Johnny Nuriel ’11 is a Portland-based performing artist, who typically performs alongside their husband Isaiah Esquire. The duo is well-known throughout a variety of communities, particularly the queer community. Events they have participated in include Portland Pride, Halloween Town and Boyurism. Recently, Nuriel acted as the host of Lewis & Clark’s New Student Orientation (NSO) drag show. The show was put on by Gagged, the LC drag performance club, and featured both student and non-student performers.
Nuriel has been a part of the performing arts community for over a decade since graduating. They started performing when they were still in high school as part of a theater program, and began to experiment with other forms of performance in college.
“When I was a sophomore, RuPaul’s Drag Race came out,” Nuriel said. “So I remember watching season one… and then all of us, like a bunch of my friends and I, we all got into drag just for fun. So that was definitely my first experience… getting into drag at a pretty young age, just having a lot of fun with that and really experimenting with different forms of gender expression.”
RuPaul’s Drag Race is a reality television show which first aired in 2009. It has since exploded in popularity, and recently finished season 15. The show consists of drag queens competing against each other for the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar and has massively contributed to the popularization of drag in mainstream culture.
When performing at the NSO drag show, Nuriel stated that their coming out would have looked much different if their NSO had a drag show, and how much joy they found in this one.
“I haven’t really been a huge part of Lewis & Clark since I graduated,” Nuriel said. “But I have gotten to perform and participate in some different events that have happened, and my perception from the Gagged show was just seeing how beautifully celebrated (drag) was and how the new generation have a lot more resources, a lot more vocabulary.”
Nuriel goes on to reflect on how LC has changed over the years.
“I can’t really speak to Lewis & Clark as an institution, but I think it just reflects more on how the world has changed,” Nuriel said.
Nuriel was overjoyed to see the “beautifully queer” first year class, and that community is built not just around shared identity but also through allyship and celebration of a still oft-marginalized group.
The acceptance of drag at LC, as well as public attitudes towards the queer performing arts community as a whole, signals a changing world full of changing ideas.
“Even the fact that that show exists and that it’s celebrated and well-attended really speaks to how important it is in the Lewis & Clark community. And it should definitely be maybe even a bigger part of the Lewis & Clark community,” Nuriel said.
Lili Blum, organizer of Gagged and the NSO show, also spoke to the importance of drag.
“I realized I was really passionate about queer expression, queer joy and providing safe spaces to do that,” Blum said. “Drag saves lives. Providing safe spaces for queer expression, which drag comes in a lot there, literally saves lives.”
Though Nuriel is well known within the queer community, they don’t limit their performances. They have performed across the United States in a variety of venues, including ones that one might not associate with drag or even the performing arts.
“My husband Isaiah Esquire and I, we do have the honor of performing in a lot of conservative spaces. I say it’s an honor because it’s an opportunity to access people in a profound way, to show them, to reach them in a way that other people may not be able to,” Nuriel said. “We’ve had the opportunity to travel throughout the United States and we’ve performed in many conservative parts of this country and performed with a very queer, openly queer show. The whole purpose was to bring that to spaces that needed it most.”
Nuriel reflected on the risks that come with doing this kind of work.
“I think people forget that even within Portland, Portland being perceived as such a progressive place, there is still a lot of bigotry…I see it as a higher calling to be someone that is visible and someone that takes a risk to put themselves in those spaces,” Nuriel said. “We’re very fortunate that we’ve never felt or been in real danger, but it’s definitely a possibility. So I see it as a high calling to put ourselves out there and to perform in spaces that are not connected to the queer community, that are not connected to the drag community, and to present a mission of love and acceptance and self-love.”
Despite these beautiful parts of the performing arts community, it is not without its flaws.
“There’s definitely an aspect of the Portland drag community, and I would just say any drag community, but specifically here in Portland, that is focused on the drama, I would say the less positive aspects of culture, you know, the substance, drinking, partying, and I would say that that’s one of the darker parts of the drag community. It’s not the only part, but I do witness that, especially within the younger queens, just having a bit of a misguided idea of what it really means to be a queen, or a drag king,” Nuriel said.
Though negative aspects exist in every community, there are kings and queens who strive to make theirs a better place.
“A king and queen within the drag world should be a pillar for the community. This should be someone that people look up to, this should be someone that volunteers and brings awareness, that uses their voice, their platform to amplify and do good work, you know, using their powers for good. I consider myself to be one of those, and I always aspire and work to be that. That’s the kind of person that I want to be in this world, and that’s how I want to use my platform. And I see many others that are exemplifying that as well,” Nuriel said. “We want to see drag queens celebrated, but we don’t want to see them losing themselves, right?”
The drag and performing arts community is an incredibly important part of both Portland culture and the LGBTQ+ community, and it would be nothing without the incredible performers who built it. The community provides a safe space for anyone who might need to seek it out, regardless of sexuality, gender identity or personal beliefs, as long as one respects everyone else within the space. Supporting and celebrating drag communities is just as crucial as participating, as Nuriel hopes to remind readers.
“Support the folk that are part of the Lewis & Clark community that are trying to create safe and celebratory spaces for queer people. Support those spaces. Go attend the shows. Let people know how much you enjoyed those shows,” Nuriel said. “Be an activist, be an ally, and just continue to show up and support these events that happen on campus.”