As active-duty service members put on their official uniforms to march in July's San Diego Pride parade -- the first time ever the Defense Department has allowed them to do so -- Anthony Diaz was busy putting on a uniform of his own: a jean jacket atop a black leotard and fishnets, black stiletto boots with sharp silver spikes jutting out the back, a dangling chain necklace, a poofy purplish auburn wig, and heavy eye and lip makeup.
Diaz was ready for his drag performance at the Pride Festival in Balboa Park, which followed the military's headline-grabbing march.
Some of San Diego's top drag queens took to the main stage that day, shimmering and sparkling as they reflected the hot afternoon sun from their sequined dresses. Cher, Tina Turner and other divas pranced across the outdoor stage, lip-syncing their hearts out as a sweaty, lazy crowd sat back in the shade, occasionally clapping or singing along. But when Diaz bounced into view as Grace Towers, dozens of audience members got to their feet and rushed to the stage. They wanted to get a closer look at one of the newest, most exciting queens to storm the San Diego drag scene.
Grace Towers, the persona, is just three years old, but she's already got the chops of a much more experienced drag artist. It helps that by day Diaz is a professional dancer with famed choreographer Jean Isaacs' San Diego Dance Theater. When Towers takes over a stage, she likes to bring an entire backup dance crew whose moves she meticulously choreographs. And Towers herself can dance, no matter how high her heels. She looks confident and comfortable in the spotlight, leading her team of performers through a set so polished and precise it looks like it's been ripped out of an MTV video.
"It comes naturally, I guess you could say," Towers says after the show. "But I am fairly new compared to some of the other queens around here."
Towers is not only new, she's different: While most drag queens go to great lengths to hide any sign of masculinity when they're "in face," Towers proudly shows off her bulge and beard.
"I like to call it my gender-fuck andro look," she says. "I feel the most comfortable this way because I'm a hairy boy and I like my beard, so why shave? And the taping? Not comfortable, so why do it?"
Grace takes a minute to wave to a few fans then adds, "Nobody does what I do."
There's a pregnant pause before she finishes the thought.
"I used to be very shy about being able to say that, but drag has taught me that nobody can do you like you do you. Whatever your forte is, nobody else has that. I feel like everyone has that inner diva and it's amazing what that inner diva can teach you if you let her speak to you."
Out of costumes and heels, Diaz is a much quieter, shorter young man dedicated to dance. Compared to Towers, he's much more internal than external, always thinking about productions and performances, quietly crafting Towers' next appearance inside his head.
"It's funny because when I do drag I'm really outgoing in the sense that, when I'm not in face, I can be really reserved," she says. "I'm constantly thinking about my art. But when I'm in drag, I feel like I am the art piece, so there's nothing to think about. This is a visual piece for me," she continues, looking down at her post-performance costume, a camouflage-themed getup worn, in part, to help mark the day's momentous occasion of fleeting military freedom. "Drag has been a great vehicle for me to except not fitting in. I love that. And when you don't fit in, what do you do? You kind of start your own thing."
Diaz was supposed to be a doctor. His parents, Mexican immigrants who moved to a small, mostly Latino town in Southern California, wanted their son to embrace the American Dream, climb the ladder of success and reach for one of the world's highest and most respected professions. But Diaz just wanted to dance. He did go to college -- the first in his family to do so -- but it wasn't long before he traded in his biology books for more rehearsal time in the modern dance studios of UC San Diego.
While his sisters accept Diaz new life as Grace Towers, his parents still haven't come around. Once a devout Catholic, Diaz' mother recently became an evangelical Christian. Diaz isn't holding his breath in terms of walking out onto the stage one night and seeing the proud, glowing faces of his parents out in the audience cheering him on.
Back in March, Diaz's life and story of becoming Grace Towers was the subject of "Deconstruction of a Drag Queen," a play put on by Circle Circle dot dot, a San Diego theater company that prides itself in putting on shows that take their storylines directly from the local community. Written by one of the theater company's founders, Katherine Harroff, the play details the difficulties Diaz faced while slowly but surely discovering his inner diva. The play is currently being reworked a bit and will be brought back to the stage in spring at the New York International Fringe Festival.
Staged as a show within a show, "Deconstruction of a Drag Queen" is set in a drag bar inspired by Lips San Diego, a famous restaurant and drag showcase where Diaz got her start. The queens in the play tell Diaz's narrative, which captures the more universal story of the making of a drag queen -- particularly one who comes from a family and culture that has a hard time welcoming variations in the norm.
"But I have some of the most liberal friends I know who've told me they're afraid of drag queens, too," Harroff says, explaining why she casted an Asian actor to play Diaz and purposely stayed away from picking exclusively on the Latino culture for being especially wary of gender bending. "I've even had people from the LGBT community say that they're a little uncomfortable around drag queens because they're such intimidating forces of nature and they're so out there with so much confidence."
Harroff says that aside from the very clear message her play puts forth -- be who you truly are no matter what obstacles you have to overcome -- she hopes Diaz's story helps introduce people to the artistry and humanity of drag.
"This sometimes intimating culture is vey relatable and very impressive and should be respected," she says. "It shouldn't be such a taboo kind of thing. It's beautiful, and it is an art form, and there's no better poster child for the truth in that than Grace Towers, and what she does and how amazing she is."
William Nericcio -- a Chicano theorist, author, cultural critic and director of an interdisciplinary cultural studies graduate program at San Diego State University -- says that while drag queens and transvestite bars have been common in Mexican border towns for decades, actual acceptance of the subculture is a long way away.
"Mexicans don't shy away from melodrama," says Nericcio, explaining the culture's fascination with drag queens and other, more boisterous forms of entertainment. "They like their entertainment loud and exaggerated. Vaudeville never really went away.... But when you have a culture that prescribes to one image of gender -- the Mexican macho man or the femme fatale female -- you're going to have to navigate anything outside of that very carefully. The pressure either destroys you or makes you into this extraordinarily tough person."
Diaz hasn't been destroyed yet. In fact, as Grace Towers, she's already wowed crowds across the city and is positioned to take her new persona much further. Diaz says the experience of putting his life out there in the form of a play has been better therapy than he ever imagined. Finally, he says, he's able to pat himself on the back.
"There was something about that process that clarified some things about myself," he said. "One of the biggest things was that a lot of my accomplishments have this cloud of negativity over them because of family issues, so I never really acknowledged them as accomplishments. Seeing them on stage, though, and seeing them accomplished by someone else, it allowed me to see them as actual accomplishments for once."
Top Image: Grace Towers | Photo: Courtesy of Kinsee Morlan.
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