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Legislation can't drag us down: Local performers come together to raise money and awareness

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(l-r) DonnaTella, This Girl, Athena, Siren The Barbie, Edith Pilaf and Fraya Love on stage at The Tractor Tavern — Photo by Ian Crowley
(l-r) DonnaTella, This Girl, Athena, Siren The Barbie, Edith Pilaf and Fraya Love on stage at The Tractor Tavern — Photo by Ian Crowley

While attending the Don't Drag Me Down festival in Ballard this past hot and sunny Tuesday, a realization washed over me: one of the most vital ways communities survive and thrive is coming together to share and experience art.

Art is about relating to one's society, bringing joy to others, and taking in the absurd beauty of this life together. Thus, it moves us into a space where understanding and emotional resonance bind us together.

For Queer people, this is especially the case. When art is created and shared for the purpose of joy in the face of oppression, it is at its most transformative.

That's why shows like Don't Drag Me Down are so important. Its mission was to raise awareness of the anti-drag and anti-Trans bills being proposed and passed all across the country in the last few years (over 500 in 2022—23 alone, with a little under a hundred passed, according to https://translegislation.com), though they are still largely unpopular with the general population.

The charities selected were the Trans Justice Funding Project and Southern Trans Youth Emergency Fund.

Dazzling performances
Don't Drag Me Down was organized and hosted by DonaTella Howe, a spectacular performer with a true knack for comedy. The performances were both eclectic and electric, ranging from classic musical numbers and songs from the soundtrack of the new Barbie film, to bluegrass country/folk and New Wave synth pop. The stage was equipped with mood lighting and delightful sound quality — as well as an electric fan to blow the drag queens' hair, lending some America's Next Top Model realness.

The festival took place at three collaborating establishments in Ballard: the Tractor Tavern, the Sunset Tavern, and Conor Byrne Pub, all within walking distance of one another. The schedules overlapped, but were staggered to allow patrons to catch some of each show, which most did.

Starting the night off right at the Conor Byrne Pub (which was city themed, with brick covering the walls and the stage illuminated by two streetlights), rapper-singer Da Qween amped the crowd right up. Effortlessly flowing from beat to beat and sound to sound, Da Qween's performance was full of life, humor, and drive.

After that, Siren The Barbie and Athena took the stage. Their hair, makeup, and outfits stole the show. Both were dressed to the nines, with an unbeatable comedic chemistry throughout.

Xolie Morra and The Strange Kind performing at The Tractor Tavern — Photo by Ian Crowley  

At the Tractor (decorated with a ranch/farm aesthetic), the group Xolie Morra and the Strange Kind performed emotional country and bluegrass rockers that showcased songwriting about intimate subjects. At a certain point, Morra reflected on how personal the cause was to them.

"Growing up, at two years old, I knew I wasn't a girl," Morra said. Reactions around the room revealed the power behind the words.

Unfortunately I did not make it in time for Zoe and Starkey, but a close friend I know attended and vouched for how entertaining they were. (All performers can be found via Don't Drag Me Down's social media posts.)

DonaTella Howe performed a lip sync to "Diamonds Are Forever" by Shirley Bassey and "Rehab" by Amy Winehouse, gliding around the room and interacting with the audience in all kinds of fun ways.

In between acts, pockets of prerecorded audio from television or movies played over the speakers, during which Howe mimed the words and acted out the scene. This provoked big reactions from the crowd, who were eager to see what kind of multimedia belly-laugh was next.

After Howe was This Girl, who came out in a pink, sparkly, sequined outfit that matched the high energy on display. She performed her lip sync to "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!," with her breathtaking choreography and athleticism on display.

At the tropically decorated Sunset Tavern, Freya Love made her way around the room theatrically. Her lip sync performance of "Little Girls" (from Annie: The Musical) would be best described as delightfully unhinged. Her acting skills were on point, exuding emotion as she held the audience's attention.

Edith Pilaf performing "I'm Just Ken" at The Sunset Tavern — Photo by Ian Crowley  

Edith Pilaf came dressed in a bandanna, sunglasses, and leather, exuding true macho drag king energy. He graced the crowd with "I'm Just Ken," the popular Ryan Gosling—led song from the blockbuster of the summer, Barbie. Edith's performance of the hit proved why it is begging to become a staple of drag king playlists for years to come.

Raising money and hope
Throughout the night, participants were asked to buy raffle tickets to win gift boxes with prizes provided by the many corporate sponsors of the night. The ticket sales and raffle raised upwards of $9,000 for the charities selected.

A person working the raffle stand wore a hat that read, "Drag is not a crime." If drag were a crime, then it's one that pays well: a venue organizer made it a point to mention that all of the performers got paid up front, so the entirety of the cash raised went directly to the organizations!

One of the producers got on stage (along with all the queens) and spoke about the nature of shows like Don't Drag Me Down, and how she views opportunities in which people can come together and witness love and joy essential in fighting injustice. While speaking about the anti-drag and anti-Trans legislation being passed, she got choked up.

As she paused to quickly collect herself, a person in the crowd yelled, "We love you!" to loud applause. She went on to explain that committing to causes like this is "who our community is and how we come together," and that the purpose of the night was to show that sharing vulnerability with one another is one way to bring us all closer together, illustrating that no Queer person is alone. Benefit shows are often seen as an opportunity for privileged people to make themselves feel like they're making a difference to a thing they have no experience with. Don't Drag Me Down contrasted with this notion, proving with that it is often marginalized people themselves who show up for one another, maintain solidarity, and build each other back up.

Lady80 performing at Conor Byrne Pub — Photo by Ian Crowley  

Ending the night strong
Lady80 performed at Conor Byrne, where blue and pink lights shone down on the performers' goth outfits as they danced and sang over electronic and New Wave beats. At the beginning of the set, there were only a few people watching, including one woman in a disco ball outfit and helmet (who, I might add, seemed to be having an absolute blast). People filled in quickly, though, as the show progressed. It was so '80s, one of the performers even wore sunglasses at night...indoors. (The other performer was wearing regular glasses, which were also cool.)

Sera Cahoone performing at The Tractor Tavern — Photo by Ian Crowley  

Sera Cahoone and her band contributed to the night at the Tractor, coming out on stage saying, "We're just gonna play some country music." There was a banjo soloist who added context, detail, and whimsy. The drummer employed some snare work that was colorful and intentional, pitter-pattering elegantly to evoke feeling. Cahoone herself also played harmonica for a few tracks, mirroring the very nostalgic, melancholic, and storied words of her songs.

Day Soul Exquisite ended the night musically on a profoundly high note. Seeing this band live in such an intimate venue felt like something one won't be able to experience soon, considering this group is destined to blow up. Showcasing an impressive range of neo-soul, R&B, and jazz-fusion, the riveting performance oozed personality and feeling. The songs chronicled the realities of Queer love, often focusing on its ethereal and joyous aspects. The music of the night ended here, with an intrepid and impactful groove.

A talk with DonnaTella
At the end of the night I got a chance to speak with DonaTella Howe about the night. When asked about the importance of the diversity of performers on stage, she responded, "My goal was to try and show diversity not just with drag performers but Trans individuals and how that intersects."

She went on to speak of the relationships she had with the queens involved: "These are all people that I thought of because of what they bring to the community themselves. These are all people I knew I could say [to], 'Hey, this is the deal — are you gonna come and do this?' and they all said yes."

About her feelings on Don't Drag Me Down overall and the results of the fundraiser, she said, "I'm very happy to see that we hit such a high number. It's really awesome to be a part of the Tractor Tavern family. I'd never stepped foot in Conor Byrne or the Sunset, but walking in today to get everyone situated...all it's been is family.

"It's been an honor to stand up to do part of what needs to be done, that we all need to do, performers, community members, or otherwise."

DonaTella also touched on the future and the need for more work to be done, which she said is "maybe in a way necessary to understand why drag exists. And it is really good to see people who are willing to do that."

Shows like this should be commonplace, an opportunity to see and hear from Queer people on their own terms. When everyone uplifts and supports one another's identity and expression, all in the name of combating hate, we are better off. Since art is forged from the relationship one has to one's society, using it to celebrate one's marginalization is liberatory.

DonaTella Howe is performing at House of Glitteratti in October and December with performer Boom Boom L'Roux; and in Ballard this month with Glam Chowder, as well as working bingo at the West Seattle Senior Center. As mentioned, all performers can be found via their social media accounts, which are all tagged in the posts made by Don't Drag Me Down. Learn more about the Trans Justice Funding Project at https://www.transjusticefundingproject.org and the Southern Trans Youth Emergency Fund at https://southernequality.org/styep