MINNEAPOLIS (FOX 9) - At a time when drag shows and drag performers are increasingly being targeted by extremists, it’s important to remember that they are more than a source of entertainment, but a place where a community comes together and often, people find themselves.
On Saturday, The Saloon nightclub in downtown Minneapolis will host a drag variety show benefiting the victims of the mass shooting at Club Q, the LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs where five people were killed and 25 injured around midnight on Nov. 24.
This is the story of one of the drag queens set to perform — Christina Action Jackson.
It was late on a Wednesday night in the Black Hart bar in Midway St. Paul, and the last solo drag performance of the night was about to begin.
A woman pushed Tony Lancaster, a.k.a. Christina Jackson, to center stage in a wheelchair. Jackson, who uses male and female pronouns interchangeably, had been performing on this stage at drag shows since the 1990s, but this was her first time back in a year.
As the emcee announced, "Let’s give it up for Christina Action Jaaaackson," a crowd of several dozen people cheered. Many of them were younger performers who Jackson had mentored over the years, or other "seasoned sisters" — fellow veterans and pioneers of the Twin Cities drag scene.
Jackson wore a black and gold leopard print cocktail dress — the kind she thought a grandmother might wear for a night out playing slot machines — and a bright orange carrot-top wig. She completed her look with a glass bracelet on her left arm that reflected the spotlight.
As she began lip-syncing the first verse of a queer, comedic cover of Alicia Keys’ "She’s just a girl, but she’s on fire," Jackson tentatively, but gradually gained confidence, gesturing dramatically with her left hand and pulling the audience in.
She kept singing as she reached toward her legs in the wheelchair. She grabbed her right foot and put it on the ground, then did the same with her left foot.
The crowd, which had been cheering a moment before, grew quiet in anticipation.
A little less than a year before, on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 26, 2021, Lancaster, who had been performing in the Twin Cities drag scene for more than two decades, suffered a stroke — a hemorrhage on the right side of her brain while she was visiting family in Blaine. He collapsed and was rushed to the hospital, where doctors put him into a medically induced coma. He woke up two days later in a hospital bed with the right side of his body partially paralyzed.
Lancaster could not feel or move his right arm or right leg, and the stiffness on the right side of his face made speaking difficult.
He stayed at the hospital for several weeks before he was then admitted to the Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute in Golden Valley to begin physical therapy. While the sessions could be grueling and painful, he made steady progress.
About a month in, a video filmed by a physical therapist shows Lancaster hitting a milestone: he moved his right arm.
Her authentic self
Still, Lancaster was unsure if he’d ever be able to perform again as Christina Jackson. "I was really worried that I'd never be able to get on stage in front of people and entertain again. This stroke took a lot away from me."
Without the drag shows and the community he had found there, Lancaster struggled with depression. Drag performance had become part of his identity and how he saw himself.
He went to his first drag show at the Gay 90s when he was 18. He remembers it being a cold Thursday night in 1998. He hadn’t yet come out to his friends and family.
Lancaster’s mother was in the U.S. Air Force and came from what he described as a "strict Sicilian Catholic family." Once, when he was about six, living on an Air Force base in Omaha, Nebraska, Lancaster told his mother that he didn’t want to be a boy anymore. When she asked him why, he told her, "Because boys like girls and I like boys."
His mother put him in therapy. She told his father, who lived in another state (they were separated), and Lancaster remembers him saying, "Oh hell no, my son is not going to be gay." He wouldn’t talk to his parents again about his sexual identity until he was an adult.
But when Lancaster saw how comfortable — and hilarious — the drag queens were on the stage at Gay 90s, he felt like he belonged.
"When I went to the 90s, I felt ‘I'm with my people.’ I felt like I could be myself," Jackson recalled in a recent interview with FOX 9. "And I would just look at them and see them all dressed up and being their authentic selves, and they didn't care what anybody thought. It gave me hope. It really, really made me want to live my authentic self, be who I am, and not care what anybody else thinks."
Soon afterward, he came out to his family and friends. "(Drag) really gave me the courage just to be me, and people are going to have to accept it or not," he said. His mother was worried about the discrimination he would face but was supportive. They remained close until she died in 2017.
Lancaster become a regular at Gay 90s, until one night, about a year later, the tech manager approached him with a question. "Tony, you’re here all the time. Do you want a job?" When he came back the next night, he was running the spotlight.
About a month later, he was on spotlight duty for an amateur night. "That made me go, ‘I could do that,’ so I decided to give it a shot." He was nervous at first, but a friend of his who was also a performer said he had potential and pushed him to keep at it.
After he had a few shows under his belt, he realized he needed a stage name. He thought about who his favorite artists were — Christina Aguilera and Janet Jackson — and decided on Christina Jackson. "It’s sassy, you can say it with some attitude. I’m Christina Jackson, I’m a fierce b***h," she said.
Through years of performing and practice, Christina Jackson developed her style. She was charismatic and glamorous, loved to dance and twirl, flirt with the crowd, and make people laugh, often with a touch of dirty humor.
Christina Jackson performs during a show at Hamline College (Photo provided by Christina Jackson).
A breakthrough happened for Jackson in the early 2000s when Barbara Gordon, a show director who ran a weekly drag variety show at the Townhouse bar called Lipservice, invited Jackson into the cast.
It can be challenging now, in 2022, for drag performers to get booked for paid shows, and it was even more challenging twenty years ago when there were fewer drag shows and venues.
"It's hard to break into the industry up here. I learned that trying to pay my dues, toe the line, and earn my spot. It's really hard to break in and be a mainstay cast member in any show," Jackson said.
A mentor in a growing drag scene
Soon, Jackson joined other casts, and it wasn’t long before she started directing her own shows.
As the drag scene grew, Jackson did what she could to help new performers, recalls Mary Brewster, who has been performing, directing shows and organizing fundraisers in the Twin Cities drag scene for the last 28 years.
"Christina is very mentoring. She's very motherly, especially to what we call newbies or girls that are new to the drag scene or new to the drag community. She has a family of people she's mentored throughout the years," Brewster told FOX 9.
In 2018, Townhouse changed owners and became the Black Hart of St. Paul. The bar added soccer to its mix of offerings but kept its queer identity and continued as the venue for Lipservice.
By then, Christina Jackson was performing in several shows and was on stage most nights of the week, but she remained a regular at Lipservice until her stroke last year — which made her return in October, almost a year after her stroke, all the more meaningful.
An army of support
A supporter comes forward to tip Christina Jackson during the October edition of Lipservice, a drag variety show at The Black Hart in St. Paul. (Image provided)
On the night of the show, when Jackson was done putting her feet on the ground, two friends came to her side to support her as she stood up. The crowd cheered. Jackson continued to perform as the song played.
A line formed, and one by one, everyone in the audience came forward to tip Jackson and show their appreciation. Some had tears in their eyes.
"I think the LGBTQ community has always been very supportive of each other, especially when people may be down on their luck or when times are tough. And to me, it was just a symbol of that we're here to support her, as she's taken care of so many of us for so long, and we wanted her to know that we were there to take care of her," said Brewster.
The last number that Wednesday, as it is with every Lipservice show, was a song with the full cast, or all the performers who had been on the stage that night. Jackson took center stage.
"All those people standing up for me. I never thought I could get something like that … and they were happy to see me, and they were supportive of me, and they followed my whole entire journey from when the stroke happened up until now," Jackson said.
Jackson still faces a long road to recovery, and she has come to accept that she will never perform in the way she used to. Still, she’s determined to continue.
"I like to say, ‘I'm the herpes of the Twin Cities.’ I keep coming back. You can't keep me down. I keep coming back," she said.
Perseverance is important to Jackson. As a mixed-race, queer drag performer, she has faced multiple forms of bigotry throughout her life. She remembers one incident, about 10 years ago, when she tackled a man who was yelling anti-gay slurs and pushing customers at a gay club in St. Paul where she was performing.
As she sees it, gay people always have faced some risk of being attacked, but she has never considered giving up drag performances or going to gay clubs, and she thinks events like the one on Saturday reflect the mutual support and determination that have a long been a part of the LGBTQ community. She hopes people come out to show their community they have their back.
"It is showing you're not going to keep us down. They (anti-LGBTQ extremists) claim to have an army. We have ours. We have your support. We have support from people that genuinely practice the true meaning of love. You're not going to break it… You're not going to hold us back… Sorry. That's just the way life is," she said.
Christina Jackson performs with the cast of Lipservice during a show at The Black Hart of Saint Paul in October. (Photo provided)