Standing in the back parking lot of Station 4, a sprawling LGBTQ dance club in Dallas, I realize this is the first time I’ve been here while the sun is still out, despite countless visits starting in my late teens. At 8:45 p.m., tucked behind the club, the parking lot is full but weirdly quiet, though I can still hear the bustling throng of people on the Strip, a section of Cedar Springs Road in the city’s Oak Lawn neighborhood that’s served as the heart of Dallas’s LGBTQ nightlife scene for more than four decades. Then, Jenna Skyy appears behind me in the lot, rolling a giant suitcase, and the evening begins in earnest.
Jenna Skyy has been a drag performer in Dallas for the last 18 years, many of them at the Rose Room, the upstairs space at Station 4 that serves as the city’s most venerable drag venue. Open in its current iteration for 38 years, even people who’ve never visited Dallas have heard of it thanks to the legendary queens that this city’s drag scene has birthed. A slew of RuPaul’s Drag Race stars, including Shangela LaQuifa Wadley, Asia O’Hara, Kennedy Davenport, and Alyssa Edwards, have appeared on this stage, and it’s a must-stop tour destination for many of the country’s most prominent queens. But tonight, the Rose Room’s permanent cast of five queens are the stars of the show.
By the sheer virtue of its existence, the Rose Room has become an unwitting battleground in the broader culture wars playing out around the country. Drag performances, here and inside restaurants all over the country thanks to the popularity of drag brunch, have been targeted by lawmakers in Texas and beyond. It’s never been uncommon to see religious groups praying for the souls of all us sinning queers inside the clubs on a typical Friday night. But the Rose Room has always seemed like a safe space for its performers, who were generous enough to let me tag along for one night to get a glimpse of what an evening in their lives is really like during this bizarre political moment.
Following Jenna Skyy into the club, she leads me past the bar, where I’ve ordered countless cherry vodka sours in my lifetime, and into the inner sanctum of the Rose Room. The backstage area is smaller than I would’ve guessed, just a few makeup tables with mirrors, a lot of bright lights, and lockers stuffed with wigs. Atop one of the lockers sits a bedazzled crown covered in black rhinestones, which belongs to show director Cassie Nova. A 30-year veteran of the stage, Cassie Nova is buzzing around the mostly empty locker room, pulling costume pieces, figuring out which songs everyone’s going to perform in tonight’s show, and shooting the shit with Jenna Skyy as the latter arranges her extensive lineup of eyeshadows and foundations.
The conversation turns promptly to the recent bills that aim to restrict drag performances across the country, including in Texas. The week before my visit to the Rose Room, Cassie Nova and Jenna Skyy were among a contingency of queens from Dallas and beyond who’d traveled to Austin to testify before the Texas Legislature against a bill that was intended to prohibit anyone under the age of 18 from attending a drag show. Initially, the legislation specifically singled out drag performances, which made performers like Cassie Nova and Jenna Skyy fear for both their jobs and their safety. “I can only speak for myself, but I have always felt like this was a safe space. Our fans come here because they love us,” Jenna Skyy says. “But if the law changes, all it takes is one phone call, and there’s citations and arrests.”
The final version of the bill, which passed the Texas Senate in May, is now described as a “sexual conduct bill” and prohibits “real or simulated groping, real or simulated arousal and display of a sex toy, if done in a ‘prurient’ manner in front of a minor or on public property.” That change gave the queens some sense of security, but they’re still uneasy about what the future looks like. “Even though they redid the bill and took out all the references to drag queens, this is still an attack on the LGBTQ community,” Cassie Nova says. “We’re not 100 percent okay with it, but it was the lesser of a whole bunch of evils.”
Jenna Skyy is incensed at the idea that drag queens and other LGBTQ people are being targeted under the guise of protecting children. “It’s just an effort to detract from the real issues, like gun control and what’s going on in our churches,” she says. “Why aren’t the kids protected there? Why aren’t they protected at school?”
Now that we’ve dispensed with “the political shit,” as Cassie Nova calls it, the mood brightens and the gossip begins to flow. I ask her how much things have changed since she first started performing in 1993. The most notable change, of course, is the meteoric rise of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the series that took drag out of the clubs and into the mainstream when it premiered in 2009. Not willing to name anyone on the record, Cassie Nova talks about queens she’s seen make the leap from the Rose Room to RuPaul’s runway, some of whom were “about as fun to watch as watching paint dry.”
Ultimately, she has mixed feelings about the popularity of Drag Race. She’s supportive of her friends who’ve found success on the show, but views its broader impact on the community as a double-edged sword. “It’s made some things better, some things worse,” she says. “Drag is so much more accessible to so many people now, but the downfall is that one of the best things about doing drag in the early days was that it felt scandalous. It felt a little fringe. We were performing for our community, and now we’re performing for the world.”
That shift has been especially challenging for what Cassie Nova and many drag fans describe as “local queens” like herself, who mostly stick to their home bases and generally haven’t appeared on national television. In an era when Instagram followers and clout are more important than ever, she worries newer fans are missing out on drag’s history — and being disrespectful to queens holding it down in their cities. “There’s this whole new generation where if you’re not on television, then you’re nothing,” Cassie Nova says. “They just don’t know. I have been wearing orange and yellow hair for 20-something years, and now some queen that was on Drag Race wears it and I get accused of copying her. No, bitch, this is the hair that I’ve been wearing for 100 years.”
About an hour before the show starts, I notice that there is not a crumb of food in this locker room. No snacks; not one dinner scarfed down in front of a makeup mirror. Drag is an endurance sport, so I ask Jenna Skyy and Cassie Nova what they ate beforehand to get them through the night. Jenna Skyy says she downed a can of soup, because a lettuce dilemma kept her from grilling a burger. “My lettuce was new, and I didn’t want to open the lettuce,” she says. “That was literally my logic.” Cassie Nova prepared a breakfast-for-dinner feast of bacon, egg, and cheese tacos that would both please her notoriously picky spouse and propel her through the next several hours of dancing, singing, and keeping the crowd engaged.
A few minutes later, as if from the heavens, a scantily clad angel appears backstage with a round of sugar-rimmed lemon drop shots. At the Rose Room, that’s just business as usual. We each throw one back, and Jenna Skyy turns promptly back to her makeup, sculpting a dramatic cat’s eye with black and orange shadow. “This is a job, and we have it down to a science,” Cassie Nova chimes in. “It’s just like you getting ready to go to work. I shower, I shave, I come here and get everything on. I do my show, then I take everything off here, wash my face, and go home.”
As those lemon drops start to kick in, Kylie Minogue’s new single plays over the speakers as the rest of the evening’s performers — Kelexis Davenport, Krystal Summers, Layla Larue, and Sasha Andrews, all members of the Rose Room’s permanent cast — arrive and start curling wigs and applying lashes. Krystal Summers is sipping a glass of J. Roget American Champagne, and it’s time for me to leave as they all enter various stages of undress to don their costumes for the first number, so I find my way to a seat near the front of the stage.
The room is packed with bachelorette parties in matching T-shirts, couples and throuples of all kinds, and a leather-clad person in a pup mask. The show begins only a little after 11 p.m., with the entire cast hitting the stage in studded velvet dresses to perform a lip-synced version of “Ex-Wives,” a song from the musical Six about the wives of Henry VIII. The real magic begins, though, when Cassie Nova takes the stage to begin her hosting duties. “Sandy, could I have just a small shot of vodka? Just the smallest amount so I don’t have to feel things,” she asks the bartender as she kicks off the show. But she quickly tells him, “never mind,” as an adoring fan approaches the stage with an ice-cold shot of Tito’s.
After a couple of whirlwind hours under the lights, I stumble out of the Rose Room and onto Cedar Springs Road full of renewed hope. Even in the face of a very real existential threat, these self-described “tough bitches” are committed to keeping Dallas drag alive for the next generation of queens. And it is encouraging to see so many screaming fans clenching fistfuls of dollar bills, fully immersing themselves in the moment. Still, I’m stuck thinking about the battles yet to come. “Roughly every 80 years or so, there’s some kind of upheaval” in this country, Jenna Skyy said to me just before going out onstage. “We’re due, and I worry that there’s going to be a collapse of some type. But that means that there will be a rejuvenation and a rebirth and maybe, finally, progress.”
Kathy Tran is a Dallas-based photographer, photojournalist, and multimedia business owner. With her own studio and a passion for capturing compelling visuals, she travels the world, immersing herself in diverse projects and stories.