Protestors recently gathered at Rockford Public Library's East Branch to demonstrate at Drag Queen Story Hour. The reading was part of the city's observance of Pride Month.
Such events spark controversy nationwide. But drag performers in northern Illinois say their work goes beyond the headlines.
Cass Downing, who performs as Cass Marie Domino, hosted Drag Queen Story Hour.
While Downing read books to kids about acceptance and tolerance, nearly a hundred people gathered outside to oppose the event.
To them, she said: "Thank you for coming to see me. You know, I'm really sorry that you have such sadness in your life and that you can't see differences in people as being a positive thing."
In her experience, Downing says sparkles and drag bring smiles.
"Find a way to love who you are. Self worth and self acceptance are a big thing that I had to work on for many years in my life," she said. "And when I found it, and I embraced myself and fully accepted myself, nothing else mattered, as long as I was happy."
The 47 year old transgender woman is wearing sturdy flip flops for comfort under her jeweled blue dress. She said she started doing drag at 17.
"I just feel very grateful," she said. "I have a lot of gratitude that I've able to do these things. I never saw myself in the life that I have today."
She’s nationally known for entertaining and drag pageantry, and says Rockford is part of where she first started out.
Not all drag performers are part of the LGBTQ community, but a majority are. Defining drag can be a challenge. Many consider it to be an art form that includes gender-bending costumes, performances, and bold self expression.
Joel Filmore calls drag a vocation. He lives in DeKalb, which has a fraction of Rockford's population. He says there's more drag outside larger cities than meets the eye.
"The thing about it is, if you don't know, you don't know. But once you know, it's everywhere - everywhere," he said.
Filmore is a clinical therapist who runs a counseling practice called Lighthouse Professional Counseling Center. Among the frames of licenses and awards in his office is a photo of blonde haired Moana Lotte, Filmore’s drag persona.
"I have it there on purpose because I want people to ask," he said.
Filmore is black and gay. He says he uses his platform to discuss complex issues like sexual trauma, LGBTQ expereinces, sex trafficking, and multiculturaism.
"As an African [American], you know, there are aspects of my existence that say, well, you know, black people are still considered 'less than,' greatly so," he said. "And that 'ism,’ that racism, permeates the queer community just as profoundly as it does the straight community, or the general community at large," he said.
"In many ways, Moana is different because the insecurities that Joel has -- she has zero. Because nobody ever told Moana she was ugly. No one ever told Moana she was stupid," he said.
Filmore said he used to perform professionally when he was younger, and stopped in 2002. He said he picked it back up earlier this year.
"We were very happy here in DeKalb, we own our own home, we have a very successful business, our marriage is really good," Filmore said about life with his husband, Angel Cruz. "And I thought, 'Why am I so depressed?' And I realized that there was a part of my life that I had locked away for 15 years, which was drag."
Now, he said, he likes the diversity of ages and types of acts that doing drag in a more rural place allows.
"I'd rather be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond," he said.
At the heart of drag is performing, and one of the stages is Fatty's Pub and Grill amid TV screens broadcasting baseball games. The DeKalb sports bar has become home to Drag Fatale. It's a monthly show organized by Bryan Wiersma and Shaman Goad. Here, they're known by their performing names, Amethyst and Sindy Vicious.
Wiersma is from DeKalb and started doing drag two years ago. He works in a distribution warehouse, and uses that as an opportunity to challenge stereotypes.
"[My coworkers] don't really know the type of effort that goes into drag. And then when they see the final result, if I show them a picture, if I open up to them, to just watch their ideas and their preconceptions and their stereotypes kind of all dissolve, is really something that's quite amazing," he said.
He says there wasn't anywhere close for him to perform, so he made his own space; first at DeKalb's House Cafe, then at Fatty's Pub and Grill.
"I was getting real sick of driving 45 minutes to an hour just to do what I love," he said.
Wiersma said drag is art and the medium is gender. Drag Fatale is a mix of lip synching, dancing, and comedy.
"We know that we're in a more rural area, we know that we're in a more conservative area. So generally, when it comes to the drag shows here at Fatty's, we like to tame things a little bit and have a more standard approach," said Wiersma.
Shaman Goad is the 21-year-old co-host of Drag Fatale. Goad runs other shows near Chicago when he's not doing graphic design or walking dogs. He grew up shy, and said he started doing drag at 17 because it was just fun. Then he started performing publicly.
"The joy about this is that we get to put smiles on people's faces, and we can take them out of their lives for like two hours and into this fun carnival of drag, and it's great," said Goad.
Wiersma says he tries to bring artists from cities like Chicago or Milwaukee out to Drag Fatale because he wants it to be the best it can be for an audience that’s just getting used to having a drag show in their area.
"There aren't a lot of performers out in rural areas, but we'veu kind of been able to find some and mentor them, and help build a community here," said Wiersma.
The cast of Drag Fatale recently performed on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, a march that many see as the beginning of the gay rights movement. Many consider the riots to be sparked by Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two drag queens.