April 9, 2014

Boybutante Is All Grown Up

Photo Credit: Craig Gum

(L-R) "Shirtless Intern" Daniel, Ming Vase Dynasty, Portia De Bossi, Jacqueline Daniels, Lacie Bruce, and "Shirtless Intern" Phillip

It's a little disappointing and honestly kind of baffling that there isn't a gay bar in Athens right now. Not only does our city sit adjacent to the Southern gay mecca of Atlanta, but we host the Boybutante Ball, one of the premier drag events in the Southeast and a major fundraiser for the nonprofit AIDS Athens. This year's ball, the 25th, is coming up Saturday, Apr. 12.

Given its current stature, Boybutante's humble beginnings are a little surprising as well. The first ball in 1989 was the equivalent of a “house party,” as Corey Johnson—a board member and unofficial historian of the Boybutante AIDS Foundation—describes it. Now it has grown into an extravaganza that fills the 40 Watt Club each year, along with a week's worth of related events that draw performers and attendees from all over the country—including Drag Bingo at The Melting Point Wednesday, Apr. 9; Dragstar Galactica, a drag competition Thursday, Apr. 10 at Little Kings Shuffle Club and a brunch at the Taylor-Grady House Sunday, Apr. 13. The theme this year is based on Back to the Future, so it's as good a time as any to remember when the Boybutante queens first kicked up their heels.

Not Just for Boys

The performers this year will be diverse, though at first Boybutante was essentially, well, a boy's club. The first ball was all queens, because there really wasn't a scene for kings (women who dress as men) anywhere near Athens. Now, there's a large king community in Athens that might just rival the size of the queen community in town. The Classic City Kings typically do a group number at the ball, and a few of their members have done solo performances.

There's also a good representation of classic Betty Page-style burlesque and campy striptease performers who are represented in the Boybutante family. The group intentionally recruited women after a few years, and now they regularly have people of all gender expressions represented both on stage and behind the scenes. Effie's Follies, the local burlesque troupe, will be performing at the ball, and Effie's member Dee Flowered is one of the Boybutante AIDS Foundation's newest board members.  

“Back when I was originally a board member in the late '90s, we didn't have any female performers,” Johnson says. “We began intentionally recruiting women to become actively involved.”


Photo Credit: Craig Gum

Yasmine Alexander

People involved in Boybutante, from volunteers to board members, run the gamut of lifestyles—lawyers, straight people, gay people who don't do drag, working professionals, local artists. “We've always been intentional about diversity,” says AIDS Athens board member and fundraising chairman Yancey Gulley, who was involved with Boybutante for many years. “We want anyone and everyone to feel welcome and to see themselves reflected on the stage.”

The performers are just as diverse in their stage personae as the people who work behind the scenes. For example, Gulley describes Boybutante co-founder and performer Coretta Scott Queen's character as being “high church”—lots of napkin-waving and Mahalia Jackson numbers, undoubtedly. 

“It's hard to believe that it's been 25 years,” Queen says. “I remember sitting on someone's living room floor with a cocktail in hand, listening to someone say: 'Let's throw a ball!' And what a ball it has been.”

Queen is one of the founders of the original Boybutante Committee and still holds fundraisers in both Washington, DC, and Provincetown, MA, to benefit Boybutante and AIDS Athens. She holds an annual Purse Party in P-town that has raised more than $5,500 dollars so far, and on last year's invitation to the event, she wrote, “If I put on heels, a dress and a wig, [the] tips are going to charity.”

Then there's the likely return of The Sucrets, a drag troupe who have not performed together in 15 years. The performer known as Wild Cherry Sucret has become well-known in Atlanta and surrounding areas for her drag performances both solo and with the Armorettes, and she credits the “Boyball,” as those who are in the know like to call it, with starting her career.

“Boybutante is where I first started my volunteer work with AIDS support services,” Sucret says. “Since 1995, I have been dedicated to raising money for Boyball while living in Athens as well as now in Atlanta. As long as there is a need, I will always help.”

To perform at the Boyball is “coveted,” as Gulley describes it. Performing is by invitation only, though there is always a spot open for their volunteer of the year (crowned with the title Miss Bogart) and for the winner of Dragstar Galactica, an annual competition at Little Kings. “Kings and queens bring their best performances because they want a spot on that Saturday night stage,” Johnson says.

A Good Cause

Oh yeah, it isn't all clear heels and lip-syncing—every dollar goes to a good cause, and it's been that way from the beginning. “When this started 25 years ago, it was just a drag show to raise money,” Gulley explains. “It was gonna be a one-off thing... and it has perpetuated.”

In 1990, events were added leading up to the annual drag ball becoming what they call “Boyball Week.” Each year, more and more events were added to that week-long schedule, and eventually the organization began to have fundraisers throughout the year. 

By 1996, the event's popularity had snowballed to the point that the Boybutante Committee was incorporated into the nonprofit Boybutante AIDS Foundation. The events run year-round now, from the Back To School party to the Boo-butante Halloween party to Christmas in July, and every event is sponsored by members of the community, from businesses to individuals, with all the energy being funneled towards the annual Boybutante Ball.

It's tempting to assume that an event like this is all about makeup and tucking and wigs and heels, but Johnson and Gulley make it clear that the real focus of the Boybutante AIDS Foundation is raising funds for AIDS services organization. AIDS Athens uses the money to provide free HIV screening and to help people with AIDS with their housing.

“We see housing as health care,” Gulley says. “People who are HIV positive are three times more likely to be homeless or under-housed, and for various reasons. One reason is that the medications are very expensive, and when you get on the medications it can take up to three months to acclimate to those meds. For at least one of those months, often they cannot work because of what their body is going through, and most of us can't afford to miss work for a month. If we can keep you housed, then it's more likely you'll take your medications, which makes it more likely that you'll stay healthy, which makes it more likely that your viral load will go down, which makes it more likely that you'll make good lifestyle choices, which makes it less likely that you'll pass the virus on to someone else.”

Finding sponsors is probably the board's biggest challenge, and AIDS Athens needs all the support it can get. “We literally could not function, and our doors would shut if not for donations from organizations like Boybutante,” Gulley says, though he and Johnson both agree that Athens is remarkably supportive of the organization for being a relatively small town.

“Athens really is a progressive community for the state of Georgia, but we're also a college town, so people ask a lot of our businesses," Johnson says. "So we do a lot of revisiting of regular sponsors and find new sponsors.”

Funds raised at the first Boyball were once split between a couple of local charities, but now they work solely with AIDS Athens and provide the largest donation of flexible funds available to the organization, which also receives government grants earmarked for specific programs like housing. 

Sponsorship levels run the gamut of platinum, gold and silver, but there is also a $25 donation level that is specifically designed to be accessible to the public, and this level of donation can be made either to the organization directly or at Dynamite Clothing on Jackson Street. A donation of $25 gets the benefactor a limited-edition button that's been designed specifically for the Boybutante silver anniversary, but any size donation is always welcome and encouraged.

Technical talk aside, Johnson stresses that fun is just as important as the fundraising aspect, and they pretty much go hand-in-hand. A well known tradition of drag performances is tipping the queens and kings, and it's not unheard of for performers to pull in a really nice haul from a show.  Using drag and burlesque as a fundraiser fits into the culture already present in burlesque—patrons like what they see, so they give the performer a dollar, and those dollars add up. Boybutante has managed to raise more than$500,000 for AIDS service organizations in its 25 years of existence.

“When I was [in college] I didn't have a lot of money,” Johnson says, “but I had a dollar, and I could tip a queen or a king, and I think that level of accessibility is really important. Fun is always the primary purpose, but we are also very conscientious of every dollar we can raise. Everyone can give a dollar to a drag queen.”  

And it's definitely needed. Georgia ranked fifth among states in the number of new AIDS diagnoses in 2007 (the most recent year statistics are available), and in the same year, the state ranked eighth in the cumulative number of AIDS cases since the start of the epidemic in the 1980s. The state averages nearly 3,000 new AIDS cases per year, and the HIV rate is 44 percent higher in the gay/lesbian/bisexual/queer/transgender/intersex community than it is among heterosexuals in Georgia, according to AIDS Athens.

Spreading the Word

The jubilant and fun-loving nature of burlesque and drag culture does a lot to dismantle the stigma around charity work related to HIV and AIDS. People who might not ordinarily attend or work with an event like this might come out for the Boyball just to see some queens and have a few drinks, but in the end they will have donated all of those dollars to AIDS services. 

One example is an event from the past coined Divas on Wheels, where one of the drag queens would crash a local straight bar and do a “pop-up” performance out of nowhere. “That brings visibility [of the gay community and AIDS services] to a community that wouldn't ordinarily have access to it,” Johnson says. 

They don't do Divas on Wheels anymore, but it was the origin for Beer-butante, a drag show last month at Terrapin Brewery. “So here you have a bunch of fraternity guys sitting and enjoying Terrapin's brew,” Johnson says, “and suddenly there are four drag queens in front of them performing and sending the message about safe sex, AIDS Athens and getting tested to guys who might have never seen a drag queen before. And in all honesty, the reaction is almost always positive in that regard. That's doing the mission of AIDS Athens, the mission of Boybutante, and accessing a community that might not otherwise seek us out.”

Memories like those stick with people in the Boybutante community. Another of Johnson's favorites is watching Gulley perform as his alter ego BeYancey for the first time, when he was crowned Miss Bogart.

Gulley cherishes private happy hours only for sponsors and both old and new board members. It's an opportunity for him to catch up with with old friends and be reminded of the strength, diversity and closeness of his community. He uses the Southern expression “old home week,” a term often used to describe a church homecoming.

“If you've ever lived here and you went to Boybutante, you come back for Boybutante,” Gulley says. “For me, community is very important, and to see the same people year after year and to know that they care about the same things you care about, to know that your values are aligned—at least around this—is really important. Walking through that door each year really is a warm and wonderful moment.”

WHAT: Boybutante Presents: Drag to the Future
WHEN: 9 p.m., Saturday, Apr. 12
WHERE: The 40 Watt Club