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It ain't easy being queen: Luke List on the "anti-masculinity" stigma of drag performance

A relative newcomer to the drag scene, Luke List has been performing as alter-ego Zoe O. for a little more than a year -- but that was long enough for him to win Charlie's Mr. July and Man of the Year 2011. And he's ready for Saturday night's Queen of Aces pageant and fundraiser for the Colorado Gay Volleyball Association at Hamburger Mary's, where he'll compete in such categories as talent, beauty and creative volleyball wear. The Indiana native -- he moved to Colorado five years ago to attend Naropa University and get his masters of fine arts in contemporary theater performance -- recently took time out from his preparations for this weekend's contest to chat with Westword , offering some insight into being a bastard daughter in a world of drag royal families and established queen dynasties.

Westword: How did you become involved in the Queen of Aces pageant?

Luke List: The Queen of Aces fundraiser happens in February, but the spring [volleyball] league starts in January. Daniella DeCoteau [2009's pageant winner] was recruiting people on the first day of spring league. I'm sitting here thinking, "I've never played in a volleyball league before, and it's the first night of games -- I don't know if I want to commit to a drag show right when I walk in the door!"

Then you're looking around at all these cute boys, and you can see their legs because they're wearing their short-shorts. (Laughs.) You're looking around and you're like, "Oh god, I don't know."

I don't really know what it was exactly that made me want to jump in right away, but I had this moment in my life where I had moved to Denver, was fresh out of a serious relationship, and my choice to play volleyball was just that. My therapist had asked me to make a list of things that you enjoy doing or just things that you do for yourself. Then it's like, "surprise, surprise, you're not doing anything on this list, so no wonder you're unhappy." I said, I'm going to go out and play volleyball again, because I used to play every Sunday in the park.

This was a perfect opportunity. I was sort of in this moment of wanting to be open to new things. Plus, my background is in theater; I have my bachelor's and masters in theater, and I thought, "I can pull off a drag performance."

It ain't easy being queen: Luke List on the "anti-masculinity" stigma of drag performance
Brian Balster

  So you brought a little of that trained actor to the Zoe O. persona.

I don't consider myself god's gift to acting or anything like that, but I decided, yeah, I'll do it. At the time, the organizers of this event were people who actually had lived and breathed this drag pageant world. And here I am, with one month before this big show. I remember going to a rehearsal where it was total pageant style -- you step forward, you say your name, you wave and you step back. I mean, it was hardcore. But I just had fun with it.

I had just costumed a show up in Boulder; this really awesome, really weird project. The music department was going to be playing Paul Moravec's Tempest Fantasy and Moravec himself was coming to the university. I had just costumed this project -- just one actress and one dancer.

For Queen of Aces, I just wore the gown from the play! (Laughs.) That's all I had. I came in first runnerup, and I kept getting asked to come back and perform. This is when I fell into this idea of like, "Oh, I don't want to be a drag queen."

It ain't easy being queen: Luke List on the "anti-masculinity" stigma of drag performance

What is the drag queen "stigma" about for you?

I went into this drag thing saying I didn't want to be a drag queen, and part of that is a stigma in the gay community. There is an obsession with masculinity; almost more than than I think you might find in the heterosexual male community. There is a misuse of the word "masculine" on gay and hook-up websites. It's as if being physically fit equals masculine. Just because you've been to the gym a few times doesn't mean you're "masculine." And at the same time, it's fighting that never-ending battle of, "Well, I'm feminine and we're a gay community...."

OutFront Colorado has written a lot about racism and homophobia within dating websites. It happens quite a bit. Someone will have a dating profile or whatever, or even just a Craigslist hook-up posting, and they might say something like, "No rice, no chocolate, no mud." I've seen that. And it blows my mind.

Or you'll also see things like, "no fats, no femmes." So, everyone needs to be Hercules walking around? I don't buy into it. I'm sure you're familiar with Grindr -- some genius created a website called Douchebags of Grindr. It's so great, because there are people who are just total jerks on those [sites and apps], so it's good to see a move from the community in a positive direction. You can't get away with being a total racist or homophobic within our own gay community.   Could it be about potentially emasculating yourself when deciding to do drag?

Well, all of that was running through my head. Like, "Oh, people are going to think I'm a drag queen." Or that I myself am this character. I hear it all the time; guys say, "Oh, I'm not into drag queens." It's an over-generalized statement. There are so many types of drag queens. When I'm Zoe O., I do Judy Garland and Andrews Sisters numbers. It is very different from that lip-sync-for-your-life-type show, you know? Then I thought, am I perpetuating this drag queen stigma?

I've actually never gone out as Zoe into the community. A lot of performers will come to events as their drag personas. I've never done that. When the show is over, I wash my makeup off. For me, I bring it back to performance, back to my theater days and curtain call. At five o'clock, I put on my makeup and get ready for what I am going to do, do the show, take my makeup off, go home.

If I go out after the show, I go out as me. And almost have to reaffirm myself as a man. After the last couple shows, I've gone down to the Wrangler. It's not like I was going across the street to JR's -- which doesn't exist anymore. I'm going across the street to the Wrangler.

It ain't easy being queen: Luke List on the "anti-masculinity" stigma of drag performance

Where did Zoe O. herself come from?

For Queen of Aces, we had to create a drag persona. At the time, I decided to base my character off Zooey Deschanel; I wanted to be cute and quirky. That's was my angle -- I didn't think that I could pull off this brassy diva. I didn't think I had it in me, and that's not the direction I wanted to go. My original name was Zoë Gayshanel. Like, "Ha,ha. Gay. See what I did there?"

But after doing benefit shows, I thought, okay, that's a little too specific, a little trashy. Especially since I used the word "gay," and that's like, come on. So now it's Zoe O., and I made that change to help it be a little more broad.

In some drag circles, it is tradition to start as an understudy of sorts to an established queen. Then, as a performer, you may carry that on queen's last name -- like a dynasty or a "House of." This happens a lot -- a performer will say, "That's my drag momma." And that means this person either introduced them to it or mentored them, or something along those lines. And in turn you will hear, "She's my daughter."

I kind of like this Queen of Aces thing because people have come to it on their own, you know? It's a choice. I don't know if I love that whole "family" concept because it does seem dramatic. I have heard other people say that without that "drag momma" connection is to feel less connected in the drag community. You might not be getting invited to perform at certain shows, but with Queen of Aces, it's kind of meant to be a free-for-all.

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