On Wednesday nights, Envy T. DeBeaute (aka Billy Vorgias), hosts an Open Stage for young drag performers at The Back Door in Bloomington, IN. My first time at a queer bar and first drag show was hosted by Envy, a drag queen who is comfortable with he/him, they/them and she/her personal pronouns. Her Open Stage was the perfect introduction into queer and drag culture. It had already begun when I walked in, one queen winding her way around the intimate zebra- and unicorn-inspired space while lip syncing and collecting dollar bills from audience members. I stayed through several performances including another queen, a young king and an exotic dance number. I watched with interest as onlookers graciously honored the performers’ personal space as well as that of each other.
In general, I don’t enjoy crowds. In public spaces, I choose to sit or stand where I can watch any entrances. I prefer to keep my back to a wall so no one can come up behind me. This level of vigilance is borne from the recurrent experience of my personal space not being respected. I feel unsafe because I have been treated unsafely.
The Back Door felt different. I couldn’t put my finger on why until Envy called her performers back to the stage so we could “clap and cheer for them one more time.” As she closed the show, she called attention to “our brothers and sisters of color, our trans brothers and sisters, and those who are gender non-conforming/non-binary.” Her reason for calling attention to these minority groups was “in this day and age, they need our support more than ever.” I was moved by the sentiment and what followed. Envy called for audience participation with the prompt, “Consent is a sober and enthusiastic yes.”
The Back Door takes consent seriously. Bloomington drag legend, Argenta Perón, ended every show with “Consent is the most important part of sex.” Envy reinforces this statement by taking care to regularly update what she says about consent. She now includes that it must be verbal, and that it is not only mandatory for sex, but in all areas of life and with “anyone you interact with.” Both within the bar and “in the real world.”
I know now I couldn’t have chosen a better night of the week to step into The Back Door. Because I am a survivor of sexual violence and because I work with other survivors, I am well-informed on the impact of consent both when it is observed and when it is not. What I saw that Wednesday was a crop of new and seasoned performers being respected by a room full of both sober and alcohol-fueled people of all genders. Boundaries were observed. This shouldn’t be unexpected, but it is. I have visited other bars in Bloomington for readings or comedy events. Consent is not only frequently unobserved, the topic goes unremarked. In fact, there is a Bloomington bar I’ve avoided because the staff has more than once advertised the promise of drunk or underage women.
It is interesting that Envy refers to the world outside The Back Door as the “real” world. Being in a space which prizes respect above consumerism does feel surreal. But it shouldn’t. Consent is basic. Envy knows it, yet she takes the time to remind her audience it must be observed. As the hostess of Open Stage and facilitator of new experiences for up-and-coming performers, Envy is aware of her privilege. She says, “I feel strongly that I should use my platform to do better. . . I will always fight for the people who don’t have/don’t feel like they have a voice. It is one of the things I cherish most about drag: the forum I’ve been given to do and be better.”