Backstage at the Rainbow Cattle Co.: The Drag Queens of Dummerston, Vermont

May 9 - June 21, 2015

Who wouldn’t want to be Diana Ross? All that glamour, those sequins, adoring fans. Who doesn’t at least thrust out a hand and mouth “Stop! in the name of love” every time the song plays? The Ladies of the Rainbow do that and more. They totally transform themselves, leaving their male selves behind and unleashing their inner Divas.

As theatrical as the Ladies are on stage, the real theater story is the process behind the scenes. Photographer Evie Lovett ushers us backstage to watch the troupe preparing for performance. We witness the act of becoming, as she peels back the curtain, exposing the focused preparation of a performer moments before taking the stage, as well as the camaraderie of shared experience.

Lovett’s decision to work with the Vermont Folklife Center to incorporate oral histories of the Ladies into the exhibit was a brave one. The photographs themselves tell a theater story. The audio expands the story to encompass the lives of gay men who live and work, as well as perform as women, in Vermont.

As this exhibit toured to more than a dozen towns and cities across the state, its content provoked strong feeling—from celebration to condemnation. In documenting those conversations and including them in this version of the exhibit, Lovett expands the dialogue surrounding the meaning of community.

— Mara Williams, Chief Curator

The Ladies Come Home

Twelve years ago, I began taking photographs of local drag queens getting dressed backstage for the monthly drag show at the Rainbow Cattle Company, a gay bar in Dummerston, Vermont.

I was mesmerized by the process of transformation—layers of pantyhose pulled on, waists cinched, breasts created, eyeliner drawn, false eyelashes, wigs, jewels, nails. But it wasn’t all about taking pictures. I also loved being part of it. I was sucked into the world of attitude, banter, and camaraderie in that smoky basement room.

I couldn’t have imagined then the fun I’d have in the year and a half of photographing, or the friendships I’d form—nor that my journey with “the Ladies” would continue for over a decade, from Dummerston to Boston, New York, Phnom Penh, and a three-year tour of Vermont’s fourteen counties.

Backstage at the Rainbow Cattle Co. returns to Brattleboro for the final showing in the tour. The show sparked a month-long exploration of “Sex, Gender, Expression and the First Amendment” at Vermont Law School, a drag show, film screenings, numerous articles, and twelve public conversations.

Most viewers’ responses mirrored my gratitude at the performers’ willingness to share their backstage and backstories. Most were as captivated as I by exposure to the Ladies, who do what they love with exuberance and an attitude of “if you don’t like it, you’re missing out on fun.”

In the few cases of resistance to the work and subject matter, community members closed ranks to support the importance of freedom of expression and the role of art in enabling us to imagine worlds and ideas beyond those we inhabit. Audience members in Rutland stood up to defend the show against a protest during a public talk. The small Memphremagog Art Collective in Newport voted to dismiss a fellow member who prevented viewers from seeing the show.

What have I learned on this journey? What is the show about, really?

All I can speak about with authority is my own transformation. My time with the Ladies changed me. Their readiness to do what they love, be courageous and outrageous, and write their own life stories gives me the courage to do the same. Thanks to the Ladies, I commit to doing what I love, despite my fear of what others will think.

In the words of Mama: “Lighten up! It’s about having fun!”

— Evie Lovett

Click here to view selected images and learn more about this exhibit.

The artist wishes to thank the Vermont Folklife Center for curating this exhibition and the Samara Fund of the Vermont Community Foundation for providing support for the statewide tour.