Last week, during the opening reception for “I Am What I Am,” an exhibition presented by History Fort Lauderdale honoring the city’s drag history, City Commissioner Steven Glassman said he’d make only one political statement that evening.
“We cannot go backward,” said Glassman, who was there to present a city proclamation declaring May 31 “I Am What I Am Day,” citing the 60th anniversary of the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society and honoring the history of drag in the area.
“We all need to turn out in November,” he added.
Drag “has been documented in South Florida since the 1930s, when female impersonators entertained tourists in underground clubs,” Glassman read from the proclamation.
A very different political reality has recently taken hold, hanging like a dark cloud over the celebration of Fort Lauderdale’s LGBTQ+ community since March, when state lawmakers passed a law effectively banning the discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation in Florida public schools.
“If only our state were as fabulous as the city of Fort Lauderdale,” Glassman lamented.
Located on the second floor of the Galleria Mall near the Swarovski store, “I Am What I Am” displays an array of vintage costumes and ephemera along with photos documenting the scene and queens in the city. The exhibit is free and open to the public for the duration of Pride Month.
The air at the opening reception was filled with the scents of perfume, hairspray, and white wine. Many of the surfaces reflected light — the purple glitter, the rhinestones, the silver tiaras, the rainbow sequins, the gold lamé, and the glass display cases housing the costumes.
“We felt it was really important to show that the county really supported the gay community,” Patricia Zeiler, executive director of the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society, tells NewTimes.
During the first Pride Month since Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill became law, Zeiler says it was an important time to show support for the LGBTQ+ community.
Zeiler notes that the six drag queens honored at the reception—Nikki Adams, Tiffany Arieagus, Cathy Craig, Daisy Deadpetals, Electra, and Latrice Royale—are “trailblazers in their profession.”
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Ellery Andrews, deputy director of the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society, says one thing that struck her about the early days of drag is the work it took for a drag queen to get her name out there pre-internet — word-of-mouth, sponsorships from local bars, and getting fans to promote them so they can enter pageants.
“It was kind of like being your own publicist,” Andrews notes.
Electra (AKA James Buff) says they got their start doing drag on a dare from friends in 1977 while in college.
“I dressed up and won a talent show, and now I’m doing it,” Buff recounts.
Buff says they’ve seen cultural attitudes surrounding drag change drastically over the years.
“Each generation brings a different approach to something,” Buff adds. “When we started, we really tried to emulate women and tried to be as feminine as possible. Now it seems that drag is [supposed] to grab your attention, to slap you in the face. It was only edgier because it was all illegal. Drag used to be illegal. You had to wear articles of men’s clothing underneath all your drag, or you could be arrested. That was up through the ’70s in the South.”
Buff, who is originally from Charlotte, North Carolina and moved to South Florida 30 years ago, recalls a story of a friend being arrested while changing a flat tire at the side of the road.
“She was changing her tire in drag and did not have on those articles of men’s clothing,” Buff says. “They made her stay in the cell in drag. Her beard was growing out the next day. They let her out at high noon, and people were mocking the whole thing.
“It’s come a long way in terms of its acceptability,” Buff adds. “It’s kind of like gay marriage. It’s here now. Whether you like it or not, it’s of our generation.”
“I Am What I Am.” On view through Thursday, June 30, at the Galleria Fort Lauderdale, 2414 E. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale; 954-463-4431; historyfortlauderdale.org. Admission is free.