Northwest Indiana is having a drought of sorts—but not for lack of water. Its gay bars have evaporated and left a barren desert when it comes to the traditional gathering places for gays to meet, socialize, and maybe hookup.
Eleven years ago, the popular Helen’s, in Michigan City, closed its doors for the last time. Just a few years ago, Encompass, in Lake Station, shut its doors, too.
If Chicago’s Boystown bars and clubs had a hard time keeping up with the Great Recession, imagine how much harder Northwest Indiana’s gay watering holes suffered. With their shuttering, Hoosiers who didn’t want to drive to the Windy City’s major gayborhood had very few options.
According to the Williams Institute, Michigan City—an hour from Chicago—ranks fourth in Indiana for highest percentage of same-sex couples. Hundreds in the area identify as LGBT. But for many of them, going to “straight bars” to socialize just isn’t the same—leaving many wanting more from the experience.
Gone, too, are the drag shows—a still popular form of entertainment in the greater LGBT community.
Welcome to the Other Side
There is a group of performers that have stepped up to fill the void that bars like Helen’s left. They call themselves, “Welcome to the Other Side.”
WTTOS is a troupe of drag queens and kings, traveling once a month to bars and venues all over Northwest Indiana to entertain, interact, and inspire local LGBT persons. The group managed to endear themselves to hundreds—their devoted fan base.
Once a month, these devout fans travel from wherever they are to places like Shenanigans pub in Portage, or Crossroads in Westville—what some would call a biker bar. There’s a bar attached to a Michigan City bowling alley, called Mug Shots.
While a pub, biker bar, and bowling alley aren’t places one would normally find a drag show, WTTOS have sold out the venues to capacity. Their most recent show was in the reception hall of Michigan City’s Clarion Inn. It brought in around 100 people—each paying $10 to get in.
Wilma Fingerdo is a self-described “football player in a dress.” She stands at 6’4”, without heels, and weighs 250 pounds. She is hard to miss in the crowd.
Wilma is mistress of ceremonies for the show—even called the “Mrs. Garrett” figure in the group, taking care of promotions, public relations, and books the gigs.
Talking with Wilma Fingerdo, Jayda Pill, Dena Richards
Wilma spotted us when we walked in, giving a wave and warm smile. It was two hours before the show even started, and she was working the room with her partner (in business and in life), in drag, Jayda Pill.
I caught local drag legend Dena Richards as she entered the room, and then shortly thereafter, E.J. Marx and Kane Richards—the two resident drag kings.
After trying all week, I’m finally able to get the very busy cast together in one spot to talk to Opus News about the business of doing drag in the Midwest, and how they are more like a family, than just performers who work together.
This evening’s event is a celebration of sorts. May 16 marks the third anniversary of WTTOS being asked to perform at The Warehouse in South Haven.
Jayda, who at over six-feet tall, is sporting a cat-suit with a pattern of Quaaludes and other assorted pills. She’s accessorized her look with high heels, pearls, and a bright orange wig. She towers over me as I start to ask her questions about that first performance.
She seems to remember it like yesterday.
“There was like 300 people. It was over 300. It was a little crazy because I remember being up there doing a number, and I’m forgetting my words almost, because I’m looking at a sea of people,” Jayda said. “They would have to get a bouncer to help get us to the stage for us to do it.”
After that performance, things took off, she explained.
“We thought there’s a need here. So we said, ‘Let’s just do it.’ Bar owners started coming to these shows and started asking us to perform at their bars, like we were doing out in Westville.”
Owners of “straight bars” saw that these shows brought hundreds of new people to their establishments—people who normally wouldn’t come in. Of course, they’re bringing their wallets with them.
What did the regular patrons think about a drag show invading their local watering hole?
Wilma explained that they didn’t seem to mind.
“Even at the Crossroads in Westville! Not to use the terms in a derogatory fashion, but they had a lot of bikers and truckers,” she said. “If we were doing a show and they were to come in, the bartender would explain to them what kind of a show it was. And they would hang around. They almost always had fun.”
How much of an influence do reality shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race have on those bar-goers who stayed for the show—or the general public, for that matter?
Dena—a fixture in Chicago, especially Atmosphere ion Clark Street in Andersonville—chimed in.
“Thank God for RuPaul and his show, because he brought drag to the entire nation,” she said. “Now everybody in Westville has an idea what happens, and how it goes. They were seeing it on their television on a weekly basis so they knew we were out there. They just had to make the connection to see who was out there.”
Dena has been performing in Northwest Indiana for 30 years. We’re told by Wilma that her age is a “highly classified secret.”
“After the bars closed, we had to do something! So, there were little house parties and a couple little venues that were letting us do things on the side, and banquet rooms and stuff like that,” Dena explained. “Then, when they found out we were willing to fill a place that would hold 300 to 400 people, word got around. Next thing you know, everybody wants a piece of that pie.”
Does Northwest Indiana need gay bars?
Most of the audience members I caught up with at the anniversary show said they’re regulars.
Did they think the area needed a gay bar, or had the community outgrown them?
One gentleman answered with an enthusiastic, “Yes!”
Another said, “No.”
The person that said no also said that he felt that a weekly drag performance would be too much exposure for WTTOS. If you only see them once month, then the excitement builds as you wait to see the next one, he explained.
Jayda thought the disappearing gay bars might be part of a generational shift.
“[We’re] in a different generation now…with the Grindr app, and Guy Spy, and all those different ones. This is how kids are meeting each other. They’re not going out and having a social experience.”
So, they’re ordering in, as it were?
“Yes, that’s what it is,” Jayda said. “It’s sad to see that. The physical connection of meeting someone [at a gathering place like this]—that’s very important.”
Wilma, like the others at WTTOS, agree and put a lot of value in face-to-face interaction that they can’t get on an app.
“We always come out an hour early to take photographs,” Wilma said. “Everybody wants a picture for Facebook and all that. We B.S., have a cocktail chat with the people that are there.”
“We always try to make sure we are approachable and friendly to the folks—the folks who’ve come out that we’ve known for years, and those folks who’ve come out for the first time.”
Drag kings E.J. Marx and Kane Richards
E.J. Marx and Kane Richards are drag kings with a following of their own—many of whom are straight women in the audience.
“You feel like a superstar,” E.J. explained his experience with WTTOS. “Like, these people follow you everywhere you go, and it’s amazing. They come and pay the money to get in the door, and they want to see your entertainment. They know you for the songs you do, and when they come up to you after the show, and they’re like, ‘Can I get a picture with you’ or ‘Can I get your autograph?’ I’m like, ‘Really? Are you serious? Absolutely!”
For Kane Richards, a trans man, the anniversary show was doubly meaningful.
“Today is my one year on testosterone,” he said. “I call it my maniversary.”
Kane grew up in a small Midwestern town that was sorely lacking in positive role models for anyone in the LGBT community. He explained coming to terms with who he is, after high school.
“You go through college, and you do all these things, and you find yourself,” he shared. “I found myself, but it wasn’t quite right. I never felt like this is how I was supposed to be.”
Kane said that drag helped him confirm his identity.
“When I put on the fake facial hair, and I see a beard on my face, and I bind my chest—the first time you I looked at the reflection in the mirror, I saw happiness. It was like, ‘This! This is right.’ It was like this light bulb came on and it was a wave of emotions. It was like no words can explain it.”
Both E.J. and Kane got the itch to perform after seeing drag queens perform.
E.J. said a drag queen cousin was an inspiration. After watching her perform, E.J. started to hang out and run in their circle.
“I was like, ‘You know what? I think I can do that. I want to be on stage.’ So they gave me an opportunity. My cousin did my makeup. I picked a number and they introduced me for just one number, one show, and I took it from there.”
Seeing drag for the first time was just as intoxicating for Kane.
“I saw a show and I was like, ‘I can do that. I need to do that. I want to do that. And I started messaging the queens and talking to them,” Kane said. “I did a duet with Dena, but it just kind of spiraled into a duet with me. ‘Do a spotlight with me’ finally became ‘Okay, come join the group.”
We are family
E.J. and Kane have very different acts with unique styles. But they refer to themselves as brothers. In fact, all the members of WTTOS find such closeness to each other. They support each other.
“We are just a big, weird dysfunctional family,” Kane declared.
WTTOS travels with its own disc jockey, DJ Mark Renicker. Like Dena, he was also displaced after Helen’s closed.
The troupe has professional lighting effects, backup dancers for the drag kings, and multiple costume changes.
The show has a lot of raw energy, sharpened wit and sexually charged teases.
How long do they think they can do this?
“It’s fun for me to go up and host a show—and make fun of those people who are my friends,” Wilma explains.
“It’s no different than us hanging out on a Saturday night and making fun of each other, bullshitting and having cocktails. So, I don’t know. As with anything else, it’ll runs its course. I think we will do this as long as we can, as long as it’s fun, and as long as it’s professional.”
“It is a lot of fun. We enjoy each other’s company, and we enjoy our crowds.”