UI student performs drag for the first time to explore gender

For Wary Gary, it was a way to experiment with performance and gender in a way that didn’t have to fall into a certain box.



The University of Iowa freshman student and amateur performer Archie Wagner, waits for his turn to perform in the hallway of the 2nd floor ball room, Iowa Memorial Union on December 2, 2022.

Archie Wagner, News Reporter

I’d never attended a drag show where I was on the stage myself. I’d never met drag royalty in the flesh. You adjust quickly, I found out. The second I walked into that dressing room, I knew nobody, but I really wanted to.

The University of Iowa’s drag show, “Mirage,” celebrated its 10th annual event. But instead of being one of the dozens of spectators, I was part of the show.

I don’t understand why anyone wants to ban drag.

Across the country, Republican lawmakers in states like Arizona, Arkansas, and Missouri have introduced legislation to censor or restrict drag shows.

Any possible rationale is just not enough in comparison to the smiles on the faces of the amateur competitors after they entered the stage. The cheers from the audience were electric on and off the stage. One of the performers, Evan Essence, compared the audience’s reaction to her amateur drag act as belonging to superstars.

In a way, the reactions are. Drag is about performing gender and the many ways people experience it. Whether it means vibrant makeup, fancy costume changes, or a really good pop song, people are able to express themselves in a way they can’t otherwise.

Unlike my everyday performance of gender, I don’t feel a heavy weight when doing drag. It feels fun, whether that means jamming backstage or laughing in response to their stories about how their friends reacted to their drag looks.

I spent years in theater hating makeup. My eyes flinched when I tried to apply mascara, leaving a trail of black dots on my upper eyelids. My lips felt heavy with lipstick, and I had no idea how I was supposed to sing with the extra weight. I pushed off putting the makeup on and put on as little as I could when push came to shove.

And yet, messily dragging a brush caked in bluish-brown eyeshadow along the sides of my nose to visually elongate it doesn’t stiffen my muscles in the same way that attempting to apply mascara did. Drawing a mustache over my lips still allows them the freedom to drink and laugh and sing without feeling pressure.

The first time I did makeup my way — with masculine contours and the creation of a mustache and stubble — was only back in October 2022. I was going to a showing of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” so I figured, “Why not?”

I didn’t know what to call what I found staring back at me. I saw the thick eyebrows, the shadows around my nose, and the eyeshadow mustache over my lips.

“Is this really me?” I thought, but it didn’t carry the shallow feeling that came with wearing dresses and curled hair. Instead, it was a curiosity, a “this could be me,” and more importantly, this could be fun.

I’d been dressing boyish for about two years, but the makeup brought it home, giving my face an inherent masculinity it didn’t have before.

I later named the person in the mirror Wary Gary. Wary is a synonym for anxious and scared. It’s also a play on the idea of being wary of Gary, that character in a TV or movie that other characters avoid due to some eccentricity or anger problem.

Wary Gary is a character. Someone who gets to be scared and angry, someone who gets the space to express these emotions without having to move on or get over it. A character who isn’t boxing my body in shades of wrong. Instead, he allows me to play and explore a space that I couldn’t before because directors didn’t like cross-casting.

I bind my chest. I wear a packer under my dress pants. My hair’s still short from when I buzzed it last summer. A gray top with laces and a black cowboy hat over my head solidifies Gary as a character beyond fear and anger. He’s a cowboy.

I was met with confused excitement by many of my peers when I stepped out on that stage. While I’ve been talking about this show constantly with a few, there were many others I didn’t tell. But I was still met with smiles.

The reaction from those I didn’t know was even better. I hadn’t planned to get on my knees and crawl toward a pretty girl, but I did. I’ve also never fallen to my knees so many times in a three-minute time span. It was dramatic, and it was the type of move I would’ve never done if I didn’t allow myself that space to be confident.

As a first-time drag performer, it was inspiring to see the professionals.

They were funny, vibrant, and so wholeheartedly human. These were people who loved what they did enough to keep coming back to Mirage in addition to a plethora of other gigs. They bantered with one another and shared updates on their lives whether it be kids or family.

Drag isn’t something to be afraid of in any sort of the word. It’s freedom, its community, and it’s fun. Most important of all, I’m glad I did it.