The dramatic art form at the heart of the gay rights movement

By Kate Klimesh,

“The first time I found out about drag, I saw Flip Wilson on the TV dressed as a woman,” noted Jim Baldrich Garst, Decorah High School graduate known to many across Iowa and the Midwest as 31-year drag performer Prunella DeVille.

“The first time I found out about drag, I saw Flip Wilson on the TV dressed as a woman,” noted Jim Baldrich Garst, Decorah High School graduate known to many across Iowa and the Midwest as 31-year drag performer Prunella DeVille. “I watched Flip and even Milton Berle. In college, after seeing a local drag show I thought, this is something I could do as an extension of my theatricality.”
Garst grew up in a family that was very involved in both community theater and activism, and being on stage was comfortable for him, having majored in theater in college as well before settling down in Des Moines. “I think of myself as a ‘drag clown,’ as it’s another avenue to be able to express my creativity and comedic talents. The expectations people have of drag performers are that they are outrageous. It’s like putting on armor or a superhero cape, I can say what I never would have, and at times I can be naughty, and it’s a sense of freedom.”
In the theater, for centuries women were not allowed to perform on stage, as it was seen as too unseemly, so men, dressed as women, would perform all the female roles. “This happened in ancient Japanese theater, in England during the Renaissance, it was common practice,” added Garst. “Famous vaudeville entertainers known across America and Europe would dress as female impersonators and entertain people from the stage.”
Garst noted there were various reasons people would turn to drag; a transvestite man would dress in women’s clothing as a fetish, or something that excites them sexually, but they may not be gay. “But,” he noted, “every other reason has nothing to do with sex.” Transgender people, who feel their outward body doesn’t fit their soul or personality often turn to drag as an expression of a more public self, or, like Garst, they are an entertainer, and love the over-the-top artistic and theatric nature of the genre.
Some people dress up on Halloween in a costume, but take that opportunity as an escape, a sense of pretend or play while being something they really aren’t just for a night. The same sense of Freud’s Id and ego is found in drag.
Pro tip: In drag, there are female impersonators who try very hard to imitate a specific celebrity or woman and replicate their experience, and high drag, which does not attempt to be convincing as a woman – or man in the case of drag kings (women dressed and acting like men) – but follows a cabaret focal point, with songs and comedy woven into their performances. In high drag, it doesn’t even have to be a person dressing as the other sex, it just has to be a more outrageous persona of self.
Today, drag has become more mainstream through Television shows like “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” 
“I love that drag is becoming more freeform and more and more artistic. But, at the same time, it’s like whatever you present is what you present, it doesn’t matter what’s in your pants or what’s underneath, or which you prefer.”
Being a veteran drag performer, Garst did mention that the older he gets, the smaller the distance between his drag persona and himself. “Drag is at the heart and soul of the gay rights movement since the beginning. As Prunella, I can be more blunt about these issues, I can get away with a lot more and push those issues and make people think.  When I was four or five, I was at a Ban the B-1 Bomber protest with my parents – that activism has always been important in my life. In college, being in drag allowed me more freedom to speak up and out.”
“But, there is a time and place for both things,” Garst added. “I learned as I got older that shouting at someone isn’t always the best way to be heard. I love my drag persona, but I can also perform as Jim as well. Sometimes it’s ok to leave her (Prunella DeVille) at home and be appreciated for who I (Jim) am.”

ArtHaus Pride Drag Show
Catch Prunella DeVille on stage during the ArtHaus Pride Drag Show Sept. 30 at 7 p.m. For more details on the show or Pride celebration, visit decorahpride.org. 
Garst will be celebrating 32 years of drag performances at Thanksgiving this year, has performed in 27 states and in Canada, “and other than one Halloween, this is my first drag show in Decorah. I’m very excited, it’s the right time and place to come home,” Garst said with relief. 
Garst emphatically stated, “And one other thing I’d like to clear up, people correlate drag and sex as the same thing.  I do have a hard-core potty mouth because I like to shock in my performance. We’re not recruiting your kids to try drag, we’re not trying to change someone’s sexuality or hit on anyone in the audience – it’s just entertainment folks!  Silly, shocking, funny – YES! That’s why we are doing the first act as family-friendly – it’s just entertainment.”
“I’m very excited that Decorah Pride was in the Nordic Fest Parade, that Decorah has a Pride celebration three days long! We feel the progress being made in being multi-cultural but opening to the rainbow as well. I am just thrilled to be a part of that.”

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