Atlanta performers speak out against laws framed to demonize drag

Drag shows are big business in Atlanta.
Charlie Brown, a drag performer, interacts with patrons at his show at the Atlanta Eagle. (Daniel Varnado/ For the AJC)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Charlie Brown, a drag performer, interacts with patrons at his show at the Atlanta Eagle. (Daniel Varnado/ For the AJC)

Atlanta’s drag performers Charlie Brown and Lester West decided it was time for a pre-emptive strike.

States on two of Georgia’s borders were passing laws to limit the show business art form that Brown and West had spent a lifetime perfecting.

They needed to show the public who they were, and what drag was all about.

So last month they put on a show on the steps of city hall in East Point.

Brown, a 50-year veteran of the glamor business, said more than a thousand people attended. Among the attendees were some protesters, including one man who held a sign reading “No Peace For the Wicked.”

But the revue, which included an appearance by Broadway star Jennifer Holliday, went over well enough for the group to be invited back for Pride Month in 2024.

“You couldn’t have asked for a better reception,” said Brown, 73. “We wanted to let them know that our shows are nothing but entertainment.”

Lester West, whose stage name is Lena Lust (”I’ve always liked Lena Horne”), is a 46-year veteran of Atlanta’s drag scene who said he felt like he and his colleagues needed to make a statement.

“Laws have been made to stop us from doing what we enjoy doing,” said West, 71.

Brown and West were referring to new laws passed by Republican-controlled legislatures in Florida, Texas and Tennessee intended to marginalize drag shows, which have become big business in Atlanta.

Tennessee’s law, which placed drag performers in the same category as strippers and prohibited public performances outside of an adult club, was found unconstitutional by a federal judge on June 2.

But a legal challenge to the art form had been made, and just how far it might spread is yet to be determined.

Legal challenges

The anti-drag movement in Tennessee hit close to home for Brown. A native of tiny Westmoreland, Tennessee, he got his start 50 years ago at Nashville’s Watch Your Hat and Coat Saloon.

In the 1970s, drag artists in Nashville had to smuggle their wigs and dresses into the clubs in trash bags. If they arrived at work in full makeup, bullies “would chase ’em down the street,” he said.

Brown, whose historic career was briefly sidelined early this month by heart valve surgery, is currently recuperating at his Mableton home. But outside of his own health, Brown is most concerned about the trend of anti-drag legislation in the South.

Back in the 1970s the main risk to his career came from “mouth-breathing knuckle-draggers.” Now it’s from elected officials. “The hate-filled bullies are no longer lurking in the alley waiting to beat us up,” he wrote, in an opinion piece for the Nashville Tennessean. “In 2023, they work at the state Capitol. They reside in the governor’s mansion.” Things, said Brown, are going backward.

Lester West, who performs as Lena Lust, entertains patrons at the Atlanta Eagle. (Daniel Varnado/ For the AJC)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

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Credit: Daniel Varnado

Brown came to Atlanta during the disco era, which was a boom time for female impersonators. Clubs began popping up in the 1970s, and performers competed against each other for the most extravagant costumes and showy production numbers. It was in that heady atmosphere that Brown started Charlie Brown’s Cabaret, a 15-year drag tradition housed inside the legendary 24-hour dance club Backstreet.

Atlanta: drag capital

Those drag performers and their audiences and the nightclubs where they gathered created a safe haven for the gay community and nurtured a formidable art form, said Martin Padgett, author of a narrative history of drag in Atlanta called “A Night at Sweet Gum Head.” In addition, these clubs served as a place of detente with the straight audiences that also frequented the clubs.

Padgett points out that the clubs were a hotbed of politically active leaders, who promoted Pride events and put the muscle in protest movements, beating down laws that discriminated against LGBT Atlantans. Brown was among other drag performers who mobilized the gay community during the AIDS crisis.

Georgia had an outsized role in reversing unfair laws nationwide, said Padgett, which means that Atlanta’s female impersonators helped move the needle for the nation.

Atlanta also produced one of the best-known drag queens of the new century, RuPaul Charles. A San Diego transplant who honed his stage skills performing with Atlanta’s Now Explosion, RuPaul moved to New York in 1987, performing at the Pyramid Club with other Atlanta-grown drag queens such as Lady Bunny and Lahoma Van Zandt.

Eventually RuPaul created “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” a cable television juggernaut with 15 seasons in the books and franchises in France, the Philippines, Sweden, Belgium and the UK.

Drag has played an important role in Atlanta. But the exotic, exaggerated nature of drag can galvanize those angry about the shifting of gender roles. “It’s an easy target,” said Padgett. “It’s visible, and it speaks to (conservatives’) darkest fears about where the culture is headed.”

Could the kind of legislation passed in Tennessee, Texas and Florida get a foothold in Georgia?

Tennessee’s law, which has been vacated, was intended to forbid drag performances outside an adult club. “If such a law was passed here it would outlaw being out on the street, which would kill our Gay Pride parade,” said Brown, “because we would be without the entertainers.”

Some 100,000 people, including many families, attend Atlanta’s annual Pride Parade held in October. (Although Pride Month is celebrated in June elsewhere, Atlanta celebrates in October to avoid the summer heat.) Many thousands attend drag shows at Blake’s and the Atlanta Eagle and other clubs. A weekly drag brunch at Lips on Buford Highway has drawn a diverse audience, said West, who performs there each weekend.

“There are 240 straight women in there every Saturday afternoon,” said West. “If we’re so bad, why are we packing the house with straight women? And they are eating it (up).”

So the question remains, why are conservative politicians suddenly targeting drag performance now?

Richard Eldredge, former AJC reporter and co-author of Brown’s forthcoming memoir, believes the reason behind this wave of legislation is its utility in rallying a base of voters for conservative politicians. Therefore, the chances of anti-drag legislation in Georgia remain good.

“This is a way to attack the LGBTQ community and not specify who you’re attacking,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to travel to a time when conservatives won’t use members of the LGBTQ community as political pawns.”