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The roots of drag and challenges it faces in present-day Texas

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HOUSTON — It’s flashy, dramatic and entertaining.

“Drag is just a version of self-expression,” said performer Sonny Woodcock. “Like RuPaul said, ‘We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.’”

Several nights a week, Woodcock transforms into Ondi to perform at ReBar in Midtown.

When RuPaul’s Drag Race became a global phenomenon after its debut in 2009, drag exploded across the country and in Houston.

The makeup and costumes require major artistic skill, and choreographing performances can be grueling, but Ondi said commanding the spotlight makes it all worth it.

“Once you get on stage, you feel like a celebrity for 5 minutes – for anyone, that would make them feel confident and validated,” said Woodcock.

Between the makeup, costumes, shoes and wigs – doing drag is also expensive.

Just ask Kofi, known as the grande dame of drag in Houston.

She has been performing for more than 40 years in this city and said the expenses associated with performing add up quickly.

“You can be looking at a $1,000 a month, easily,” said Kofi.

But what’s mainstream now has roots dating back hundreds of years: from ancient Greek performances to Elizabethan times, when men would play female roles in Shakespeare plays.

In the mid-1900s, drag and female impersonators began being associated with the LGBTQ+ community.

“Drag queens usually would perform for a drink, a meal or for money,” said Judy Reeves, chair of the Gulf Coast Archive and Museum of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender History, Inc.

And in the mid-1980s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, Reeves said drag shows took on a significant role.

“The queens did their performances and a dollar here, a dollar there, would go to AIDS patients in the community,” said Reeves.

Kofi remembers those times: “If you wanted to put on a big show, we brought in the money.”

But recently, drag has been caught in political crosshairs.

Earlier this month, a Dallas area club hosted a “family-friendly” drag show dubbed “Drag Your Kids to Pride.”

Videos circulating online show performers dancing, and some taking dollar bills from children.

Outside, protestors claimed the event was endangering children.

“It’s no place for children and it has no value in their development as a child,” says Texas Representative Bryan Slaton.

RELATED: Following Dallas event, Texas lawmaker says he will file legislation to ban minors from drag shows

Because of the event, Rep. Slaton is now promising to file legislation that would ban minors from drag shows in Texas.

“The issue is adults acting very sexual in nature and interacting with children,” he said.

Rep. Slaton likened it to other government restrictions.

“Children can’t go in liquor stores, they can’t go in bars, and they can’t get tattoos - so this isn’t the first time we’ve ever said, ‘Hey parents, we’re going to try to help you make this decision,’” said Rep. Slaton.

Woodcock said many children attend ReBar’s brunch performances.

“A lot of people mischaracterize us as just being creatures of the night – like, we’re exotic dancers,” said Woodcock. “I think that’s wrong, because drag is theater.”

Kofi believes show producers do have a responsibility to truly make drag shows family-friendly when advertised as such.

But she added that ultimately, it’s up to parents to decide whether to bring their children to a drag show. 

“I don’t see anything wrong if a minor is there with their family and their family has brought them there, they obviously they feel that that’s OK,” said Kofi. “I don’t think the government or anybody should be telling anyone else how to raise their children.”

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