UT Students Talk Drag

Mae Lackey and Emma George

Audio producer Mae Lackey chats with students at Queer Prom about their experiences with drag on campus and the threat of upcoming bills.

Reporting and editing by Mae Lackey. Cover art by Emma George. The full transcript can be found below:


*Carmelle enters to cheering*

Mae Lackey: Carmelle’s heels clicked as she stepped up on the stage. The audience erupted with praise. Her long, red sequined gown sparkled under the spotlight. Donning a long black wig with Hollywood curls, a smokey eye, and red elbow-length gloves, she was ready to perform.

*Carmelle performs a piece of her song*

Mae: Carmelle is a character performed by Gabriel Orellana, a student at The University of Texas. Gabe performs as Carmelle at drag shows: performances where entertainers caricature or challenge gender stereotypes.

Gabriel Orellana: I’ve been a fan of drag since like, middle school, like 8th grade I was watching Rupaul’s drag race 2008 while it was airing, so I knew about it pretty early on and even before that like, just like on youtube and stuff I was like experimenting with my gender identity and for like a hot moment I thought I was trans. So, I was experimenting with my identity but once I learned what drag was I was like “Oh, dressing up in girl’s clothes doesn’t mean you’re necessarily trans, like, you can be both but I was like oh that isn’t me.” 

Mae: Gabe continued to enjoy drag-related content on TV or online, but it wasn’t until he moved to Austin for college that he was able to participate.

Gabriel Orellana: I’m from Houston, and when 2020 happened the pandemic shut everything down and UT was like oh, you can take your classes online, like it’s free basically, a free year. But, I decided to move-in anyway. I was like okay give me a lease, give me a dorm, I need to get out of here like I wanna get the full college experience. So, I’m glad I did because I met all of my friends that year, and it was that year that I went to my first drag show, which was Drag on the Drag hosted by Celia Light. It was a drag show hosted at Dobie, which used to not be owned by UT but now it is, and they had a drag show every month- that was like 2020 but I started doing drag in 2021.

I think maybe November 2021 I was like hey, like, I would like to debut like my drag performing here and then Celia was like okay, let’s go for it. So, that was my first performance, and it was pretty memorable, like I’ll never forget it, and I was like “okay, this is like the start of something” and I’ve been doing it ever since. Pretty on and off though, because of school I’ve been so busy so I’ve had to take lots of breaks with drag.

Mae: Gabe, a junior government major at UT, has a stacked schedule. He’s an officer at UT’S QTBIPOCA, or Queer & Transgender Black Indigenous People of Color Agency. He’s a full-time student. He does drag. And sometimes, he’s able to combine these three aspects of his life.

Gabriel Orellana: When I joined QTBIPOCA one of the things I said was “I want to bring drag on campus, I want to make it like an advocacy thing.” Originally it was supposed to be like for when the election was happening, I forgot what, like, midterms, I was like okay, like “drag” out the vote. But then, that was never organized, because, I don’t know, we had a lot going on. So, we pushed it off to, like, “Okay, we’ll do it in the spring semester”, like queer prom or drag night, and that’s how queer prom happened.

*Sounds from Queer Prom*

Mae: UT’s QTBIPOCA hosted a queer masquerade-themed prom on March 31st. Featuring drag performances from Carmelle as well as other drag queens, dancing, refreshments, and a formal dress code, the event aimed to give LGBTQ+ students a welcoming space to be themselves.

Proms, social events traditionally for high schoolers, have historically involved heteronormative practices: dubbing a king and queen, gendered dress codes, and the expectation that guests will attend with a date of the opposite sex. 

These reasons, combined with the Covid-19 pandemic, restricted many LGBTQ+ youth from attending or enjoying prom in high school. 

Here are some UT students on what attending queer prom meant to them.

Mae: What brings you to this event tonight?

Lazarus Om: I’m gay as fuck. I mean, this is just a nice place to mingle and network with people who are like me. I’ve never really been in a room full of gay people and it- it feels nice.

Jada Mosier: I think being able to see drag performances on campus can kind of like, destigmatize what drag is, and show that it’s actually like, really like an art form. And, it’s not some that’s scary, or y’know, it’s actually like art, and y’know it’s interpreted by everyone differently. So, I’m most excited for the drag performance.

Hannah Wesley: I just love events like this where we all get to come together, you walk into the room, and it’s literally- it’s full of people who are gonna identify like you and know what it’s like to be on this campus. So, I feel like I’m here to just have fun and build community.

Mae: The event was held on the International Transgender Day of Visibility, serving as a positive celebration for trans students amidst legislation in Texas aimed at restricting gender-affirming care for minors.

*Carmelle speaking about legislation*

Mae: The event’s main entertainment, drag performances, are under fire in Texas as well. Bills SB12 and SB1601 intend to restrict drag entertainment by defunding libraries that host events with performers in drag and restricting drag shows that take place on public property or with minors present. Both bills recently advanced to the House of Representatives.

Gabe attended a protest against SB12 and SB1601 at the Texas state capitol building. He said he believes they are unconstitutional.

Gabriel Orellana: Oh my god, I feel like they’re just like political theater. And also, they’re just trying to like capitalize off of the wave of homophobia and transphobia that’s like, sweeping the Right right now.

This is just like artistic expression. If you start banning this, or censoring it, where does it stop? Like, movies, TV shows, all that. So, I feel like it’s like a censorship bill.

Mae: Whether they’re attending or performing, many students are affected by the restrictions that could be placed on drag performances.

Alex Shawver is working on his Doctor of Musical Arts degree in composition at UT. He said he’s been attending drag shows for the entirety of his adult life, and they mean a lot to him.

Mae: What draws you to drag? What do you like about it?

Alex Shawver: Um, okay, I love the extraness, I love, like, I’m a musician, I’m a performer, I’m an artist! So, like I love the spectacle. But, beyond just the spectacle, the glitter, and the high energy, it feels like a safe space. Like, imagine you’re out with your friends, this is me in Oak Lawn which is a neighborhood in Dallas, and I’m overstimulated, I just need, ironically I’m overstimulated so I’m just gonna go to the drag room.

And, there are seats, there’s a show going on all night long, I know half the cast, it’s a safe place, I can sit there, I can be entertained, I can go tip a dollar. Um, you get love, you give love back, and I don’t have to be out dancing. I don’t have to be out drinking more. It’s actually, like it’s kind of a refuge, drag is.

I think drag is performance of memory, and it’s social commentary, and it can be expression of identity through an imaginary vehicle. I think we do that too in art and literature all the time. An author or a creator expresses themselves through some kind of fiction, or through some kind of, like, character, and that’s a huge part of drag.

Mae: Alex said he thinks bills SB12 and SB1601 are malicious.

Alex Shawver: I’m scared as to like what would happen to the smaller venues that are really awesome, like special places for drag and for queer people. Y’know, I’m not a drag queen. I just really love it, and I consume it, and enjoy it.

In reality, every single medium of art, whether it’s film or drag or a game show on television, like, it has to be scaled for appropriateness. And, queer people are totally capable of scaling- I teach kids piano lessons, and then I’ll, like, go out to the bar in y’know very different clothes than this. Like, we have, we totally code switch more than anyone else. So, if it’s acceptable for actors or teachers to have levels of appropriateness in public for children, then these bills are just targeted at queer people. Like, oh it’s fine if your teacher has many different personalities and many different faces and many different side hustles in public, but it’s not fine if you’re a queer person doing drag and you’re scaling that for appropriateness.

Mae: Gabe said that he has no plans of quitting drag in the near future.

Do you plan on continuing to do drag well into your adult life?

Gabriel Orellana: I think so, like it’s an addiction I can’t put down. Once you start you can’t stop.

Mae: Both Alex and Gabe said the drag scene was moving at a good pace before the bills were introduced. They both said they hope to see the drag scene continue to flourish.

Alex Shawver: Yeah. Future of drag: I just want it to do exactly what it’s doing minus the, like, existential threat that we didn’t ask for, that’s the gist.

*Outro music*

Mae: This episode was a production of The Daily Texan audio department. Reported and edited by me, Mae Lackey. Special thanks to Lazarus Om, Hannah Wesley, and Jada Mosier. Thank you for listening!