Vancouver
7 min

The crown of gay society

Rhinestone Phoenix celebrates 25 years of inclusive drag

LESS POMP, MORE AVERAGE PAGEANTRY. Organizers say drag with the Rhinestone Phoenix foundation is more about connnecting with average people than re-creating imperial courts. Credit: David Ellingsen

Mr Gay Vancouver XXIII burst into tears when he handed out last year’s Citizen of the Year award. Jeff Godstone presented the award to Little Sister’s co-owner Jim Deva on behalf of the Rhinestone Phoenix Charity Foundation. “It’s basically the biggest award we have. He’s done so much and to surprise him with our biggest award was my honour. I couldn’t stop crying the whole time. He was awesome.”



“Look, he’s crying now,” someone chides, sitting somewhere to his right. “I’m such a suck,” Godstone admits, glancing surreptitiously at the other Rhinestone title holders who have gathered around a table at the Oasis to share a slice of their organization’s history with Xtra West readers.



“One of the most memorable moments, though,” Godstone says, wiping his eyes, “is giving out the awards and the money at the actual pageant at the end of your reign, when you’re having a big celebration to close out your year and pass the legacy to the next person. That’s where it all comes together. It’s really exciting,” the 33-year-old grins.



The Rhinestone Phoenix Charity Foundation is celebrating its silver anniversary this year. The foundation is fundamentally a big social club, dedicated to sharing its own accessible and inclusive brand of drag with as many queers as possible-and having fun in the process. It’s also about giving a lot of money to charity, Godstone notes. “That’s why I got involved: because I like that mission. It gave me a chance to raise money-and to sing. It’s quite a blessing to be able to give back. It’s such a natural high. The experience is unbelievable.”



Bruce Antecol says he, too, was drawn to the group by the opportunity to raise money for the community. During his reign as Mr Gay Vancouver XX in 1999, Antecol was known as The Millennium Cowboy. “The best part about reigning is, like Jeff said, giving away the money at the end of the year,” he says. “I remember the last night-I just basically bawled my eyes out.”



Looking more like a jazz aficionado than a cowboy, Antecol, 36, wears green-tinted glasses, a long-sleeved, black velvet shirt and dark pants. A tuft of hair on his chin graces his otherwise clean-shaven face and head. Silver rings adorn each of his thumbs and there’s a silver earring in his left ear. “I have two earrings,” he points out, turning his head to reveal the right one-“Yeah, that he can show you,” a voice interjects, raising snickers from the others around the table.



The ribbing comes from Vince Rexxx, this year’s Mr Gay Vancouver XXIV, who is also the reigning Mr BC Leather. A rainbow flag adorns the back of his leatherman’s standard-issue, black leather vest. He ran for both titles on a platform of diversity. “Rhinestone is a non-judgemental society. We have open arms for all. I believe in, and live by, two words: ‘judge not.’ Gay culture is all about love and respect-[it’s] the most accepting and genuine of all cultures,” he believes. “We all need each other. Stonewall proved that.”



“Can I say something?” Godstone interjects, and points at Rexxx across the table from him. “He appeared on the cover of Xtra West in his native headdress. That really stood out for me as a powerful image that I will always remember.” Godstone settles back into his chair again.



Rexxx smiles humbly in response. “I was the first leatherman to be First Nations and when I won Mr BC Leather, my native band in Ontario (Ojibwa) made me the chief’s bonnet and chest plate. When I represented Vancouver as Mr BC Leather I wore my native wear. It was the first time anyone did that at an international leather competition and they were floored.”



“When I step down as Mr Vancouver, sadly, it will be my last community title,” Rexxx reveals. “I’ve had six [titles]. I’ve worked very hard and I need to refocus myself and regain my strength.”



**

Members retire, new blood comes into the group, and one such person is the soft-spoken Francesca Harlow. “This is the very first year I’ve been associated with the organization and probably, if you’d asked me, I didn’t even know about it last year. I’m a newcomer.” Her shoulder-length red hair moves forward as she sips a drink from an unusually small glass. Wearing a blueberry-coloured pantsuit, legs crossed, she sits quietly, watching the goings-on around the table, crunching on the remaining ice from her beverage.



“I’m a tenured university professor at UBC,” she says coyly. Pointing out that the foundation is people-dependent, she notes something else drives Rhinestone Phoenix: “It now has tradition, hoary tradition, and that kind of weight of tradition moves things along in a certain way-it has to.



“I’m not sure it is a drag court,” she continues. “I think the DMS [Dogwood Monarchist Society] is a drag court.” There are nods and murmurs of agreement from those around the table. “[Rhinestone] is a bit more inclusive because you’ve got a greater variety of regular gay people than the DMS,” Harlow explains. “I think it’s actually a bit more community oriented. I don’t know what it exactly is…” she struggles for words, then pauses to think for a moment. “The question of drag might come in to it…” She blushes.



All fall silent, their eyes shift over to Ms Gay Vancouver. Ruby Stone, drag queen extraordinaire and this year’s reigning monarch, attired in a yellow, sequined gown, sits quietly beside Harlow, stone-faced. “…I don’t know,” Harlow continues, meekly, “is anybody in drag in here?'”



“Nooooo,” Stone replies, no longer able to keep a straight face and overcome with what has now become a group belly laugh, just short of hysteria. “Seriously, though,” Stone continues when the laughter has subsided, “I’ve been accepted in this community for a long time, for who I am, and I always be who I am, and I do my best with what I have.”



Stone has accessorized her flowing, ballroom-style dress with a rhinestone tiara in her long, dark hair. Her long fingernails are unpolished but her fingers sparkle with exaggerated-jewel rings and large faux-diamonds. “The drag community is the crown of gay society,” she smiles, red lipstick glistening. “Drag queens wear the crowns for the gay culture and the gay culture is proud to have drag queens as [its] figurehead.”



Stone was elected Queen of Hearts (a DMS title) 10 years ago. “This year it’s been my pleasure to get involved with Rhinestone Phoenix. It’s been a very unique experience. The society is doing really well. It’s been 25 years of great and hard work. We put in our efforts to make it a little better as a group, as a team effort, and the future is even brighter.”



Rob Wolvin, Mr Gay Vancouver XIX, sits patiently waiting for his turn to speak, dressed as his stage persona: The Urban Cowboy. Clad in hat and boots, plaid shirt and regulation blue jeans, the 39-year-old ponders the role drag plays in the Rhinestone Foundation. “I think that in terms of pageantry and imperial impersonation of imperial aspirations and crowns and all that sort of thing-[that’s] served really well by the DMS,” he says. Drag is important to Rhinestone, too, he notes, but it’s more about connecting with average people than imperial kings and queens.



“I think we have a unique opportunity to be connected with the average person,” he explains. “Drag is certainly a part of our group, and as a child of the DMS it would make sense that it would be, but being a princess, being an Empress-that kind of level of pageantry is unique to the stage and not so much a down-among-the-people, working-with-the-people, for-the-people, thing. We’re a civilian organization, we’re not a court.”



The Rhinestone Phoenix foundation offers three titles every year: Ms, Mr, and Miss Gay Vancouver, providing the opportunity for the drag, transsexual, and transgendered communities to all be represented. “It’s possible for anyone who wants to, to step forward and take on that role,” Wolvin notes.



**

The Rhinestone foundation traces its official origins back to 1984, when renowned local drag king, Crema, was Mr Gay Vancouver IV. Crema’s other half for that year, Wiggins (Ms Gay Vancouver IV), wanted to give her a special gift as a step-down present at the end of her year-long reign. That gift was the forming of a society with the Gay Vancouver titles-and it carved out a unique spot for the Rhinestone group, separate from its parent organization, the DMS. The society stated its purpose would be the study of heraldry, and as Crema used the Phoenix as her symbol of office, The Phoenix Heraldic Society was formed.



“Originally, Mr & Ms Gay Vancouver was a fundraising group for the DMS,” Crema explains. Wiggins engineered the separation “to step out and be part of our own identity and do fundraising and shows by ourselves” without having to get permission from the DMS. “We were pretty good at raising funds and had our own functions and then we used to turn over what was raised to the DMS to allocate.”



Crema, who later also held the title of Mr Gay Vancouver XV in 1994, recalls feeling quite shocked when the society was presented to her more than 20 years ago. “It was not a popular thing with the DMS hierarchy,” she notes. When Wiggins stepped forward with the surprise, “they were not happy. I remember quite a few monarchs stomped out.”



In 1997, the society was renamed in honor of Rita Rhinestone, Wolvin picks up the history lesson. “Rita Rhinestone is one of the founders of the drag organizations community. She’s Empress Emeritus with the DMS. She has a special, unique role to us in that she’s part of the Charter of the Phoenix Heraldic-when we became separate from the DMS,” he explains. “So we remember Phoenix for Crema and Rhinestone for Rita Rhinestone. The Rhinestone Phoenix Charity Foundation is the latest incarnation of our group.”



Wolvin describes Rhinestone’s breaking off from the DMS in less acrimonious terms than Crema. It was “like mama gave birth,” he says.



“Children have to find their own direction,” he continues, “but we’re still a child of the DMS.”



Crema remembers the foundation’s emergence as more as of a “major breaking-out of the child.



“But the child came out and has proven itself worthy over the years,” she smiles.



INFOBOX:

Rhinestone Phoenix Charity Foundation.

25th anniversary step-down pageant.

Sun, Oct 17. 9 pm.

Celebrities. 1022 Davie St.

Tix: $10 at Little Sister’s, $12 at the door.