Country Roads, Take Me Homo is an ongoing series chronicling Ty Yule’s experience at small town Pride events across America.
Wait, what? There’s going to be a Pride, held at something called the Motorama Auto Museum and Event Grounds, and there’s going to be drag queens and camping? You can’t duplicate this kitsch on either coast. You must go to Central Wisconsin Pride.
I sleepily dumped my display and meager camping gear in the Subaru and headed toward the middle of Wisconsin at dawn. Vendors needed to be ready by 10 a.m. The anticipation of rural Queer glory kept me alert on my drive. Aniwa, Wisconsin, a township of 260, is thirty miles east of the nearest metropolis, Wausau, which has a population of around 39,000.
I wound my way through wooded county highways, punctuated by row crops, farmsteads, and occasional solar arrays. I turned onto a well-maintained gravel road and through a gate with a professionally printed rainbow banner, telling me I was in the right place. I parked under a tree and walked past a line of WWII military trucks, searching for someone in charge. As I strolled down a midway, created by huge pole barns on either side, an older Trans woman in a tropical print dress motored toward me on what looked like a homemade ATV with a flamethrower mounted to the front. Her name was Lola, she was likely a showgirl, and she was definitely in charge.
Lola showed me my spot in between a couple selling homemade coffee tables and a mother and son, who were hawking an impressive nostalgic candy display. James, the son, was straight but was friendly and chatty. He told me Lola was kind of a local celebrity. James bought two copies of my book for himself and a cousin and started reading his copy immediately.
After my booth was assembled, Lola led me to the camping area by the river. We passed the RV section. Almost everyone had decorated their sites with rainbow paraphernalia and twinkly lights. The tent section was similarly appointed. Was there a Wisconsin gay camping decoration protocol I was supposed to assume? I took an embarrassing amount of time setting up my tent and discovered I had forgotten pillows and coffee, my two favorite things. Blaine, an old bear, came over from his pop-up to monitor my camping deficiencies and to tell me a story about a lonely otter by the river he’d had to rescue the night before. He had somehow procured rainbow gay Packers and “Don’t Tread on Me” banners.
After finally arranging my under-endowed camp site, I returned to the festival grounds.
Noah ran the booth next to James’. He was an interior designer from Green Bay, where he’d moved to from his small hometown near Aniwa as soon as he could. Green Bay is not a big city, but it does have a few gay bars and an apparent demand for professional design. He was wearing a black-and-white striped short set with a blue fanny pack. He had the most attractive booth by far, selling local art and cookie dough. He’d brought his stuffed Peppa Pig her own lawn chair. When the local news showed up, he agreed to an interview only after making sure it wasn’t the channel his grandmother watched.
I wandered down the gravel midway to see the rest of the festival, which was obscured by the pole barn at my back. The barn across the way housed an Alfa Romeo collection in one half and a full bar in the other. Around the corner there was a large tent one might see sheltering a wedding reception but with a stage and seating for a sizable audience. There were a few more vendors ringing the tent perimeter. I chatted with Carol from Green Bay, who made her own Pride accessories. She used to go to Milwaukee and Minneapolis, but it had gotten too expensive and there were too many rules, she said. I bought some sweet “Fuck Off” socks from her.
The rest of the show area was ensconced within more pole barns and decaying cars. The entrance to the “car boneyard” was visible in the distance. It was a dark path through the woods, lined with old cars returning to nature. I managed to resist its unsettling allure and made my way back to staff my booth.
Dedi was an older Trans woman from a nearby village. She was buying something from everyone’s booth to support the community. She told me Lola had encouraged her to live her authentic life in the last few years. She even entered open mic drag competitions now with Lola’s support.
Davina was another older Trans woman who visited my table. She threw her arm around my hip and gave me a pink lipstick kiss on my cheek. She listed off an impressive inventory of sex toys I would find in her trailer, just up the way if I cared to stop by. After registering my demure blush, she changed the subject and told me a lot of girls were coming this weekend. Everybody loved Lola around here.
I recognized Rex and Joss from the comfortably equipped campsite next to mine as they approached my table. They were masculine of center, genderqueer locals. Rex was from Aniwa and hated it. Joss was from a nearby tiny town that happened to have a bar where a few of their queer friends hung out. Those queers were Joss’ family and had gotten them into drag. Joss had gotten First Runner-Up in the previous night’s Drag Pageant I was sorry I had missed. However, they were performing again that night.
It turned out our Midway location, near the entrance, was not very high-trafficked. The bar and the family-friendly Drag Show were well past our spots. After I traded a book for a massage from Hope a couple tents down and ate some fine Wisconsin pierogis, the sun had shifted to an unjust angle. I gave up an hour early and went to have a swim and a costume change.
The water was refreshing, but the current was swift. There were three Queers in full mermaid tails, doing a photo shoot dangerously near a small waterfall. Back by my tent, a group of Latinx Queers was having a dance party. They’d rented a small U-Haul trailer to bring enough supplies for their group. Somehow my short dip had deposited half a pound of river sand in my swim trunks, which I then rubbed all over my tent bedding while changing.
Back up at the festival, an aerial Drag Show was underway. The performers were being suspended from the hook of a crane I’m sure they’d found somewhere on the Motorama compound. The spectacle was impressive, but I could no longer resist the lure of the car boneyard off to my right.
I stepped through the looking glass when I entered the path alone, in the fading summer light. Some cars were filled with live vegetation, others with trinkets from their former lives. I was just wondering whether I was about to be the first one offed in a horror flick or possibly a porno, when I spotted three fairies doing a photo shoot by an ancient VW van.
They were young and I didn’t want to frighten them so I cleared my throat to announce my presence. Two were wearing actual fairy wings. We immediately began a weighty exchange about gender magic. I felt like an old wizard. When two of them drifted away, Moxie, who identified as a cross-dresser, stayed with me for an hour, near a row of Corvair skeletons, invoking a spell of fledgling self-discovery and fidgety non-sequiturs. We emerged upon the third drag show of the day with the uncanny sensation of a fresh return from Narnia.
At the conclusion of another surprisingly stunning drag performance, including a powerful live rap about Trans women being fetishized, everyone began to trickle into the simple bar for a late-night dance party. By that point, the crowd of around fifty had congealed into a temporary family. I found a stool at the Formica bar and began to chat with the older woman while grabbing my O’Doul’s Amber.
I asked her why Motorama had decided to throw a Pride event. She explained that nearby Wausau had had a Pride a few years back, but it had fallen apart. Since her husband was part of the LGBTQ+ community, and they owned this land, it had seemed logical to offer this Pride to their community. It dawned on me that Lola was her husband and she called him Tom. Their adult son joined the conversation while fetching me another fake beer. They both said this crowd was just as much fun as the group they got for the military reenactments every year.
I faded just as the dancing started. I wandered back down to my tent by the river. It was chillier than I expected. I ended up wearing everything I’d brought under my blankets, including a pair of underwear on my head. In the morning, everyone was breaking camp by 7:30 a.m. like Queers had somewhere to be on a Sunday in Wisconsin. Maybe the Queer enchantment of the day before lasted longer if you left before the harsh morning sun destroyed too many illusions.
Next Stop: Rapid City, South Dakota (Black Hills Pride).