On Gender by Ed Madden (as He Prepares Tess Demint for the Vista Queen Stage)

IMG_8102 “You learn a lot in drag.” – Panti Bliss/ Rory O’Neill, A Woman in the Making (2014)


Last Monday I published a poem online at the Good Men Project, a website devoted to rethinking masculinity—“Translations,” a poem about gender and race and how we like to put people in boxes.  I had been teaching creative writing to some young writers last fall, I was still thinking about the Confederate battle flag and the Black Lives Matter movement, and I had been asked to write a poem for a transgender remembrance ceremony and the GLBTQ student organization’s “lavender graduation” ceremony.  It all came together in this prose poem, maybe more essay—in the old sense of trying out something, thinking through something—than poem.  (I am deeply grateful to my student Caleb for talking with me about non-binary identification—his words are the heart of the poem.)


I’ve been thinking a lot about gender, as I prepare for my performance in Vista Queen this coming Monday, because gender is very much in the air, in the cultural conversation—from Trump’s misogyny to Hillary’s candidacy.

On March 24, North Carolina passed a law that has been called “the most anti-LGBT legislation in the country.”  It undoes all local nondiscrimination laws and specifically excludes gay, lesbian, and transgender people from legal protections.

Ironically, International Trans Day of Visibility was celebrated just a week later, on March 31.

Now Senator Lee Bright of Roebuck has proposed similar legislation for South Carolina.


Before I entered, I asked my colleagues in Women’s and Gender Studies if it was okay for me to enter.  They said sure.  One said don’t do it—not because she objected, she just said, “You’re already too busy and beleaguered.”  Well, true.

But I asked because drag can be risky business when you work in gender studies.

On the one hand, drag is a central example in the work of theorist Judith Butler and celebrated by folks influenced by that work.  Drag, they say, makes visible that all gender identity is a performance, a repetition of acts and styles and embodied tropes of how we fit—or don’t fit—into the binary gender system: male/female.  (Yes, there’s a Wikipedia page on this.)

But, on the other hand, I suppose there’s that old gay tradition of female impersonation that tends toward misogyny rather than subversion or understanding.  For example, see this really smart essay from a Stanford student which notes, “if drag is to be subversive, then it must challenge or undermine systems or institutions that oppress those performing.”  Yes, I think, as I work on Tess DeMint’s script.  That is, the subversion mustn’t simply reinforce the powers that be, but question them.

I think about those old “womanless weddings” often held in rural Southern churches and segregated high schools in the 1940s and 1950s—often connected, as Brock Thompson notes in The Un-Natural State: Arkansas and the Queer South, to blackface minstrelsy as well. These performances were popular across Arkansas and the South, and, as Thompson points out, had more appeal (and played a more essential function in enforcing behavior) in communities where the racial and class divides were stark.

I think about the fact that, according to Chris Bull and John Gallagher’s Perfect Enemies, an analysis of anti-gay politics, that one of the most effective and prevalent tropes of anti-gay organizing in the 1990s was a male teacher in drag.

The Stanford student also says that “as drag becomes more and more a mainstay of our culture, it is important for those partaking in it—queer or not—to be mindful of and question the origins and implications of the personas we perform.”


Over spring break I read the biography of Panti Bliss, the extraordinary Irish drag queen, featured in the recent documentary The Queen of Ireland.  I’ve had the extraordinary pleasure of seeing Panti perform several times when I’ve been over in Ireland—even once attending the low-key and lovely Monday night “Make-and-Do-Do” craft nights at Pantibar, where she assigns a craft project and a bunch of grown men do their best with craft sticks and pipe-cleaners and marla (Irish for Playdoh).  I think our assignment that night was something Brazilian.  Laughter, community, friendship—all of it with the soundtrack of the hilarious Panti and the deeply nostalgic primary classroom smell of Playdoh.

I’ve been thinking about Panti as I work on Tess, about what drag can and can’t do. If you don’t know Panti, you should watch her speech—her noble call—on a Dublin theatre stag about homophobia.  Yes, I’m raising money for an institution that I love, a theatre that has in its very mission statement: “Our success will be measured by our commitment to collaboration and innovation, while our impact will be measured by the creation of a more diverse and vibrant Columbia.”

A more diverse and vibrant Columbia.


Tess has been writing a few little limericks in preparation for the performance, just in case she has occasion to recite a poem or two.  While most of them are about herself, as they should be, there’s this one she wrote this morning:

A not very Bright man named Lee wants to police who can and can’t pee. But trans is no crime, so let’s say, no not this time, and fight Mr. Bright’s bigotry.


I’m a 52-year-old (yes, really) man who has never done drag (yes, really)—unless you count the bearded college student in a bathrobe who lip-synched “You Can’t Hurry Love” with 3 friends at a church retreat (I don’t).

Panti says in her recently released autobiography A Woman in the Making that, if you can’t quite achieve beauty, you can certainly achieve interesting.

Maybe Vista Queen isn’t supposed to be political, but when I slip on my heels and try to walk and move through the world in shoes that slow me down and make me conscious of my body in ways I’ve never been conscious of my body, I think otherwise.  I think about the annual Walk A Mile In Her Shoes march against rape and sexual assault, the local event hosted by Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands to be held next Thursday, April 14.  (Register here before Sunday!)

I’m still tinkering with my act.  It will be an evening of people doing deeply uncomfortable and outrageous things for a theatre they love.  I hope it’s interesting.  I hope it’s subversive.  I hope it raises lots of money for Trustus.  Mostly I hope I can stay upright on those heels.

You can donate to Tess DeMint online at Trustus, or at her GoFundMe page.  It’s for a great theatre, a good cause.

As Panti says, You learn a lot in drag.

More From Tess DeMint: Ed Madden Compares Notes with Former Vista Queen Participant Jason Watkins (Tess Tickles)

Tess Tickles (Jason Stokes) Performing at the 2014 Vista Queen. Photo by Richard Kiraly.

This is the fifth in a series of blogs written by Tess DeMint (aka Professor Ed Madden), a contestant in the 18th annual Vista Queen Pageant, a fundraiser for our beloved Trustus Theatre.

Please support Tess by visiting Trustus Theatre. Each vote costs $10 and all money goes to Trustus Theatre.

You can also donate to Trustus (and support Tess!) at Tess’s donation site:  https://www.gofundme.com/fxudjbhs


“Just have fun,” he said.

Last week Bert and I had dinner with Jason and Katy Watkins–Jason is also known as Tess Tickles, the 2014 Vista Queen. I wanted to know what the experience of Vista Queen was like for someone who had been through it, what advice he might have for me, drag novice and VQ newcomer.

When we walked in the restaurant—one of their favorites—the wait staff welcomed Jason by name, circling around us almost like courtiers for royalty. Jason made his way between tables, shaking hands with other regulars. We got a special corner table—one apparently usually reserved for another regular patron and his wife. It was made available to us. The waiter already knew what Jason wanted.

In another corner, I saw Jim and Kay Thigpen. A good sign. This was the place to be.

Katy is an old friend (we tied for “most liberal” when we went through Leadership Columbia together, ages ago), so there was some catching up, new jobs and old acquaintances. But then we quickly got down to business. I asked about costumes, about practicing in heels. I asked about talent.

Jason didn’t have a fitting with a costumer, he said. No fake hips. Katy laughed, “He’s a perfect size 6.”  Both of them talked about particularly beautiful queens, particularly memorable acts, particularly drunken contestants.  She said Tess/Jason was hilarious, though she occasionally wanted to crawl under her seat.

Jason wrote a song for his talent. He pulled out his phone at the table, read me the lyrics.  That year, the sixteenth contest, the theme was “Sweet Sixteen,” so Jason wrote a song about being 16—a boy at a military school, rebellious, desperate for sex, the chorus emphasizing that he could never have dreamed, when he was 16, that he might be a Vista Queen.

“Just have fun,” Jason kept saying, telling me about the madness of backstage. “And just remember, they’re all drunk,” as if that might temper my stagefright. I wasn’t sure.

Tess Tickles and Tess DeMint. It was the old Tess and the new, and their faithful consorts. It was instruction in local knowledge and vernacular practices of drag—what to expect, what to avoid. There at a corner table over sushi and salmon, royal counsel, advice from a queen.

Why I Said Yes - Tess DeMint (aka Ed Madden) Explains Love of Trustus

From the Trustus production of The Brothers Size. Photo credit: Richard Kiraly

This is the fourth in a series of blogs written by Tess DeMint (aka Professor Ed Madden), a contestant in the 18th annual Vista Queen Pageant, a fundraiser for our beloved Trustus Theatre.

Please support Tess by visiting Trustus Theatre. Each vote costs $10 and all money goes to Trustus Theatre.

You can also donate to Trustus (and support Tess!) at Tess's donation site:  https://www.gofundme.com/fxudjbhs

I know my favorite row in the theatre.  I know my favorite seats.

I remember when Trustus Theatre staged Angels in America, one of the first if not the first regional theatre in the nation to do so.  I had seen the original New York production as a graduate student, and I taught the play at USC, so I was inclined to be critical.  But Trustus overwhelmed me with a beautiful, profoundly moving, and memorable production.

I remember Lonesome West and The Lieutenant of Inishmore by Martin McDonagh and other crazy Irish plays at Trustus.  The playwright was savagely funny, and the local production amplified his ability to make violence simultaneously hilarious and horrifying.

Which one of those plays was it that Alex Smith as the suicidal priest broke my heart?

I remember the rocking productions of Spring Awakening (yes they did that here and it was fucking amazing) and Hedwig and the Angry Inch—and being so tickled when Hedwig clearly directed the song “Sugar Daddy” to a couple of dear friends in the front rows.  (I won’t call out your names, Gordon and Doak.)

I remember taking my honors seminar to see Standing on Ceremony last spring as the semester began.  A collection of one-act plays about same-sex marriage, the performance introduced most of the very issues we were about to discuss.  The Trustus production (and talkback after) helped to set a tone for the rest of the semester as we began our own serious study of marriage politics.  I usually give students the option of a creative final project rather than a traditional research paper, and a couple of students wrote their own one-act plays, adding to the political and emotional complexity of what they had seen at Trustus.

More recently, I remember Chad Henderson’s haunting and gorgeous production of The Brothers Size.  The extraordinary acting (my Vista Queen fellow contestant Bakari Lebby and his colleagues were amazing), the minimal but strangely beautiful and convincing staging.  The intimacy of the sidedoor theatre.  The fireflies.

I remember Jim Thigpen—and later Larry Hembree—introducing a play and reminding us that we could always trust the theatre (trust us), even if we didn’t know the play or the playwright, because it would be good and it would be done well.  And I remember Kay’s smiling face at the ticket window, her easy laugh.

I remember working so hard for years with gay and lesbian organizations in South Carolina, and the way that Trustus would open their doors to us, the way they’d let us buy out the final dress rehearsal for a show as a fundraiser for our local community center.  The way the place filled with GLBT folks and their friends, laughing through The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, laughing at Hunter Boyle as the bitchy Santa Claus, laughing through tears at the end as the lesbian couple gave birth to a child and the gay couple resigned themselves to the new HIV drugs not working.  I remember a room full of people I loved laughing and feeling giddy and connected to one another, giggling at the silliness of When Pigs Fly, or stunned by the professional production of Take Me Out.

It was the Jim and Kay Thigpen School of theatre and aesthetics and collaboration and community and inspiration and love.  It was and is the theatre’s mission: “a safe space for exploration of the political, the personal, and all things human.” It was and is the theatre’s artistic mission: to produce works “that start and nurture dialogues.”  As they say on the webpage: “Our success will be measured by our commitment to collaboration and innovation, while our impact will be measured by the creation of a more diverse and vibrant Columbia.”

I remember that fundraiser at Most Fabulous, the huge spread of food Bert prepared, and the enormous bouquet of flowers—mostly from our yard—and a potted night-blooming cereus Bert put on the table, the large prickly arm of it reaching over the spread, ending in a tight white blossom.  I remember that it opened up during intermission, the incredible smell filling the bar.  A magical night.

I know my favorite row in the theatre, my favorite seats.  I know Bert and I will order a bottle of white wine, and he will have to get the basket of popcorn refilled at intermission.  I know it feels like home to be there.

So when Chad Henderson walked up to me at the Deckled Edge literary festival’s opening night and asked me to be in Vista Queen, I said yes.  I didn’t think about it: I said yes.  I was immediately terrified at what I had agreed to (though Bert was clearly delighted), but I said yes.

Why?  Because I love this theatre.  Because of so many good memories and so many amazing plays.  Because of the community Trustus makes possible and the community it enables and sustains.  Because Chad asked me.  Because I know which seats are my favorites.


Not Drama Queen?! More from Vista Queen Contestant Tess DeMint (aka Ed Madden)

pink heart

This is the third in a series of blogs written by Tess DeMint (aka Professor Ed Madden), a contestant in the 18th annual Vista Queen Pageant, a fundraiser for our beloved Trustus Theatre.

Please support Tess by visiting Trustus Theatre. Each vote costs $10 and all money goes to Trustus Theatre.



You’ve never been back here? she asked, smiling.


No, I hadn’t.


I followed Brandy into the back room, a door just beside Chad’s office, upstairs at Trustus.  Racks and racks slam-packed with costumes, dresses, jackets.  Shelves of labeled plastic bins.  Military hats.  How far did it go? I couldn’t see the other end. The long-suppressed theatre queen in me starting trembling, giddy, overcome. (Theatre queen, not drama queen.)  I ran my hand down a rack of jackets and fur.


It was my meeting with Brandy, who is helping with costumes for Vista Queen.  We met upstairs, in a small sitting room filled with a couple of rolling racks of dresses.  I had a couple of selections set aside from my first meeting with T.O., but Brandy was helping to augment and complete the look.


I had pretty good luck at my first drag consultation, and I even found something crazysexycool (and a little assymetrical) while shopping.  But we weren’t set, we weren’t certain.  There was one incredible black and blue metallic beaded gown that looked like Tammy Faye Bakker meets Loretta Lynn.  It was heavy.  It was tempting.  It was too small.


And anyway, was it really the right look?  Brandy and I talked about Tess, who she is, what she’s like.  I said ebullient and awkward.  We agreed: not church lady (that’s been done), but religious, perhaps awkwardly so.  Brandy described a character from the movie Blue Like Jazz, someone she said was almost uncomfortable to watch.  Uncomfortable.  Was that Tess?


Earlier in the day, over coffee at Drip on Main with Cindi Boiter, we talked about Vista Queen.  I showed her a photo of one costume selection.  She thought Tess should be sexier.  Should she?  Showed the same photo to another friend: he burst out laughing.


Also ran into Phil Blair from The Whig.  He’s sending me dates for Tess to do a Vista Queen fundraiser night at the bar.  (Watch for more info! Also a donation site up soon!)


Tess is still a work-in-progress.


So when Brandy said, “Let’s see what we can find back here,” and opened the door to that magic back room of props and costumes, I wondered: Is Tess back here?


We looked for a while, laughed a lot, found a cow outfit, but didn’t really find anything that said Tess, found ourselves back in the sitting room with the same selections I’d already tried on.  We talked about hip pads and bras.  Brandy jotted down some notes, about how to alter and accessorize what I had already to make it more fitting (literally and figuratively) for the Tess we imagined.


Bert said that one item we found really really really needed a little brooch of some kind.


I’ve got just what you need, Brandy said.  She pulled out a tiny heart-shaped pin with pink and blue gems out of her purse.





This is the second in a series of blogs written by Tess DeMint (aka Professor Ed Madden), a contestant in the 18th annual Vista Queen Pageant, a fundraiser for our beloved Trustus Theatre.

Please support Tess by visiting Trustus Theatre. Each vote costs $10 and all money goes to Trustus Theatre.

ed dress


Last weekend we decided to go shopping.


At that first consultation with T.O., I had tried on things from the theatre wardrobe, and settled, I think, on a couple of possibilities.  But no shoes there, and still in need of at least one more getup.  T.O. suggested visiting thrift stores, if only to get a sense of what I liked, what might work.


When we were in Arkansas during spring break, we ran across a booth of formal dresses in an antiques mall, all the dresses marked down to $30 and $40.  Maybe a formalwear shop closing up.  Some crazy things, mostly prom dresses.  We decided to check it out.  I slid a big jacket on: too small.  I found a chart for size translation on my phone: it included waist and jacket sizes for men and the corresponding women sizes.  We looked through all the sizes.  Nothing for me there.


That was, of course, before the consultation, before I’d even settled on a name or a persona.  Now I have a better sense of who I could be, what I might look like.


Goodwill, where we started shopping, was full of many things, but not much that seemed useful.  Way too many outfits that looked like tired professional women at work.  I did find a choir robe for $6, which seemed maybe worth buying.  The shoe rack had some scary-cool things, but nothing in my size, nothing in an interesting color.  I noticed my own shoes were dusted yellow—pollen, that film of yellow coating everything right now, the air filled with the sexual life of plants.


At one consignment shop, somewhat high-end, filled with furniture and bric-a-brac, as well as racks and racks of clothes, we had a little more luck.  There was a ruffled pink thing that looked promising.  (I texted Tio a photo. “Drama,” he wrote back approvingly.)  A large woman in orange seemed annoyed we were in her section, and practically pushed me aside with her cart.  She was perhaps unamused by two men giggling over the options on the plus-size dress racks, which could mostly be dismissed as (as Bert put it) “too mother-of-the-bride.”  Not the look for a Vista Queen.


At another consignment store, Second Chances, when we mentioned Vista Queen, the woman behind the counter brightened up, walked us through the store, determined to help us find the right thing.  When I told her what I thought my size should be (based on that internet research and the things I pulled on at the first consult, encased in my fake hips and bosom), she laughed, oh honey you don’t need something that big.  She pulled out a lovely beaded black size 16.  Just pull it on over your clothes, she said, to get a sense of how it fit, how it looked.  It was breathtaking—and breath-taking, too tight.


We checked our watches.  We had dinner plans.  It was our wedding anniversary—eleven years after being unlawfully wed, as I like to say, that long-ago ceremony filled with family and friends, but unacknowledged at the time by state law. While we searched the consignment shop, our minister, who now lives in the Upstate, sent a text of well-wishes from himself and his wife.


One more.  Behind the desk was a flouncy white ruffled dress that slid maybe too easily over my head.  Bert suggested a slit up the side to make it a little less matronly.  We texted a pic to T.O., me in the middle of the shop, the dress pulled over my jeans and green shirt.


He agreed with Bert: too mother-of-the-bride.


I hope T.O. deleted that picture.

Ed Madden is Tess DeMint in the 2016 Vista Queen Pageant

VistaQueenWeb It's the 18th annual Vista Queen pageant at Trustus Theatre and, this year, Jasper will be bringing readers a behind-the-scenes look at the tucking and taping and general mayhem that accompanies the only kind of pageant we could ever support - a mockery!

Meet Tess DeMint, (aka Ed Madden).

You'll be learning more about Tess in the weeks to come.

In the meantime, Tess and Ed have started doing the work that it takes to be a woman. As Simone De Beauvoir  says, "One is not born a woman, but becomes one." Here's a bit of what that involves -- 

Ed's shoe


I’m wearing high heels as I write this.

I’ve been wearing them the past hour or so as I move about the hotel room, putting away things, washing my face, answering emails.  I’m trying to get used to them, used to how I walk in them, used to how I should walk in them.  On Monday, when I met with Tio for my first drag consultation, he told me I walked like a gorilla, told me that I needed to let my hips and arms move.  He had helped me into hip pads and a dress, after I’d pulled on the obligatory three sets of stockings and tights, after I’d tucked myself best I could.  When he asked me if I knew about “tucking,” I said that I had read about it.  I’m an academic: it’s what I do.  He laughed.  I was the first person, he said, who had ever told him they read about tucking.  It was actually a little scary to read—especially when you see, “This may cause damage to the genitalia.”  Tio assured me that I didn’t have to use tape.


I walked around the room, best I could.  A gorilla.  He said I seemed to be getting better every time he turned around.  Bert said it was a little scary.  Tio told me to wear the heels around the house, to practice walking in them.


A video I found online tells me to look up and straight ahead, not at my feet.  Yes, I have been watching videos on how to walk.  I also watched some Yanis Marshall videos—more inspiration than aspiration, nothing I could imagine doing myself.  (I also think Arnaud Boursain—the tall bearded one—is sexy.)


So I’m sitting in a hotel room in Spartanburg, after attending Bodies of Knowledge, a gender studies conference at USC Upstate, in a pair of very black and very shiny high heels, about two inches high.  (Wishful thinking? Maybe I exaggerate?)  The rest of me looks like the rest of me: khaki pants, a green button-down shirt, some green striped socks.


I’m thinking about gender and heels and movement.  At the conference, I participated in a “queer movement” workshop with the enthusiastic performance artist Leigh Hendrix.  I hadn’t intended to stay for that last session, but I asked Leigh if it would help me be a better Vista Queen.  She assured me it would, if only to think about how my body moves.  We curled on the floor in fetal position.  We moved through the room with our six limbs (arms, legs, head, tail).  We did what felt comfortable; we stopped if it didn’t.  Make a heroic shape, she said.  I stood like the statue of an orator.  Make a male shape, she said.  Arms crossed, legs spread, aggressive stare.  Someone else sat on the floor, manspreading.  Make a female shape.  I stood legs slightly crossed, my hip out, one arm loosely crossing my chest, the other lifted, my wrist bent, my hand curled loosely back, a finger pensive against my chin, a downcast but withering gaze.  Honestly, I felt more Tim Gunn than female.  Leigh looked at me, laughed: you’re ready.


But we weren’t wearing heels.

-- Ed Madden/Tess DeMint

To vote for Tess, um, Ed, please visit Trustus Theatre. Each vote costs $10 and all money goes to Trustus Theatre.



[Vista] Queen of the Night?

Jasper is very much a 21st century kind of guy, so when he hears of old tropes like "beauty pageants" he usually turns up his nose in distaste.


But when a pageant has been turned on its head the way that Larry Hembree, past executive director of the Nickelodeon Theatre and incoming executive director of Trustus Theatre,* has turned this year's [Vista] Queen of the Night Pageant, you can safely assume that many of the tired old trappings that typically make beauty pageants so declasse have been tossed out with the trash. (Apologies to Chris Bickel, pageant contestant.)

Starting with the gender and sexual orientation of the contestants.

Hembree is taking us back to the glory days of the Vista Queen Pageant when hetero gentlemen the likes of Jakie Knotts and Sheriff Leon Lott donned their gay apparel and fought it out like proper the proper bitches they are for the crown and the title of Vista Queen. Recent pageants, though exceedingly entertaining, have featured, let's just say, gentlemen to whom lip gloss and eye liner felt a little more natural.

Contestants hiding their candy this year include Chris Bickel (featured as the centerfold of Jasper #002,) the mighty Tom Hall, our buddy Otis Taylor, news anchor Anderson Burns, actor Gerald Floyd, and Historic Columbia's director of Cultural Resources, John Sheerer.



Clay Owens is the stage manager, and Terrance Henderson (featured in Jasper #001) is the choreographer -- Alexia Bonet and CJ Grant will be serving as out hosts.

Judges are Ya Ya Queen Debbie McDaniel, who is also a generous sponsor, Sarah Luadzers from the Congaree Vista Guild, playwright, Robbie Robertson, and City Counselor Cameron Runyan.

The winner of the title of Vista Queen will be adorned with a beautiful sash, sponsored by your friends at Jasper Magazine and handcrafted by the hardest-working-artist-in-Columbia, Susan Lenz.

Tickets to the event are sold-out, as well they should be, but for those lucky enough to have scored a ticket, doors open at 6 and the show starts at 7.

For additional information, visit www.trustus.org or visit the event page “(Vista) Queen of the Night” on Facebook.

*(Full disclosure - this blogger sits on the Trustus Theatre board of directors.)