By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Kara sits in the back bar at JR.'s, sipping her Jägermeister and chasing it with Diet Coke. She's wearing a tight, long black dress, and her wavy dark hair is pulled back in a bun. An elegant silver necklace completes her ensemble. It's hard to talk to her for more than a few seconds before someone comes up and says hello -- and she's got a rapid-fire "hey, baby" for each of them.
JR.'s is one of the more laid-back bars on Pacific Street, the Montrose hub that's like a smaller, gayer Sixth Street. With its wood-paneled walls and pool table, JR.'s is much like a typical Irish pub -- except for the dudes in underwear who wander through now and then, and the Britney- and Christina-heavy playlist.
A man with a white beard approaches Kara's barstool and gets an over-the-shoulder "hey, baby"; Kara bends her head forward so he can massage her neck. Another wanders up and buys her a buttery nipple. Then a guy who looks just like Kara stops by; he's wearing a striped button-up shirt and has blond spiky hair. She shoots him a "hey, baby" and takes a sip of Jäger. "This is my twin brother," Kara says.
As it turns out, he's her identicaltwin brother. Both are gay, and both dress in drag, although Kara's the one who will perform tonight. She pulls out a new pair of large rhinestone earrings still attached to their "Fashion Boutique" backing and shows them to her brother. They agree that the earrings are cute. It's odd to look from Kara to her twin because, where it was impossible before, now it's easy to imagine the elegant, willowy beauty without her half-inch eyelashes and boobs.
Much of Houston's gay community is well known and highly visible. Local lawyer Mitchell Katine has been in the news as the Houston counsel for the defendants in Lawrence v. Texas, the case that went all the way to the Supreme Court and resulted in the state's sodomy laws being struck down. Annise Parker, the first openly gay member of Houston City Council, recently became city controller. Ernie Manouse hosts the PBS interview show The Connection, and Ray Hill hosts KPFT's Prison Show. Coy Tow heads the GLBT Chamber of Commerce; Jack Valenski, the Pride Committee. Lesbian activists include Linda Morales, Janet Cohen and Pat Gandy. The list of local gay leaders goes on and on.
But less well-known to the city at large is another group of prominent folks -- prominent, that is, in an underworld kind of way. They're inhabitants of Houston's thriving gay nightlife scene. They go out, and in their circles, everybody knows them. As Kara says, "Sometimes I wish I was anonymous." It's too late for that. Maybe she hasn't gotten any laws changed, but she is, in her way, a leader. And so are the other five people featured here. Get ready for a night on the town with each of them.
Both Kara and her brother, whose drag name is Tara, grew up in Montgomery County and came out around 1994. The pair fell into drag by accident five or six years ago. "We were at Rich's, and they were like, You're twins, you should do a drag show,' " she remembers. "It was so scary. But we made so much money -- I can't even remember how much."
The twins' parents are conservative. Not long after they started performing, their father found a video of Tara on stage. He was disappointed, but both parents have come to terms with their children. And, says Kara, "I have the utmost respect for my family."
During the past few years, Kara has regularly traveled to gay bars across Texas and beyond, judging contests and doing drag shows, lip-syncing to Shania Twain, Michael Jackson, Avril Lavigne. She was 2002's Miss Houston, and she's had several regular gigs around town.
A few weeks from this night, Kara will be in a car wreck that leaves her hand cut and her lungs punctured in several places. Her friends will visit her in the hospital, and the karaoke MC at the Guava Lamp, another bar she frequents, will announce to the crowd that, contrary to rumor, her hand wasn't entirely severed. She'll drop out of the scene for a while, but she'll be back.
Tonight Kara talks about how she's a little disillusioned with the drag thing. "The quality of drag is going down," she says. "Now anybody can throw on a pair of hose and get on stage. It's no longer an art. I can still live as a guy. Putting money into my body to the point where I have to live as a woman -- putting titties on my chest -- that's not drag. It's no longer female impersonation. The reason why I do this is to be believable on stage, to put on a show."
Drag is still a big thing in the gay community. JR.'s, O Houston, Rich's and Meteor host some of the city's most popular shows. But according to Kara, the money, while still good, isn't what it once was. "As much as I make, it's still not enough," she says, and if her dresses are anywhere near as expensive as she claims, it's easy to see why. So Kara's looking for a day job. Tonight she vents a little, thinking back to an interview she had this afternoon for an apartment management position that, it turns out, pays $7 an hour. "It's ridiculous," she says.