED sign surrounded by snow. The sign displays announcements and events, and every 5 seconds it shows the temperature, which is currently -40° F. The figure’s shadow is hulking—a down coat, bunny boots, thick mittens. Billowing hair cascades down their shoulders. They plop their bag down in the pillowy snow, unzip it, and retrieve… stilettos? Yeah, stilettos. They’re a drag queen in Fairbanks, Alaska, and it’s just another photoshoot for the gram.
Alaska has a tight-knit drag community that has survived in spite of the isolated circumstances. Until recently, there’s been only one gay bar in the entire state, and there’s barely any nightlife culture. The continuity and closeness of the queer community isn’t a given—as such, everyone is not only genuinely welcome, but also genuinely crucial.
Queer scholars are addicted to challenging the dominant narrative that rural spaces are inherently hostile, and queer life is naturally better in big cities. We Are Everywhere, the slow-burn of a slogan goes, and it’s true—queerness is just as embedded in riverbanks and farmbeds as it is in skyscrapers and cityscapes. However, “rural” as a concept is too often considered monolithically—the experience of living in rural Louisiana is substantially different from the experience of living in rural Montana. Any given person living and working in New York City is quick to distinguish their lifestyle from any given person in LA, and yet ‘countryside,’ from a cosmopolitan perspective, is an umbrella term encompassing everything that isn’t ‘city.’ Rurality is not homogenous. Alaskan queerness, like everything else in the state, is singular and distinct.
Life in Alaska is a life experienced in the extreme. Intense geographic isolation, punishing winters, and 24-hour daylight summers are all hurdles to contend with. In a harsh environment where arctic survival strategies are already at the forefront of everyone’s mind, Alaskan queer people have developed their own strategies to not only survive, but thrive, with a rich community ecosystem. As with other places, drag is one of the most visible ways that queerness enters the public eye. I asked a number of performers around the state to pinpoint what precisely is so special about it.
“We’re a small town 35,000 that’s totally isolated between an ice field and an ocean,” said GiGi Monroe, a performer, producer, and wig business-owner who is widely regarded as the mother of the Juneau drag scene. “We—our queer people—are all we have. This is it, and we prioritize inclusivity. If there are folks who want to be part of drag and have shows, then there’s space for them.”
Monroe is Alaska’s most well known queen. She started doing drag 15 years ago in Atlanta, Georgia, and gained local prominence through pageants, which led to gigs in cities throughout the Southeast. It was an underground scene, fueled by close personal relationships, and everything revolved around what went down at the local clubs. “In some ways it has come full circle, because Juneau is a very local drag scene,” she observed. “It’s always been about our local community.”
When she moved to Alaska, Juneau’s only drag show happened just once a year, a fundraiser to benefit the Alaska AIDS Awareness Association. She quickly got to work, building a close community and generating excitement by producing events and hosting bootcamps to spread knowledge of the craft. Now, Juneau’s scene is bustling, and Monroe hosts a monthly show with so much talent that she has to rotate performers so as to afford everyone a shot. She’s garnered attention out of state through her wig styling business, Gigi Monroe Designs, and also by competing in Alaska Thunderfuck’s illustrious Drag Queen of the Year Pageant Contest Award Competition. According to one of Gigi Monroe’s daughters, Miss Lituya Hart Monroe, Gigi has opened doors for everyone.
“I even worked with Gigi and my tribe a few years ago, the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida,” Lituya said. “We did a fundraiser for our friend who was having a mastectomy. I debuted a number with all of my regalia I made specifically for drag, and I performed stuff that was based on really ancient practices. It was honestly one of the scariest things I’ve ever done, because I didn’t know if people would understand what I was trying to communicate, but I’ve got nothing but encouragement so far for stuff like that.”
Lituya views her drag identity as interconnected to her livelihood offstage. “It’s pretty well integrated. I’m a full-time Tlingit weaver (I’m spinning wool right now while we’re talking). There’s overlap because I was asked to learn how to weave because of my gender identity.”
“People are deeply connected to this place,” Monroe said. “Juneau is a community that loves the outdoors, in all of those typical Alaskan ways: fishing, hiking, getting out on the water or up in the mountains.” With drag’s focus on the aesthetic synthetic, you wouldn’t think that it’s a natural match for the natural world, but Monroe thinks that her drag family is so successful in part because they’re all just as outdoorsy as every other Alaskan.
“I have never seen a drag scene anywhere else where Friday night you’re in a show, and Saturday morning you’re hiking up a mountain, and then Saturday night you’re at a bonfire on the beach. That’s just not an option anywhere else When people come here from out of town, like famous special guests we bring up for pride, they’re shocked. This idea of the rugged Alaskan comes to their mind, and they think everyone is so rugged just because we don’t mind getting our painted nails a little dirty. I like that we can flip the script a little bit—it’s just another extension of breaking down gender norms. Yeah, we may be queens, but we’re not afraid to get dirty, too.”
For an artform so rooted in gender performance, drag scenes in larger cities often have a substantial gender problem. Line-ups are usually dominated by cis gay men, performing as queens, with varying space left for the trans women who have always been at the cutting edge of drag. Gay bars rarely promote drag kings in the same way that they promote queens, which is a limited and problematic form of gatekeeping reinforced by the trans-exclusionary practices of RuPaul’s Drag Race and other drag representations in the mainstream media. Alaska, in perhaps striking contrast, doesn’t have this problem. Juneau, for instance, has just as many Kings as Queens.
“We put our all into our boy band,” said Tyquan, a king and costume designer known for his suave and finely-tailored looks. “We show up to rehearsals, we do complicated choreo. Because it’s small, you get to be a big fish in a little pond. On the flip side—it’s so damn small! We just don’t have access to a lot of things. The things I could do if I had a good fabric store. We only have one Joanne’s, and she’s going through a divorce or something, because there ain’t shit in there. That’s our main struggle: finding the sources necessary to put drag together.”
Tyquan notes that Alaska has quite a bit of Trumpy-ness, but there’s safety in keeping chosen family close. “Being indigenous and black, I’m almost invisible here,” he said. “There’s less than 400 black people in Juneau. I’m hidden, but at the same time I really stand out—particularly on stage. In some ways I don’t fit in here, but in all honesty I don’t fit in anywhere. If we’re gonna stick out, we might as well stand out, and let them have it.“
850 road miles to the north, on the coast of south central Alaska, Anchorage also celebrates its drag kings. “I can’t even imagine living in a place where we had designated gay men bars, lesbian bars, or drag-queen-only shows,” said Hank VanDickerson, drag king extraordinaire and host of the weekly Diva Show at Mad Myrna’s. “That would be so sad to me. It’s not that we’re accepting of everyone just because we’re small—we actively want everyone to come out and have fun at the show. A cisgender woman can do female drag, a cisgender male can do male drag. There should never be barriers based on gender. It shouldn’t matter, and our shows prove that it doesn’t matter.”
Mad Myrna’s is Alaska’s primary queer bar, serving Anchorage’s cosmopolitan population of just under 300,000 people. Whereas Alaska’s other drag communities are more mobile, booking different venues for different shows since they don’t have permanent performance spaces, Anchorage’s community revolves around their bar. VanDickerson has hosted the Diva Show for over 6 years, and putting on a different production each week is no small feat.
“When I started hosting the Diva show, I really saw the potential for it, and saw that Anchorage is very receptive to queer performance. Now we have an ASL night on the last Friday of every month, where we bring in an interpreter. We’ve started themes, like Broadway Night, or 80s Night, or 90s Night. Everyone eats it up.”
“The Anchorage drag community has been around for a long time, since the 70s,” said Golden Delicious (Goldie), a bearded queen who centers advocacy and fundraising in her drag performances. “The first pride was in 1977, and people walked through town with bags on their heads, holding signs affirming that there are LGBTQ people here. There have always been indigenous LGBTQ people here. The bags were for anonymity, to make sure no one was discharged from the military or fired from their job. It’s just such a special lineage that within these secluded areas, and dark rooms in bars, there were relationships, and there were drag performances.”
Goldie thinks that the strength of her queer community lies in a near universal commitment to protecting each other. “Alaska has actually been at the forefront of the bathroom bill conversation, with people proposing bills that are trying to take away the rights of our trans community, and we often defeat them. Drag has been crucial in clapping back at that.”
“We’re not on the fringes of society here,” said Lamia Lexicon, a queen who splits time between Fairbanks and Juneau for work, and performs as a part of the Klondike Drag troupe. Fairbanks is 360 miles north of Anchorage, nestled in the Tanana Valley’s rolling hills, criss-crossed with rivers. “We are ingrained in our communities—not just the queer communities, but our community as a whole. We volunteer, we direct organizations, we work in government—we’re at the heart of so much of the state.”
Lamia started performing young, before bars would let her in the door. “The second time I ever performed was a show that I organized, promoted, and produced by myself. 300 people showed up. If you don’t have an opportunity, you just have to create one, and Alaskans are open to that. There’s a fundamental culture of ‘do what you want with your own life and property,’ Lamia said. “Alaska is already an end-of-the-road place. People are so eccentric here, and drag is normal by comparison.”
“There are people in America who don’t even know that Alaska is a state,” said Goldie, “so most people wouldn’t know that it’s also a place of queerness. We all acknowledge the survival instincts of living in a place that is dark 50% of the year, and is winter more than 50% of the year. That’s an effort we all acknowledge that it takes to live here, just like the effort it takes to hold queer community here.”
As with the Lower 48, Alaska’s drag performers are reckoning with the COVID-19 pandemic by staging digital drag shows. “It’s actually been pretty rewarding,” Lituya said, “with the digital format, where we’re from—this beautiful, special environment—can be featured in videos. You just can’t do the same stuff indoors.
Lamia Lexicon agrees that the switch to Digital Drag has silver linings. “When you have to produce and promote and create your own shows, it really puts you in the driver’s seat. We were already used to putting on the promoter hat and doing everything, so the switch to Twitch shows was pretty easy. We already knew how to do the organizing.”
Life in the far north isn’t for everyone, but it’s everything for those that hold it dear. “I just love the life that I live here,” said Gigi Monroe. “I love that I can be my full, 100% authentic self in a very small town which also happens to be the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. I have a full drag career here. That’s not something I would have ever imagined possible. There is something about this place and this community that embraces individuality above all else. I don’t think there’s anything missing. Well, except for a cheap flight out.”
Stay in touch with the performers on insta and tune into these upcoming Digital Drag shows:
Gigi Monroe’s (@thegigimonroe) monthly digital drag show on September 26 (/GiGiMonroe on Youtube, Twitch, and Facebook, time TBD)
Lamia Lexicon (@lamialexicon) at “Creature Feature,” September 5th at 11pm EST /8pm PT (@KlondikeDrag on Twitch and Facebook)
Tyquan is performing at Drag Story Hour on August 24 (Juneau Pride 2020 on Facebook)