Comics fans got a surprise on February 19 when Mile High Comics founder Chuck Rozanski posted a message on Facebook and sent out an email announcing that the store would be hosting an All-Ages Drag Show on the first Sunday of each month, starting March 3. The announcement assured customers that the event would happen after-hours, so that regular store business would remain unaffected and “no one needs to attend who in any way feels offended.” The event, Rozanski explained, was designed to give young people who might not have a “safe space” a place to “showcase their budding talents.” Based on initial response, there should be a big crowd, he said, adding, “This should be a lot of fun.”
But Rozanski didn’t stop there: He also announced that his drag alter-ego, Bettie Pages, would be in attendance at the March 3 event, and “might be performing.” Few fans who grew up buying cool stuff from Mile High (or wishing they could, after seeing the ads in Marvel comics) knew about Rozanski’s passion for the drag community or helping gender-non-conforming youth — so this was a coming-out of sorts, done in dramatic style.
After his announcement, we caught up with Rozanski to talk about Bettie Pages, a life of comics and the support of gender fluidity, Mile High-style.
Westword: So Mile High is hosting the All-Ages Drag Show at the Jason Street megastore one Sunday a month. Can you talk a little about what brought about this decision to embrace a culture that’s in many ways very different from the retail comics industry for which you’ve become known?
Chuck Rozanski: I've been active in the Imperial Court of the Rocky Mountain Empire for the past eight years. I began as just a helper on the sidelines, but gradually became more involved, especially in raising money for our ICRME charities. My first major fundraiser that I hosted for ICRME was a huge drag/variety show in our Jason Street building in 2014. We raised $4,000 for the Denver Children’s Advocacy Center, which aids children who have been victims of abuse, or are a witness to a crime of violence. In order to put on that show, we built a small stage/performing area, which we are now refurbishing for our new all-ages show. Our Mile High Comics clients have been remarkably supportive of my charitable efforts, so our using our performance space for drag shows was pretty much universally accepted without question.
What are the details of the show itself? It’s going to
be hosted by Miss Jessica (Jessica L'Whor), yes? How did she become involved?
Yes, Jessica has been the catalyst. She approached me a couple of months ago about putting on a show open to under-21 performers who have been forced to be excluded from all of the most popular drag shows in town because those shows are being staged in bars. This need dovetailed with my own desire to provide a performance venue and social gathering place for Denver’s gender-non-conforming kids and their parents. We decided that a 6 p.m. show on the first Sunday of each month in my building at 4600 Jason Street would be ideal, as I would cover all the costs out of my own pocket. That leaves all the tips for the performers and 100 percent of the gate, refreshments and other donations for ICRME’s White Rose Scholarship Fund.
Tell us about White Rose and the ICRME — what those organizations are, and what work they do.
ICRME is a chapter of the International Court System, an umbrella organization of seventy Courts founded by world-famous San Francisco female impersonator Jose Julio Sarria in 1965. Mama Jose believed that we could legitimize our place in society, and work to eliminate pernicious laws that forbade cross-dressing of any kind, through acts of altruism. We would stage glorious drag balls while simultaneously donating all the funds raised to charity. That initial concept has since evolved into the oldest continually functioning LGBTQ organization in America, with millions donated. ICRME’s White Rose Scholarship Fund has been one of the most successful in the nation, annually dispensing grants to deserving students both gay and straight. Mile High Comics has contributed significantly to White Rose since 2014. Our show with Jessica not only advances that cause, but also provides all of Denver’s gender-non-conforming kids with a safe space to have fun one evening each month.
You have a very personal connection to this issue. Can you talk a little about your personal journey?
After living a colorful but very gender-conforming life as the largest comic-book dealer in America for forty years, I became drawn to performing as a drag queen after a massive brain infection. West Nile-induced encephalitis of the hypothalamus nearly killed me in 2009. I suffered untreated brain swelling for over forty days simply because it was my second presentation — I’d been originally infected with West Nile in 2003 — which my doctors told me was impossible. When my cognitive abilities, balance, eyesight and hearing all failed, my wife drove me to the Boulder Community Hospital emergency room and begged them to help me. After waiting six hours for someone to help, I finally received treatment. Later that day, during an emergency spinal tap, I lost consciousness and had to be revived. From that moment forward, my life totally changed.
So how did that experience bring about Bettie Pages?
After my health stabilized, my doctors urged me to travel in order to stimulate revival of my damaged cognitive abilities. This was extremely hard for me, as my brain illness had left me incapable of reading maps, adding numbers in my head or even speaking coherently. Through a stroke of good fortune, I soon thereafter ran into a wonderful young lesbian girl named Ashley Imbese at a comic-book convention in Orlando. Ashley was there looking for work, lived with her parents on Long Island, and ultimately agreed to be my assistant/caregiver during my travels.
Ashley and I were on the road constantly during 2010 and 2011, traveling up and down the East Coast in search of comic-book collections to purchase. In the evenings, Ashley wanted to relax by going to gay bars. I had never been in one before, but I suddenly found myself in a fascinating and incredibly exciting world. Most especially, I was drawn to all the beautiful drag queens that I met, and ultimately realized that I desperately wanted to become a queen. It was during these moments of epiphany that Bettie Pages was born. I am now coming to grips with the fact that my compelling desire to perform as Bettie was actually a manifestation of my realizing that I am now gender-fluid. How this happened to me at such a late age is beyond my understanding, but Bettie is now just as much a part of who I am as is Charles/Chuck.
How has your wife responded to your coming out as Bettie?
She is very tolerant and amazingly kind. She occasionally helps me with taking off gowns and jewelry, and listens to my endless laments about the difficulties of being female without laughing out loud.
And why Bettie Pages? Is it just a tribute to pinup queen Bettie Page, along with a sly reference to the pages of a comic book? Or is there something deeper?
I always loved Bettie Page’s smile! They used to say that she was so photogenic that she actually made love to the camera when she was being photographed. ... My own smile is my personal trademark, and everyone loves how obviously happy that I appear to be as Bettie. I love her very much.
You and Mile High Comics are a Denver institution — and given your ads in Marvel comics, something of a national one, too. How have Mile High’s fans and customers responded so far to this new and very different enterprise? What’s been the positive response?
All of our clients with whom I have spoken have been remarkably supportive not only of my charitable efforts, but also of my emergence as Bettie.
But you’ve had some negativity online as well.
We’ve had haters post horrible screeds, but 90 percent or more seem to be from out-of-state hate organizations, or are fictional “bots.” I’m only bothered by the negativity because it is a distraction from the good deeds that I am trying to accomplish. Given our current administration’s embrace of hatred and divisiveness, the vitriol surprises me not i n the least. That having been said, I believe that the only way to defeat hate is through love and positive acts. You can beat someone into submission, but actually changing their minds requires becoming important to their lives. It would also help considerably if our political climate were to become less divisive.
What’s the nature of their negative response?
They are primarily trying to equate drag, transgenderism and being gender-non-conforming with sexual deviance and pedophilia. Most of the profiles have extremely limited histories, which begs the question as to whether they are real people or online constructs.
And what’s been your response to that negative messaging?
We block those spewing hate from further posts, but do not engage. My philosophy is to always seek the moral high ground and to try to be positive. We have hundreds of gender-non-conforming young adults and children in the Denver area relying upon us now to provide them with a safe space in which to enjoy life and to have fun, if only for a few hours each month. I will do nothing that in any way impedes our achieving that goal. Love is love.
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How supportive have comics been in dealing with queer culture? Clearly, indie books have done a better job, but even with the big companies, there have been inroads, yes?
Both Marvel (through Stan Lee) and DC Comics made support of diversity extremely important in their editorial material beginning in the early 1960s. My first exposure to gay life was through Last Gasp Publishing’s Gay Comix, which began in 1972. Since then, I have collected quite a few gay comics, but am far from being an expert. Bear in mind, however, that prior to my second illness, I had not been actively involved in the LGBTQ community since I supported council-member Tim Fuller and Mayor Penfield Tate in their epic battle to remain in office after penning Boulder’s first human-rights ordinance in 1974.
What do you think comics and queer culture have in common? What’s the thread?
Most comics fans believe in personal freedoms, and many gay people are drawn to comics because they provide fun escapism while also oftentimes showing empowerment of the downtrodden. It is a very positive mix.
The first All-Ages Drag Show is set for 6 p.m. Sunday, March 3, at Mile High Comics, 4600 Jason Street. For more information, go to milehighcomics.com or call 303-477-0042.