Lana Mars

Drag queen Lana Mars will host Drag Queen Bingo on Saturday at The Bird and the Book in Maryville.

So what, exactly, is Drag Queen Bingo?

Listen to the nattering nabobs of negativism from local puritans, and you might believe it to be something obscene or deviant. Viewed through the prism of traditional American binary thinking when it comes to gender, and it comes across as a puzzling, if not uncomfortable, bending of those stereotypes. Come at it as a fan of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” and you might expect something lavishly over-the-top.

It is, according to Lana Mars — the hostess of Drag Queen Bingo, which returns to Maryville’s The Bird and the Book on Saturday evening — none of those things. What it is, she told The Daily Times this week, is a whole lot of fun. And on Saturday, it will raise medical funds for The Bird and the Book employee Matt Hardenbergh, who is battling cancer.

“It’s super simple: You have a couple of drag queens who are poor and mean, reading bingo numbers, and in between, every five rounds or so, we’ll do a little performance,” Mars said. “I don’t normally go to bingo, but from my understanding, it’s just like typical bingo — but with a little more sass.”

And a lot more flair, to be certain. Drag queens run the gamut, from ultra-feminine and sensual to over-the-top and brassy. Traditionally, drag refers to “the activity of dressing in clothes of the opposite sex, especially of a man dressing in women’s clothes, often for humorous entertainment,” at least according to the Cambridge Dictionary. For Mars, however, it’s performance art — and history is on her side.

“In ancient Greece, men were playing female roles,” Frank DeCaro, author of “Drag: Combing Through the Big Wigs of Show Business,” told NPR in 2019. “In Shakespearean times, it was the same thing. In the kabuki tradition in Japan, it was going on. In minstrel shows they had a drag queen. In vaudeville, in burlesque, there’s always been someone cross-dressing for work.”

While drag is typically thought of as a man dressing as a woman, the elevation of drag as a performance art, according to Mars, has meant even those conventional stereotypes have been turned on their heads.

“It’s a way to look at gender and look at art,” she said. “Some people satirize it; some people create fantasies out of it. I can’t really define drag, because there’s a lot of ways to define drag. You see it in pop culture, even outside of drag queens — some of what David Bowie and Elton John did early in their careers, for example, could be considered what’s known as high drag. Lady Gaga would be another example — many people consider her as someone who’s borrowed from drag.

“There are preconceived notions about people’s gender and people’s identity, but in drag, none of that necessarily relates. Right now on ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race,’ there’s a trans man who does female impersonation drag. Not every drag queen is a gay man in drag, and not every drag queen is a trans person. But many drag queens use drag as a way to explore ideas of gender.”

By day, Mars is a graduate student at the University of Tennessee, where she was first introduced to drag at the LGBT-friendly Knoxville club The Carousel. Drawing on her work in UT’s anthropology department, she became fascinated with the idea of using drag to explore ideas about sex and gender identity through culture lenses.

“Those things are culturally constructed, not just societally constructed, and how we view masculinity and femininity is based on how we are raised,” she said. “Once you step outside of that ethno-centric lens and view those things outside of how you were raised, it opens doors to thinking about how colorful the world is.”

Mars began drag performing for UT’s Sex Week, and then four years ago began making her first forays into the local LGBT club scene. She was first invited as a guest to one of the Drag Queen Bingo nights at The Bird and the Book in October 2019, and over the last year and a half, she’s become the hostess.

“We usually sell out all the time, but the turnout has been lower because we’ve had to cut our capacity because of COVID,” she said. “It’s not lost on me that my typical audience at Drag Queen Bingo is older, so I am consistently conscious of how COVID can impact their health. But even though we’ve had to scale it back, it’s still a fun time.

“And it’s not just an LGBT event. It’s an LGBT safe space, but our allies are more than welcome to come and have fun. It’s a learning experience for them as well, because being around queer people is a way to learn about the culture and maybe more about yourself, and how you view gender and sexuality and life in general.”

Steve Wildsmith was an editor and writer for The Daily Times for nearly 17 years; a recovering addict, he now works in media and marketing for Cornerstone of Recovery, a drug and alcohol treatment center in Blount County. Contact him at wildsmithsteve@gmail.com.

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