I’m in a dark bathroom stall at Charlie’s Nightclub on a busy Sunday drag show night. This isn’t the first dive-y bathroom I’ve been in on Colfax, and so far, I think the best places have the worst bathrooms. At the sink, my backpack hangs open, and the gay man standing behind me in the women’s room peers in and spots my notebook.
“Is that a diary?”
I don’t know what he’s talking about at first.
“Oh yeah, I’m writing a story about Charlie’s,”
“…You want a quote, bitch?”
Drag queens have a reputation, especially within their own community, as being ruthless and bitchy. However, this will be my only experience over the course of two weeks that lives up to this stereotype.
The first time I see one of Charlie’s house drag queens, Venus Anne Sexton, is on a poster that is hanging above my barstool at the u-shaped bar. I stopped by around noon on a Wednesday to scope everything out.
The bar doesn’t look like much from the outside, no windows look in from Colfax, there’s no visible patio, just a side door that enters into the sprawling interior. It’s all wooden floors and wooden benches which surround two dance floors. A level up, there are a couple of pool tables. In the back, there’s an entrance that leads to an expansive patio with more wooden benches, its own outdoor bars, and a fire pit.
All wood and little embellishment give the empty night club a country barn quality. In the evening, it feels more like a small town haunted house, haphazardly thrown up by local dads to entertain sticky-handed kids in superhero costumes.
Later I would find out that when Charlie’s is bumping with business, it still feels like a haunted house, but all the kids are dressed up as Woody from Toy Story, David Bowie, or Queen Latifah. And all the kids are in their early 30’s.
However, at noon on a Wednesday, the most shocking characters are the two older gay men across the bar, who won’t let me talk to them or take their picture.
Their names are Tom and Harold, and they’re what I assume to be the bar’s most fancied regulars. They can be expected at the bar at this time every day. Long-time manager John Nelms pulled two special bar stools with back support out of the abyss and set them up at their special spot at the bar twenty minutes before they were due to arrive.
I listen to John talk baseball with these two older gentlemen, which fills me with nostalgia for my own grandpa and uncles on a Sunday talking sports over Miller Lites on the sun porch. If only the Miller Lites were specialty cocktails and the porch was an empty night club and the sun was actually multicolored dance floor lights being reflected off a cowboy boot shaped disco ball.
Once John warms up to me, he tells me about the history of Charlie’s (open 36 years), about the foundation of the International Gay Rodeo (started right here in Aurora Colorado by Charlie’s owner and management), and about how instrumental Charlie’s was in politics concerning gay rights in Colorado. John is a gay cowboy, a transplant from a small Midwestern town, who found a safe haven at Charlie’s.
Even in the 80’s, Charlie’s was the weird stepchild of the gay community. The Charlie’s Denver website features a small write up by owner John King in which he takes a moment to acknowledge this. “How could a gay bar survive that supported tequila over drugs, courting before sex, and even touch dancing, in these modern days of 1981? Everybody knew that those hats, Wranglers, and strange belt buckles had gone out of style for 30 years.”
Charlie’s was all country music and line dancing for years. The nightclub was once host to a restaurant with a 72 item menu, off which patrons ordered dishes like prime rib and frog legs.
Eventually, the second dance floor took place of the restaurant, and Charlie’s took an all-inclusive stance, playing modern dance music on one floor, and country on the other.
Drag gained in popularity, and Charlie’s made room for that aspect of the community as well. Now, on any given night, a visitor of Charlie’s can enjoy two-step lessons, dance music, bingo hosted by drag queens, or on some nights, a full-fledged drag show.
I got in touch with Venus Anne Sexton that very day, and she agreed to meet me for martinis at 17th Ave Grill. I asked for a window seat and ordered every kind of seafood I could find on the happy hour menu.
We had a shot of tequila, and another one. I encouraged her to order anything she wanted on a company card that doesn’t exist.
She’s a darling from the start. She shares this maternal quality with best friend and bingo night co host Kailee Mykels. This concept of a “mother” is prevalent in the drag community. Within the community exist “houses” into which a new queen can be initiated. Once a part of a house, a newcomer will get oriented with their house mother, who teaches them makeup techniques, how to act, and how to perform to their best ability.
A while back, Venus was welcomed into the Sexton house, the first place she found true acceptance as a drag queen, now Venus and her best friend Kailee act as the unofficial house mothers of Charlie’s.
Kailee adopted the nickname Good Christian Mother thanks to her empathy and grace when it comes to directing shows. The nickname is also meant to be ironic, the pair begin their weekly bingo show by riffing back and forth to each other. As the show is getting started, Venus asks the crowd how they’re doing, the response from the couple dozen people in the crowd is lackluster.
“Ooh small but mighty, I like that,” Kailee responds, only to have Venus follow up with, “That’s the only thing small but mighty that I like.”
“This is good Christian bingo, but it ain’t your grandma’s basement bingo. We cuss we drink and we’re probably going to make fun of you at one point.”
Sunday night drag shows feature all the raunchy quips of a bingo night, but they are shadowed by perfectly executed, other worldly, multi-act performances from local and visiting queens.
Venus encouraged me to watch a documentary about drag culture in the 70’s called Paris is Burning, which I did. In the 70’s, drag culture was obscure and completely taboo, but young men and women would run away from home to join the “houses” that came together to attend and perform in “balls” in peripheral locations, many of which look like abandoned basketball courts. They would tediously sew their own costumes based on a slew of themes. The crowd and judgement was ruthless and competitive, a very raw form of drag.
Drag Shows aren’t often called “Balls,” anymore. This is upsetting because I really want to hear all the ways Kai Lee would turn that into a gay sex joke.
“Balls” are now “Drag Shows,” but Charlie’s especially seems to inadvertently maintain that “abandoned basketball court” vibe with the wood floors, and rows of spectators three-deep, dancing, scooting around to get a better view.
The queens are introduced by Dj Mile High Pinky Pie. When their song starts, they emerge from a red curtain framed by an 80’s prom-esque arch of balloons. Shrouded in mist from a fog machine and elaborate costumes, they’re precisely choreographed routine unfolds.
Charlie’s was known for a long time as a novelty bar because of the western theme. In a way, the drag scene at Charlie’s also preserves a sense of novelty for the authenticity and raw excitement of drag shows passed.
An air of competition between drag queens still lingers, but the crowd is respectful, polite, in awe. All the work the performers put into these single moments on stage is relished by the audience, who are of all different ages and sorts.
There is a younger guy dancing in front of me who I witnessed running around behind the drag queens on stage, quickly grabbing any article of clothing they threw to the ground, a task I am assuming he is paid to do, like a ball boy in tennis. He wears a crop top and fashionable sunglasses with a flat brimmed hat. He knows all the words to all the songs and takes a moment every so often to daintily take a sip of beer from the mini- plastic pitchers that beer is served in.
To my right, there’s an older gentleman sitting on the bench next to me, and in between acts, a younger girl approaches him and looks over at me. “This is going to be my new dad! This is my dads fiance!”
He looks over at me and says, a little drunkenly, “I’m going to be her new dad.”
Then, after a short pause he definitively adds, “I will be a good dad.”
Venus’ first song of the night is ‘Creep’ by Radiohead. An uncharacteristically moody song for a drag show. She slinks onto the stage, exuding artistic confidence, lip synching the words.
“But I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo. What the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here.”
Venus was inspired by drag as a ten year old, watching one of Ru Paul’s early TV appearances, before the reality show ‘Ru Paul’s Drag Race’ aired, and long before it began to gain the popularity it has today.
“At that point I said, ‘I am going to be a pop star, or I am going to be a drag queen, or I’m going to be both.”
As it turns out, the two aren’t very different. There is more to drag than a male dressing up in women’s clothing. It’s an art form inspired in part by the legacy of famous pop stars like Madonna and Beyonce, getting on stage year after year, telling a different story, portraying a different version of themselves.
“When Beyonce is on stage, she is this very empowered woman, but when she’s just Beyonce, she’s just little Beyonce from Houston,” Venus explained to me. “I studied a lot, ‘So ok, how do they do this? How do they make it believable?’ It’s believable because they are that character. I created Venus, but I’m not Venus right now.
“The perception is that drag queens can be ruthless, that we can be bitchy, that we’re drug addicts, that were alcoholics. What’s really funny is that for a lot of people drag is still taboo. Especially in the gay community. People say ‘I don’t care if you do drag but I can’t hang around you, I can’t date you, I can’t do this, I can’t do that, because you’re going to cramp my style.’ Then there is the ‘tranny chasers’ that think because we do this we want to be women.
“There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors because we live bar life, it has to be like Disneyland when you guys come in. You don’t see what goes on behind the scenes, you don’t see the actual person. Drag is a business. Venus is a mask, she’s glamorous, if I’m having a bad day, getting in Venus form is the way to kill that bad mood, it just makes everything go away because it’s part of my life, but it’s not MY life. I’m getting paid. They’re there to see Venus, they’re not there to see me, it’s a whole production.”
In a way, Venus has achieved her childhood dream of being both a pop star AND drag queen. But achieving this while maintaining the fact that she is a real, respectable multifaceted human being in other’s eyes has taken work. This is part of the reason I like her choice in song so much. For a moment, she ditches the fabulous façade and does a slow sultry song with lyrics that reflect the depth of her art. Ultimate pop star status.
“I don’t care if it hurts
I want to have control
I want a perfect body
I want a perfect soul”
Venus emanates power during this song, which maybe be fueled by a little bit of resentment of being grossly misunderstood.
“Drag queens are activists of the gay community. That’s the part I wish people would understand instead of looking at her and saying, “She’s a drag queen, so she’s a drug addict or she’s a drag queen so she’s going to be a bitch to me, or she’s a drag queen so she’s not a real man.” Am I being punk’d right now? Did you not get the memo that forty eight years ago it was a drag queen that threw that first brick at stonewall and started the gay movement?
“What we’re trying to do at Charlie’s now is to put everybody at the forefront and make sure that everybody knows that that is not how a drag queen is. We’re trying to make it inclusive, make sure everybody has a safe place and that we’re having a good time while doing it. When you have young people come in and take over, that’s what’s going to happen, when you can make young people feel good that’s how you move into the next era. Charlie’s is the bar of the future.”
“Like Dip n Dots?”
Venus laughs, “Hey yeah, that’s good, remember that.
“We’re not going anywhere. We’re just going to keep expanding and advancing and evolving. We’re here to stay, we’re not going anywhere.”