VA’s first drag show celebrates all veterans

Jonathan Kaupanger
September 17, 2018 - 12:05 pm

Photo by Photography by Kimberly

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The gauntlet has been thrown down at the Vermont VAMC.  And surprisingly, it’s an elbow-length, white opera glove, dripping with fake jewels.

Charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent aren’t usually traits you get judged on at Veterans Affairs. That is, unless you were one of the few lucky veterans attending 'Queens, Queers & Camo,' a drag cabaret benefiting LGBTQ veterans in Vermont. 

“I do recognize that it was a risk,” says Calvin Smith.  Smith is a social worker with VA’s homeless program in Manchester, New Hampshire, but previously worked as a LGBTQ Veteran Care Coordinator in Vermont.  He’s also a veteran and - for one night only - performed as Ms. Brittney Queers.  “My sexual orientation is straight.  So part of this was just showing that this community isn’t just about sexual orientation.  It’s about lots of things and being colorful in lots of ways.  And then I should also say this was my debut and retirement performance all in one. “

“For some of those veterans, it was way outside their comfort zone,” says Smith.  About a half-dozen veterans who attended the drag show had never been to one and never thought they would either. 

“I would say that two-hour time frame of attending a drag show, just experiencing it for themselves did far more than any book they could have read, any training they could have taken and that’s what this is all about,” says Smith.  “For them, they walked away from the experience with an entirely different conception of what the word queer means than what they went in with.”

Changing culture and people’s minds isn’t easy.   LGBTQ Veteran Care Coordinators are a relatively new thing at VA, only introduced in 2015.   But they are now in every medical center. It’s their dual job to help LGBTQ veterans manage the VA system and to show that VA is there for veterans of all sexual orientation.

Photo by Photography by Kimberly

“The seeds have been created at each of the medical centers,” says Smith.  “They’re growing to different extents and in different ways.”  Smith says some medical centers have really run with this concept.  He points out the Cleveland VAMC’s transgender clinic as proof of this.  “Some are far along in some ways, and then other hospitals that are just not that far along.  I kind of like that though, it’s been very organic the way those positions have evolved.”

Read about Cleveland VAMC's Gender Identity Veteran Experience Clinic

While at Vermont, Smith and his coworkers wanted to publicize that VA supported LGBTQ veterans.  They scheduled community events to build relationships and start the process of changing the perception of who veterans are.

“And as you can imagine, that was a big obstacle,” says Smith.  “Most people think of the VA as the military.  They don’t realize there’s a difference between the two.  So just doing events like that was important, it allowed us to have those conversations with people.  Gay vets are very welcome at the VA they aren’t going to lose their benefits and there’s no risk that they will be discriminated against and if they are, there’s this program that’s meant to advocate for them.”

So, how do you create an opportunity to expose people to what queer culture is and have fun at the same time?  For Smith, who identifies as a straight male, the answer was easy and “Queens, Queers and Camo” was born.

Putting on a drag show fell into place easily. A community partner provided the space.  They booked a headliner, Ms. Joslyn Fox from season 6 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, plus local amateur talent.  Once the event was posted, tickets sold out in a week. The event turned out to be exactly what they hoped for, bringing in people from all walks of life, all ages and all kinds of identities. 

Photo by Photography by Kimberly

Besides changing how some people think, the event was a success on a more basic level.  After the performers and bills were paid, a donation of $500 was made in the name of the LGBT program at the VAMC.  The medical center will use the money for outreach materials and other things that they normally wouldn’t have been able to do.

Smith hopesthe drag race will become an annual event.  He also thinks other medical centers should try it as well.  “It’s celebrating who people are,” says Smith.  “Encouraging people to be themselves at the VA and everywhere in their life!”

Connecting Vets has recently learned that another VAMC is contemplating copying the Vermont event.  Would Smith be willing to resurrect Brittney Queers?  “Yeah!  Heck yeah, I’d do that,” he says. “Oh, I think that’s beautiful.  Yeah, more!” 

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