“There is a lot of people who don’t even know we exist,” says Trigger Mortis, who performs as drag king Buck Wylde.
Mortis entered the drag-king scene after dressing up as Morris Day to sing “Jungle Love” for a friend’s wedding.
“I was in my grandfather’s shirt and tie, and my mom’s blazer, and I had this terrible wig and terrible mustache — all forms of drag are valid, so whatever — but I’ve progressed since then,” she says.
And, for the past 12 years, the artist has performed as Buck Wylde across the local drag and burlesque landscape. Buck Wylde is a concoction of pop culture excellence, invoking the likes of John Travolta, Brian Seltzer, Elvis Presley and Little Richard.
"He’s got all of the good parts of the perfect man and none of the bad parts,” Mortis says of the character. “I love being able to be a completely different person. When I am Buck, that is a totally different person.”
Mortis takes inspiration from New York City drag-king legend Mo B. Dick, who is cited as one of the founding fathers of today’s Drag King movement. Mortis invokes one of Dick’s quotes when thinking about her own work: “Instead of becoming an angry woman, I became a funny man.” That is, their dismay with the patriarchy helped fuel their drag king ethos.
Buck Wylde represents a particular masculinity.
“We don’t really display any kind of toxic masculinity unless we are doing it in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way, where we are poking fun at the patriarchy, and everyone in the audience is in on the joke,” says Mortis.
Mustache Envy, a drag and queerlesque group founded in 2010, performs throughout North Texas, particularly at Sue Ellen’s. Its co-founder and executive producer, Cher Musico, got involved with the drag scene after taking photos for a former group, Dukes of Dallas.
“Dukes of Dallas had stopped around 2009, so there wasn’t anywhere for drag kings at all,” she says. “There weren’t very many drag-king-friendly places, and so for [Mustache Envy], it was about providing a space for kings and that visibility.”
The group’s roots lie in visibility and fundraising. They've raised money for causes such as the Suicide Crisis Center and gender-affirming care like top surgery. Now, Mustache Envy is one of the longest-running king-centric drag troupes in Texas.
Musico’s deep involvement in and around the drag-king scene has spanned its various courses.
“It’s changed tremendously," she says. "When I first had started, there was an organization called IDKE, which was the International Drag King Extravaganza. They had all these very particular rules about how you do drag: you have to bind, you have to apply facial hair. I think a lot of it came more so from the pageant world."
Whereas before it was focused on achieving the look of the opposite gender, the newer fold strays from tradition and embraces gender fluidity.
“If a drag king wants to sport a mustache, but perhaps they have boobs and want to show off their boobs, they are going to show off their boobs in addition to the way they perform,” Musico says.
The integration of the drag-king scene and burlesque as well as queerlesque also created changes within the local form, creating a shift away from the more traditional pageantry and expanding on the freedom and fluidity within the art form.
Lili Williams, who uses they/them pronouns, performed with Mustache Envy for years as Damien Dupree.
“It‘s a very interesting way to play with gender,” Williams says. “At the time [when I started], I was still identifying as cis — I don’t think I had a term for that. I never quite felt just female. It was a great way at first of exploring masculine identity."
“It’s a tough one because, as for most women, we’re fighting to be seen, to be heard. And it doesn’t change when it's someone who is nonbinary or transgender or something like that. It’s mostly cis white males who are seen, that are heard. And so there is always that struggle for anyone who is outside that realm.” –Trigger Mortis, aka Buck Wyldetweet this
Despite a rich history, the drag-king world is often overlooked.
“Everyone's style is different, but I’ve heard criticism that it’s just people going on stage in street clothes," Williams says. "There is actually a lot of people who put so much work into their costuming, so much work into their makeup. It‘s a very equal skill to what people who are very used to drag race and whatnot.”
Mortis echoes this sentiment, describing her own process with Buck Wylde.
“We have to do different contouring on our faces,” she says. “We put on wigs or do our hair a certain way. We tape up our chests, put on binders, chest plates for washboard abs … we put in packers in our pants. [There are] many things that people don't see.”
Because of celebrity television drag competitions that cater to queens, people assume that drag queens are the final frontier of drag, according to Musico.
“That’s what they think is the norm when it comes to drag. And so I think that view is skewed; you have more of the patriarchal views,” she says. “It’s a tough one because, as for most women, we’re fighting to be seen, to be heard. And it doesn’t change when it's someone who is nonbinary or transgender or something like that. It’s mostly cis white males who are seen, that are heard. And so there is always that struggle for anyone who is outside that realm.”
While being discounted in their own community, drag kings are bracing for attacks on the drag community at large due to bills restricting sexually oriented adult cabaret performances being considered by various state governments.
“There are more important things out there for politicians to focus on than what's in our pants and how we dress and what bathroom we use,” Mortis says. “They should probably focus on gun control and mass shootings. I would say that would be a better use of their time.”
The bills aren’t going unnoticed. Some of the performers are fearful of naming the venues where they perform out of fear of violence.
“It’s been a lot of talk of trying to make sure people are aware of these bills [and] making efforts to block these bills," Mortis says.
"It feels a lot like going way into the past. It feels like going into a movie,” Williams says. “As for if these are enacted, I can‘t speak for everyone else, I feel like most people do have the attitude that this isn‘t stopping me. I‘ve worked too much to be shoved back into a closet … I hope none of these come to pass, but, if they do, I can‘t imagine stopping.”
The shows are nowhere near stopping in the foreseeable future, however. With Pride month starting this June, drag kings will be taking the stage across Dallas-Fort Worth. Events include a first-of-its-kind, all-king drag show at Thunderbird Station in Deep Ellum and the Friday FemmeFest at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios in Denton.