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Drag in Des Moines: A Celebration

Travis in Drag Travis Ness in drag as Domita Sanchez. Photo Courtesy of Coit Photography.

The first time Travis Ness was on stage, it wasn’t exactly by choice. Sure, he’d been a fan of drag, but he’d always been too scared to actually perform. But everything changed when his friend insisted on dragging (no pun intended) him to an open stage night. Ness got a full face of makeup on. He put on a dress. And he discovered his drag persona, Domita Sanchez. 

“I got onstage that night and fell in love with drag,” Ness said. He lip-synced to a remix of different Beyonce songs he’d casually put together years earlier, and that’s all it took. 

Ness has performed as Domita Sanchez ever since, enchanting audiences in bars and at shows across the Midwest. 

“Everybody wants to go out and have fun and forget about the stressful stuff in life,” Ness said. “And I get to be a part of making their day or night or weekend by putting on a show and putting a smile on their face.”


Drag in 2023

Drag is having a moment right now. During the pandemic, it seemed like the internet was obsessed with Ru Paul. Trixie and Katya became YouTube stars—and published a book. “We Are Here,” a show that featured some “Drag Race” alums, took drag to a small town main street, where performers like Bob the Drag Queen used their art to help people heal. 

That small-town moment, especially, tapped into the heart of drag. A heart where there is a performer, a beautiful soul who spent countless hours and funds on their clothes and their hair and their makeup, all to say: ‘Here I am. Here is my joy. Here is my confidence, my comedy, my art. It is different and I love it; it is different and you love me for it; here we are all a little different, at least for one number.’ At the center is a performer who smiles through the pain–the superficial and real struggles–to share their joy. 

But in the spring of 2023, there was a different moment—the backlash. Counter-protesters threatened and attacked drag performances 25 times in 2023’s beginning, according to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. Tennessee legislators passed a bill banning minors from drag performances. Republicans in the Iowa senate introduced a similar bill at the beginning of this year’s session, though it didn’t pass. 

This backlash hasn’t affected drag performance in Des Moines yet. But for local queen Bambi or Chris Mathern, the emotional impacts of the movement are still burdensome.

“It’s definitely scary,” Mathern said.  “I would be lying if I said that I haven’t, like, laid in bed all night with Tristan[his partner] crying about it.”


Drag in Des Moines

Although he’s now based in the Twin Cities, Ness has also performed in Dallas and Des Moines, and he’s learned that each drag scene has its own style. The biggest thing that sticks out about Des Moines’? That would be how it’s rapidly growing and developing a unique flair, Ness said. 

For Mathern, that flair comes from the city’s size, which he said creates the perfect balance of people. On one hand, there is so much support for the art form.

“We are a smaller city, and we can still pack a bar full of people that are excited about drag. That’s not something some of the bigger cities can do,” Mathern said. 

On the other hand, the support doesn’t prevent connections from forming. Bars that are overflowing with people in other cities, Mathern said, don’t “allow for there to be more community.”

Des Moines’ small but enthusiastic drag scene is also a great place to get a foot in the door of the industry, Alexandra Gray, another local drag queen, said. 

“I would consider Des Moines as a starting point because you figure out and develop yourself as a character and develop yourself as a performer,” Gray said, even if “it isn’t where you want to stay.” 

Even though Ness ended up leaving Iowa, Domita Sanchez still performs in Des Moines often. This past April, she starred in the Des Moines Playhouse’s production of “Kinky Boots” as Lola the drag queen. Ness just keeps coming back for a common reason—he loves the community that’s inherent to places like the Garden and the Blazing Saddle. 


Dedication to Drag

A lot goes into drag, which is apparent in the tour Ness gave of his home in his youtube documentary portrait, “DIVA.” Two different sewing machines flank a box filled to the brim with costume jewelry, ribbon and thread. Then there’s the row of bins of fabric Ness uses for costumes. 

And that doesn’t even include his closet, which is packed with heels, wigs, outfits, and more fabric. 

Although the enjoyment of the performances makes this worth it, Mathern said, all of that preparing and creating–and spending money–gets tiring.

“Sometimes I’m in the middle of doing my face and I’m like…Why do I do this?” Mathern said.

But in the end, none of that matters to Ness. 

“I love being on stage,” he said. When asked the question, “How long are you going to do drag?” he said his answer is always simple: “As long as I can.” 

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