It was only a half hour until showtime, but if Penn Wood High School senior Nate Randall was nervous, he didn’t show it as he put the finishing touches on his costume — ripped black pants; a red Penn Wood Patriots T-shirt over his well-stuffed bra; black pumps; and a black bob wig with bangs, which he’d found in the school’s theater room.
Maybe that’s because Randall had some practice from playing Angel, a drag queen, in the high school’s musical, Rent, earlier this year. “At first I was … I don’t know if I should do it, it’s a little weird,” the 18-year-old recalled. But, “It was fun. It’s just dressing up.”
Looking taller than his 6 feet in size-13 pumps, the school track athlete put on the final touch — a flowered kimono with fringe — and started swaying to the music. “I got the moves,” he said, smiling.
Moments later, a couple of hundred Penn Wood students went wild when Randall bounced onstage for the loud opening number and blew the audience a kiss — hands on hips, moving with so much attitude that he lost his wig.
This was “Coming Home,” a student-run drag show that Penn Wood’s Gay-Straight Alliance staged Wednesday to honor Pride Month, Harvey Milk Day, and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising in one fell swoop, with a mostly lip-synced and frenetically danced celebration and fashion show.
The relentlessly up-tempo message was delivered by a lively crew that included three young men in drag, female performers, and a pep talk and performance from a 2010 alum, Kemar Jewel, who’s become a well-known “vogue” dancer. It was summed up by the large sign above the stage: “Coming Home: A Place for Everyone to Feel Safe and I Mean Everyone!”
In staging a drag show during a regular school day, with the blessing of administrators who waved off small brush fires of opposition, the Lansdowne high school placed itself on the cutting edge of not just acceptance, but boisterous recognition of LGBTQ rights.
Elsewhere around the country, in-school celebrations of LGBTQ culture have been slowly increasing while some, such as an “LGBT Fair” at a school in historically conservative Orange County, Calif., where drag queens gave makeup tips to middle-schoolers, still generate controversy.
At Penn Wood, students like Jabri Trawick, a 17-year-old junior who is a pre-transitioning transgender person, saw the Coming Home show as a chance to promote inclusion while simply being themselves on stage.
“This is a nice way to express myself while I transition,” said Trawick, who was prepping to model a short red dress with a sparkly bodice that Trawick’s grandmother helped pick out. “My friends are all supportive — even the conservative ones.”
“We’re not saying, ‘Oh, everybody be gay,’ ” said Tracy Boyle, the Penn Wood nurse who advises the Gay-Straight Alliance, or GSA. “We have straight kids who are in the show, and beautiful young people [who] haven’t told us what their sexuality is, and it’s none of our business. They all want to have a fun day.”
Boyle said only a few people disapproved. “They feel that it’s not appropriate,” she said, “because they’re kind of still in the Dark Ages.”
Although no one came forward publicly to protest, anonymous complaints that some religious parents were unhappy about the drag show found their way onto the Christian Broadcasting Network’s news website and other sites, such as End Times Headlines.
“I will tell you that I am happy that our students are able to be free in their thoughts and the ways they want to live their lives,” said Superintendent Jane Harbert. She added, “Many of our children come from homes or cultures that may not be as supportive, and we want to make sure our school is a safe place for these students.”
The drag show was part of a larger educational effort that included learning about the history of the gay rights movement, and classroom conversations about being an LGBTQ ally as well as related health issues.
Randall, whose drag name is “LaChika Pa’Prika” because “I’m a dash of spice and I make every day seem more nice" had the crowd under his sway, whether it was twirling his kimono to “Killing Me Softly” or flipping his wig a second time while wildly dancing to “Level Up.”
The show closed with all the performers taking the stage to sing along to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” as many students leaped from their seats to join them.