Dave Awl, impresario and mother hen of the performance soiree The Pansy Kings' Cotillion, is holding court amid the musty clutter of the Neo-Futurarium's dressing room. The event, billed as "the ultimate sampler pack of the gay male performance scene in Chicago," may be two weeks away, but the makeup and attitudes are out in full force.
"A gold lame hanky in the left pocket means you like to fuck muscle men," Awl explains while trying on yet another dinner jacket, then checking his blush in the mirror. "In the right pocket, you like to be fucked."
The iridescent green jacket is a bit tight through the shoulders, so Awl moves to the gold tux adorned, in his words, with a "buttercream frosting" design.
"Now silver lame in the left, you're a star. But in the right"--here he pauses and purses his lips ever so slightly--"you're a star fucker."
Fellow Pansy King Kurt Heintz, of the high-tech performance ensemble Loofah Method, pops his head in, struggling with an uncooperative tie. He neatly sums up the intricate workings of gay handkerchief signification: "Left is give, right is receive."
Awl cocks an eyebrow. "Now, the word give presents certain semantic problems."
It's nearly midnight, and Awl has gathered a half dozen of the city's leading sultans of swish for a photo shoot. Voices break in from another room.
"We're all competing in a sincerity-looking contest."
"Darling, in your mouth that word loses all meaning."
"I know a few of the Party cast members, and I wouldn't even want to see them clothed."
"I fear I'm going to end up looking like Gloria Swanson."
The quick-and-bitchy school is in session, and tonight's class consists of all the Pansy Kings who could show up at this late hour, including "one-man-show maven" Edward Thomas-Herrera, and poetry-slam champ Neo-Futurist David Kodeski, drag star Don Auxier (aka Honey West), and writer and monologuist Dominic Hamilton Little, resplendent in a sweeping cape, jaunty hat, and effusively knotted ascot. Missing are author Robert Rodi, singer John Connors, Cloud 42 theater director Patrick Trettenero, performance artist Michael Hyacinth (aka London Broil), and nightclub manager Robert Little (aka Foxy), who will act as the evening's "fabulous greeter personality."
The Pansy Kings' Cotillion was conceived in envy, responding to the success of Big Goddess Powwow, a periodic variety show for women performers. With the support and encouragement of Powwow co-organizer Lisa Buscani, Awl decided to organize a similar event spotlighting the stars of the gay male performance and club scenes, creating a consciously sissified affair.
"The term 'pansy' comes from the French verb penser, to think," Awl says. "A pansy is bookish, intellectual, and florid. As a society we're making progress against homophobia. But hatred of people who are too sissy, or too effeminate, or too intellectual . . . "
He's particularly irked that much of this intolerance comes from the gay community itself, where the desire to assimilate has often meant a renunciation of the camp sensibility. Gay men hate pansies, says Awl, because they equate femininity with weakness. "I want the full meaning of the pansy archetype to be rediscovered."
For Awl, 28, the Cotillion is a highly personal return to primal sources. He spent his first 22 years "locked up in Peoria listening to David Bowie," trying to manufacture a personality larger than the ones found in his small hometown. Eyeliner, big flowing jackets, and rockabilly sideburns were his standard high school accoutrements. His 15 minutes of fame occurred in 1983, when he was pictured in the Peoria Journal Star skanking to the Greg Kihn Band at the county fair. But college forensics and a four-and-a-half-year stint with the Neo-Futurists taught him to strip away his excesses to present a more "genuine" self. Then last year Awl met Dominic Hamilton Little. "Dominic is someone out of a Hermann Hesse novel," Awl says. "He's someone you meet who lets a forgotten part of you speak." Awl soon found himself on the way to Hamilton Little's "Come As I Am" party (where everyone had to dress like the host), all dolled up on a CTA bus, enjoying the stares. "I need this feeling back," he explains.
During the photo shoot, with Pansy Kings surrounding him like a floral arrangement, Awl's got it back in spades. He sips merlot and joins in the put-downs, double entendres, and choral recitations from All About Eve. It's too bad he didn't think to charge admission.
The Pansy Kings' Cotillion runs Friday and Saturday, October 14 and 15, at 8 PM at the Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland. Tickets are $10. For tickets and information, call 989-8499.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.