After the first time Diamond Starr (aka Charlie Fleming when not in drag) performed in drag, they were told to never, ever do it again.
Starr, who uses they/them pronouns, says, "I was eighteen years old, and it was on a dare from a friend to go to the club that I'd been going to for months — in drag. I was like, 'Oh, God, no.' At the time, I was actually scared of drag queens a little bit, to be honest. But twenty dollars is twenty dollars, so I did it, and the MC brought me on stage, ripped me a new one, and told me never to do it again."
Starr took the harsh criticism as a challenge. "I proved her wrong. I've been doing drag half my life. I just fell in love with the art," Starr says. After relocating from their native Florida to Denver in 2006, Starr, now over twelve years sober from drugs and a few years sober from alcohol, has made it their mission to normalize sobriety in the LGBTQ+ community. Starr has partnered with Highland-area sober bar and coffee shop Awake to host shows in a sober-positive, all-inclusive environment, including one coming up on Wednesday, April 27, to celebrate Starr's 37th birthday.
While living in Florida and spending most of their time in the queer nightlife world, Starr was introduced to meth by the person they were dating at the time. "I actually got addicted to meth, and I've now been twelve or thirteen years sober. I always see myself as 'once an addict, always an addict,' so therefore I don't say I'm not an addict, I'm just a recovering addict," says Starr. "Partly, the pressures of drag did lead me down that path — let's put it that way. And it took me a long time to find my way out of that."
After moving to Denver and breaking up with the partner who got them addicted in the first place, Starr found a mentor who helped them stop using. "A lot of issues were coming to a head — homelessness, losing a lot of friends because of my addiction," Starr says. "Then my old ex, who had introduced me to the meth and stuff, and I broke up. I found a good mentor who helped me stay away from the drugs and kept being like, 'This stuff ruined your life, left you homeless, left you with no friends, left you with a bad relationship.' He gave me a lot of encouragement, and that really was what led me to become sober from drugs."
In 2020, Starr quit drinking as well, at first in an attempt to support their then-boyfriend's sober journey.
As a recovering addict, Starr picked up on signs of their partner's substance abuse, which made them re-evaluate their own relationship with alcohol. "Alcohol and drug addiction are not that different, so I saw a lot of the same tendencies," Starr says. "When you notice one addiction and notice it in other people, too, it sort of turns you off the idea of even taking the chance of becoming addicted to something else. It made me start to look at the whole community in a different light."
Though not always openly discussed, substance abuse is particularly rampant in the queer community, especially among drag entertainers. Working in bar and club environments doesn't just give performers easy access to start experimenting with alcohol and drugs, but it makes it hard for them to stay sober if they do choose to stop.
"There are a lot of pressures to break sobriety in many ways. If it's not drugs, it's alcohol. If it's not alcohol, it's maybe even sex addiction. I'm not saying every drag person is an addict, but there's a lot of addiction in the LGBTQ+ community in general. It's very easy to fall into that," notes Starr.
Because many members of the LGBTQ+ community are already vulnerable, Starr explains, they are especially susceptible to addiction. "To be honest, most drag queens and performers in general are vulnerable underneath it all. The performance is a way of bringing our confidence up," they say. "When you're already vulnerable, that push to go with an addiction of any kind is made to look like a solution to your problems. And it's not."
After Starr's decision to stop drinking, they started to notice all the smaller ways in which the drag scene encourages and enables addiction. "It's very hard to stay sober in the community. There's a lot of, for lack of a better word, micro-aggressions," says Starr. "I noticed things like, if you're ordering soda or water all night and the bartender sees that, they'll take longer to serve you. And at most bars, their version of a mocktail is twenty different fruit juices mixed together, or soda, or Red Bulls. No actual sober mocktail options."
While Starr is now back to performing regularly and will take bookings at bars, they only want to host shows in "sober-positive" environments. Fortunately, a sober bar called Awake appeared in Denver just as Starr was beginning to embrace an alcohol-free lifestyle. Awake is an alcohol-free bar, bottle shop and coffeehouse offering zero-proof wine, beer and spirits.
Billy Wynne, who owns Awake with his wife, Christy Wynne, says, "My wife and I chose to life alcohol-free over three years ago because we recognized that alcohol was not serving our intentions to live with more peace, presence and clarity. We settled on the idea of an alcohol-free bar to create a safe space for people, whether they aren't drinking for the rest of their lives or just for that night, to relax, socialize and create community — just like we're so accustomed to doing at 'normal' bars."
When Awake fully opened its doors on Mother's Day 2021, the couple realized they had tapped into something huge. "It turns out there is a much greater demand for alternative, alcohol-free social experiences in our community than many people realize," confirms Wynne.
Last year, Starr came across an article about Awake's grand opening and was compelled to reach out to the Wynnes, who were happy to work with them.
"I was like, 'This is fate. This place is supposed to be in my life.' It was just a match made in heaven. They've been such a support to me, and it's a straight couple that owns it, but they've been allies for many, many years. I don't see Awake as a straight place, I don't see Awake as a gay place, or any certain type of place other than inclusive to everybody," Starr gushes.
"One of our core principles is radical inclusivity," Wynne echoes. "When [Starr] reached out offering to do a drag show during Pride last summer, it was a no-brainer to take them up on it. We are truly humbled and inspired by the enthusiasm and support we receive from the LGBTQ+ community."
One of the best parts about Awake being a sober performance space is that it is not limited by the age restrictions that come with selling alcohol. Starr's shows at Awake are always open to all ages, though they're described as "PG-13" so parents are aware there may be risqué outfits and cursing in the some of the songs performed. And all ages can perform in the shows, too, says Starr.
"I try to reach out to the younger performers. I had a sixteen-year-old perform in the show one night, and they loved it," Starr says. "It's good to have sober spaces for bonuses like that. It's important to have them for all the other reasons, but things like that are just the cherry on top."
For people between the ages of 18 and 21, having a sober-positive space to perform can help prevent them from going down the same path that Starr did as a teen. "That's usually the age group where a lot of drag performers are the most vulnerable to addiction issues," explains Starr, "because they're sneaking into the bars to be able to perform, and they're surrounded by their friends drinking, so they drink. Or they don't want the bar to second-guess their age, so they drink."
"It's about stepping into a sober person's point of view and looking at that world in a totally different way," they say. According to Starr, one crucial way that people can better support their sober friends is to watch out for their drinks.
"If people know that you're sober, you're more likely to get roofied, in some ways," Starr says. "Because it's either friends trying to get you to join in on the fun and not telling you, or someone thinking, 'Oh, this person is sober, they're an easier target because they're not expecting their drink to be spiked.' We should all watch out for each other anyway with roofies, but definitely watching out for that is one way the community can be supportive."
Overall, the best way to support sober people, whether in a sober environment or not, is to affirm their choices without asking why they don't drink, says Starr, who also created a Facebook group for sober queer folks in Denver to chat and share resources.
"It's not anyone's business until they tell you. Just assume they want to be sober. The best way to recognize a person's sobriety is in ways that don't question it," Starr says. "If you're at a bar and you see the sober person being skipped in line over and over again, make sure you go, 'Hey, are you in line in front of me?' Call attention to that. Little things like that can be very helpful."
Starr is happy to see other LGBTQ+ bars around town embrace sober-positivity in small ways — such as creating dedicated mocktail menus — and hopes to keep the movement going.
"I actually have gained traction, I think," Starr says. "There's going to be a sober-positive area in Pride now. The sober-positive idea is moving fast. I feel like we were on the forefront of that, but also actually one of the reasons why it is."
Diamond Starr's next show is at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 27, at Awake, 2240 Clay Street, and free to attend. For more information, visit Awake's website.