Passing him on the street in State College is nothing out of the ordinary. A grey baseball cap and few-days-old stubble help him blend in with the rest of the 20-somethings. But when the sun goes down and his shift at work is over, there’s a part of his life strangers on the sidewalk would never know.
His government name is Aaron Kreider, but when he dons his lace-front wig and heels, he goes by Gayla Genda. Hailing from Martinsburg, Pennsylvania — a conservative, one-stoplight town — made it tough to tell his parents he’s gay, let alone tell them he wears a dress and sings on stage.
Drag is a part of his life, but he learned to keep it separate from his family. They agree to disagree.
“Basically, what I’ve tried to explain to my family is that drag for me is an artistic outlet,” Kreider said.
It’s unapologetically gay, and stepping into that world, even if just for two hours, is liberating for drag queens. Kreider hid who he is because he says he couldn’t do anything “too gay” in his hometown, including drag.
Colin Miller, who goes by the stage name Absinthe, shared his own story of silence.
When Miller’s mom found out he stole her makeup, she was mad at him. Although she’s not mad anymore, Miller and his dad don’t talk about drag — which is fine by him.
Miller is a sophomore who started doing drag in the fall and won the Spring 2017 LGBTQA Roundtable Drag Queen of the Year at the HUB.
He said his family is really macho and into fixing cars. Since he doesn’t relate to that world and they don’t relate to makeup, they just talk about other things.
Kreider never did drag until he came to Penn State, either, until a friend from Mock Trial convinced him to give it a shot during his freshman year. The first time he performed was in the HUB in the spring of 2014 — he joked his legs felt like jello and stilettos didn’t help.
Since then, drag and law have come full circle for Kreider. He wrote about his experience as a drag queen for his law school applications and he’ll attend De Paul University Law School this fall in Chicago.
“Gay-bash us but bring your money to the front,” he said to the crowd in Chronic Town on Valentine’s Day, wearing a blue dress and blonde wig. “I just got accepted to law school so I need money.”
Drag is traditionally a form of expression where men and women dress to look like the opposite sex. It dates back to Shakespearean times, Miller said.
“There doesn’t need to be a gender binary on which everything exists,” Kreider added. While gender presentation is still the mainstream form of drag, anything can be considered drag as long as it’s an expression of the performer.’
Kreider’s persona has evolved since he started, and there’s an endless list of types of drag queens. From comedy queens trying to get a laugh to pageant queens dressing like beauty contestants, the list is only as short as the performer’s imagination. Kreider describes himself as a comedy queen and now hosts local drag shows.
“Because drag is a form of counter-culture, you’re allowed to be vulgar and offensive,” he said. “That’s something regular comedians can’t do. Something like the word faggot…I would never say that to a group of people I didn’t know, but in drag it’s ok. It’s very tongue-in-cheek — it’s satire.”
Miller wanted to be pretty when he started, but since then, he’s used drag in a different way: Miller portrays his character Absinthe as everything he wishes he could’ve been growing up but wasn’t allowed to be.
Miller has been drawing for years and is now an art student at Penn State. He said his drawing of a character began to fuse with his presentation in drag.
Kreider’s roommate, Jarret Ritchey, didn’t know his friend was dancing in a dress until last year. “It’s hard to explain but he’s become more funny,” Ritchey said.
He only found out after coming home to see Kreider watching drag on television. “I understand his humor more now and where it’s coming from. [People] kind of think drag queens are transgender people, but really they’re not at all. They’re just regular guys and girls.”
“The biggest misconception people have about drag queens is that we want to be female. I don’t want to be a girl. I’m a guy,” Kreider said. Miller added, “Being trans is something you are, while drag is something you do.”
Kreider isn’t kidding when he says drag is unapologetic. It almost has to be to combat the negative feedback and questions some drag queens receive. He used to hide his true self — but not anymore. Kreider said he was able to accept himself when he began pretending to be someone else.
And as for those who don’t understand or appreciate drag? Miller said, “Just be happy that someone else is happy about it.”