Shortly before Halloween, in the fall of 2002 in Ann Arbor, Mich., John Lamb found a short skirt left lying in his room and decided it was his. A few days later, when the witching hour approached and the ghouls came out to play, he stuffed himself into the skirt, slipped on a tube top and walked across town to read poetry in a bookstore.
It was his first time in drag, and he wasn't sure what the reaction would be.
"The poem was a little erotic and every once in a while you'd get families that would come to this open-mic poetry night," Lamb said. "They lasted through the whole thing and applauded and talked to me afterward.
"I think it opens up people's minds to listen to a story when the person presenting it to them is opening themselves up."
Lamb, and nine to 12 other drag kings and queens, will star in "Drag Race," an evening of modeling, song and general ribaldry at 9 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 14 (Valentine's Day), at the Hangar Ballroom. Admission is $5 and the show is for 21 and over.
The evening was co-organized by Juneau residents Beth Weigel and John Leo, both of whom had their first drag experiences in Perseverance Theatre's fall 2003 production of "King Stag." Weigel donned a beard and played Cigolotti. Leo put on a dress and played the conniving whore Smeraldina.
"Just getting into the character of Smeraldina was fun," Leo said. "The audience really responded to it and lots of people came up after and were just really positive and supportive of it. That gave us the idea to do more."
"I certainly have never considered playing a man or what that would mean, but when (director) Richard (Toth) said, 'I'm seeing Cigolotti more as a man than a woman, we worked on that," Weigel said.
"There was a wonderment when the beard went on," she said. "I found I could be more playful. Everyone was just like, 'That's disturbing and sexy and interesting.' There was this strong sex appeal even though I was a woman with this beard."
The timing of the show is no coincidence.
"I just feel like Valentine's Day is so entrenched in the Hallmark holiday," Weigel said. "And so many people don't do that romantic candlelight dinner or even subscribe to that. Even people in relationships. Valentine's can be a bit of a drag. This way you can go in drag."
Drag is not new to Juneau, but it hasn't been around for a few years. The old Penthouse club, in the Senate Building on Franklin Street, hosted popular nights with drag queens from Anchorage before closing a few years ago
"Drag has gotten to the point of 'Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,' where it's stereotypical: gays doing women, doing Barbra Streisand," Leo said. "I'm interested in blurring the lines between gender. It's an important art, because we're still confined by gender even if we think we're not.
"What's cool about drag is anyone can do it," he said. "For me, it's a high art form and it's skittish, Gong-Showish and freakish, and it involves the whole gamut of art."
Weigel, a doctoral student in communications at the University of Denver, is particularly interested in the idea of gender construction. She used to work at University of Alaska Southeast and was involved in Women's History Month and organizing women's studies programs at UAS.
"Many of us are defined by our gender in the way that we act in the world through our gender," Weigel said. "I don't think drag is supposed to be shocking. It's good for people to rethink the way we look at gender and to play within the boundaries in order to provoke thought, rather than shock people into being uncomfortable. It's better to push on things gently and expand their minds to it."
Weigel and Leo will perform together in a role-reversal tango. Both have shows of their own as well. Weigel will dress up as her character Guy Shyman, a nebbish computer geek from Denver, and sing Dan Bern's "Tiger Woods," an ode to confidence. Leo will perform a Janet Jackson-inspired number in honor of the Super Bowl XXXVIII.
"It's fun to ask myself why that was such a huge thing," Leo said. "Baring a breast, why is that shocking to the world? How could I be shocking in the same way and in a different way? Why is baring a breast, a mammary gland, this thing we use to feed our children, so eroticized that people run screaming and totally freak out?"
Lamb, who moved to Juneau last April, plans to read two poems: one about transforming into a bear, another about a roomful of first-grade boys that he saw putting on women's clothes in the dress-up area of their school.
"This type of thing is good in general just for people to take themselves less seriously," Lamb said. "Everyone should go out and try to do something that is totally different from anything that they've ever done and make themselves slightly uncomfortable.
"They should try to do something on a yearly basis, a monthly basis, depending on the type of person they are," he said. "It kind of brings out a childish element in you. You realize that you can still play and dress up like a girl. It's not necessarily something that's associated with underground culture; it's just people having fun."
As of press time, the other acts were due to be surprises.