Profile: Life in drag

BY BLAKE BUSH

The blinding stage lights shine on the boy in a dress twirling to music blaring behind him. Silhouettes of the audience screaming love at the queen and holding dollar bills out. He snatches up the attention. His lips follow the lyrics effortlessly as his body flops to the floor. Roaring applause, and the lights dim. His number is finished, and he returns to the dressing room, counting his dwindling tips.

Jonathan Cleveland-Hindman, a 25-year-old queen known as Jexa Ren’ae Van de Kamp, took the stage once again after The Wreckroom drag club reopened its doors to the public in July. The Wreckroom was Oklahoma City’s premiere drag club for LGBT youth, and was previously closed for financial reasons.

“Drag is all about expressing myself,” said Cleveland-Hindman, host and performer at The Wreckroom. “It was a way of escaping reality, and just stepping into a different life for a second.”

At 14 years old, Cleveland-Hindman began his drag career after stepping into the spotlight one amateur night. That one performance turned into 11 years on stage and counting. Under the wig, he was able to control the frustrations from his life. His frustrations stemmed from his adolescence, where he was evicted from multiple houses and was in relationships he said were toxic.

He used to work the days away trying to afford a decent living. He paid for his share of electric, water and rent through his previous boyfriend. He and his previous boyfriend were eventually evicted from overdue rent and unpaid bills, forcing them to live with relatives.

“I didn’t have the greatest life growing up, like my ‘boy life’ wasn’t that great,” said Cleveland-Hindman. “Drag was the only thing I could control. I threw my emotions at everyone on stage—somewhere I could control.”

He blossomed into his drag personality throughout the years performing at The Wreckroom. He built lifelong friendships, built a foundation with his father and built connections with those around him that pushed him into his drag career.

“We are all connected by The Wreckroom. It gave us experience. It gave me experience,” said Hunter Foster, creative media production senior and drag performer. “We are all family because when you are in a changing room, and you see a man in pantyhose, you automatically have a deep connection with them.”

Through drag, Cleveland-Hindman was empowered to push through his personal obstacles. He wants to keep The Wreckroom open for a long time so other people can make lifelong memories like he has.

“The Wreckroom was my life and it made me into the person I am today,” said Cleveland-Hindman. “This is a place that needs to stick around for the LGBT youth so they can feel accepted and be true to who they are without fear or fear of rejection.”

He noted that, at a young age, he was reserved in sharing his sexuality or passion for drag because of the social implications of growing up in a small town in Oklahoma.

“It can be difficult for kids who are part of the LGBT community to feel accepted,” said Dusty Hawkins, visual communications junior and social activist. “It’s getting better, but we still have a long way to go.”

The locked doors of The Wreckroom during its closure was heartbreaking to Cleveland-Hindman and many other performers that started their careers there. He said that the acceptance and tolerance around the country was causing issues with funding places like The Wreckroom. He believed that the increased tolerance toward LGBT youth today was negatively affecting The Wreckroom because the LGBT youth could be more public about their sexualities.

“Whenever it closed, a piece of me had died,” said Cleveland-Hindman. “I had so many memories there. I was crowned there. My mother came there, and my dad came to support me and that changed my entire life.”

Cleveland-Hindman grew up in an actively religious family and struggled with his father about sexuality and gender identity. In 2015, his parents came to support him in one of his performances.

“I felt like everything I was fighting for in my entire life was to get his approval. It validated me in a sense,” said Cleveland-Hindman. “That’s what I want. I want the environment there to be as accepting as that—a place where you can come however you are, and however you want to be.”

Throughout the two-year hiatus, Cleveland-Hindman had difficulty separating the line between his reality and his fantasy. Every dollar he made was spent on drag, including makeup, outfits, accessories and wigs. He revolved his entire life around his drag personality, and believed that he was losing himself in the midst of his art.

“It’s easy to forget who you are. I am Jonathan 95 percent of the time and Jexa 5 percent of the time,” said Cleveland-Hindman. “The face you wear everyday should be the one you love versus the one that you create for yourself.”

Originally drag was a solace, and the club was a place for safety from the social implications of his sexuality and his extensive collection of makeup brushes, but as he grew, he developed a knack for empowering other queens through his style and actions.

“I admire them [the queens] because not only are they out, but they’re proud of who they are. I wanted that,” said Cleveland-Hindman. “Once I started ripping apart the layers of who they were as people, I realized they were severely flawed, and that didn’t fit me. So, I try to be a role-model for other queens.”

Cleveland-Hindman continues to host and perform at The Wreckroom, and is working on his side project Haus Down Productions. He dedicated his project to sharing the drag world with people around Norman, and to perform for charitable causes. He has raised funds for organizations, such as Planned Parenthood, and his group has performed in the Norman Art Walks and other art-related businesses.

“Norman doesn’t really have a place for the LGBT community outside of campus, so things like The Wreckroom and Haus Down Productions are experiences LGBT youth can have without having to be 21,” said Foster.

Q&A: How Sin City transformed into sociology by Blake Bush

               From fourth grade, Samantha Wallace glamorized the lights and flash of Sin City. She grew into networking her way up into a career of promotional advertisement. Her skills and interests in arts, and her serendipity pushed her toward the local punk/heavy metal scene.

            She was exposed to the music scene since in high school, when she was passed fliers from people on the early-morning bus. Once she was able to drive and find a job, she began to promote local artists, starting with her friend’s bands. She eventually went to a meeting to work for Smash magazine, but instead met her promo agent. From then, she worked merchandise booths, handing out fliers and photography at shows. She retired her career after high school to move onto her newfound love for sociology.

            Wallace is a sociology graduate working toward a Ph.D. in her field. She began college at 17 as a pre-med student, but soon switched after her introductory course in sociology. Since her music promo career, she has overlapped her interests to what she had observed growing up. Her research interests include: sexuality, gender/family, and deviance.

            What was it like growing up?

           You grew up in this environment where, from at a very young age, you are exposed to these things that you thought you’d never see or things that are in the movies. That kind of stuff. You live in Sin city—you know it—everyone says it. You grew up believing that you live in this bad-ass city, these x’s to mark off and the ability and network of people. So, I got involved in the music stuff because everything was so cool. I wanted to be cool. I was one of those weird kids in middle school that bounced back and forth between identities. Here, you’re always involved in the community—you have this access to the music and community, and you get sucked in really easily.

What do you mean sucked in?

       So, I got my first car in high school, I lived right down the street from the venue, meeting all these people. So, that’s how I got sucked into that—really young, like going to shows in eighth grade. It was just so immersive it was impossible to not be a part of it. So, everyone you know is a little weirdo that goes to the same art high school, and you all have similar music tastes. There was always a thing to do. There was always people around you. That’s where they worked, that’s where people made their livelihoods, that’s where the entertainment was. We live in the entertainment world, so it’s natural that our hobbies gravitate toward each other’s.

How did you start your career?

      This place I used to go to shows all the time called Balcony Lights, and this magazine that they were starting. They were looking for people to write for the magazine. It was called Smash Magazine; it was the one that came out of Vegas, and the one early on that was dedicated to music. My music was kind of alternative for at least the teen bands and stuff, so I wanted to work for that. And from there, I got my street-promotion job, and that’s when all the music promo stuff started.

What did you do at your job?

       Some of the time, I’m working for a band and they drop off fliers, so we have teams of people to dispatch and hang out there and network for these bands. But we’d get signed up for tickets to go to those shows and pass out fliers. It was like the currency of the day because usually you get a discount with the flier—around 5 dollars per flier. We covered new metal, local punk, speed metal [shows], all that. Another thing we do in between concerts, like days that didn’t have a show, is go cover boxing matches. So the music promo did other things concurrently. It was all about getting the word out about these events.

How did this all come to be?

       I put myself into situations. Serendipity did the rest. I grew around a town of flash, cash, and all those things. I wanted to be a part of that to be cool. I never considered myself one of the elites. I had to work hard to live in that scene. It was all hard work and being in the right spot. The music promo stuff and my teenage years defined who I am today. I’d be one hundred percent a different person if I didn’t have these experiences.

          How did you get to where you are now?

          I started college when I was 17—did terrible. At the same time, I had taken my first sociology course. Everything made sense to me; everything that I have ever thought of makes sense. I’ve always wanted to understand people. They’re so immeasurable.  Just to know that everyone has this bag of whatever we’re dealing with, and we have to keep that inside, it makes you just think that everyone has such a unique story. But I’m one of those super obsessed weirdos that I’m getting my Ph.D..

If you could, would you ever go back to that career?

      I wouldn’t go back to that life. I convinced myself when I was younger that music-promo was what I wanted to do with my life. But in reality, you’re really a side note, and I always wanted to do my own thing. I just never figured out what it was. It’s just not for me anymore. It’s a younger person’s game. I still do side gigs with them, but it’s not my main bread-and-butter like it was in high school.

   How did your career affect who you are today?

   There is so much that town does to you and changes you as a person. The worst part of living that, is that it comes to shape your idea of “normal.” My whole life I wanted to be straight-laced and normal. I thought all of the things that life told me to do were fact, but now I have justification in my career that lets me explore these things. Just someone that has interests that may not be mainstream or typical.

Do these serendipitous moments happen often?

      All the time. It’s so random too. When I was little, I always believe now that if I put my wishes into the world, then it would happen. So when I was little, I would have never thought that I would be hanging out with bands or fighters, or having these moments that make life so interesting.

     Wallace continues working toward her career and the research that follows. She continues to live through her serendipity, and through that, she perseveres through the obstacles of her career and her life.

Essay: A cockroach taught me nothing

BY BLAKE BUSH, JMC3023

I’m not particularly sure how I managed to “become an aspiring author.” I mean, I’ve always had a deep-seeded love for language. Growing up, I had stacks of notebooks that had page after page of handwritten dictionary definitions. I suppose words were a solace of some sort, as obvious in the amount of time spent covering these spirals in my third-grade penmanship, which is equivalent to a mix of broken cursive and “chicken scratch.” Despite that, through puberty and the whole defining oneself rhetoric that every teenager falls into because of Hollywood’s pervasive and overused movie tropes, I’d be lying if I said I’ve “fit in” at any specific moment of my life; drifting between peoples and friends and ideas and trends have always been a recurring theme in my life. Truthfully, I am afraid of committing to a set group. Truthfully, I am afraid of committing to my writing. Truthfully, I am afraid of others connecting my writing to whom I am—I’d much prefer a distance; it makes it easier. Perhaps the anxiety that brims tears writing this stems from the vulnerability of commitment to others, to myself and to my work, but I still had one English teacher years ago push my emotional baggage to the side to reteach me to write.

* * *

I awoke to muffled noise outside my door. I struggle to maintain consciousness as I pick out the hardened gunk on the sides of my eyes. I had quite an unsettling dream in the night’s prior, although I cannot recall why it was so unnerving; I still found myself stitched to the fabric of the bed. I remember seeing the fan twirling its blades so effortlessly, so carelessly, so much like a child tugging at the tufts of her hair. I remember rolling my eyes to match the movements of each blade against the grainy, crackled-beige ceiling—much as I always do. I remember watching the rotating blur become individual, separated in all of its solitude. I awoke moments before the alarm, and hours before the siren.

Mother is as she always is: enchanting the room with tracers of faint perfume clouds as each click of her heels slaps the tiles leading toward my door. The hinges clatter, and the outline of a face draws in the blinding, fluorescent, hall light. The wetness of her freshly painted lips peel with each word as she watches her son doze in and out of consciousness. She speaks something of school and tardiness, but I don’t pay too much attention. I don’t think it would’ve made a difference whether I read into her lecture on tardiness or “taking my life seriously,” because, at this point, my future had two options: alcoholism and drug abuse, or suicide. Plain and simple.

The first bell sounds and the hallway traffic jam is underway. Hundreds of students scrape their shoes against the cheap carpet trying to red rover through the almost-interlocking, idle bodies. The uproar of indistinguishable words blending together contour each crevice of the brick walls splayed with my peers. They speak of the trite, fake “why didn’t we hang over summer.”  At this moment, I’m not keen on starting my first class of junior year, but anything beats hearing another “I miss you.”

* * *

I never quite understood my attitude. Up until a certain, indistinguishable moment in my life, I’ve never quite pinpointed the cause of my attitude; my style; my thought process. I felt less stream-of-consciousness and more against-the-grain. Perhaps it stemmed from the moment religion lost me, or perhaps it stemmed from a dispose of meaningless memories. I wouldn’t call this a transformation, per se, but rather I’d equate it to a third-grade science project of celery soaking in food coloring. And through all of this, I turned seventeen without so much as anything to say. It’s not as if I could not write; I merely had no reason to.

* * *

In the final seconds before the last ring, I awaited in a chair that chafed every inch of my thighs: a familiar setting. I may have yet to step foot within this classroom, but then again each room of this building was lain out the same. It was cookie-cutter, save for the random trinkets strewn about her desk, or the posters—I never bothered reading—clinging to the wallpaper, or the giant papier-mâché insect cowering atop the cupboards. Strange, I must say. The skin wrinkled with each paper glued against another, against another, etc. The antennae dangled over its head in an ironic handicap as if it were trying to sense whether the ground exists. Bizarre, to say the least. Upon my desk, there was a single sheet of paper that read a set of instructions, a rubric and a bolded title, “The Metamorphosis.”

The door closes, muffling the rummaging sounds from dozens of students shuffling toward class. Here stands before us a woman as silent as the day she will leave us. She opens the assignment with the beginning paragraph from the book she had clasped between her fingers. “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin,” she said. At this moment, the book seemed as silly as the giant, paper cockroach that’s been eyeballing me since I walked into class, but at least its existence makes sense. I couldn’t focus much after that, especially considering this “critically acclaimed book” was about a man turning into a bug, like a knock-off X-Men hero.

* * *

In retrospect, writing an assignment over “The Metamorphosis” wasn’t too terrible of a task, but it was still bizarre to spend 10,000 words on a man that cocooned into an insect. And from what she read aloud to the class, I wasn’t impressed. Initially, I wasn’t about to spend my time reading a novel about an insect; I felt as if I could do something more productive with my life—if I ever wanted to, that is.

* * *

Days later, I stared at the clock hands inching forward to freedom, soon striking the hour mark dispersing everyone. She asked to speak with me about the progress of my essay, but, again, I didn’t have much to say. I told her I wasn’t so keen on the novella. She must’ve furrowed her brows because she went straight for the book and re-read that “pivotal” opening line. Her words are firecrackers telling of Kafka and his existential chaos—absurdism—the concept of meaninglessness, all within the span of about seven minutes. She probably could tell that I was overloaded from the shocked looks I gave throughout her speech. Following her explanation was as if I were trying to connect conspiracy theories with yarn in a backroom that hasn’t seen daylight in months.

* * *

I remember her asking me my professional plans for the upcoming future. Truthfully, I didn’t have any. It’s not as if I haven’t thought about what I want to do or where I want to go, but, like I said before, I can either turn to alcoholism and drug abuse or suicide. I’m not sure why I became so distraught in the situation at hand, but I do remember tearing up as she asked that question. Perhaps it was the vulnerability that caught me off guard. She did just ask a question with a loaded answer. Perhaps, I didn’t want to accept that those were my only two options, but I haven’t any credentials or talent or hobbies. I just had depression.

* * *

I sat beside myself, wrapped in a fleece blanket for hours that night writing. Indie music played softly in the background as I tried to focus on analyzing a book I procrastinated to read. Papers, highlighters and pens were scattered amongst the table; energy drinks littered the carpet; the book was overturned, its spine bending. My cursor flickered, taunting me, as I continued to write and write. My breaks were short; my hours were long; my night was somber; my morning was brutal.  I sat beside myself, wrapped in a fleece blanket for hours that night writing.

* * *

Throughout traversing procrastination-hell, the world appeared a little clearer in its endeavors. People are mundane for the sake of routine. And in that one line opening the novella, Kafka explained the existential chaos; the thoughts of meaninglessness; the emptiness that is as perverse as peach fuzz on the upper lip of an adolescent boy. And to think, that this began to dreary-eyed isolation in fear of others and in fear of myself. I will awake the next morning, in the same benign existence of pointless routine to start anew in the same habits I will keep until I pass. I will stare at the ceiling fan, once more, with the same thoughts, on a different day, over and over and over. But, in the depth of it all, I do have writing to keep me company in the darkest hours for the brightest of moments. And although I may hate writing, I’ve found my place within literature; within storytelling; within authoring; within words. I’ve found my place within words once again.

I may have problems with depression; I may have problems with anxiety; I may have problems with indecisiveness, but at least for tomorrow, I’ve found something that will occupy my time: words.