It’s an early Monday afternoon and Ryan Butler and Jeremiah Nieves are driving back to Baltimore from an eventful weekend in Ocean City.
They hadn’t been basking in the sun at the beach. They were there to perform five drag shows in two days as they attempt to make up for nearly a year’s worth of lost income.
Back in Baltimore, away from the perfectly coiffed wigs, beaded costumes and layers of makeup, they know they are about to begin their real jobs — as parents. The two co-raise Butler’s biological sons, Sebastian, 11, and Brody, 10, with the children’s mother and her fiancé.
In the world of drag, a romance between two top queens is unusual, though not unheard of. A rarity is such a couple that’s also parenting.
At their Canton home, Butler is Dad, a kind authority figure to his sons, drilling manners and respect. Nieves is “Jay,” a quieter, calming presence, who can be stern as well.
Butler and Nieves have helped raise the two boys since infancy.
“It’s fun. It’s like I have more protection,” Sebastian said of the two-father dynamic.
Brody enjoys the attention. One dad is always up and ready to greet him in the morning.
“I don’t have to wait for one of them to wake up,” he said. If it’s Nieves, the two will often engage in Brody’s favorite activity: playing videogames. “They help me a lot with my school work. I love my Dad and Jay.”
A study of 2010 Census estimates by The Williams Institute at UCLA’s School of Law found that among same-sex households, more than 111,000 (17%) were raising nearly 170,000 biological, step or adopted children. The same study noted that same-sex couple parents and their children are more likely to be racial and ethnic minorities than different-sex couples and their children — with 39% of same-sex parents being BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color).
Butler, 30, is Native American. Nieves, 29, is Puerto Rican.
Butler and Nieves say they have been married for 10 years — though not legally, which is common in the LGBTQ community where couples have traditionally measured the length of their relationships from the moment of commitment. LGBTQ couples of a certain era have been conditioned to believe marriage equality was not a reality, the couple says, because it was not fully recognized until 2015 when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriages in all 50 states.
“We are in a committed monogamous relationship,” Butler said. “We are practically married without the piece of paper.”
Phillip Brown, a drag performer whose stage name is Bambi Ne’cole Ferrah, has known the two for six years. At first, Brown had no idea they were a couple — let alone raising children.
“That was a really big shock to me,” said Brown, who learned about their children through social media. “They would say they had to ‘get home to the boys.’ In gay culture that could be a dog.”
Brown considers Nieves his best friend and said the couple challenges traditional expectations of masculinity and family.
“I’m a little older than them. … I didn’t think having children was in the cards for us,” Brown admitted. “There is some type of normalcy with their relationship. … It shows that you can be part of the gay community and still be a Dad.”
Butler and Nieves originally met at 16 while working at Vaccaro’s Italian Pastry Shop in Canton. Butler was not out.
“I could not stand him at all,” Nieves recalled. “We were full of vinegar at that time.”
They met again one evening at 19 at Town Danceboutique, a now-closed gay club in Washington, D.C. Butler had recently fathered two boys with his ex-girlfriend.
“He was figuring out the move of coming out with children,” Nieves recalled.
After that night, they were essentially a couple.
Entering a relationship as teenagers with young children was daunting — particularly for Nieves, an only child.
“At 19, no one knows how to parent,” Nieves said. “I don’t think I met [the boys] for the first two months. I was terrified that this wouldn’t last. After it took off and we were clicking, I met the boys. I was all in. In the very beginning I didn’t know how to change diapers or give bottles. But it was a role that I was happy to do.”
It was about two years later, when they could legally get into clubs, that Nieves launched a drag career. He entered the “New Faces” competition at Club Hippo in 2013 and won. Butler, not yet a fan of drag, was persuaded to enter the same competition the next year and won. Both quickly excelled in the field.
The boys stay with Butler’s ex-girlfriend on most weekends, when Butler and Nieves have the bulk of their performances. Butler and Nieves’ families help, too.
The dads are protective of their near-tweens. “Jay” was initially hesitant about this story.
“I’m worried about the safety of my boys,” he first said when approached. Ultimately, wanting the public to see a committed gay couple and their loving family was the deciding factor.
They want to let the boys grow up at a normal pace, not too sheltered. Instagram is not allowed, but a heavily monitored children’s version of TikTok is. At their ranch-style home, the kids listen to Top 40 hits on a monitored Alexa sound system.
Sebastian is “getting interested and saying stuff about girls” while Brody is “obsessed with ‘Fortnite,’” Butler said
Sebastian said discussion with his fathers about relationships and girls “comes naturally. … They always talk to me about stuff if I ask.”
At first, Butler and Nieves kept their costumes in the basement. The children thought a woman lived there.
“It was kind of difficult for them to process,” Butler said. “We had a sit-down conversation with them at 8 and 9. They know about transgender people. They know about nonbinary. They understand more about gay life than other kids.”
And although they have not seen their parents perform or practice, the children gush about their work.
“I think it’s cool,” Sebastian said. “They’re very good at doing their jobs. It’s kind of like they are in a play.”
Butler laughed: “They think I’m as rich as RuPaul. They’ll help count the tips. They understand what we do. When their friends ask, they’ll say we are performers.”
Nieves added: “We didn’t want to push anything on them. We didn’t force them to understand until they were ready.”
Butler quickly chipped in: “Jeremiah has been here since day one. This is all they have ever known.”
Building a family
In the drag world, where performers often join “houses” or “families,” Butler and Nieves also help lead the local scene.
Butler and another drag queen, Betty Ohellno, in 2018 created the annual Baltimore Drag Awards at the Creative Alliance. Butler and Nieves are credited with launching recurring drag brunches in 2017 at the now-closed Points South Latin Kitchen in Fells Point. The practice has been mimicked throughout the region.
“When Hippo closed and we were looking for a new venue … Brooklyn stepped up to the plate,” said veteran drag queen Stacey Antoine, whose stage name is Karmella. “They helped rejuvenate the dying drag scene.”
Taylor Harbison has been friends with the couple for six years.
“I like their energy,” she said. “They are dedicated. They would do anything for their kids. During shows they will be backstage FaceTiming” the children.
Kyle Sharp, who goes by the stage name Washington Heights, is Butler’s drag “daughter,” or protégé. They both have “over-the-top” personalities, and Sharp sometimes turns to Butler for advice.
“When Brooklyn corrects me, he goes into ‘dad’ mode,” Sharp said. “Brooklyn being a real dad helped get me together a lot. It’s rare to me to have a couple that does drag and has biological children.”
Butler and Nieves perform several times a week, down from the six days a week they worked pre-pandemic. Sometimes one may perform while the other cheers them on. Or one will stay home with the children while the other performs.
The weekends are busiest, as they travel the region, sometimes performing at four venues in a day. But they prefer that pace to the bleakness of the pandemic. Their income dropped 75% at the height, they say.
“As drag entertainers, it was very obvious from the start of the pandemic that our careers and jobs were expendable,” Butler said.
The two tried to supplement income with virtual shows. They made ends meet making and selling costumes and wigs online. Nieves typically designs and makes their costumes.
They also oversaw the kids’ virtual learning from March 2020 to April of this year.
Now, as bars and venues reopen, the pair is hustling to recoup the money lost during the pandemic. Butler and Nieves nearly had to get new jobs.
“I’m glad we didn’t give up with what we were doing,” Nieves said. “It paid off.”
They plan to be part of several upcoming sold-out performances featuring the likes of “Real Housewives of New York” cast member Sonja Morgan and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” season 13 winner Symone.
Butler said, the pair were scheduled to participate in 15 shows in the week leading up to Father’s Day, traditionally the finale of Pride Week activities in Baltimore. This year, Pride in Baltimore has been fragmented into individual events, and the main parade canceled.
A recent trip to Patterson Park exemplifies the dualities of their lives.
All morning, Sebastian and Brody had been nipping at each other. Now, they are perfectly behaved, peering at lily pads and climbing a tree.
“They were in rare form earlier,” Butler grunts as the boys kick a soccer ball.
Nieves has a show this evening. But now, he and Butler are scruffy, knocking about in athletic gear and ripped jeans.
After a while, the four stop at a nearby ice cream shop for some soft-serve. Then, the family heads home for some comfort food, chicken and shells. (But first, the boys yell an enthusiastic “thank you” and “goodbye” to a reporter they have met only this afternoon.)
This night, while Nieves performs, Butler will stay in with the kids.
“I don’t know how we do it,” Butler says. “It’s a wild lifestyle. If Andy Cohen gave us a show, we’d be as popular as the Kardashians.”