People see college towns around the South as “progressive.” Still, in places like Tallahassee, Florida, establishments that openly welcome the LGBTQ community remain hard to find. But here in Florida’s capital city, one local bar thinks a part of the answer might be kids and families playing bingo in the backyard, with drag queens calling the numbers.
Story by CD Davidson-Hiers | Photographs by Mark Wallheiser
It’s the end of a regular workday on a Wednesday evening in November 2018, and the temperature in Tallahassee, Florida, has dropped below 40 degrees.
That’s when Vashai Avionce steps from the warmth of a bar called Happy Motoring! out into the back yard. The attending Tallahassians are cold, but Vashai seems not to mind. She wears a regal black gown, with a Santa Claus-red bow around her neck. Her silver high heels match her fingernails. Her bracelets rise and fall as she gestures to the audience.
“You could have been anywhere,” Vashai says into a microphone, “And you’re playing bingo in the cold with us.”
Happy Motoring! is a renovated gas station with a faux-grass backyard and strings of bauble lights that add to the holiday cheer.
People congregate in groups of twos and threes next to outdoor heaters. One man, perhaps in his 30s, has tucked a little dog into the front of his jacket. The Shih Tzu peers out over the top of the zipper.
Da’Raiyah Avionce entertains a crowd at Happy Motoring! in Tallahassee during a cold winter night in November.
In Tallahassee, where few public spaces are friendly to the LGBTQ community, Happy Motoring! wants to build a reputation as a genial hangout that is friendly both to members and non-members of the LGBTQ community. The bar schedules local food trucks to ply their creations next to the backyard almost every night. There are pop-up art shows. And there is the regular bingo night, where the callers are always drag queens.
Drag fans do not make up the entire crowd at Drag Queen Bingo. You’re just as likely to see families bringing the kids to enjoy a funny night playing a game that’s been around since the Italy of the 16th century.
As Avionce struts toward the food truck parked at the corner, “Frosty the Snowman” plays through the loudspeakers.
Thumpity-thump thump, thumpity-thump thump, look at Frosty go.
“This music is somber,” she says. “Makes me feel like cooking.”
Bingo players fill the lawn at Happy Motoring! in Tallahassee where Da’Raiyah Avionce leads the game.
Happy Motoring! hosted its first Drag Queen Bingo night in June to cap off national Pride month and has since tried to stage the event monthly.
Lucas Mateo, a 24-year-old case manager at a local youth services program, went to the bingo night in September, when the weather was warmer.
“I had a great time. It was a great way for the community to get together and have fun,” he says.
“(Avionce) knows how to keep a crowd entertained. All of the performers were super talented.”
Mateo found out about the event through Facebook and went with his boyfriend where they ran into mutual friends who had gone as well.
“A lot of drag shows in Tallahassee are often late at night, so I really love that this event makes it accessible for most people to attend,” he says.
As they do with most college towns, people consider Tallahassee more “progressive” than the communities around it. But the city “historically hasn’t had a lot of queer spaces,” says Dr. Teresa Roach, who teaches sociology at Florida State University. Roach, 35, studies gender, sexuality, and family structures, and teaches courses at FSU on gender constructions and the sociology of sexuality, among others.
“[The word] ’progressive’ lives on a scale, obviously, but they (college towns) tend to be spaces of self-discovery and where you can have little pockets of progressiveness,” Roach says. “But Tallahassee has not, really, had that historically sustained space, or queer space.”
Other bars in Tallahassee do host occasional drag nights, and one place in town has dedicated Friday nights to the LGBTQ community with a midnight drag show. But here, in the South, people who identify themselves along the LGBTQ spectrum often find themselves relegated to the fringe corners of society, the margins, the late-night spots. Sometimes, their survival has depended on their ability to keep hidden.
Thus, to see a drag performance paired with an early-evening bingo night — with families and children in attendance —is an anomaly in a region famous for its shushed conversations about sexuality.
Vashai Avionce draws laughter from bingo players on a chilly November night at one of Tallahassee’s only openly LGBTQ-friendly venues.
“Definitely, drag has become more understood, more interesting to more people, I think, and that’s an important part to gay cultural visibility,” says Amy Stone, another scholar of sociology. Stone, 43, is an associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. She studies LGBTQ identity and expression in the South and urban areas.
“There is this other history that’s a little bit more complicated about drag in public, particularly drag in public in the South,” Stone says.
She cites “womanless weddings” — charity events popular in the 1900s where men would play all parts of a wedding — and “powderpuff football” games, where high school boys dress up as cheerleaders and high school girls play on the field. “But I think there’s a new — a real, new growth of drag — in more publicly accessible venues,” Stone says.
Such acceptance also shows up in the drag-queen story times proliferating across the region. But such events remain controversial in some Southern cities, where folks are not used to drag queens reading to children in libraries or bookstores.
“But it’s an important thing to visibility, and there’s a kind of playfulness to it, too, right?” Stone says. “Taking something that we don’t usually associate with drag, like bingo, or story time for toddlers and preschoolers, and bringing drag to that as a fun element of gay culture that is becoming more and more legible to people [outside the LGBTQ community].”
Stone notes, at the very least, these events foster a sense of community that is shared regardless of sexual or gender orientation. But Southern discussions still gloss over sexuality. Stone attributes that to the South’s “higher religiosity” and that many Southerners still keep close ties to the traditions of their youth, even when they become outmoded.
Stone also sees more complex attitudes toward LGBTQ life in different parts of our region.
“The Gulf South is very different, much more Catholic, less evangelical. And there’s this whole carnival tradition, compared to say, Appalachia, where your queer experience in these two places would be very, very different. The city versus rural areas, right?” She says LGBTQ people “are often oppressed in different ways” depending on where they live.
Vashai Avionce entertains a crowd dressed in costumes for a Halloween bingo special.
In a religious landscape study out of the Pew Research Center in 2014, most Southern states were closely split on their views about whether “homosexuality” should be accepted or discouraged. But in that same study, Floridians weighed heavily in favor of accepting the state’s LGBTQ population.
Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia were the only states in the entire nation where the majority surveyed said “homosexuality” should be discouraged.
But those persistent beliefs butt up again Southerners’ age-old love of spectacles.
“There is something about the spectacle in the South,” Stone says. “It’s a culture that has sort of embraced the humor and sort of the joy of men cross-dressing, in terms of rituals and traditions, in a way the rest of the country hasn’t.” That is coupled, she notes, with Southerners’ fear of becoming the spectacle.
“Not wanting to become the thing that’s on the news, not wanting to make a fuss at your grandma’s Thanksgiving dinner, right?” she asks.
Da’Raiyah Avionce dazzles a crowd during a drag performance before sunset.
In Happy Motoring!’s back yard, Vashai Avionce still commands the crowd’s attention — not just with her calls of B-7 or O-64, but also with her playful jabs at the audience.
“Do you still speak to your ex?” Vashai asks someone in the November crowd. “After 10 or before 7?”
The crowd laughs.
“Twerk to the Santa Claus music,” she says. “It’ll be a slow twerk.”
Janel Diaz leans forward to answer a question underneath the swell of voices in the café. It’s dark outside, and the lamp on the table throws a soft yellow light on the wall.
“I started doing drag when I was 18 or 19,” the 43-year-old says. “I stopped at 20, and I raised a family, only because I was a people-pleaser and I was raised in a very religious background.”
Diaz is from Brooklyn, New York, but moved with her family to South Florida at 13. She moved to Tallahassee six years ago on a whim and now works in a local drop-in center for homeless teens and young adults. On the side, she hosts local events as drag queen Vashai Avionce.
Starting fresh in the capital city let Diaz breathe life once again into the drag career she left behind nearly two decades ago.
“I got ‘Vashai’ from the root from this queen, Vashti, who was an African queen,” she says. “And Avionce — I always had Avionce, even when I was 19 years old, so that was just something I thought was very pretty and I decided to go with it.”
To create Vashai, Diaz had to relearn how to do her makeup, contour her body and make community connections to build her name as an entertainer.
“That was my main goal with coming to Tallahassee,” Diaz says, “being able to be a part of the community. That was my goal — to be a community queen, so to speak. And it’s been happening. I’m grateful.”
Vashai Avionce dons green face paint and adjusts her wig for a Halloween-themed bingo night.
Diaz identifies as a transgender woman and is a mother of three, but she took a long while to accept who she is and reconcile that identity with her family and spirituality. She grew up in a Pentecostal and Baptist household, raised primarily by her grandmother.
“It’s been liberating and wonderful. I’m so at peace, you know, with the life that I live,” she says. “I’m very, very happy.”
Diaz built up Vashai Avionce’s reputation by performing at an LGBTQ-friendly bar that has regular drag shows at midnight on Fridays, and by hosting a condom bingo night for students in LGBTQ organizations at FSU.
When Happy Motoring! first asked Diaz to host their family-friendly bingo evenings, she thought it was an idea that might galvanize different communities to come together.
“It’s extremely important for everyday people to see that people like me, or drag queens, or anybody that’s different, can come together for a common good and have fun,” Diaz says. “And the majority of people that come to those events are from every walk of life. Everybody is smiling, and everybody is having a great time, and we’re giving to a great cause. That’s a great feeling — at the end of the night, knowing that we are contributing to something.”
All of the ticket sales from Happy Motoring!’s bingo nights go to various LGBTQ and LGBTQ-friendly charities around town.
Da’Raiyah Avionce belts out the lyrics to a song during her performance while enthusiastic bingo players hold out dollar bills.
In the bar’s back yard, Avionce asks, “Any birthdays? Anniversaries?” She holds aloft a bingo ball with a number on it.
It’s a strange sight to see a crowd of young professionals hunch over bingo cards on a chilly night, in leather jackets and gloves and earmuffs, as if playing a game that depends on skill rather than chance. The tension in the air is palpable.
“Who has to work tomorrow?” Avionce says.
Someone shouts, “Whoo!”
“All right, I knew I could get someone to holler,” she says.
She calls out the number.
Avionce struts through the yard in glittering heels toward the mac & cheese truck and tosses a lock of hair over a shoulder.
“Can I get the human special with the thighs?” she says.
As she lounges against the truck, she holds the microphone up to her mouth and grins at the yard of people.
“Chickens do have three fingers,” she says.
Someone in the crowd says to her friends: “OK, this is worth it.”
Derrick Akins is the 27-year-old man behind drag queen Da’Raiyah Amor Avionce, “daughter” of Vashai Avionce, who has co-hosted two of the Drag Queen Bingo nights with Vashai.
“It’s almost like whoever’s out there, whether they’re gay or straight — it’s a game, we’re having fun. It’s almost like bringing two worlds together, even though at the end of the day we all live in the same world,” Akins says. “Just to be able to sit there and see who’s playing bingo and who’s having a good time, seeing that crowd interact back with you — that’s a good feeling.”
Akins is shy but engaging. He folds his hands on the table in front of him while he speaks. He shares his last name Avionce with Janel Diaz’s Vashai, who he says took him in as a young drag performer when Akins first started in Tallahassee. He grew up in the small South Georgia town of Bainbridge.
“Back in my hometown, there are no drag queens, but you do have transgendered women and men,” he says. “It’s already established here (in Tallahassee) that there’s drag queens. The community here is already accepting.”
Da’Raiyah Avionce speaks to a bingo-ready crowd at Happy Motoring! in Tallahassee.
In 2015, just after Akins started nursing school, his mom passed away. Performing as Da’Raiyah helped him cope with grief. But as his confidence in drag performance grew, Akins realized how much more Da’Raiyah had to teach him about himself.
“I kind of was depressed, and I thought I was too young to be losing my mom, and I just needed an outlet, because reality at the time, I just couldn’t face it,” Akins says. “When I became Da’Raiyah, Da’Raiyah didn’t have to deal with certain things, she could do whatever she wanted to do. She didn’t have to face, like, nothing at the time. So, becoming Da’Raiyah was like my escape from the real world.”
Da’Raiyah was brave, while Derrick was shy. Da’Raiyah had a take-on-the-world attitude; Derrick liked to wait and see what would happen. Da’Raiyah held her head up high as Derrick felt like giving up.
“She creates her own world,” Akins says. “And she has an attitude — not a bad attitude. She’s positive, she’s fun to be around, lovable, but she’s just — she’s a good spirit. A very good one.”
Drag queen duo Da’Raiyah and Vashai Avionce give a rousing finale.
Drag performance in the South has historically been an edgy enterprise for the LGBTQ community. Drag Queen Bingo dulls that edge just enough, Akins says.
“Because it’s like, you know, we often coexist in some of the same places, but there’s some places where things are not as comfortable as that,” Akins says. “But then … for you to just be there, having fun … even some of my friends go there to play bingo because it’s fun.”
Akins laughs and says he almost refused when Diaz first invited him to co-host.
“Da’Raiyah performs on the stage, she does songs, dances, stuff like that. Getting behind the microphone? Hmm, not so much,” Akins says. “Derrick was nervous, but when Da’Raiyah came out, she owned it.”
At the November bingo night, Da’Raiyah Avionce twirls in a long, flowing pink gown as Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” plays. Bingo players hold out one-dollar bills for her to take.
“That night, I didn’t realize how cold it was until I stepped out,” Akins says. “As soon as I stepped out from back in that heat: ‘Okay, it’s cold.’ But once you start performing, you forget that it’s cold — and it’s all love.”
At the November bingo night, Da’Raiyah Avionce twirls in a flowing pink gown as Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” plays.
After the song is over, Da’Raiyah changes into a sparkling black bodysuit and takes over from Vashai as the host. She struts through the yard in knee-high silver boots to call out bingo numbers and checks when a lone voice yells, “Bingo!”
“Even the drag queens here in Tallahassee — they have all been so supportive of Da’Raiyah coming into this lifestyle,” Akins says. “Drag queens that I didn’t even know knew of me.”
People would approach Derrick/Da’Raiyah and offer to help, offer constructive criticism. Older queens give advice on how to perform and compete in pageants. He says it was similar to starting a new job with co-workers who wanted to help him get situated.
“I love that about the drag queens here in Tallahassee. I love that they all show up for one another. If there’s a new drag queen up and coming, they’ll be ready to pull them in,” he says. “They want to help put Tallahassee on the map.”
“When you go to those big cities and win those crowns, they’re going to say, ‘Oh, that drag queen is from Tallahassee.’”
On a January night, Kate and Clay Allen are at Happy Motoring! with their their kids — a 2-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter — eating mac and cheese from the food truck.
“There’s a space (here) where they can run,” Clay says. He gestures at the yard. “It gives them a big grassy area to kind of run around in.”
He and Kate have been coming to Happy Motoring! regularly since the bar opened nearly a year ago, attracted by “a different type of vibe, and not just like the brewery vibe with the craft beers,” Clay says. He laughs and says he’s not a “craft beer guy.”
Kate agrees and says the family loves Happy Motoring! precisely because it doesn’t feel like a bar.
“Even though it’s selling beer, it’s family-, dog-oriented. I mean, they’re not advertising, ‘Bring your kids,’ but I don’t feel like it’s a bar and I shouldn’t bring them,” she says. “Because they do what we want to do.”
Spectators clap and cheer during a performance at one of Happy Motoring!’s drag queen bingo nights.
On a different night, I met four people in their 20s who have a routine of going to Happy Motoring! to watch “RuPaul’s Drag Race” on the mounted TV. All four said they love the bingo nights.
The Drag Queen Bingo nights have a following on social media, particularly Facebook, which FSU sociologist Teresa Roach says can be a meaningful way for minority communities to amplify their messages.
“I think visibility is tied to power, and if you are visible, then you may have more power to shape policy or change policy,” Roach says. “It may not change the expectations of people who are never going to go to a drag show, but you could get solidarity in other communities.”
Spencer Scruggs is one example – he’s 26 years old and works at FSU in the student affairs department. Scruggs has not yet been to one of the bingo nights but says he hopes to attend the next one.
“I’m gay and have found very few queer spaces here in town,” Scruggs wrote in a Facebook message. “I love drag, so I’ve been interested in supporting local drag queens and (there) being at least a semblance of a queer space in town.”
Scruggs says he found out about Drag Queen Bingo from going to Happy Motoring! with friends. Now, he follows the bar on social media.
Tallahassee needs more places like it, Scruggs says. Popular places with a laid-back atmosphere can be welcoming to people from all backgrounds, especially for young professionals, he says.
For the people who go, who bring their friends because they saw it on Facebook or wind up there one night just to try something new, the event feels like an oasis, a good way to unwind from the workday through a simple bingo game.
Roach says the visibility of this new drag show in town won’t change everyone’s perceptions, “but it may get some people to be like, ‘hmm.’”
And maybe that “hmm” is enough to carve an opening to a place where new conversations in Tallahassee, and maybe the broader South, can begin.who