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Pendleton drag show builds momentum during Pride month

 A group of people stand and kneel together in front of a rainbow backdrop with balloons at the top and bottom.
Patrick Cahill
Drag performers and their supporters pose for a picture at the inaugural Let 'Er Drag show at Electric Sundown in Pendleton, Ore. in 2022.

Let ‘Er Drag organizers say they didn’t receive public backlash after holding the first event in 2022.

Pendleton’s second annual Pride Month drag show might seem like a new event, but Patrick Cahill said it’s merely a revival of a city tradition.

Pendleton had many sex workers in the early 20th Century. Cahill, the president of the Pendleton chapter of LGBTQ support organization PFLAG, said the industry at that time also featured adult entertainment, like drag shows. While that piece of culture may have dissipated over time, Cahill said PFLAG started the Let ‘Er Drag show to demonstrate that the local LGBTQ community “was not that scary.”

“Ironically, it was actually reminding people the world we live in, rather than introducing them to a new one,” he said.

Let ‘Er Drag organizers are set to return to Electric Sundown in Pendleton on Saturday to stage their second Pride event. The show will feature both local performers and queens from the Tri-Cities region of southeastern Washington. At a time when conservative politicians are passing anti-LGBTQ laws across the country, the people behind the event are well aware of national tensions. But they are encouraged by the fact that any anticipated backlash to the first drag show never materialized.

Instead, the show this year has built further momentum. Cahill said the inaugural event drew 600 people and inspired a Halloween drag show with another large audience. PFLAG used the money they raised for a number of causes, including a local support group for trans residents and their families, as well as scholarships for students at Pendleton High School and Nixyaawii Community School, a public charter school on the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

Chanel Diamond, a local drag queen who preferred to go by her performance name, said the community reaction has been heartening.

“The energy of this whole thing has just been so big,” she said “And all the love has been just so overwhelming.”

Another organizer for the event, Travis Cortez, said recruiting businesses as sponsors has been easier the second time around due to the success of the first Let ‘Er Drag. It’s even inspired some businesses to host drag shows of their own, Cortez said.

Still, organizers are aware of the national political climate.

Let ‘Er Drag is happening during a pitched battle over LGBTQ rights. Across the country, conservative governments have passed bans and restrictions on drag shows, books with LGBTQ content in school libraries and trans students’ participation in youth sports. While she may not face the same barriers in Oregon, Diamond remained critical of the legislation passing in other parts of the country.

“I will always be a drag queen and that will never stop me,” she said. “I don’t care how many pieces of paper you have to write on.”

Cahill said LGBTQ people still face challenges in Pendleton and Eastern Oregon as a whole. Pendleton is a small town with conservative values, he said, but it is generally an accepting place. While queer and trans residents may feel the need to speak out against oppression and discrimination when the times call for it, most locals just want to be treated like members of the community.

“If you come to our meetings, we just want to be your neighbor,” he said. “We want to be your daughter. We want to be your son. We want to be your parent. We don’t need this kind of spotlight on us.”

Pendleton Mayor John Turner signed a Pride Month proclamation for PFLAG previously and he said he’s doing it again this year. A Republican who ran for a state House seat in 2014, Turner said he doesn’t see any tension between his work in local politics and signing the declaration.

“They’re a law-abiding group, just like all kinds of other people that asked for me to sign a proclamation,” he said. “I don’t have any problem with that.”

While PFLAG prepares for Let ‘Er Drag, Cahill said the hope is that events like these will lead to substantive changes for people who identify as LGBTQ.

“Our first and foremost goal is to teach society that we’re something to invest in, whether that is through mental health resources or through financial resources or through community resources,” he said.

This story was originally published by Antonio Sierra of OPB.

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