I was on the road by 5 a.m., hunting for a breakfast sandwich and more caffeine. I’d never been to Sioux City, but the drive took me through my birth town and the town my maternal grandparents came from. Driving into downtown Sioux City felt familiar to me, as most mid-sized, Midwestern college towns do. As I turned onto Fourth Street, the main commercial corridor, I was greeted by assorted Queer flags, affixed to ornamental streetlights lining my entrance.
I changed into my new “Nobody Knows I’m Trans” t-shirt in the parking garage so people wouldn’t mistake me for a gay bear. I wheeled my modest display into the Convention Center on my portable cooler. I trusted that Joe, one of the organizers, had put my name on the list. I’ve found organizers of small-town Prides are motivated, organized, and respond to DMs nearly instantaneously. SUX Pride 2021 had its own logo – a rainbow-filled outline of Iowa proclaiming Love is Love. Joe met me at check-in to make sure a table inside wouldn’t be too loud. I told him to put me at the gayest table he had.
The cavernous room was a rainbow eruption. Dozens of vendors lined the perimeter selling gay cupcakes, t-shirts, and potpourri. There were librarians, teachers, and rock painting stations. They had an impressive stage with catwalks and a full bar. I was placed next to Angel, who was selling sparkly nail art. This was Sioux City’s fifth Pride with these organizers. It was clear they’d done this before.
My first visitor was Lex. She came over to compliment my t-shirt, my most practical Etsy purchase to date. She was 25, finishing college in Sioux City so she could be near her dad. She agreed to sit for an interview. After I started my camera and sat back down to talk to her, a drag queen started belting out the Star-Spangled Banner and everyone around us stood up. My footage shows us standing awkwardly for the duration. Afterwards, I learned that Lex is studying to be a graphic designer and she’d most like to work for a reproductive rights nonprofit. She told me she was poly and there was no scene in Sioux City. She doesn’t know where to find a femme and no one reads her as Queer. A tale as old as Queer time.
During Drag Queen Story Hour, Alex approached my table. I don’t know if he identified this way, but drawing from my ancient 80s vocabulary, I’d describe Alex as Goth. I also find it fascinating this subculture has persisted. Perhaps one is born Goth. He’d found his way to Pride from his tinier town a half hour away. He wanted me to know he was trans, too. He was still in high school. I asked him what it was like for him in his town and at school. He just told me he didn’t talk to anybody. He did have a couple of friends he hoped were meeting him later. He had enrolled in a trades program and was hoping to move somewhere else. He didn’t know where. Alex talked to me softly for a half hour, never making eye contact. He brought his friends back to the table sometime later, as if to let me know they were real.
Next, Elliot’s mom dragged him over to my table to meet me. Elliot was another trans teen. He would be attending college in Sioux City in the fall. He was also fidgety and decidedly uninterested in speaking to me. Mom, on the other hand, wanted me to know that Elliot was the one who started his GSA in his high school in South Dakota. Also, he’d testified three times in front of the state legislature against anti-trans legislation aimed primarily at trans youth. As a young Queer celebrity activist, Elliot was justified in being unimpressed by my presence, but I do cherish any time with a proud mom of a Queer child.
Alyx, the trans femme poly pixie amused me for an hour with tales of her romances. I had the honor of meeting Shadow, the Iowa Pride pig, wearing her own ruffly rainbow taffeta Pride dress.
But just when I was about to declare Shadow the winner of Pride, a grown human in a blow-up T-Rex costume, sitting in a child’s Jurassic Park electric jeep rolled past my table and stole my heart.
Besides versions of the name Alex, I identified two other informal themes at Sioux City Pride. First, there were a stunning number of old, blond butches. All old butches make my heart sigh with brotherly love and primal connection. The blond subset has a distinct leathery tan evoking decades of mowing, softball, and disdain for sunscreen, believing its usage to be a sure sign of weakness. While they may have sported a fierce frosted back-comb into the mid-2000’s, they now seem to prefer shaved sides, with variations on a top knot. I did spot one bleached, curly mullet crowning a Hawaiian shirt/ cargo shorts combo. A masterpiece.
The second theme involves groups of youths we used to call Nerds. I’ve always had a deep and steadfast affection for Nerds. I often ran with Nerds and was, myself, Nerdy in school, but the Queer in me was just a little bigger. Goths, Nerds, and Queers have always overlapped, and I’ve long considered us all comrades. While witnessing multiple roving squads of Nerds, donning Rainbow, Trans, and Genderfluid flags as capes, it occurred to me the relatively recent proliferation of more nuanced gender and sexual identities may have allowed a clearer alliance for our clans. Maybe thirty years ago, we could have had more Queers had Pansexual or Genderqueer been common terms. Cheers for more Queers.
At four, the family-friendly vendor event and Drag performances ended. Sioux City had invited a high caliber of performers from the tri-state area (Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota). I dumped my display in my hotel room and headed to the local gay bar to check it out before the adults only Pride show began at six. It was conveniently located right next to the Convention Center across the street.
Everyone must have gone home for a disco nap and a costume change because the place was empty except for a couple staff and the owner behind the bar. He poured me my soda water and I started chatting with him. He was unassuming and pleasant. I told him about my project and that I used to own a queer bar in Minneapolis. He asked me if I wanted to buy his. He’d owned it for over a decade. He told me things had changed and it was increasingly hard to draw a crowd. He was getting tired.
A couple hours later, he found me smoking outside the Convention Center and sat with me. He said he intended to get his daughters through college then retire back to Mexico. He’d been in America for thirty-two years, twenty-seven in Sioux City. He’d been experiencing renewed racism in the last few years from some community members. And the scene at the gay bar had been shifting for some time, though he couldn’t pinpoint how. He’d been sending money back to Michoacán for decades. He came here for opportunity and because he was gay, but now he just wanted to go home.
After we hugged, I strolled back into the Convention Center. It was Drag Queen Bingo in the vestibule and Lip Sync Battle in the main exhibit hall. An old blond butch who’d been to my bar over a decade ago saved me a seat in the VIP section. I observed what I assumed to be friendly interstate Drag rivalries. It seemed like most people knew each other. The performers and the crowd created the show together with joy and mutual support. It’s High Drag.
After the show, we all spilled into the gay bar next door. The same crowd and the same performers began the second act. I was happy to see my friend, the owner, bouncing through the crowd with a tray of jello shots and a can of whipped cream. He looked like he was having fun. Queer bars are truly the happiest place on earth when they’re filled with happy Queers.
Sioux City organizers have turned their Pride event into a popular civic celebration. In place of corporate sponsorship, they have the support of the local bakery, gym, and chiropractor. They had a local business festival on Fourth Street on Friday night. Saturday, they carved out a specifically family-friendly celebration during the day, then had Queer adult time after six. I was told Sioux City was often conservative, but generally courteous. The Queer youth from the surrounding communities clearly enjoyed this modest but well-organized Pride. Anywhere is truly the happiest place on earth when it’s filled with happy Queers.
Next stop: Stockholm, Wisconsin.