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St. Louis drag performers will take the big stage at the Factory for The GAY-la

Karma T. Cassidy, the drag persona of St. Louis resident Greg Coleman, will host The GAY-la. Organizers hope to make it an annual pre-Pride celebration.
Zackery Steele Photography
Karma T. Cassidy, the drag persona of St. Louis resident Greg Coleman, will host the GAY-la. Organizers hope to make it an annual pre-Pride celebration.

Organizers of a night of LGBTQ solidarity in Chesterfield on Sunday are touting it as a first-of-its-kind event to support the community and get an early start on Pride month.

Greg Coleman, known onstage as Karma T. Cassidy, will perform and host the GAY-la at the Factory.

Coleman, who lives and works in St. Louis, created the Karma character in 2012 after five years experimenting with drag performance. As Karma, the self-described “singing queen” has had success on the pageant circuit, winning the titles Miss Gay St. Louis America 2017, Miss Gay Springfield American 2015, Miss Bastille 2015 and first alternate to Miss Gay Missouri America 2017.

Since shifting focus to performances, Karma has kept a busy schedule and is co-host of the Big Gay Game Show on Sunday afternoons at Bar:PM.

Organizers of the GAY-la envision the event as a mini-Pride festival and hope to make it an annual event. They’d also like to avoid the sort of controversy that led to protesters picketing the last drag event at the Factory, in December 2022.

The event will feature some of St. Louis’ top drag performers, plus live music, dancing and a robust gathering of LGBTQ-friendly vendors and community groups. Performers will include Tabbi Kat, Rydyr Reeves, Adria Andrews, Alexis Principal, Teonia Mazzaratie Steele, Blusch, Umami and winter guard La Voûte Performance Ensemble.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy D. Goodwin spoke with Coleman about the allure of drag and the inclusive spirit behind the GAY-la.

Jeremy D. Goodwin: When you perform as Karma, you have a much different appearance than you do as you sit with me now in the studio. But something about being onstage in drag feels very right to you. What do you get from it?

Greg Coleman: I’ve always been able to sing. My mom jokingly would say, “You can sing as Greg, why are you singing as Karma? I don't get it.” And I would say it’s because Karma gets people looking at her. When I go up there, they don't see Greg. They see this fabulous creature with big hair, curvy, out-of-this-world outfits, the whole package. They're seeing something that I don't feel comfortable providing, but as Karma I feel 100% comfortable.

In my everyday life, I don’t walk around flamboyantly. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just not my comfortable zone. But as Karma, I would strut down the street in a sequined gown. I think that most performers find themselves coming out of their shell a little bit when they're in their other form, so to speak.

Goodwin: You won a title as Miss Gay St. Louis America, so it sounds like you identify as gay man, yes?

Coleman: Yes.

Karma T. Cassidy is a busy performer on the St. Louis scene and the winner of multiple pageants.
Zackery Steele Photography
Karma T. Kassidy
Karma T. Cassidy is a busy performer on the St. Louis scene and the winner of multiple pageants.

Goodwin: But being a drag performer doesn’t necessarily say anything about your sexuality, right?

Coleman: Absolutely not. There's drag performers who are heterosexual, who are bisexual, who are asexual — there’s a huge spectrum.

I’m 50 years old, so I’m not a young whippersnapper. Learning from the younger generation has been a huge learning curve. And I’ve joyfully gone on that journey, because I’m all about educating myself and educating others as to the right and wrong ways of responding to people.

Goodwin: We live in a time in a time and place in which a lot of people, particularly on the political right, want to disapprove of how you live your life and want to see it as a political thing. You’ve been doing drag for a while now. How has it changed for you in the last couple of years?

Coleman: There's more fear. I remember right after there was a lot of protesting at certain bars here in St. Louis, and the bar owners would have to tell us, “Here's the exit plan if someone walks in with a gun.” You never think you're going to be shot while you're performing and bringing people joy. But after certain shootings happened in our community, it scares you.

So I think we're more aware of our surroundings. We don't just walk around without someone with us at all times. But I think it's also emboldened me. I'm not afraid to say certain things that I may have been afraid of saying in times past. You have to stand up for what's right — what I believe is right. And you've got to stand against what's wrong.

For anyone who's there in the audience who's heterosexual, we tell them: “We need you to stand up with us. You have to be here, standing hand in hand with me. And you need to be as loud as I am. Because if you're not, then people won't hear us.” That's true about any marginalized community. You have to have people who aren't marginalized to stand with you in the fight.

Goodwin: Has the audience changed?

Coleman: Most of the shows I do nowadays are predominantly a heterosexual crowd. When I started, it was predominantly gays, lesbians, trans people. But now most of the places I work at are straight venues, owned by straight people who understand that drag shows bring them money.

Goodwin: So what is special about the GAY-la and what do you think it’s going to mean to people who are there?

Coleman: The GAY-la is unique. It's the first time in the St. Louis metro area that any major venue has offered to give us the venue for the night with local entertainers as the headliners. Our hope is just to bring a lot of fun and a lot of laughter and a lot of feeling to the evening. I hope it's a celebration.

They're almost setting up a mini-Pride festival before Pride. People always laugh about like, “Everyone's welcome in the ‘gay mafia.’” Yes – everyone is welcome. You're right. It's an all inclusive gang, if you want to call it that. We are inclusive of everyone who is supportive of all people. And that's what this event is going to celebrate. It's going to celebrate local talent. It's going to celebrate diversity. And it's going to be hopefully a great kickoff for pride.

Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated the date of The GAY-la. The event is Sunday.

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.