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After Club Q rampage, a drag queen confronts a mortal threat

Veronika Electronika gets ready for drag bingo at the 5 Points Diner & Bar in East Nashville. (Stacy Kranitz for The Washington Post)

NASHVILLE — She was supposed to perform in three hours, and the drag queen still wasn’t sure what to do. Should she mention the massacre at the LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs? Should she dedicate a song to the victims?

Should she leave her house at all?

“A lot of people have asked me: Do I feel safe?” Veronika Electronika told a Facebook Live audience, powdering her forehead in the glow of her ring light. “Most of the venues where I do my shows do not have security — let alone armed security. So do I feel safe working in those spaces?”

Electronika, 41, waffled on that question. Yes, she felt safe in a restaurant full of friends, where the bartender slid her pink vodka cocktails. Also, no: Even before a gunman stormed into Club Q on Nov. 19, killing five and wounding nearly two dozen others after a drag show, she’d kept an eye on the door at every venue and mulled the best escape routes.

“Do we say on the mic: In case of an active shooter, your exits are here and over here?” Electronika asked, speaking into a phone perched on her vanity mirror. “Do we make a public announcement before every show that we do?”

The rampage that stole lives hundreds of miles away could have struck any of her favorite bars in Nashville, she thought. The photos of the victims on the news looked familiar, like faces she could have seen at one of her shows. After the national attention faded, the fear lingered: Who would be next?

Electronika had been entertaining crowds in Tennessee for two decades, and the job had never seemed more dangerous. The majority leader of the state’s GOP-controlled Senate recently proposed a bill to outlaw “adult cabaret performances” featuring “male or female impersonators” on public property or anywhere a child could see. (There goes the Nashville Pride Parade, Electronika thought.) Texas lawmakers had introduced a similar measure days later, raising concerns that restrictions on “impersonators,” depending on how an officer may interpret that, could get a transgender person arrested for simply dancing.

“The last thing they need is legislation to endanger them even more,” Electronika said, powdering her cheekbones.

Electronika — whose legal name is Steve Raimo and who uses she/her pronouns while in character — once read storybooks to children at a Tennessee library as part of an effort to spread tolerance and self-acceptance. Then protests against drag queens surged across the country, with critics accusing the performers of trying to “groom” children. Right-wing politicians and pundits blasted Drag Queen Story Hour for pushing “sexual themes” on young ears, a claim Electronika rejected.

She read children’s books by Dolly Parton and told kids: It’s okay to stand out. But when armed men began crashing readings nationwide, and protesters yelled slurs during an event for elementary-schoolers at the Putnam County library that she’d attended to show support, Electronika moved her own story hours online.

“I don’t want to be responsible for young people being subjected to protesters and the terrible things they tend to do at protests,” she told the live stream.

The wave of anti-gay rhetoric, anti-gay bills and violence had shaken her. Police in Colorado Springs were investigating the Club Q shooting as a hate crime, just as authorities in Orlando had investigated the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting that killed 49 people as a hate crime.

“It’s a scary thing to have to think about,” Electronika said, dusting on bronzer, “and it’s a scary thing that will weigh heavy on me.”

She bade her viewers farewell. It was time to get dressed.

**

One week earlier, five days before the Club Q attack, Electronika was patting on the same makeup — minus the Facebook Live chat. She’d just booked a new gig for Tuesday nights: Drag Bingo in a gay-owned diner in Nashville adorned with paintings from garage and estate sales. (Her favorite was the one of Mr. Rogers.)

It was one of her first performances since word broke about the “impersonator” bill, which could pass once the state legislature convenes in January, given the Republican supermajority. The lawmaker who’d proposed the legislation, Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, described it as “not anti-LGBTQ” but “pro-child.”

“The look is … just be a drag queen and not a felon,” she said, wiggling into her shapewear.

Her transformation unfolded in a backroom the owner planned to turn into a Christmas-themed pop-up bar. She chatted with her husband, T.J. Jackson-Raimo, an IT specialist, who typed on his laptop next to a mural of a drag mermaid holding a golden trident.

“I’m going to have a shirt made,” Electronika said. “It’s going to say, ‘I am not illegal.’ ”

She’d packed a blonde updo and shimmery red gown — the perfect look, she thought, for lip-syncing Christian music singer Sandi Patty’s ultra soprano, five-minute rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

A devout Christian who’d attended a Nazarene university nearby, Electronika had hoped to break into the Christian music industry herself. Upon pursuing jobs in her 20s, though, she worried she’d have to hide her sexual orientation — a pain she’d avoided growing up, thanks to the support of her social worker mother. In drag, she became her own Christian diva. Tonight’s bingo would include some of her favorite ballads between rounds, plus a hefty dose of social commentary.

“People need to know what’s going on,” she said.

Her husband nodded. A 38-year-old Army veteran, T.J. had deployed to Iraq and also tended to watch doors. When the Putnam County library story hour drew dozens of protesters in 2019, he stood between the drag queens and the men shouting insults through megaphones. One protester called him “unpatriotic.”

“I’ve served in the military for 11 years‚” T.J. recalled replying. “How many years did you serve?”

He got no response.

In walked Trey Alize, 38, the Drag Bingo co-host and Electronika’s cue to get moving. Diners had packed every booth. The DJ was already spinning Whitney Houston.

Alize described herself as a “very proud” lesbian, but she’d struggled to overcome shyness before adopting a drag king persona. Performing in masculine attire lifted her confidence. Now she dresses as Lumiere, the singing candelabra from “Beauty and the Beast,” grooving to a hip-hop version of “Be Our Guest.”

Electronika headed out to greet everyone. People walking by outside glanced at her through the floor-length windows.

“We are so excited to be here at our inaugural Drag Bingo!” Electronika said, striding across the room in four-inch stilettos.

“Unfortunately, after the midterm Election Day, the Senate majority leader of the Tennessee state assembly introduced a bill that would make it a crime to perform as a male or female impersonator,” she told the crowd.

That could doom a show like this one, she said, because people could see her through the glass.

“They say nothing about the Titans cheerleaders gyrating on the 50-yard line,” Electronika said, referring to the NFL team. “But God forbid, a child walks by on the sidewalk while I’m calling out bingo numbers.”

The diners laughed. The bartender poured margaritas and cosmopolitans. The kitchen was so busy, a cook who’d come to play bingo clocked in to help.

Her Tuesday night residency was off to a great start, Electronika thought, even if one family had walked in, looked around and promptly left.

She hadn’t gotten around to planning her next show before the gunman burst into the LGBTQ-friendly party out west and started shooting.

**

Electronika’s mother called her, urging her to consider staying home. They’d already known her career was risky. Wasn’t Club Q a sign to quit?

Electronika had made up her mind: She was going to dress like a Thanksgiving turkey.

“Gobble, gobble!” she chirped.

Back and forth, she’d pondered how to proceed in a world of senseless bloodshed, and the patrons credited with stopping the Club Q shooting had inspired her. One person she read about had bashed the assailant with a high heel.

Electronika prayed for that kind of bravery. She scanned the room for potential threats while trying to exude her usual sass. So far, nothing suspicious: There was a couple on a date, a group of college students, a German tourist, grandparents with their grandkids and a mom and her 14-year-old daughter. (Disney toys awaited the youngest winners.)

“I’m so glad you’re here before they charge me with a felony,” she told the 14-year-old girl.

There was Alize, who’d come right from a candlelight vigil for the Club Q victims. She couldn’t bring herself to go home after crying in the downtown park, so bingo it was.

Electronika had packed an outfit for an emotional Judy Garland number — “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which she considered a gay anthem — but decided in the moment against anything remotely mournful. People would tip her, and she didn’t want to capitalize on trauma.

This room needed laughter, she thought. A glamorous turkey, belting out Cher songs and, “Kathy has a bingo!”

She wouldn’t mention the massacre. She wouldn’t talk about how nowhere felt safe anymore. The kids probably endured active shooter drills at school. While they were here, Electronika wanted them to have fun.

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