story by Chellie Bowman & Moth Moth Moth | photos by Andrew Stanford | mural by Lexie Perkins
The first time I ever saw Moth Moth Moth perform was during a variety show at Growlers in 2017. It was like nothing I had ever seen—Moth was in drag, but still had along mustache that rubbed up against her shoulder-length frizzy green wig. There was chest hair poking out of the top of her dress. The show seemed more like performance art than pageantry. And I remember after the show Moth actually coming up to me, a stranger, eager to talk and make friends.
The crowd was different too-skewing younger, non- binary, accessible. This was something new and intriguing, political even. Months later, we reached out to Moth and started meeting regularly— over pastries at the Dixon, veggie burgers at the Deli, and tea in their kitchen. This extended conversation centered around exploring Moth’s unique identification as a drag artist (rather than queen) and how she saw it as part of a larger movement of queer artists, educators, and allies creating and carving out new spaces in Memphis that not only challenged the mainstream, but also the longstanding, restrictive aspects of gay culture itself.
We reached out to these trailblazers and gathered them all together for an extremely illuminating discussion over coffee— basically taking over an entire room in Otherlands one evening. This article is about these conversations that Moth curated and led and that I, luckily, got to witness.
Moth Moth Moth
Sitting at her kitchen table, Moth explains “Drag is connected with brand, so when you change things up people are confused. I’m an artist and a writer first, and a drag queen 2nd or 3rd or 4th down the line. What’s interesting about drag is mixing it and splicing it with everything that I do. Drag is part of my gender identity and fluidity, it has made me feel more comfortable in my femininity and masculinity, taking over where shame was. Drag helped me become more comfortable in my queerness as a gender non-binary person.”
This was the beginning of an exploration of what it means to move and shake, to mix things up that aren’t supposed to mix, to push against boundaries and rules laid down by the powers-that- be, to try and physically make more inclusive spaces that embrace different ways of being queer and human. What revealed itself to me over the course of that evening in Otherlands was all the unique ways these folks were also negotiating their identities in complex, innovative ways that destabilize the status quo in Memphis.
Fantasia Bordeaux, a transsexual drag performer with 26 years of experience in the industry, set the tone with her powerful testimony: “As an African American entertainer, if you don’t blaze your own path you’re going to get lost in the shuffle in this city. You have to dance to the beat of your own drum. You know, make people respect you, show them that you do have something to offer and give to the community. But first you have to make sure it’s something that you enjoy doing. And if you enjoy it then other people will enjoy it as well. Because part of being a mover and a shaker is knowing when to move and when to shake. And if you don’t know that then you’re not really going to know what to do. Because sometimes you have to sit back and say I can’t move right now, I can’t shake, but as soon as you see that little opening…you go.”
Indeed, throughout the night a major theme was the experience of pushback from the larger community, and how they each individually learned to navigate through the negativity and push forward. Rather than shrinking away or losing faith these folks used what they knew and what they had learned to help others and encourage them, slowly but surely carving out these spaces for themselves and making it easier for those who will come behind them.
Anastasia Love, a film entertainer and as they call it now, “bio queen,” is trying to break into the drag world and as a straight, married cis woman is being met with an incredible amount of resistance from people who think drag should just be one way. She stated “my experience has made me Ford tough because I’ve had to learn how to navigate and to find the essence of who I am. I can’t say I’ve gotten there yet. But I’ve learned the word ‘no.’ That was a word I didn’t know at first. So when I met Mothie the first thing I told her is ‘you stick to who you are and you love who you are and don’t let anybody deter you from that.’ And I loved on her because I knew the hell and the trouble I went through… Nobody deserves to be treated like an outsider. I think I was the sacrificial lamb, for other femme girls who are gonna come behind me. What this experience over the past couple of years has taught me is that I can do anything. If you can survive on a Memphis stage, you can survive anywhere.”
Iris Mercado, a local community organizer and educator originally from Argentina, focused in on
the importance of finding and building those support systems, systems that unfortunately might not yet exist for certain kinds of people such as those from immigrant communities. Discussing the difficulty in negotiating an identity herself as a queer, brown woman of indigenous roots in Memphis she detailed how her art is “creating community and finding community in the different areas that I’m in… because I’ve moved 17 times and out of need you have to create and find new families and that’s what most if not all queer people seek is acceptance and community and family when you don’t have that in your own home. I was very privileged in having such a supportive nuclear family both when I came out and when my sister came out which is unheard of in many Latino households… So it’s very different and I love that I have that in my family and that I have multiple families all over the city of Memphis, wherever I go.”
Keep your eye out for Iris— she’s writing her memoir now about what it means to be a southern, queer indigenous Latina.
According to Moth, if you want to be a full-time artist in Memphis watch Nikkila Carroll, the woman behind the handmade ceramics Baby Creep: “She’s meticulous and diligent. She’s at every sale and is the most humble and kind person you’ve ever met.” That night at our gathering Nikkila spoke to her nontraditional path: “I started my journey in art kind of late… had my son when I was 19, started MCA when I was 24 not really knowing myself as an artist. I consider myself a late bloomer in every aspect of the word.” Her ceramics, which juxtapose baby fingers and faces with aquatic bits of nature, is often more understood in larger cities outside the Mid-South, but as a native Memphian Nikkila focuses on the ways the city is slowly changing for the better.
Sexy academic and frontman of the campy queer band Dixie Dicks, Joel Parsons spoke about the importance of seeing queerness as a verb and an active expression rather than something we merely have or possess. “I’m a professor, curator, artist, musician, sometimes I’m a writer – that’s kind of been a recurrent theme, to have these multivalent identities, these indirect career paths that merge and separate from our passions at different points …it’s all been about making a space for myself and my people where I didn’t see one and sometimes that’s through starting a band or trying to build social community space for queer people to have expression and to see themselves under a spotlight up on stage and sometimes it’s through a gallery and trying to curate people into conversations with one another and open those spaces up to the public. Sometimes it’s through work in the classroom, and trying to find ways to crack academia open a bit to make it more equitable, more inclusive.” He also spoke to the importance of redefining how we understand success arguing that “I’m not into grinding, I’m not a workaholic. My studio and my band and my queer- focused gallery don’t have business plans. I don’t do art stuff for my resume, I do it for my queer family and my people…I try not to compare myself to other people, especially straight people. I ask, is this fulfilling? Is it impacting the people I love in positive ways? Is it actively making the world that I want to live in? If the answer is yes, then I’m successful.”
Artavius Veasey, a talented local graphic designer who touches the lives of everyone he meets had a beautiful message for us that night. His sense of vulnerability and courage truly stands out— despite dealing with his fair share of adversity and medical issues, Artavius acknowledges the importance of owning and working towards one’s personal growth. In a later correspondence he detailed what he learned from his grandmother who raised him— I find them invaluable bits of advice to share: “Out of the many lessons she’s taught me, the top three things that stand out are to learn to think for myself. She always said no matter who the person is, if something doesn’t sound right or feel right, look into it. After looking into it and you don’t like or agree with what that person said or stands for, you need to be the one to make the decision to change. Secondly, she taught me to do what makes me happy. It’s no one else’s responsibility to make me happy but me, other people have their own happiness to fulfill. Lastly, she taught me how to stand up for something—if you don’t stand for something you will always fall for anything.”
Shelda Edwards, a true self- starter, is, as Moth explained to me, “shaking all the fruit out of the trees” in Memphis. Besides working at Hemline, an all- female owned and operated branding and designing firm, she owns her own freelance business, Legend of Shelda, and established a creative community called The Hive Collective.
She explains: “Part of the reason I created the collective is because I felt like I was constantly having conversations with folks in the design industry about how we wanted to be better connected as a community. My solution to the business of our work nature was to create a digital space for us to congregate that wasn’t in the boys club of the agency world, a place where we felt safe to talk about taboo business subjects (like money) and had a more progressive idea about sharing resources…The community of the Hive is made of freelance designers, illustrators, film makers, writers, and we’ve even got a CPA in our midst who has taught us countless useful things.
Since bringing these people together I’ve seen collaborations form, knowledge being shared, and opportunities flow. The space is a safe space to experiment and have those tough conversations, it has allowed women, queers, and POC to step into a world dominated by cis white men and gain the knowledge we need to create something greater.” She ended her discussion that night by saying something which seems so simple, yet honestly so important and motivating: “Finding my people has been so much easier since I just started doing a thing.”
Lisa Michaels—musician, comedian, outspoken activist— is no stranger to the Focus community, but we really got a chance to dig deeper that night: “I’m 6’ 3” with purple hair, I do not hide from the public. I’m out there. I’ve had amazing experiences with the general public. I’ve been told I had an affect on Memphis comedy because I’m trans. The comedy circuit is a boys’ club—I fight against that all the time. I will call those f*@kers out when they’re being misogynistic or transphobic. I love going into a facility either as a musician or as a comic and they’re all looking at me like ‘who the hell is that’ and by the time I get off stage I have a bunch of friends. I have become an unofficial trans ambassador. People will come up and ask me all kinds of questions after a show that might be inappropriate in any other setting, but I just talked about my vagina on stage so we’re going to talk about that. Both Moth and I share a passion for opening doors for other people, paying it forward. I love putting on shows, I love connecting people with each other—it gives me great joy.”
The era of “Drag Race” we live in currently is a multisided one—whereas on one hand it has helped to promote social acceptance by exposing much of America to gay culture as men in dresses flash across TV screens around the country, it simultaneously narrows how we can express queerness by denying participation to those who are trans or female-bodied or non-binary. Similarly, black and brown folk are often excluded from white LGBTQ+ spaces where intersectionality is neglected or not prioritized. The spaces these movers and shakers are creating, however, push against these pervasive social beliefs that no longer serve us (and never did). Their art questions and upsets these arbitrary and discriminatory beliefs whether it’s by entertaining on stage, building communities, thwarting expectations, or courageously negotiating unique self-expression and identity in a city that doesn’t always support them. I hope that our conversation will be one of many and that Memphis will come to support all who call her home. Of these movers and shakers Moth once told me “they are expanding their own space and expanding their space for other people. They are the connective tissue between different communities. Memphis is at the precipice of something that might be entirely new.” Here are nine folks working to make it happen, who still believe in a Memphis-that-could-be.