They have big hair. They have big attitudes. But the Dakota divas are not an aspiring group of women in a beauty pageant.
On Saturday, eight to 10 local and regional performers will be at the Best Western Ramkota GrandBallroom for Dakota Good Friends' first drag show of the season.
"This show is entertainment exaggerated to the hilt," Dan Tokasch, a board member of Dakota Outright said. "It gives the public a chance to see a largely gay crowd as ordinary citizens."
Dakota Good Friends is a nonprofit group that raises funds for Dakota Outright, a gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender supportive organization. It began in 2004, hosting monthly dances in the gay-lesbian community that are open to the public. The goal is to support individuals who have a fear of "coming out" and being open with their homosexuality by creating a secure environment where they aren't judged or isolated. Dakota Good Friends wants Bismarck to recognize that there is a respectful and alternative lifestyle present in North Dakota.
"Society has a mindset that makes (homosexuals) out as drag queens all the time," said Ron Hildahl, Tokasch's partner and fellow board member of Dakota Outright. "But that's just a character until you're done. A lot of people have the fear that 'all the freaks are coming to town.'"
The returning host of the show, Dakota Divas in Drag, is Chris Stoner, of Grand Forks, known in drag as Miss Janessa J. Champagne. Stoner always had a perception that Bismarck was a conservative town, but he said he is repeatedly surprised by the large, receptive crowds at each drag show.
"Our culture has a lot of difficulty dealing with gender that doesn't fit the typical boundaries," Stoner said. "Why do we want to put people in such tiny categories? I want to find what kind of buttons I can push that makes people think about gender."
All of the performers in the drag show provide their own costumes. And Stoner creates his elaborate outfits, getting scrutinizing looks from fellow shoppers as he peruses the plus-size racks in women's clothing stores. This doesn't faze him, and he's developed friendly relationships with the sales staffs.
"I like to take the expectations of femininity and push the boundaries," Stoner said. "I want people to start thinking 'where does femininity come from?' and show people it's OK to play with gender boundaries."
Stoner considers drag shows a performance art, and just like in any other theatrical piece, there must be change. He creates the order of the show, making sure there's enough momentum to keep the audience interested and involved. He anticipates 500 to 600 spectators on Saturday.
That would be the largest crowd Dakota Divas in Drag has produced. Previous shows have attracted a diverse array of gay and straight audience members. Stoner said some look nervous, some look shocked and some laugh, adding that the etiquette at a drag show is to be relaxed and willing to be entertained.
"I always say 'you can call me a he; you can call me a she, just as long as you call me,'" Stoner said.
Those in drag are acting, playing a character, whether elegant, sexy, classy or funny, and then the acting is over, Stoner said.
"This is a … part of our community; they live here; they're real," Lydia Richez-Bowmen, who recently moved here from California, said. "I first became aware of the gay community here when I went to a show last March and I thought 'Oh my God, there's hope here.' California is so open, but Bismarck has another side. It's a nice awakening."
Since deciding to make its events public two years ago, Dakota Good Friends has received some unexpected and appreciated acceptance. The annual Pridefest continues to grow by 30 percent each year, and this year they have a sponsor for Saturday's drag show.
"Getting rid of homophobia doesn't come with the legislation or political activism," Stoner said. "It comes by saying you know someone who is gay or lesbian that you like and see as normal."
The goal of the Dakota Divas in Drag show is to demonstrate it's possible to be openly gay and have a good time.
"Heterosexuals often wonder why homosexuals have to flaunt it or be so out there, but heterosexuality is blatant and flaunting as well," Stoner said. "Everyone goes to work and talks about their husbands or wives, has pictures of loved ones. We want to feel comfortable talking about our partner as well, because once we don't feel stifled to change pronouns, we're just like everyone else."
There is a $10 cover charge for Dakota Divas in Drag. You must be 18 or over to attend. The doors open at 7 p.m. and the show starts at 8.
"Leave your expectations at the door," Stoner said. "We're going to push boundaries and push some buttons, but in the end we're just going to have a good time."