While queer communities across the country stare down anti-queer and anti-trans legislation, Durango’s drag scene is thriving with “exponential” growth and continues to receive support from locals, winning best in show this year.
Aria PettyOne, the stage name of Jake Riggs, stepped into the drag scene several years ago. This year, PettyOne was acknowledged for the 2023 Best Drag Show at the Drag, Initiatives, and Variety Awards (DIVA) in Denver for the Planet Petty series hosted at 11th Street Station on weekends. PettyOne also earned a spot among the top five “Not So” Freshest Faces of Colorado Drag.
Another Durango resident, Al Wolfe, made the top 10 Freshest Faces of Colorado Drag this year.
PettyOne said her hope is for more Durango-area performers to win awards and bring more recognition to the city’s growing drag scene, which has come a long way in a few short years. When PettyOne first got into the scene, just three or four performers were active in the area, and only one drag show, “Dragrango,” was put on annually. Today, about 20 performers from Durango and neighboring communities are regularly involved in the scene, and PettyOne has several shows a week.
“We’ve been growing really well here in the past couple of years,” she said. “There’s a booming venue for art here in the area, and it’s been really nice seeing different performers jump in and new people wanting to try it out.”
She said she wouldn’t expect a rural community of 19,000 people to have such a strong drag scene, but here it is.
The scene started to gain steam after her own drag trivia night shows hosted at the Starlight Lounge rose in popularity in 2021, she said. Since then, she’s picked up another weekend show – “Planet Petty” – at 11th Street Station; has started a Friday night watch party of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” at Father’s Daughters Pizza; and has formed a partnership with Fort Lewis College in which she leads a drag performance workshop.
The growth of the scene is “one of the dopest things about me doing drag,” she said. “... And seeing other people take this over and do their own thing has really been nice and also (taken) a little bit of weight off my shoulders.”
Wolfe said PettyOne has helped grow Durango’s drag scene “exponentially” since 2021.
Wolfe, whose stage name is too raunchy to print in a family newspaper, said it feels especially good to be recognized at the DIVA Awards because most of the performers who were recognized live and perform north of Colorado Springs.
“It feels like a big deal to have a small mountain town be represented,” they said. “Especially to have the opportunity to be a part of such an amazing scene. It’s really an honor, and I would not be where I am without the scene that we have, for sure.”
Wolfe, who is a transgender person and prefers they/them pronouns, said PettyOne is their drag mom. Drag families, or chosen families, are significant because queer people have historically been ostracized by their families.
Overall, Durango’s drag scene feels like a big family, they said.
“It is such a strong community,” Wolfe said. “I try not to be too cheesy, but it really is special. And the performers that we have here bring it every time.”
The Durango community wants to see drag and its support for performers make it easier for people to be excited and invested in the shows, Wolfe said.
PettyOne said the local drag scene is in an “alternative” place as far as the art form goes. Traditional drag queens and kings take on exaggerated personas, either hyper feminine or hyper masculine. But PettyOne’s character is a former reality star from Mars whose ship crash-landed on Earth.
“That is where drag is right now. It’s very in the middle, where you don’t have to be a pretty woman or a very masculine man pretending to be an entertainer anymore,” she said. “You can come in as a mushroom or a centipede or a sunshine or something like that. It doesn’t really matter as long as you have a thought behind it and a concept comes through to the people.”
Mary Quinn, whose stage name is simply Chad, used to perform in Second City, Chicago, as a clown – “not your typical red-nosed clown, but like the Italian clown,” she said – and she pulls from that work to inform her character.
After moving back to Durango several years ago, she was looking to get back into the comedy scene, and drag shows provided a means to do so, she said.
“It’s just caught on fire,” she said of Durango’s drag scene. She credited PettyOne for making the scene so accessible to newcomers. For Quinn, her mission is to determine how to bring drag to other small towns and help their own scenes flourish.
Quinn, Wolfe and PettyOne all offered the same advice to people who want to try out drag but are feeling squeamish or nervous: Just do it.
“Jump into the fear,” Quinn said. “When you just kind of jump in and experience it, that’s when you know if you like it or not. So go out there and try it. But I bet you 10 bucks you’re going to fall in love with it.”
Quinn said her mother worries about her performing in drag shows because of anti-trans and anti-queer rhetoric flaring up across the country. She said she works in high schools for her day job and she isn’t sure which profession is more dangerous.
“The best advice that Aria gave me back in the day when things (anti-LGBTQ sentiments) really started heating up – because let’s be honest, it’s always kind of been around – is to protect your backyard,” she said. “Make sure you do have that safe community and you are there for one another. And you can talk about it. You can talk about your fears – just don’t let (them) hold you back.”
Wolfe said they consider Durango a safe place for trans people and drag queens and kings, but there are layers to oppression. Even as a trans person, the fact Wolfe is white contributes to their feeling of safety in Durango.
“There are layers of oppression that I will never face as a trans person,” they said. “That absolutely contributes to my ability to feel safe. ... Especially when we look at violence against the trans community, the majority of it is against people of color.”
Wolfe said that drag saves lives. It is an outlet for people to express their true selves and allows queer youths to see future versions of themselves.
Wolfe works with young adults in the LBGTQ community for her day job. They said they see firsthand the impacts of homophobic and transphobic rhetoric and legislation targeting members of the queer community.
The rhetoric is “devastating” to LGBTQ youths, they said. Trans people know “the world is against them” – they face hateful rhetoric every day – and it’s especially harmful to have people in power reminding them of that.
“It definitely hits deep, especially when you’re trying to be this version of yourself and you’re facing everyone around you, especially the legislature, people in your schools, people around you, saying not only that you’re not valid, but reminding you that it is a risk and it’s a safety concern to be trans,” Wolfe said.
PettyOne said she knows adults who are emotionally stunted because they weren’t allowed to express themselves when they were younger. While drag isn’t for all members of the queer community, it can be an outlet and a safe space to figure out oneself.
Although PettyOne prefers adult-themed drag shows, she sees nothing wrong with parents taking their kids to drag queen story hours – events where drag performers read books to children that have garnered national media attention and spurred transphobic protests.
“To me, it’s really amazing to see this generation of children and this generation of parents really supporting their queer kids and (saying), ‘Figure yourself out and find yourself,’” she said.
“I don’t want to hold you back. I don’t want to be that person who makes you question yourself or (think) that something is wrong with you,” PettyOne said. “Because there’s nothing wrong with you. You just have to figure out who you are, that’s all it is, and everyone’s different.”