It’s Sunday afternoon, and the brunch crowd is seated at Blend, a restaurant and club in Dorchester. They’re eating fresh fruit and green salads, Irish cream French toast, and chicken and waffles. The mimosas have only just begun to flow.
The food is good, but nobody is really here for the food. (The mimosas, maybe.) Today is Mizery Loves Company Drag & Munch!, a drag brunch named for its host, a mainstay on Boston’s drag scene. Also joining the show: Candace Persuasian, Chanel the Angel, and Lilly Rose Valore. Although a small percentage of drag performers are transgender, today’s trio are all trans performers of color, Mizery notes. Over the next few hours, they will lip-sync, dance, and model an ever-changing array of glamorous, sequin-spangled looks. Somewhere between the gleefully risque banter with customers and the twerking competition among the day’s birthday celebrants, they will also deliver a message.
“Everybody say it on the count of three: ‘Trans is beautiful!,’ ” says Lilly Rose. She counts down, and the mimosa drinkers shout it out, right there with her. In another number, Candace sheds a feather-trimmed frock to reveal a glittery bodysuit inscribed with the same words.
Drag is a celebration. It is about joy, performance, and being proud to be and be seen as one’s own gorgeous self. It is also — as an LGBTQ+ art form that showcases the fluidity of gender — increasingly a target for conservatives. That doesn’t appear to be affecting its mainstream appeal, as “RuPaul’s Drag Race” airs its 15th season, drag queen slang is everywhere (yaaasss!), and (in Boston, at least) a new drag brunch appears to crop up every week.
“We’ve got to make sure we fight, with everything happening in the world,” Mizery says. “It’s not about trans. It’s not about gay. They’re trying to take away alllll of our rights, and honey, that is unacceptable.”
Friday marks International Transgender Day of Visibility, an annual event that celebrates trans people and raises awareness of discrimination. Right now that feels particularly urgent. Anti-trans legislation, on the rise over the last few years, spiked in 2023: up from 169 bills in 2022 to 489 and counting, according to the Trans Legislation Tracker. Many of the bills are aimed at children, in their doctors’ offices and schools, restricting what health care they can access, what books they can read, whether they can play sports, and more. But more than 30 of the bills focus on drag shows. This month, Tennessee passed the first of these into law, restricting certain “adult cabaret performances” in public or where they might be viewed by a child. It takes effect July 1.
Even in blue state Massachusetts, drag queen story hours have drawn protest in the Seaport, Jamaica Plain, and beyond. “We in Massachusetts are not immune,” says Tre’Andre Carmel Valentine, executive director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition.
“Drag is the indigenous queer performance form, of the people, by the people, and for the people,” says drag historian Joe E. Jeffreys, who teaches at New York University and the New School. “There has always been an impetus to regulate it in some kind of way, to put it down, to criminalize it.” For instance, New York passed an anti-masquerading law in the 1840s, intended to target protesting farmers who wore masks to hide their identities. Open to interpretation, it was later applied to trans people and drag performers. (The Tennessee law singles out “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest,” raising the question “prurient to whom?”)
Although drag has been around forever, drag brunch is a relatively new phenomenon. Brunch had a heyday in the 1980s, Jeffreys says. When interest started to wane, business owners looked for new draws, bringing in entertainment like gospel choirs and drag shows. This made drag performance much more accessible to a general audience — people who might not have attended a late-night show at a queer club could take one in by day at a restaurant.
A place like Carrie Nation in Beacon Hill, which every Sunday hosts Drag Me to Brunch, a show with buffet. Celebrating its sixth anniversary on April 30, it may be the city’s oldest regularly occurring drag brunch.
“Boston didn’t have drag brunches six years ago,” says performer Dee Dee De Ray, who cohosts the show with Destiny Boston. (Dee Dee’s offstage alter ego, Donald Gregorio, works in corporate law and runs his own entertainment production company.) “The art form of drag was always at night, either in the clubs or at Jacque’s Cabaret. Or you’d go to Machine, which is no longer open, unfortunately. There were only a few places you could go see drag, Club Cafe being another one. There aren’t that many predominantly queer spaces anymore in Boston.”
There are, however, drag brunches all over town — at places from sports bar Game On to comedy club Laugh Boston to restaurants including Citrus & Salt, Summer Shack, and Tenderoni’s. “Nowadays I’m having to compete,” Dee Dee says. “There are so many now, which is great, but from a business standpoint we have to make sure we’re setting ourselves outside the box from the others.”
The audience at Boston’s drag brunches is diverse, comprising people of all ages, races, sexual preferences, and gender expressions. People come to celebrate birthdays, bachelorette parties, Sunday Funday, the end of bad relationships. At Carrie Nation, when an audience member announces she just broke up with her cheating boyfriend, the drag queens surround her with love and support (much of it extremely unprintable): “Look at you, girl! You don’t need that. You’re beautiful.” They hug people — real hugs, warm embraces. And at the end of the show, when the whole crowd dances together to “I Will Survive,” it is a moment of real unity. Everyone understands these lyrics, no matter who they are or what their experiences.
“I do feel empowered when I’m performing, and I think other people feel that as well. The girls I work with, we really love audience inclusion. Making other people feel like they’re part of the performance keeps them coming back and feeling like they’re celebrated,” says Chanel Kennerly, a health navigator at Fenway Health who performs as Chanel the Angel. She will soon be moving to a full-time drag career.
“Drag and trans people have been here forever. We’ve seen this [cultural] tug of war time and time again. And I truly don’t see it ever stopping. The best form of protest is showing up and doing the work and doing the job,” she says. “Come with an open mind and an open heart and don’t take things too serious. There’s so much going on. We’re just having fun, and we want people to have fun.”
Back at Blend, Lilly Rose Valore is performing, a number of grace, humor, high kicks, and splits, with some more political moments along the way. Now 27, she started dancing at the age of 8 through Boston Ballet’s Citydance program, then went on to Boston Arts Academy and Boston Conservatory. “When I graduated, I decided I didn’t want to go into traditional companies. I wanted to be a creative, to perform, but I wanted to be around people who are like me,” she says. She has now been doing drag for a year and a half. Last year, she was included in WBUR’s “The Makers” series, focusing on artists of color who are making a mark in Massachusetts.
A highlight of her performance comes as she approaches the door at Blend. She opens it — and suddenly she is outside, performing on Dot Ave in the bright sunshine, visible to all.
“People outside need to see it as much as people inside,” she says. “If the world is not going to support us, we are just going to be even more in their face. That is what our community has been and will continue to be. It’s a liberating moment.”