When COVID-19 struck Athens, the world of live performing took a disastrous hit. Among those performers who experienced a prolonged drought of bookings were drag queens who make a living off of gigs and tips from the audience.
Emotions were high as local drag queens returned to the stage on Saturday to put on an extravagant drag ball at 40 Watt Club in downtown Athens. For some, this was their first time back since the beginning of the pandemic.
The annual drag ball is called BooButante. It is a Halloween-themed night of drag performances, drinks, singing, dancing and most importantly, community. BooButante gives the LGBTQ+ community as well as allies in Athens a chance to come together and enjoy a night of fun and acceptance with one another.
Amelia Hane, a junior biology major at the University of Georgia, was excited to see Detox, the headlining performer of the night. Detox has been seen on shows like “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” a popular reality television show where drag queens from around the country compete to win the title of “America’s next drag superstar.”
“I think it’s so important to foster a safe space for queer people where they can be themselves. I love to connect with queer people in Athens, and this is one of the best ways to do it,” Hane said.
A background of advocacy
BooButante is organized and hosted by the Boybutante AIDS Foundation which “has existed since 1989 with the sole function of fundraising for agencies supporting HIV/AIDS advocacy, education, outreach, and/or direct client services in Northeast Georgia,” according to their website.
According to the president of the Boybutante AIDS Foundation Jamey Watson, all BooButante profits will go to Live Forward, a local organization that provides people living with HIV/AIDS with housing support and other services, such as support groups and counseling.
Live Forward works to support those who live with HIV and AIDS. The organization serves all 10 counties in Georgia’s 10th district, including Clarke and Oconee counties.
In addition to being president of the foundation, Watson is also one of the drag performers at BooButante where he goes by the drag name Skylar. Watson said he knew the first time he attended the ball that he wanted to get involved.
“This is our first big official event back which we’re really excited about. We sold over 350 tickets tonight, our VIP is sold out, so we’re really excited about the turnout. This is the first time we have actually had a real headliner, but we wanted to do something special since we’ve been off for two years,” Watson said.
According to Watson, the annual Boybutante events are extremely important because there are not many gay bars in Athens anymore. While their main purpose is to raise money for Live Forward, the opportunity for the LGBTQ+ community to come together and celebrate is also an important aspect of what they do.
Boybutante AIDS Foundation prides themselves on donating everything they make towards charity. The foundation’s board of directors are not paid, there is no paid office space and all of the performers donate their tips as well.
Months of planning goes into BooButante. The foundation’s board meets monthly from August through May to plan the BooButante Ball and Boybutante Ball in April in addition to their other smaller events throughout the year. All of its members work full-time jobs outside of their work for the foundation.
A night of fun and community
For Watson, this year’s BooButante feels more special than ever as they are coming back from a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19. The line around the block to get into the venue showed that the community was equally as excited for the return of the event.
“For so many of us [drag queens], it is so important to have an outlet to express our art form whether it be glamor drag or camp drag or Halloween drag. We all live to entertain people, and drag is such a staple in Athens despite the lack of gay bars,” Watson said.
As people packed into 40 Watt Club decked out in Halloween decorations, Watson appeared in a floor-length gown to start the show. Drag queens of all ages and aesthetics were introduced to give lip sync performances, a staple of the drag art form.
The room filled with cheers and applause as drag queens performed medleys of iconic songs like “Bring Me to Life” by Evanescence and “Glory Box” by Portishead.
One of the standouts of the night was when Athens Showgirl Cabaret, a local drag troupe, took the stage to perform as the Sanderson sisters from the movie “Hocus Pocus.”
In addition to drag performances, there was a costume contest with the prize of two VIP passes to the Boybutante Ball in the spring. Audience members strutted the catwalk in their unique costumes which included the likes of a beekeeper, a caterpillar, a Victoria’s Secret angel and a space cowgirl just to name a few.
“There’s lots of ways people can get involved, whether that be a board position or a volunteer position. There’s lots of ways for people to help us … we use volunteers all the time,” Watson said.
The restrictions that 40 Watt Club put in place during COVID-19 has allowed people that attend their events to feel safe while they have fun. Neven Morey, a junior psychology major at UGA, is just one of those people.
“Everyone’s vaccinated or has a negative COVID test, and masks are required to get in. I just feel more comfortable going out. It also feels good to go to an event that is giving back like how this one is,” Morey said.
More information about Boybutante and their events can be found on their website.