I grew up in Tarpon Springs. It has a special place in my heart and always will, but I was always obsessed with Tampa.
That was the closest thing to a big city in our area back in the mid-to-late 90s, and part of its allure was going out to clubs. It was such a fun and carefree time in my life, when my biggest stressor was holding on to my paychecks from Blockbuster Video to go out with my friends and finish the night at Denny’s as the sun came up.
These days that’s when I start my day, not end it, but those years dancing all night long were some of my most joyful. My first foray into the club scene was at a little place in Tampa called Tracks, where my friends and I saw our first drag show. That experience helped shape my life.
When the show began, the crowds stopped what they were doing to gather around the stage. It’s why most of us were there and I remember being completely in awe when I saw local legend Esme Russell take the stage. The red hair. The fashion, heels and overall glamour. She was hypnotizing.
My love affair with drag and its performers began that night in 1994 and I’m happy to say the relationship has endured ever since. Like in June 2016, when my family was celebrating the birthdays of a close friend and my youngest child in Ybor.
We were attending an earlier show at Hamburger Mary’s Tampa, now gone, not far from where I had been doing hair professionally for nearly 20 years. The performers focused on our table and my three adorable kids, who at that time were ages 6-11.
I was delighted from start to finish watching my children smile, laugh and find pure joy as they watched the drag performers take the stage one by one. In that magical way that life can come full circle, Esme was there.
She was as engaging, hysterical and lovely as I remembered. Still a fiery red head. Still a powerful voice and a kind heart. And at a certain point, I remember feeling complete joy as I watched my kids fall in love with her art form, just like I had.
There aren’t enough opportunities to see that happen as a parent.
Earlier this year, Esme and other entertainers from throughout the state found themselves marching at the Capitol to defend that right. They were there to protest anti-LGBTQ+ legislation targeting drag and people like my youngest.
My transgender son has lost the ability to transition medically, and his rights and safety are being slowly chipped away here in Florida. Sadly, he isn’t alone — I know many people moving away under other heartbreaking situations and those living in fear every single day.
I have been lucky through my role at Watermark and as an ally to meet so many amazing people, and drag performers are at the top of this list. Just like my Tracks days, I have been made to feel welcome, comfortable and safe from individuals who are at risk for simply being themselves; people who have always had to fight for their voice, safety and freedom.
The wonder I have always felt seeing drag is more fully realized now that I’m an adult. Drag showed me at an early age that you can be whoever you want to be and I know now that it is freedom.
Drag is an expression of someone owning who they are — and that is authentic, fierce and empowering in any form. I’m raising my kids to understand that.
I do not feel the need to explain to anyone about how I am raising them, and I stand by my every decision I’ve made to take them to drag shows and Pride events over the years. Showing my kids different ways of life is what helps broaden their views of the world and open their hearts. Drag is culture.
Esme and I spoke briefly a few years back about my youngest transitioning. I mentioned my days at Tracks and told her that he was trans, watching her face just light up.
I was so uneducated at the time and he was very young, so I was not yet comfortable talking to just anyone about him. Many of my so-called “friends” questioned our family’s decision to support my son in the beginning, but she didn’t. It felt perfect to chat with her about it.
One small interaction with someone at the right time can mean so much, and that day stands out in my memory and is kept safe in my heart. That’s because drag is love. Drag is art. Drag is freedom. Drag is the epitome of power and resilience and beauty all rolled up into one.
Esme is a person I idolized for her glamour and performances at one time, and I still adore those things. But her community advocacy, supportive social media presence and her individuality are now what I idolize. Just one person can shape our minds and hearts, and she has done this for me.
This column is dedicated to Esme and all the beautiful performers and individuals who recently marched in Tallahassee. We love you and we will stand with you, always. Just like you’ve stood with us.
Sylvie Trevena is a proud mom of four with eclectic interests who holds a BS in Behavioral Healthcare and an MBA.