When the Bean Queens reigned in my tiny Nebraska town, Tom Petty released two solo albums, Wildflowers being my favorite. During this time, my parents took naps together on Sundays. The shallow Loup River changed course ever so slightly. I wanted freedom, so I would steal my dad’s change off the counter while he slept. My older brother took up smoking and played a big gold trombone that I would dream about for the rest of my life. The town shrank to 679, but my great-grandmother’s best friend was still around to say hi to me if she saw me on the street. I got, and then got over, a crush on Donny Wahlberg. My brother taped up underwear ads featuring Marky Mark and then took them down. We both decided we loved 311, the blue album. Omaha sounded so dreamy.
In our town, every spring, a Bean Queen was chosen by the people in the darkened concrete hall where the town hosted its annual Chili Cook-Off. The hopeful Bean Queens — local men aged anywhere from 18 to 60 years old — lined up year after year on a stage to showcase their talents, which usually involved throwing mammoth bras and panties into the crowd, lip syncing popular tunes, and making lewd jokes. Everyone would cheer and clap loudly for their favorite. A group of men from the bar – our electoral college – selected the winner. The crowned Queen would thank the crowd with ultra-feminine coos. The Queens would step off the stage toward any middle-aged farmer nearby, grab his collar, and try to plant a kiss on his face, holding tighter and laughing harder as he struggled to get away. Then ladles were wiped clean. Styrofoam bowls were scraped into waste bins. The Queen and all the hopefuls shimmied their broad, hairy shoulders, their egg-shaped bellies and hairy chests, exiting the building on the way to the bar.
No, this was not intentionally a drag queen show. No Bean Queens were driving the five hours it would take to get to Omaha or Denver — the closest places where one can find these shows — in order to study up. None of the competitors were renting To Wong Foo or The Birdcage from the little six-aisle grocery store, though I know those movies were there because my brother and I would take them home. Before and during the time of the Bean Queens, homosexuality was decriminalized in Ireland, Romania, Macedonia, Lithuania, Russia, Albania, Moldovia, and then re-criminalized in Nicaragua. All the Gulf War yellow ribbons eventually got lost in drawers. People stopped mentioning the Clintons and the DOMA restrictions on LGBT partnerships. No one in town knew what LGBT stood for. Some men dragged Matthew Shepard to his death and one was executed. However, when you’re living in an place where the closest mall or movie theater is at least an hour’s drive, all news seems far away.
I am certain that the thought that this competition looked like a drag show never occurred to anyone who attended. Yes, both drag shows and the Bean Queen competition were having fun with masculinity. They were both poking fun at whether or not clothes can make the person. They were both teasing male desire while showing how complicated it is to wear makeup, heels, and dresses. But they were doing it for different reasons. The joke of the Bean Queen was almost an Old West, rough masculine kind of humor – no man would ever really dress like a woman. This punchline went so unquestioned that the Bean Queen competition wasn’t the only occasion where men would dress as women to entertain a crowd. It also happened at alumni gatherings, where male graduates would can-can and ineptly perform Go-Fight-Win cheers in short pleated skirts, bras, and crop tops bearing a picture of our school’s mascot, the cardinal. It happened at homecoming with football players in skirts and boots cheering on a “powderpuff” team of girls scrimmaging in the players’ helmets and jerseys. The joke of a man dressed as a woman was one everyone in town grew up with. All the while, news scrolled across screens. Courts released their juries. Time was going by, but the truth was not becoming more obvious to people in my town. As gay rights became a stronger and stronger movement, it was clear that this joke was becoming more and more insular, held tightly inside the bluffs overlooking our town continually eaten up by sand and prairie.
It was not required that the Bean Queen grow up in our town in order to enter the running, but the winner was always a very well-known guy who dressed and presented as a man the other 364 days of the year. One Queen started a booster club. One became a missionary in Papua New Guinea. One was the best a cappella singer and passed away far too young. A Bean Queen could have any job – cowboy, grocer, truck driver, bartender. A Queen could be married or single. My favorite Queen, Jake* (not his real name), was close to my brother’s age. In real life, Jake had tons of freckles, a boxy haircut, and reddish-brown hair, all of which he hid under his wig. He had always been the biggest kid in class, but was also the funniest. Maybe that combination is why he wrote “homo!” in my brother’s yearbook. Or carved the word “coitus” onto a desk in the English room. After graduation, Jake rented a house in town and bought beer for all the high school kids.
Jake was my favorite because he always played the best pranks. I didn’t care that the Ford dealership staff put up the same old light-up Santa and reindeer display on the roof of their building the first week of December. But I loved that, every year, Jake climbed up to put Rudolph’s red nose between his back legs. Even if the employees at the dealership tried to correct it, he would put it right back. Jake was first crowned when I was maybe 12. And again the next year. He competed several years in a row. I loved to see him pulling the winner’s sash over that bleach blonde struggle of waves. Tables with chili in crockpots shook under Jake’s work boots. His ruffles shook as he kissed his calloused, blocky hands toward the audience, smudging her pastel lipstick further over her cheeks. The last time he won, the wig had been a mess for three years, maybe five. His gown was aqua satin and cut to resemble Venus emerging from the waves. The Salvation Army was overrun with these kinds of prom dresses because they had been popular in the 1980s. Now that it was the 1990s, all those fluffy prom girls were getting married, shedding dresses the way snakes shed skin.
Jake eventually moved to a brown house across the street from another former winner, Dale. Jake’s little sister and I could visit whenever we wanted and wander around in the maze of decrepit cattle chutes out back. He taught us to sing “This land is my land, it is not your land, I got a shotgun and you don’t got one” to the tune of “This Land Is Our Land.” This Queen was a farmhand. Then he was a truck driver and retired his sash. Whether he was Bean Queen or not, Jake belonged, and would always stay in our town like the other Queens. He wore the dress and the wig because a part of fitting in was feeling like he could dress up as anyone and still be known. There’s freedom in that, in revealing yourself as someone who, in some ways, may never change.
When the Bean Queens ruled, I stole soda from the broken soda machine outside the grocery. I was acting out. Against childhood. Against adults. Against becoming one. I hid knick-knacks and textbooks lifted from other kids’ desks and backpacks in my room. I drew on the walls of restrooms. No one noticed. My brother paid me $5 a week to collect the dishes bordering his bed, to dust the spider bodies from his desk with the blotter and the old white Apple computer. His room looked like an office cubicle with a city skyline border above his headboard, a tall black stand lamp from Radio Shack, a wheeled office chair, the walls painted gray. He couldn’t hide his excitement to graduate high school and get out of our town. He moved away in the summer instead of the fall, not even hanging around to party with the future Bean Queens. Then I no longer washed his shirts. Then my mom and dad didn’t always sleep in the same bed. Then our town shrank to 630. My brother came out to my family to mixed responses, mixed senses of freedom and inhibition. And I realized that freedom is no one thing. It can look a lot like getting dressed any particular day. It can look a lot like hiding in plain sight.
Abby Hagler lives and works in Chicago. Her work appears in FANZINE, Essay Daily, Alice Blue Review, and elsewhere. You can find her chapbook of collaborative poems at dancing girl press.