’We’re just like them.’ Meet the drag queens changing minds and hearts on the Coast

On a trip home to Moss Point after the season finale of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” Silky Nutmeg Ganache took her family to a gay bar in Gulfport.

Ganache, whose real name is Reginald Steele, had recently made history as the first drag queen from Mississippi on the show.

“We drank. We laughed. We danced. We tipped drag queens. We had a good time,” Steele told the Sun Herald on Thursday. “It was an amazing experience that I could bring my entire family and show them my world.”

His experience growing up in Mississippi wasn’t nearly as good, but some things have changed since Steele left more than a decade ago.

On June 1, Gulfport drag queen Lexis Redd D’Ville threw the first pitch at a Biloxi Shuckers baseball game to celebrate Pride Night. A mom’s group from Hattiesburg gave out free hugs while LGBTQ people and their families and allies celebrated Gulf Coast Pride at Point Cadet Plaza. The guest speaker this year was Judge Margaret Alfonso.

Restaurants across the Mississippi Coast have hosted drag brunch fundraisers to support the Gulf Coast Equality Festival, held on Harrah’s Great Lawn in East Biloxi.

And in more rural areas, drag performers are branching out from midnight shows at gay bars to spaces that haven’t been traditionally acclimated to the LGBTQ community.

“Looking at it now, I wish I would have said I was from Moss Point, Mississippi, instead of Chicago,” Steele said of her time on “Drag Race.” “I hope I opened the door (for local drag performers) being a Mississippi queen this season.”

‘See the world’

Silky was a frontrunner on season 11, impressing judges on the runway with her beauty looks, and she ultimately placed fourth.

Since then, she’s appeared in a Lizzo music video and on “Germany’s Next Top Model.” Silky could be getting her own reality TV show and she’s set to open a concert for a famous musician. And Steele said he’s been working on a cookbook.

But when he left the Coast for Wabash College in Indiana after graduating from Moss Point High in 2008, the thought of performing in drag had never crossed his mind. He wasn’t even out to friends and family.

Steele grew up in the church and comes from a deeply religious family. He became a minister of music during college, before a friend asked him to dress up in drag to represent Wabash at a neighboring school. It was a year before he’d perform again, but it stuck.

“I wanted to go to college, and my parents always said, ‘Go away, where we can come visit you and we can be forced to leave and get out and see the world,’” Steele said.

His parents have traveled across the U.S. to watch Silky perform, from Indianapolis to Atlanta to the “Drag Race” finale in California. And his Moss Point crew got to experience a drag show at Sipps on U.S. 49, a place that Steele calls a “safe haven” for LGBTQ people on the Coast.

“To think about where I was in Moss Point ... and to think of where I am today and to have all those people that I thought would have judged me, condemned me … to have those people support me is so beautiful.”

When Steele first began showing Silky to the world, a classmate from Mississippi messaged him to say her father also performed in drag.

“It was something that she never was able to talk about because you never know how people would take it. I think there’s a stigma that if you’re in the Bible Belt, you’re not a person,” Steele said.

Giving up priesthood ‘to be me’

Like Steele, being a drag queen was not part of Caleb Cuevas’ life plan. He was on track to become a priest.

The 2009 Hancock High School graduate attended Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Dedeaux, a small community near Kiln in rural Hancock County. Mentored by the then-priest at Sacred Heart, Cuevas toured the University of Notre Dame and was accepted into Seminary.

But he had a secret he was terrified to admit — one he’d held since the age of 5, and one that would lead him to leave church he loved and adored.

Cuevas had always battled with who he was. In high school, he didn’t know any other LGBTQ people who were out, with the exception of one couple he befriended. Peers bullied him.

He said he was often attacked by a group of four boys in the bathroom. They’d beat him up and call him slurs. One time, they held him down, carved “fag” into his skin with a broken CD, and urinated on him.

There wasn’t an outreach center or Facebook group back then. The closest safe space was Just Us, a gay bar in Biloxi. But teens couldn’t go there.

At that point, Cuevas’ life was devoted to the church.

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Miss Catastrophe performs during drag brunch at 100 Men Hall in Bay St. Louis in June 2019.

“I was really scared that God would be ashamed of me,” he said. “I felt like the world would be against me, especially knowing that I was about to become a priest. I knew I was going to let people down.”

Cuevas would wait seven years to come out. He was working at Walmart in Waveland and was inspired by a co-worker, Cody Lizana, who told friends and family on Facebook that he was gay.

It was June 2016, and Caleb’s mother finally asked him about it.

“She cried. She said, ‘I’ve always known. The whole family knows … we’ve just been waiting on you. We’ve been waiting on you this whole time,’ ” Cuevas said.

Caleb had been a Sunday school school director and youth retreat leader at his church, and adult supervisor and sponsor at the Biloxi Diocese.

“I gave that all up to be me,” he said. “I knew I had to live for me. Not my mom, not family, not my community ... but for Caleb.”

In a tearful live video on Facebook, he finally came out publicly in January 2017.

It wouldn’t be long before his drag persona was born — Miss Catastrophe Love, because he lives his life as “a mess.”

Inspired by friends, Miss Catastrophe performed her first-ever gig at Sipps in March 2018. He wasn’t ready, but bar owner Jeffrey Mayeaux told him too bad — he was booked.

It took eight or nine people to help him get ready. They put on his wig, helped arrange his pads, and made sure his outfit was perfect.

“As soon as I saw my family and friends who I thought would never support me, it truly was an ah-ha moment,” he said.

Beyond the gay bar

Just three months later, Cuevas was asked to perform at a “straight” bar.

“Different places started reaching out for bookings and contacting me,” he said. “One of the biggest money-making moments in my life was, and still is, the Knock Knock Lounge in Waveland.”

Last June, Cuevas’ friend and now-manager Alisha Warran asked him to put together a drag show at her favorite local hangout, which he described as “this straight, redneck bar in that area. It’s kind of like Waveland’s Broke Spoke.”

At first, the Knock Knock was hesitant. Owner Gary Veglia, who opened the bar on U.S. 90 in 1991, has a lot of regular customers, and there’s a seafood restaurant attached.

He was worried customers would be offended, Warran said, but she convinced him the evening would be full of dancing, beauty, and joy. She even offered to hire an off-duty policeman.

“What could be wrong with that?” she asked him, and he agreed to it.

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Zamaryeah Dawn performs a gospel number during drag brunch at 100 Men Hall in Bay St. Louis in June 2019.

“I never had (a drag show), never thought I would,” Veglia said. “It never entered the equation. I did it as a favor to her for the first time.”

Before the show, Warran wanted to make sure customers knew what was about to happen. “I got dolled up and ... would walk around the bar, saying ‘Hey, y’all know we’re going to have a drag show here? It’s at 8 o’clock.’ And I’d tell them all about it.”

The show was packed. People flooded the parking lot, and even parked along the highway and at the Family Dollar across the street. People of all ages — from 20s to 80s — showed up.

“I think it surprised even us, just how hungry people were for something like that.”

Veglia became a believer, too.

“It really, really, really surprised me. It wasn’t really what I was expecting. It was just nice and fun… very enjoyable,” he said.

Since then, Veglia has hosted a drag show at the Knock Knock once a month.

“We had some that wouldn’t come to the first one grab front row seats to the last one,” he said.

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Zamaryeah Dawn gets ready to perform at a drag brunch at 100 Men Hall in Bay St. Louis in June 2019.

Catastrophe and her troupe of queens, known as Catastrophe & Company, didn’t stop at the Knock Knock.

They’ve performed at other non-gay bars — Buoy’s beach bar in Old Town Bay St. Louis, Park Ten Lanes Bowling Alley & Lounge in Diamondhead, and Harold and Lillians, a neighborhood bar in the Clermont Harbor community.

“These are places that I never felt safe being there, alone especially, unless family was with me. Now, they really have opened their eyes and their hearts,” Cuevas said. “It’s a beautiful feeling to have people waiting for us to come in.”

One of the drag queens who performed a birthday party at Harold and Lillian’s was Misty Bourdeaux Knight, a veteran black drag artist from Alabama. She’s been on the drag scene for more than 23 years.

She said the crowd there was so welcoming that she didn’t even notice Confederate flags on the wall.

“There was a lot of love there,” she said. “If we can get in the mindset and come together for a common purpose to love and uplift each other, I think we can all get along.”

She credited the dedication of longtime drag queens like Nicole DuBois, Toni Dee, Misty Love and Tiffany Lashee for helping make Mississippi a more accepting place.

Knight thinks it’s important to perform for people outside of the LGBTQ community who might not always be comfortable with the art of drag.

“It gives the heterosexual community the opportunity to see the other side and for them to understand that we’re not some entity way out here that they can’t embrace or touch,” she said. “We’re just like them — you can love on us, and we can love on you.”

‘This place has been blessed’

On a muggy Sunday in June, more than 150 people packed into the 100 Men Hall on Union Street in Bay St. Louis. Guests bought a ticket to drag brunch featuring gospel renditions from Catastrophe & Company.

And they were taken to church.

From Zamareyah Dawn’s death drops to Catastrophe’s runway strut and Misty Knight’s lip syncs, the crowd — mostly straight women — drank mimosas, ate New Orleans cuisine and threw out dollar bills, so many that Zamareyah left with a trash bag of cash.

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The 100 Men Hall D.B.A. in Bay St. Louis is hosting LGBTQ events, including monthly drag brunches.

The 100 Men Hall D.B.A has always been a place of refuge. The building was erected in 1922 after a group of 12 black men wrote bylaws decades earlier for the Hundred Members Debating Benevolent Association.

The group aims to “assist its members when sick, bury its dead in a respectable manner and knit friendship,” according to the hall’s website.

In the Civil Rights era, 100 Men Hall transformed into a music venue and safe space for the black community in Bay St. Louis and for traveling jazz and blues artists from New Orleans.

Owner Rachel Dangermond organized the event and has thrown gay happy hours in the space.

“That’s the whole purpose of this place, to bring the community together,” she said.

Dangermond first hosted a drag show after the Bay St. Louis Arts Alive festival. People questioned having a drag show as the after party. Would that really work?

“We sold more tickets to that than we’ve sold to anything,” she said.

The drag shows have the blessing of a group of 40 women who are descendants of the men who founded the Hall. Dangermond said some of those men were LGBTQ and transgender.

The Hall, she said, is “a place where everybody feels comfortable. Where African-Americans feel comfortable, where women feel comfortable, where gay African-Americans feel comfortable. This place has been blessed for that. It’s critical to our mission.”

Dangermond is already selling tickets for the next brunch and said drag bingo and other gay-themed nights are in the works.

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Rachel Dangermond, owner of 100 Men Hall in Bay St. Louis, tips Zamaryeah Dawn during drag brunch in June 2019.

She wasn’t shocked to see mostly straight people at drag brunch.

Since her son, Tin, was young, he loved drag. So did Dangermond’s ex-husband. He was obsessed with RuPaul, she said.

“I think it is something that probably had a lot of taboo before,” she said, but because of RuPaul and the (TV) networks that gave her an outlet, times are changing.

“It’s not surprising, but it’s good to see,” she said. “I always say if you love drag shows, then support and vote for transgender rights, because you can’t love one without the other.”

Catastrophe and Company plans to continue performing in non-traditional spaces in Mississippi.

“Growing up as a child and being bullied in high school, I never, ever imagined that I would get to this point in my life of being in all of these straight venues,” Cuevas said. “To see how the world is changing and how we’re progressing in Mississippi is such a big deal to me ... it really makes me proud to be from the South.”

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Justin Mitchell is the southern regional growth editor for the Biloxi Sun Herald, Columbus Ledger-Enquirer and Macon Telegraph. He also reports on LGBTQ issues in the Deep South, particularly focusing on Mississippi.