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I have a confession. I don't watch RuPaul's Drag Race (I don't love reality TV), but my history with drag queens is long. My first experience with the art form was in a small club in Provincetown when I was just 14. My mom and I were sharing a cottage with her friend and her teenage son that summer in the town of Orleans on Cape Cod.
One day, we made our way north to the notoriously queer mecca for shopping (and I suppose to gawk at gays in the wild a bit). Little did I comprehend at the time that our day trip to the tip of the cape would be revelatory for this burgeoning lesbian. As night fell, my mom and her friend tittered about taking in a drag show, and there I was a while later having my first immersive queer experience. I don't recall specifics about the queens who performed, but I know I guffawed until my belly hurt at their repartee and I was in awe of their subversive glamour. While there was some initial buzz about the gay population in P-town, what I most savor about the experience is that the adults I was with had a judgment-free blast in that queer environment back in the '80s.
Fast-forward to December 2021, when I happened upon a fabulous new way to experience drag. I was in Nashville for Red Bull's SoundClash, a friendly music showdown featuring queer artists Jake Wesley Rogers and Bren Joy. Following that big event, I stayed on to explore queer Nashville. That's when I discovered one of the first of its kind -- the Big Drag Bus. It's an open-air party bus that lurches through Music City while queens lip-synch to the likes of Reba McEntire and Kelly Clarkson, all the while sashaying down the aisles and swinging from the ceiling poles fitted expressly to steady them.
Earlier that evening, I'd learned about a cluster of queer haunts on Nashville's Church Street and headed out to check out Tribe and Play, a pair of bars that are practically conjoined. When I arrived at the clubs, a bus out front painted in bright colors and adorned with illustrations of drag queens inevitably caught my eye. Raucous riders and queens in fishnets, wigs, and thigh-highs were alighting from the vessel. I had to know what it was all about. Fortuitously, the Big Drag Bus's founder and owner Josh Cloud was there to give me insight into his endeavor. He invited me back the next day for a spin on the bus that had been christened earlier in 2021.
"I'm an out-of-the-box thinker/dreamer," Cloud says, explaining that he'd been furloughed from his jobs early in the pandemic. "I had come up with this wild idea years before, but I never acted on it because I was comfortable with where my life was at and it seemed too risky. COVID forced me into a do-or.die situation, so I put my vision onto paper...[and] in little over a year later, I saw my vision turn into a reality."
The night before my Big Drag Bus voyage, parts of Tennessee and Kentucky were hit by a destructive tornado. I was up for hours in the middle of the night watching sideways sheets of rain pummel the pavement from my 19th-floor room at the Hyatt Centric Downtown. That is to say that not only was I exhausted for my Big Drag Bus trip, but Nashville was particularly chilly (near freezing) in the wake of the storm. Due to weather, the bus windows were closed for my trip, and I wasn't able to get the full experience of the Big Drag Bus in the open air. The usual effect of music by pop divas emanating from the bus while drag queens perform is so infectious that crowds around the city cheer and go wild when they encounter it traversing neighborhoods like Downtown, Broadway (Honky-Tonk Row), SoBro, and Music Row, Cloud says.
For someone who hadn't left Los Angeles for two years, Nashville was a bit of a culture shock as I was the only person in most spaces still masking indoors. There I was on the Big Drag Bus, one of two riders out of 24 clinging to my mask. I was seated among four women from Mississippi celebrating a birthday. Perhaps sensing my trepidation, the woman to my right leaned in and said, "We're vaccinated." It was a kind gesture for a weary tornado watcher and germophobe like me. I kept my mask on but decided to let loose and enjoy the ride.
Soon, the drag queen Obscenity kicked off the show with some delightfully off-color bon mots and a number from the beloved country diva McEntire. Party bus goers stuffed dollar bills into her stockings, cleavage, you name it, as she performed a lip-synch down Church Street.
Next, a drag queen named Carmen performed Clarkson's "Whole Lotta Woman." Before long, I found myself on my feet with the crowd dancing to Ke$ha and doing my best runway strut down the aisle (only one guy on the ride declined to sashay for the group).
What struck me most about the Big Drag Bus was the acceptance of the crowd that consisted of the birthday party of women, a bachelorette party, some opposite-sex couples, and a few queer ones. I hadn't traveled in the South for ages and especially not since the cultural divisiveness in the wake of the 2016 election. I went into my trip with preconceptions about how a coastal lesbian like me might be accepted in spaces with nonqueer folks. It was eye-opening like that judgment-free day in P-town many decades ago when I first learned about drag. And my trip on the Big Drag Bus was no outlier. The bus tends to be a melting pot of acceptance, Cloud confirms.
"I'm constantly surprised by the straight men that are dragged onto the Big Drag Bus by their girlfriends or wives," Cloud says. "The situation almost always starts out with a very nervous guy holding a beer in one hand and holding his girl's hand in his other. Most have never seen a drag queen on TV, much less in person. By the end of the tour, they are the ones on the bus that have had the most fun. As soon as they realize that they aren't going to be offered up as a gay sacrifice to the queens, they let loose and can't be stopped. It's amazing!"
Photography Tyler Corey Shields
This article is part of Out's March/April 2022 issue, appearing on newsstands April 5. Support queer media and subscribe -- or download the issue through Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.