By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
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By Melanie Asmar
There's a strange pantomime going on inside the basement of a Capitol Hill high-rise: A group of eight grown men are pretending to sing in unison. As their mouths move, their chins and chests lift and fall as if in song. But there's no sound coming from anything but a CD boombox that teeters precariously on a buffet ledge in an adjoining kitchen.
Blasting from the box is a Broadway-esque showstopper with an easily memorized chorus: "Everybody wants to be a drag queen." Over and over, the words form on the men's lips as they pose and preen around the room. As the song reaches its crescendo, they put their arms around each other and form a silent, synchronized kick line.
"I know it can seem a little strange that we don't sing," says Jeff Betsch. "I think a lot of people do drag because they don't have to sing."
Jeff Betsch is not exactly sure how he came to find himself in this basement. Like all of the eight members of the Denver Cycle Sluts, the 25-year-old camp-drag performing ensemble he joined two years ago, he hadn't always planned to become a drag queen. But here he is, vamping with the other Cycle Sluts, practicing lip-synching and thinking about what kind of wig and makeup he'll wear the next time he takes center stage. When he isn't wearing makeup or a dress, Betsch is mild-mannered and polite, with a wry sense of humor. When he morphs into Portia Potty, though, he becomes a scatological New Orleans-bred diva with a gold beard and a taste for parrot-orange headdresses.
"I was a late bloomer coming out," Betsch says. "I remember hearing about the Cycle Sluts when I was younger. Here were these weird people who would make the news, and who people would talk about.
"And then somehow it comes to be that you are one of those people," he continues. "One day you're saying it's crazy, and the next you're walking down the road dressed like a giant daffodil. I'm telling you, it happens."
Denver wasn't always a friendly place for drag queens. In 1969, when James Martinez began performing as Nina Mantaldo, he was worshiped in gay nightclubs but tormented on the streets. On his way to clubs like the Triangle and the Backdoor 3, he'd wear a man's suit over his costume to avoid trouble. The community swelled with horror stories about queens being beaten, arrested and hauled off to jail by Denver cops.
"You'd go into the club, take off your men's clothes, do your drag, put your men's clothes back on and drive to your house," Martinez says. "People would throw eggs at you when you were in your car -- even gay people. No way could you walk the streets of Denver in drag."
Three decades later, a bunch of bawdy Denver drag queens are celebrating their 25th anniversary, getting ready to play bingo with the mayor and marking their very own day on the calendar: John Hickenlooper has named Saturday, October 16, Denver Cycle Sluts Day.
"When you consider this happens at a time when the president is considering proposing a constitutional amendment against our community," says Cycle Sluts director Tim Fischer, "it really takes a beaten-down community and lifts it up. It's a brave and powerful message. It's not just that the mayor embraced the gay community; he embraced us -- the freaks of the freaks of the gay community. The Cycle Sluts. Who would have thought?"
"Denver has come a long way in embracing diversity," adds David Westman, who performs in the Sluts as Nuclia Waste. "The city will really receive, respect and appreciate anybody as long as they're working for good. So, yes, you can be a drag queen, you can wear a green wig. If you're positive, you can do whatever you want."
Since 1979, the Cycle Sluts have presided over Denver's gay nightlife like a gender-bending hydra that feeds on glitter, feathers, torch songs and applause. The Sluts are Denver's oldest drag troupe and one of the city's longest-lasting performing ensembles, period. The current lineup -- Gabbriella But'zin (Fischer), Portia Potty (Betsch), Zoey Diddum (Coryn Fairchild), Iona Trailer (John Rochard), Nuclia Waste (Westman), Sheneeda Bleach (Bill Wright), Wilma Titzgro (Bret Farris) and Latexa D'Vinyl (Jason Martinez) -- is an over-the-top assemblage of big-haired, large-breasted camp drag queens who share a train-wreck fashion sense that gives the effect of a cross between a rodeo clown and a burlesque harlot.
But the Sluts are also gay men, activists, professionals, volunteers and artists who share a storied history of sporting huge fluorescent wigs and fake boobs in the name of charity. To date, the Cycle Sluts have raised more than $100,000 -- for everything from women's shelters and animal clinics to AIDS outreach programs and hospices. Last year they incorporated as a non-profit organization and landed a sponsorship deal with Coors. In August, all eight of the Sluts put on a show for the 2004 Colorado AIDS Walk, strolling the streets of Denver in full-camp regalia alongside a pair of Broncos cheerleaders.
"They loved us, but I think at first they thought we were going to upstage them," Westman says.