By Katie Freeman and Francie Wilson
The Indy drag community has persisted through the years due to the dedication of those who found ways to continue their passions, even when they weren’t socially accepted. Despite being shut away from the public for so long, Indy’s drag queens never lost their drive to perform — paving the way for today’s performers to visibly thrive within the modern Indianapolis drag scene.
Today, Indianapolis hosts a variety of drag shows, brunches and events. One of the city’s most recent additions to the drag scene is Thematik — a monthly themed drag show at Paradox in Broad Ripple.
Jacob Moran, the general manager of Paradox, said he got the idea to start hosting a monthly drag show earlier this year after interviewing local drag queen Lady Dumpster for PATTERN Digital. “I really just kind of did it on the fly,” Moran said. “The culture around the drag community here, like most of the queer community, is just so welcoming, pretty much of anybody. So it was really easy to get out there and ask Lady, ‘Hey, do you want to do this,’ because it is probably the most welcoming community I’ve ever been a part of.” Moran said that he notices the same people repeatedly coming to Thematik each month. According to audience members, it’s that same sense of community that encourages people to attend shows and keeps them coming back for more.
Shelby Jessup, a local drag show enthusiast, said that she is trying to attend every Thematik she can. “I think the community is great… I think that’s why I keep going back,” Jessup said. “They always put on such a great show. It’s such a welcoming community, too. Everyone’s welcome, and I think that’s great.”
Local drag queen Lady Dumpster co-hosts Thematik with queen Sleazy Nicks each month. Dumpster also serves as the house queen, stage manager and show director at Almost Famous, a queer cabaret located on Mass Ave. Dumpster said that since moving to Indy in 2016, they have seen the drag scene grow — especially after the COVID-19 pandemic. “We used to only have drag at, like, three venues,” Dumpster said. “Three or four. They would be the same people doing the same shows, booking the same people. But now, there’s probably six to 10 venues… It’s expanded immensely from what it used to be.”
Entertainment-wise, Jessup said that she prefers the nighttime drag shows, but she finds drag brunches to be a positive experience in their own way. “It’s really cool to be at the brunch shows and see the little kids doing it,” Jessup said. “Like, parents teaching their kids from an early age to be accepting of everyone — it’s really heartwarming to see. They give their children dollars to give to the queens and stuff like that. It’s really cute.”
Other patrons seem to agree with Jessup. Drag brunches fit for the whole family are a monthly feature at Baby’s, a local restaurant located just north of downtown on Talbott Street. According to general manager Ruth Hawkins, the last three shows have sold out in less than an hour. Hawkins said they wanted to introduce an all-ages drag experience to Indianapolis, as every preexisting drag brunch venue was adults-only. They felt it was important to have a space where people could watch drag with their children.
“Watching kids interact with drag queens is like — not to attach too much meaning to one thing — but it’s like, ‘oh, that’s how it should be,’” Hawkins said. “There’s no fear, or there’s no sense of wrongness. It’s like, ‘this is a fun person dressing up,’ and they [have] absolutely no hesitation about throwing up their dollars and dancing with them. And the queens have a really great experience with it, too, because it’s a person who is absolutely not at all afraid or suspicious of you and just thinks you’re amazing.”
Drag brunches serve as more than just an approachable way to introduce queer culture to a straight audience. Hawkins said that from the ‘50s through the ‘70s, brunches were hosted as a means to avoid the bar raids that police would conduct at nighttime. “I think that art that comes out of oppression is always more celebratory,” Hawkins said. “So that, I think, is why drag brunch is fun. It’s like, we fought really hard to be able to have this party, we’re gonna have a party.”
History of Perseverance
For two decades, Indianapolis has been harboring a lively drag scene just out of sight. The scene itself is nothing new. Indianapolis’ first drag show, then known as the “pansy ball,” was performed by openly queer Black entertainers on Aug. 5, 1933. The show took place on Indiana Avenue — known then simply as “the Avenue” — which served as the heart of Indianapolis’ Black queer life and culture from the 1930s through the ‘70s.
Only recently has queer culture, and drag, become more mainstream in Indianapolis.
Ruth Hawkins said that for much of its history, Indianapolis’ gay culture was hidden away within boarded-up bars. “You couldn’t see inside,” Hawkins said. “There was a sense of having to hide what was happening behind closed doors. And it wasn’t because there was anything dangerous or scary or awful happening behind closed doors, it was for our own protection … Those things were happening less than 20 years ago. I remember when they opened the front windows at Olly’s, and it was a big party, and it was such a joyous event, because it was like, ‘Hey, it’s okay. It’s okay to be who we are.’”
Hawkins said that while Indy’s queer scene has surfaced above ground in the past 20 years, the Black queer queens of the Avenue are to be credited for building the foundation of Indy’s drag scene today. “The trailblazers and the people who have [kept] drag going in our city are Black, trans and cisgender queens in our city,” Hawkins said. “They are the ones who have been carrying the culture and have kept it going and kept it popular, even when it was underground.”
Venues like Almost Famous help work towards a more diverse, accepting drag scene in Indianapolis. Dumpster said that by using their existing platform in the drag community, they hope to give other queens the representation they deserve by driving out virtues of love, kindness and respect into the world.
“I want to make sure everyone in this community feels heard and seen, but also feels loved,” Dumpster said. “And so that’s why I make my show so diverse in that aspect, I want to book everyone and make sure everyone feels like they’re welcome at my venue … I just want to do anything I can personally to make that better.”
Indy’s drag community has come a long way in terms of visibility and acceptance within itself, but from an outside perspective, there is still a long way to go. While Indianapolis itself is a liberal city, it still exists in a politically conservative state. There are some Indy residents who either do not approve of or understand drag culture — especially since it has been underground for so long.
Moran said he hopes that by bringing more drag venues to Indianapolis, drag will become more normalized and accepted. “I think a lot of the viewpoints of these older, more conservative people, is basically just a lack of knowledge and exposure,” Moran said. “I hope that nights like Thematik bring exposure to that community to people who otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to it and maybe had preconceived notions about it… Hopefully, we’re starting to show that this is just a community that is loving and fun, and not whatever volatile preconceived notions [people] might have about it.”
The drag community hasn’t historically been heard or seen, and that’s what makes Indy’s modern drag scene all the more special. Moran said that today, if you look for it, drag in Indianapolis is easy to find. “It’s here, and it’s vibrant, and it’s big,” Moran said. “I think we need more outlets to promote that and show that community is here, because it is strong.”
Katie Freeman and Francie Wilson are Butler University students enrolled in JR411, Multimedia Newsroom. Their reporting is part of a partnership between the magazine and Butler University.