In the dressing room at St. Louis’s newest gay bar, Prism, nine drag performers are in varying stages of undress. They pass around duct tape to secure their genitals and help each other shimmy into breast plates.
Their voices are low, and they always need something: safety pins, concealer, eyelash glue. Usually, I have whatever they’re looking for because it’s one of the ways I justify my presence in a space that is still adjusting to entertainers like me — people who were assigned female at birth. There’s always one performer who understands the reason I come back week after week and the struggle of navigating spaces that are seemingly so forward thinking but which patriarchal attitudes can still permeate. My closest friend in the drag scene is another woman: someone who’s been critiqued in real life (not just on stage) for failing to deliver the typical things we expect of women. Her name is Rocky St. Moore, and I’ve never met anyone quite like her.
Like me, St. Moore is an artist. She teaches elementary school art in a time and place where being out as a drag performer has never been more under attack. And, like me, St. Moore began her career as a drag king because we both assumed that as women, doing drag meant personifying men. That notion has since gone out the window for both of us but especially for St. Moore. She’s a drag queen, plain and simple. She does what drag queens do: perform and critique gender, live a fantasy, serve a look, step into a persona, and most importantly, entertain.
“I can connect to my fellow performers on a different level from my other friends,” St. Moore says. “That’s not to discount people who aren’t in the drag scene. Drag performers just get it. Whatever the ‘it’ is in that moment. Maybe it’s just being in the moment itself.”
I know what St. Moore says is true because I feel it, too: a deep connection to her and other drag artists that is markedly different from my friends in other circles. At our favorite restaurant, Mission Taco on the Loop, we dip churros into a mug full of melted chocolate and bond over our experiences moving through the world, and the drag world, in bodies that are big, queer and female. St. Moore grew up in the Missouri suburbs in a family in which her parents were constantly fighting, but they didn’t separate until she was 18. She had her first inkling she was different in middle school, when she developed a crush on her best friend, a girl. She wrestled with the religious dogma she grew up with, specifically the notion that God hates gay people. It took St. Moore years to be comfortable enough to use the word queer to describe herself — she didn’t truly come into her identity until her second or third year of college, where she worked at an LGBTQ resource center.
“I remember sitting in church right after gay marriage was legalized and the sermon was about how wrong it was,” she says. “It felt like getting punched in the gut. But it really spurred my own self-reflection and led me to my own philosophy, which is that God couldn’t care less whether you’re eating coochie or sucking hot dog. Just be a good person. That’s all that matters.”
As our friendship developed, I confessed to St. Moore that I have a similar background: I grew up in rural Michigan, in a strict Catholic family that was similarly dysfunctional on many levels. I knew the first day I met her in the dressing room at Prism that we shared certain pivotal experiences. I could tell by her dark sense of humor, her witty, self-deprecating jokes, her ability to connect quickly and deeply with other humans.
We all found our way to Prism somehow, and everyone — the entertainers, audience members, bartenders, DJ — seemed to be looking for something. St. Moore, in the corset she asked me to help fasten her into, is part of that something. So am I.
Drag serves a similar purpose in our lives. Some people discover their true gender via drag. For us, though, drag is a long-term art project. We often end up wandering aimlessly through the aisles of Blick, or hot gluing together outfits in my attic. We thrive on creating concepts.
Late at night, I get texts from St. Moore that make me burst out laughing. “LISTEN,” she wrote to me once. “I have an IDEA. What if I do “You’ll Be Back” from Hamilton, but I’m dressed as Darth Vader with a light saber?”
“That’s PERFECT,” I wrote back. “I’m going to do ‘Good Vibrations’ by the Beach Boys and halfway through the number whip out a giant, purple vibrator.”
Many of the concepts we execute on stage are silly, but often, they go deeper. I frequently perform numbers that grapple with themes of mental illness, and when St. Moore sings live, she usually returns to the dressing room in tears.
“For me, drag has always been an art above all else,” St. Moore tells me. “It’s a way I can be a better me. It’s about self-expression — the makeup, the clothing, and putting rhinestones on everything. The hard part is that sometimes people see me better when I’m Rocky instead of when I’m my regular self. I’m still trying to figure that out.”
While the hosts of our weekly drag show at Prism appreciate our range, they also are never quite sure what to expect from either of us. Many of our performer friends have developed a niche, or only perform songs that fit neatly in their repertoire. Most of the songs I perform are by male artists, and I sometimes call myself a “drag thing:” a gender-neutral alternative to “queen” or “king.” “I can be both male and female when it comes to drag,” St. Moore says. “My personal identity is female, but it’s nice to get to express the masculine side of me every once in a while. But honestly, it doesn’t matter how you identify — male, female, chicken, dog. All drag is valid. Get on stage. Light it up. Don’t set an actual fire, but as long as you’re enjoying yourself, the audience will vibe off you.”
Despite all our similarities and overlaps, St. Moore and I are also quite different. At 25, she’s three years younger than me, she’s already been doing drag for three years and she has won the Rising Stars competition at Prism six times. St. Moore is also Black. Racism, in its myriad of forms, is one thing I’ve never had to contend with the way St. Moore has.
“People pigeonhole me into performing Lizzo numbers all the time,” St. Moore tells me. “And one performer I worked with just kept saying and lip-synching the n-word. I was brand new. But there are some things you just shouldn’t say, especially if you’re not Black. This performer happened to be white as mayonnaise. I was scared to say anything. I was shocked and uncomfortable.”
It’s hard to imagine St. Moore rendered speechless, especially since she jokingly whips out her teacher voice when the dressing room gets too rowdy. “One, two, three, eyes on me!” she calls. On Tuesdays, I wait in the parking lot of St. Moore’s elementary school for the final bell to ring so we can go to dance class together, and I wonder what her colleagues think of drag. I don’t really have colleagues anymore, but St. Moore works with principals and administrators and other teachers who ask questions.
She told me that she used to keep drag a secret. When a colleague inquired if she had any side hustles along with teaching, St. Moore kept it vague. When pressed for details, she called it “acting.” Where? They wanted to know. “Oh, just downtown,” she replied.
But now, she’s out as a drag queen at her school, at least to the other adults. “Let me know if this is going to be a problem,” she told her principal at the beginning of the academic year. So far, it hasn’t been.
“Some days, I come to school, and there’s still glitter on my face, even though I’ve tried to scrub it off. And, of course, the kids notice. They ask why sometimes I wear makeup and some days I ‘don’t even try.’” At this, St. Moore let out a barking laugh. “Teaching encompasses so much. I tell my students that I can express myself however I want. I can choose to look how I want to. Yes, I’m here to teach them about Alma Thomas and Van Gogh, but it’s so much more than that.”
St. Moore is right. It’s impossible to ignore the context of the world in which we live. Someone recently phoned in an anonymous gun threat at the bar where we perform, and we texted each other, sad and panicked. “All we want to do is exist,” St. Moore wrote.
“With this whole ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill that’s being passed in Missouri, I might never be able to be this open again,” she tells me. “I love teaching. I also love doing drag. I’m not going to give up one for the other. I’m also not going to be streaming instructional videos teaching my fifth graders how to tuck.”
We laugh, and then, there’s silence. “I teach art,” she says. “I teach kids that they have a right to express themselves. And that’s all I want, too. I want to show up as my authentic self everywhere I go, including the classroom. What is so wrong with that?”