Note: This story explicitly describes an act of hate that some readers may find traumatic.
On Saturday night, a brewery in Wytheville shimmered in rainbow hues.
Rainbow-striped hot air balloon spinners hung from the ceiling of Seven Sisters Brewery. Pride flags and floral arrangements topped every table, and a large pride flag was festively tacked up behind the expansive brewery’s bar.
Six drag performers — Jezzi Belle, Kei Kei, Amazon Rome, Youneek New York, Anna Dote and Anastasia Paige — strutted into the room in rapid succession. The crowd cheered, held dollar bills up in the air to tip the performers, and sang along to the popular dance tunes. “That was incredible,” one guest could be heard saying to another.
Saturday marked the second performance of a two-night Wytheville engagement from the Roanoke-based group Downtown Divas. In recent years, drag performances have become increasingly common in Roanoke — and performers are bringing shows to more rural areas. Downtown Divas and another drag group, The Roanoke Royals, have been giving drag performances in breweries, coffee shops, and hip new restaurants in Roanoke and beyond.
“You don’t have to go to a gay bar to see a drag performance anymore,” said Joe Sachenbacher, who goes by the stage name Enya Salad and has performed at The Park, Roanoke’s first and only LGBTQ night club, for 24 years. “You can go to coffee shops or breweries.”
In a typical month, Roanokers can see numerous performers at several different venues across the city. In June, during Pride Month, that number multiplies.
“I think some businesses truly do want to participate in events for the LGBTQ community but others are just looking at the bottom line and revenue,” Sachenbacher added in a Facebook message, recommending patrons look at venues closely before buying tickets and asking where the proceeds are going. “Does the business you support give back?”
On Sunday, performers from The Roanoke Royals put on two drag brunches, held at Well Hung Vineyard’s downtown Roanoke location. Both shows were sold out, seating a total of 160 attendees throughout the day.
Restaurant owner Anthony Herring said that they started holding drag brunches in Roanoke about a year ago and that every show has been sold out.
“We didn’t know how people would respond at first,” Herring said. “Then we found out that Roanoke has a vast LGBTQ community and that other places in town were holding successful shows.”
Making drag mainstream
Jezzi Belle moved to Roanoke from Winchester last year and founded Downtown Divas in part to provide opportunities for newer, potentially less-experienced drag performers.
The Park has typically only reserved one night a month for up and coming performers to take the stage, Jezzi said.
“Thanks to shows like [Ru Paul’s] Drag Race, drag itself has never been more popular and mainstream,” she said in a Facebook message. “We made ourselves more visible by stepping out [of] the normal places we were allowed to perform.”
Based in Roanoke, the Divas also strive to take drag performances to more rural areas. They perform along a 100-mile stretch from Farmville to Wytheville on a regular basis. Jezzi said that the Divas strive to produce eight to ten shows a month. That number is increasing this month, with 15 more shows to be held by the end of June.
“We’ve found a lot of joy in taking what we do into these small, rural places,” Jezzi said, explaining that she enjoys building a community and creating safe spaces for the LGBTQ community.
Saturday’s performance was the ninth drag show that Seven Sisters Brewery has held in the last year.
Business partners Timmy Bowling, Cameron Parrish, and Everett Lineberry recently purchased Seven Sisters Brewery from its former owners on June 1. Their goal in hosting drag performances is to create more safe spaces in the community, according to Bowling. They hope to continue to hold one to two performances per month going forward.
Sachenbacher agreed with Jezzi Belle’s assertion that there aren’t many evenings at The Park devoted to new performers each month. Typically, one Sunday a month features an open stage, at which new performers are invited to participate, Sachenbacher said.
This Sunday, The Park hosted a country-themed night. Performers included both female and male impersonators and a male entertainer. Enya Salad played host to a small but excited crowd. Sundays at The Park are calmer than your typical Friday or Saturday night show.
Mr. Maccon Haze, a male impersonator, returned to The Park’s stage after an extended absence. His close family and friends were in the audience, supporting him. “Maccon’s a good old country boy. It makes me happy to make people happy,” he said.
After his second performance of the evening, Haze took a moment to recognize his family and friends. He called his mother, BJ Grimes, up to the stage and thanked her publicly for the support she has given to Maccon and his sister, who performs as Colton Haze.
“I have two wonderful girls who are two wonderful male impersonators,” Grimes said in an interview.
The support Maccon received added to the encouraging atmosphere in the establishment. Robyn Burcham, bartender and shift leader, could be heard telling a patron to stay true to himself, even when he thinks he is at risk of losing his identity. “Hold on to who you are and thrive,” she said.
Sebastian King, a male entertainer, is relatively new to the stage. They began performing in drag shows about three and a half years ago, they said. Sebastian also performs as female impersonator Sarah Tonin.
“This is my home. Being able to come here and see all of these young people in the community looking up at the stage is great. This is my family,” Sebastian said. You don’t get that everywhere.”
Family is also important in the drag-adjacent ballroom community, according to Garland Gravely, founder and father of the House of Expression, Roanoke’s first ballroom house.
“The houses are about family– family first. They are chosen families,” he said. “They are working to build supportive communities.”
While there have been ballroom houses in northern Virginia and eastern Virginia, the House of Expression, started in 2019, is the first house in southwestern Virginia according to Gravely.
“Ballroom culture came out of drag culture,” he said, explaining that ballroom was started by Black and brown trans women in the 1970s. In these stage competitions, performers compete in categories similar to what one might see in a pageant. “If it wasn’t for ballroom, there wouldn’t be Ru Paul now.”
Sebastian King explained that ballroom and drag have evolved to be very different from one another: “[The Park] is very much a family, but we don’t have the structure that ballroom houses do.” They said that there are some drag houses, but The Park serves as a melting pot for the community. “All can come here and all co-exist,” they said.
Saturday, June 17
1 p.m. — For the Love of Wine Drag Show with the Downtown Divas at Blacksburg Wine Lab (223 Gilbert St., Blacksburg). Visit this link for more information. ($)
Tuesday, June 20
6 to 9 p.m. — Third Annual Queer Community Picnic presented by the Roanoke Diversity Center at Wasena Park (1001 Winchester Ave., Roanoke). For more information, visit this link.
Saturday, June 24
5 to 7 p.m. — Pride Party at The Vibe Studio of Lynchburg (1957 Fort Ave., Lynchburg). Visit this link for more information. ($)
Sunday, June 25
12:30 p.m. — Sunday Drag Brunch: Pride Edition at The Park (615 Salem Ave. SW, Roanoke). For more information, visit this link. ($)
Monday, June 26
6 p.m. — Pride Night Benefiting the Roanoke Diversity Center at The River and Rail (2201 Crystal Spring Ave., Roanoke). Find more information at this link. ($)
For a full listing of upcoming events, check out these websites or Facebook pages: Downtown Divas; Golden Cactus Brewing; The Park; Roanoke Diversity Center; Roanoke Royals; Seven Sisters Brewery
The target of hate
As drag performances flourish in and around the Roanoke Valley, the success has not come without some backlash.
Drew Ayers, a local protester, showed up at the Downtown Diva’s show at Seven Sisters Brewery last Saturday night. He stood just outside the fenced-in parking lot, microphone at hand, preaching a message of repentance.
“I preached down there for about two hours,” Ayers said, pointing towards downtown Wytheville. “I don’t know what to do.”
Brewery patrons, headed home for the night, defended the brewery, the patrons, and the drag performers who were just inside. “You can’t be out here judging people,” one man said in response to Ayers’ presence.
While Ayers’ protest was peaceful, others have not been as quiet. Moments after Ayers spoke with The Rambler, a car with two men peeled through the brewery parking lot. The driver reached across his passenger's body holding a zapping stun gun and shouted, “Get out of here, you fucking faggot!”
The incident was reported to brewery co-owners Bowling and Lineberry. Wytheville town police arrived and patrolled the block for the rest of the evening. Ayers gave a statement about the vehicle and its occupants, according to Bowling.
“Shoutout to the Wytheville town police who responded quickly. They have been so good to work with,” Bowling said.
Three protestors drove in from Charlotte for the June 2022 performance at Wytheville’s Formato Fine Arts gallery, but backlash surrounding the shows is rare. Bowling added that the performers love it when protestors show up at their performances.
“When we had the three protestors at the gallery, so many people drove by and gave money to us,” he said. Sometimes the Divas like to go out and take pictures with the protestors, according to Bowling.
Jezzi Belle has experience with many more protesters than have been seen in Wytheville. She performed at Sweet Donkey Coffee’s Halloween Drag Brunch last October 29. That backlash started online prior to the show, with protesters posting negative comments and calls for boycotts on Sweet Donkey Coffee’s Facebook event page. The upset mostly centered around the event being advertised as a family-friendly show. (One Facebook poster particularly called out the attendance of Roanoke Vice Mayor Joe Cobb, the city's first openly gay councilman and a Democrat, urging her friends to vote for the Republican candidates in the municipal election.)
“As soon as the online nonsense started, the business was a little shaky,” Jezzi said. But, she knew that they would have a sold out performance once the negative comments began. “The positive tends to wildly outweigh the negative.”
Ann-Maree White, co-owner of Sweet Donkey Coffee, confirmed that the October 29 event was a sold-out show. The Halloween Drag Brunch was the third drag performance held at Sweet Donkey. White said that there was a little bit of negative chatter surrounding their second show, but nothing like they encountered last fall.
“It is never easy to be the target of that kind of hate and vitriol,” White said. She said that she and other staff were disturbed.
“We did briefly entertain the idea of canceling the show. But we quickly decided that we were not going to back down because of it.” White said. “We disagree that drag shows are inherently sexual and that drag queens are groomers and pedophiles. If we stopped the show, we’d be caving to that idea and that’s not who we are.”
Safety has been a primary concern for Sachenbacher, too.
“I’m definitely older and probably a little wiser than I was [when I first started],” he said. Now, Sachenbacher researches a venue’s track record, clientele, and safety considerations before booking a performance in a new location.
Sachenbacher remembers the September 2000 shooting at Backstreet Cafe in downtown Roanoke. He recounted the story as he recalled it from reading articles and interviews from the aftermath of the shooting: “[The shooter] was looking for The Park. He went by Backstreet and saw people who were obviously gay. So he went there.”
Danny Overstreet was killed at Backstreet Cafe that night. The man who killed him and injured six others died in prison in January 2022.
“The world is much more accepting now. But, politically, we’re going backwards. I’m very fortunate that I’ve never had any major issues,” Sachenbacher said. He mentioned the Tennessee state law that banned drag shows in public or where children were present. The law was passed in fall 2022; this month, a federal judge declared it unconstitutional.
Though Virginia has not seen any anti-drag legislation in recent years, state Democrats blocked 12 anti-LGBTQ acts in 2022 according to the advocacy group Equality Virginia. Locally, Roanoke County has been in the news regarding employees’ attire and displays of rainbows at Glen Cove Elementary School. Just last week, Bedford County passed a resolution disallowing public school teachers from discussing gender orientation and identity in the classroom.
Politics aside, drag performances are thriving in Roanoke, according to those involved.
White, co-owner of Sweet Donkey, says that they have not ruled out holding another performance in the future, in spite of the backlash they encountered. Most weeks, folks can find weekend drag performances at The Park in addition to performances at local breweries or restaurants. Those who want to travel a little further can almost certainly catch the Downtown Divas performing several nights in a week.
Tyrone Thornton, who performs as Kei Kei, grew up in Washington, D.C. and says that he’s used to the backlash. He moved to Christiansburg in 2013.
“I understand that it can be dangerous, but so am I,” Thornton said. There’s an upside, too. “The protests bring us more people, and then we sell out shows.”
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