Florida drag performers balance pain and defiance as anti-LGBTQ+ laws loom

TAMPA — In a shimmering metallic dress and platform heels, amid the thump of an electronic dance mix, Brianna Summers scans the club’s dark lounge and runs through her checklist: exits, places to take cover, anyone that looks suspicious, anything out of place.

For a while it was a subconscious practice — owed to the memory of the Pulse shooting nearly seven years ago. But with more than a dozen anti-LGBTQ+ bills sweeping the Florida Legislature, she’s forced to confront a fresh wave of fear.

Now, every time she glues on lashes or adds a touch-up to her red statement lip, she thinks of her mother in a military uniform, fighting on the front line in other countries years ago.

Florida, she feels, has put a target on her back.

This week, lawmakers voted to advance bills that would criminalize transgender people’s use of the bathroom that aligns with their identity and bar doctors from providing gender-affirming care for youth. They’ve voted in favor of allowing health care providers to refuse care based on religious beliefs and banning teachers from using personal pronouns in schools.

Additional legislation seeks to bar children from attending certain “adult live performances” — an apparent reference to drag shows — and governments from issuing permits to events with drag performers, throwing pride events into question.

On this spring evening, Summers stands among more than 20 Tampa Bay drag queens who have gathered for a performance. With the money raised, they’ll bus supporters to Tallahassee for what they hope will be the largest drag march in Florida history, to protest legislation they say threatens their right to exist.

As a disco ball spins, a tall blonde in a sparkly green gown calls out, “Hey, gorgeous,” and pulls Summers into a hug. They wash sadness back with fast-ordered Jägerbombs, and mask anxiety with kicks and jumps, splits and ballads — and a refusal to be erased.

The eyebrows are the hardest part.

At the vanity in her three-story condo, hours before the fundraiser, Summers flows through most of her makeup with ease.

She moisturizes and primes, dunks brushes into sparkly powders. “Real Housewives” plays in the guest room. Her pitbull, Nala, rests nearby, working at a piece of bone.

Drag is Summers’ full-time job. Multiple times a week, she goes through this hourslong routine. She lip-syncs at brunches and shimmies in nightclubs. She headlines LGBTQ+ banquets and galas, and performs her best Taylor Swift impression at birthday parties.

But the eyebrows still trip her up.

“I’m not a perfectionist,” Summers says, pressed close to the lighted mirror. “But when I do things, I like to do them right.”

For Summers — a gay man who goes by Bryan when not performing — drag meant the beginning of self-acceptance.

Summers is a born Floridian. Childhood photos show her on the Gainesville cattle farm where she grew up as the child of ranchers, shooting guns, wearing boots and Wranglers.

She was 19, sitting at a kitchen table at a party, when she was outed by someone she hardly knew: “Hey, are you a f----t?”

Her dad’s reaction still ushers pangs of grief: “Oh, s—t.”

Summers found drag about seven years ago, at 25, after leaving an abusive relationship. From the beginning, it was a refuge, a place where identity could be stretched, explored and fully realized. She felt, for the first time, safe.

She keeps a picture on her phone from that very first night, when a friend did her makeup and helped her into a bedazzled bralette and bleach-blond wig.

In the years since, she’s developed a personal style. Brianna Summers is elegant, like a pageant queen. She carries herself like Celine Dion. Her icon is Rihanna.

And while she’s known to be a “good dancer,” Summers describes her moves a little differently: “I’m a constructive, high-energy flailer,” she says, shrugging and smiling.

Summers has followed this year’s drumbeat of bills with a laser focus, swapping anxieties and protest plans in group chats and DMs.

She struggles to make sense of the news that hits her with brazen hostility: The representative who referred to trans people as “mutants” and “demons and imps” in a discussion of a bill. The conviction of so many that she is a threat to society, despite them never having spoken with a drag queen.

“I would never talk that way about anybody,” Summers said.

Florida isn’t alone in chipping away at the rights of LGBTQ+ people, especially those who are gender-nonconforming. This year, according to the Human Rights Campaign, state houses have introduced more than 300 pieces of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation.

Murders of trans people have doubled over the last four years, according to the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety. And a study by the Trevor Project found that, last year, 54% of Florida’s trans and nonbinary youth seriously considered suicide. From California to Oklahoma to Tennessee, right-wing activists toting AR-15s and firebombs have shut down drag brunches and children’s story hours. Last November, a gunman in Colorado Springs killed five people at a gay club that had hosted drag performances that day.

A recent New York Times report chronicles the social conservative movement’s search for a galvanizing issue after same-sex marriage became law of the land. “We threw everything at the wall,” Terry Schilling, the president of American Principles Project, told the Times. What took hold was the issue of transgender identity, particularly among youths, ranging from sports to bathrooms to parents’ rights in schools. Fueling the crackdown on transgender rights is a stated intent to shield children from “grooming” and LGBTQ+ “indoctrination.” Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida leaders, consulting polls, have caught that fast-building wave.

A speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference called for the elimination of transgender identities, using an outdated term, “for the good of society.”

“We were forced into activism,” Summers said.

She and her friends think back to pride’s origins: The first-ever parade marked the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall uprising. They think of the days when people were forced out of jobs, beaten and battered for existing or loving whom they loved. When police stormed a gay bar, its clientele resisted the invasion by taking the streets. Trans people and drag performers helped lead the charge.

Late nights crafting Facebook events and painting protest signs has meant giving up on gigs that pay queens’ bills. Performers have spent their time calling elected officials and registering people to vote instead.

They’ve bused to Tallahassee each week since session began. In full drag, they’ve stood before men in suits, sharing their stories on the statehouse floor. Freya Rose Young, a trans woman and drag queen who organizes with Summers, said she waited until she was out of her childhood home to transition. The cost, she reflected backstage at the show, was depression and self-harm. Now Young — a tall, thin brunette, like a young Cindy Crawford — has been on hormones for six months. She credits her community with giving her the love she missed growing up.

“It’s really scary sitting in a room with the most powerful people in the state and hearing them talk about you as if you’re evil,” she said. “We’re just people.”

She wishes lawmakers would come to her shows, would sit down and have a conversation with her.

Another queen, Ericka PC, started performing in October specifically to push back on these attacks.

“If there had been more representation when I was growing up, maybe I wouldn’t have had my head bashed into walls. I wouldn’t have had people poking pencils at my derriere and making fun of me, or throwing water balloons at me when I got off of the bus,” PC said from the dimly lit dressing room after she performed. ”They’re trying to take our happy place, but they can’t.”

Once her lips are lined, cheeks contoured and nose rosy with blush, Summers starts on her body.

In a dressing room in her garage, where thousands of dollars in extravagant dresses, wigs and shoes are displayed like a celebrities’ closet, she fastens foam around her hips to create an hourglass.

Then, she layers on the tights — eight in total, plus an elastic corset — to hold everything in place.

Somewhere in the 2010s, Summers had felt the nation was trending in a hopeful direction. “RuPaul’s Drag Race” began airing on national television. Laverne Cox, a trans actress, found stardom.

And in 2015, the White House glowed rainbow after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all bans on gay marriage. Lines formed outside courthouses, and couples made out in the streets.

“We saw this future that looked so good and we got comfortable,” Summers said.

Now her greatest fear, she said, is this: “I’m not going to be able to be the person that I have built and created and worked so hard to be happy with.”

She pulls on a mane of blown-out brown hair, and smiles big at the floor-length mirror. She’s glowing, beautiful and warm. She looks at peace.

After all, drag hinges on illusion.

Summers paints on a brave face, but the political climate is eating at her. She started therapy last month.

“Florida is the Sunshine State, but it’s starting to feel like there are more cloudy days,” Summers says, as she sorts through finishing touches: A diamond collar necklace, hairspray.

As performers strut around the bar, collecting dollars, Summers leans against the counter and mouths along, dabbing her eyes with a cocktail napkin.

“I’d tell her to speak up, tell her to shout out, talk a bit louder, be a bit prouder …”

Between performances, she pulls friends into hugs. She tells them she’s proud of them. She promises they’ll protect each other.

Around 10 p.m., she changes into a gown bejeweled with red and black rhinestones. It makes her feel powerful. What she wants, she says, is only to be happy and free and to live her life. She’s called to the stage.

The room goes wild. The spotlight lingers.

Moments like this are precious these days. She pauses. She breathes it in.