Drag is glitz. Drag is high fashion. Drag is a flashy gender-bending art form; and it can help kids and families to connect and thrive, as evidenced by Denver-based Dragutante, a mentorship and performance program for tweens and teens.
The organization behind the program draws participants near and nationwide to the Mile High City for an annual show. It’s an inclusive and affirming place for LGBTQ youth to explore their identities, express themselves, and find community. The local program, which began in 2018, is reaching even broader audiences with the release of Generation Drag, a Discovery+ docuseries, produced by Tyra Banks.
Robin Johnson, creator of Dragutante and mother to Jameson Johnson (known by his drag persona Ophelia Peaches), says she’s been approached by a few producers in the past. But many wanted to make it a competition, a la RuPaul’s Drag Race (a TV show and cultural touchpoint cited by several Dragutante participants as inspiration). The point of Dragutante, however, is to help kids and their families feel validated—the way her son felt at his 13th birthday party, dressed up for a drag show at Hamburger Mary’s in City Park West. He said then: “Mama, I feel more me than ever right now.”
To Robin’s satisfaction, the filming process for Generation Drag was positive, respectful, and didn’t treat the featured kids or families like a commodity or spectacle. For Jameson, now 17, being in the spotlight wasn’t new, but this experience carried a little more significance.
“I was opening myself up to these cameras,” he says. “This show and Dragutante helped me see Jameson from a different perspective. Rather than, ‘Oh, Jameson puts on the makeup and becomes Ophelia, and then they’re strong. Throughout this show and throughout Dragutante, I was accepting myself more and I was accepting my gender fluidity.’”
Young people finding inner strength and support from family is the nexus of Generation Drag. This led to tender and vulnerable moments viewers may learn from.
A father-son shoe shopping trip, for example, was an important bonding time for Michael Thomas* and his son, Vinny, aka Vinessa Shimmer, of Westminster. Michael admitted he was out of his comfort zone, and shared his nervous feelings about Vinny receiving negative attention for wearing women’s clothing. Even so, Michael reminds Vinny: “We’ve got your back, we are with you on this.”
Vinny said about the experience: “That was one of my favorite things. I hardly go shopping with my dad, and that scene is what made us start doing more things together.”
For the whole Thomas* family, Dragutante and Generation Drag united them with the Denver metro LGBTQ community. “For two straight parents who weren’t sure how to raise a gay child, this opportunity has opened doors and given us lots of opportunities for mentors and support networks,” Vinny’s mother, Robin Thomas, said.
At the same time, the family considered the impact their presence on a show like this could have for others. The filming process caused “a lot more reflection,” Michael says. How exactly did they support Vinny? What did they hope viewers would take away from their story? They wanted to convey the message that families like theirs don’t have to feel alone.
A fabulous future
Dragutante alumna Noah Montgomery, aka Pop Tart, started doing drag the same year she came out as a young trans woman. The momentum of change was a challenge for her parents Robin and Scott, but they also saw her quickly shine in artistic expression and personal confidence through the process.
“I think if you love your kids, if you let them, they teach you and help you be better parents and better people,” Robin Montgomery says.
Having performed for a few years, Noah and Pop Tart’s persona have grown up, and their connection to art has strengthened. Noah dabbles in oil painting, sewing, ceramics, and film photography; Pop Tart’s style has benefitted. “Pop Tart has evolved into this person that is able to express herself and advocate for her needs,” Noah says. “It’s become this way for me to actually feel heard. I have this voice I never had. I can finally accept myself and come to terms with what I’ve been through.”
Pop Tart, Vinessa Shimmer, and Ophelia Peaches plan to be part of this year’s 2022 Dragutante show, which will likely be in October. New this year is a youth leadership element, in which Jameson and other all stars (previous participants) will host and learn how to support younger LGBTQ and drag kids coming into the program.
Need to Know: Generation Drag is available for streaming on Discovery+ starting June 1, 2022. Participant and volunteer information, as well as tickets for the 2022 Dragutante show, are available at dragutante.org.
*Editor’s Note: Last name changed for privacy; Thomas is a pseudonym.