Heidi Smith has always "dressed like a guy." When she was a student at the Maryland Institute College of Art, the Charles Village resident recalls going to classes "in drag" and telling people, "Call me Charlie today."
Now 21, Smith is still dressing like a guy, only her current male alter-ego is a dork named Dix Washington who has been making regular appearances at local gay bars as part of Baltimore's roving band of drag kings, the Charm City Boys. These hometown gender benders-a revolving troupe of 15-30 women who perform as men-are celebrating their second anniversary with a show tomorrow night at Gallagher's Bar and Grill in Canton.
"Kinging," as it is called, is rooted in a long tradition of female cross-dressers and "passing women" in the lesbian community - for example, the West Coast jazz musician Billy Tipton (1914-1989), who lived her entire adult life as a man. The latest wave of male impersonators started in lesbian clubs and performance spaces in New York and San Francisco in the 1990s, spreading quickly to other urban areas with large lesbian and gay communities.
The Charm City Boys formed in May 2002, when a local king named Cord Long (whose real name is Holden Becker) organized a show at Gallagher's. For many in the troupe, it was a first time in drag, and the experience was literally life changing.
For Smith, who often uses male pronouns when talking about "himself" as Dix, the draw of drag is the opportunity to "push the gender envelope.""I don't feel like the genders should be in separate boxes," she says. "My gender is fluid. I prefer not to have a male or female label unless I'm dressed specifically as a male or female."
Smith describes a typical Charm City Boys' performance as a mix of high camp, political satire and general gender mayhem-with music ranging from folk to rap to heavy metal. Group demographics are equally varied, including women age 20 to over 40, with and without children and in a range of professions, from unemployed artists to nonprofit managers and Pentagon employees.
Their performances are also more lively than traditional drag. "There's a difference between kings and [gay male drag] queens," Smith says. "A lot of kings tend to tell a story or have a message, whether sexy or comical."
The Boys go all out when getting ready for a show, rehearsing dance steps, making props and getting into character. According to Smith, attention to physical detail is intense. Most of the troupe bind their breasts and apply sideburns, goatees and five o'clock shadows.
All of which invariably leads to questions about male identification and whether the kings are just a bunch of frustrated women who want to be men. The answers here, like each woman's drag persona, are complex and highly personal.
Smith's live-in partner, Abby Neyenhouse, performs as a likable sleazebag named Eddie Adonis. The 24-year-old nonprofit manager says she's been wearing skirts to work more often since she started kinging.
At the other end of the spectrum is Season Hickcox - known on stage as Allix Allot - who describes herself as trans- gendered and is preparing to take hormones as part of a gradual transition from female to male.
"When I started doing drag, I didn't know what transgender was," says Hickcox, 27, who now calls herself Alex offstage. "As soon as I started drag kinging, I started looking at myself ... and realized what I was performing is how I really feel inside."
The question now is whether she'll continue kinging as she transitions. Hickcox says yes, redefining "drag king as a person who performs their perception of masculinity on stage. ... that's an open way to look at it, not limited."
Such underlying issues are, perhaps, at least part of the reason the kings remain something of a cult phenomenon. While gay male drag queens have been mainstreamed practically to the point of normality (think Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie , Terence Stamp in Priscilla, and Harvey Fierstein in just about anything), women playing around with male identities often are seen as more subversive, and acceptance by families and the gay community at large is still a work in progress.
Smith's parents in Milwaukee were not initially supportive of her kinging career but have slowly come around. She says her mother now thinks "it's a hoot" and will be coming to town in June to see her first live Charm City Boys performance.
Hickcox, the Pentagon employee, has likewise faced family hostility about her performing and decision to transition. She speaks of the tight-knit king community not only in terms of personal support, but as a source of possibilities for any woman seeking to step outside the gender box. "We look to each other as equals," she says. "We're creating community, opening doors for anyone who wants to get on stage. Anyone, no matter how they look, can get on stage and have support."
The Charm City Boys
What: Baltimore's drag king troupe celebrates its 2nd anniversary
When: 10 p.m. tomorrow
Where: Gallagher's Bar & Grill, 940 S. Conkling St., Canton
Cost: $5 cover