Talk of the Nation intern Carrie Wolfson observes a special Halloween tradition in Washington D.C. which took place on Tuesday, October 24th: the 17th Street High Heel race.
Drag Racing: An evening of glamour, high spirits, and ornately decorated candy logos for headgear.
On Tuesday evening I left NPR and headed to Dupont Circle for one of D.C.’s finest institutions: the annual 17th Street High Heel Race. Legend has it a handful of friends 20 years ago stumbled out of a gay bar, donned drag and performed a tipsy race up and down the street. Today, no one quite knows who spearheads the race each year, but it’s grown from a neighborhood tradition to a metro area attraction.
My date that night was my dad, a mustached physics professor in his late fifties who was wonderfully game through the whole shebang. We made our way up 17th, not entirely sure where the fabled race took place or what it would look like when we got there. A few blocks from Dupont we caught the sound of raucous chanting mingled with pumping disco classics and knew we’d arrived.
The streets were packed with onlookers clutching plastic cups. They stood on their toes, sat on each other’s shoulders, perched on car bumpers and leaned off apartment balconies all in the hopes of a better glimpse of the glamour. I’m almost positive I saw someone astride a streetlight, but maybe my memory’s clouded by the general larger-than-life quality of the night. Queens themselves dotted the crowd, which was largely non-gender bending folks along for the fun.
A call and response cheer of “High…Heels!” broke out in the tense moments before the competition. Fists shot into the air with each cry, along with deep baritone shouts of “let’s go ladies!” A collective countdown followed, and the queens were off. Unfortunately, at 5’8” all I caught was the shimmering progress of plumage from the ladies’ head ornaments. But what plumage! Each one was topped with an elaborate candy logo, a dazzling fashion statement which, admittedly, made little sense to me or to my co-revelers.
Alas, I have no idea which beauty prevailed that night. But I know I love drag queens for the simultaneous combination of irreverence and dedication they show to gender. They also know how to make a damn good show of it, and the crowd reflected that. After the race, I heard one couple lament “this used to be a neighborhood event, now it’s overrun by people from the ’burbs.” But when thousands of spectators—many of them young, straight, and male—show up to cheer on the campy, marginal art of drag, it might just be worth it.