"I have something to say," says Burlington drag queen, performance artist, singer-songwriter, radical fairy and all-around character on the scene, Yolanda — aka Roger Anthony Mapes, founder and star of Yolanda and the Plastic Family band and self-described "party girl."
Yolanda's most recent press release adds "visual artist," "theater person" and "storyteller" to the list of her media and accomplishments. She is, of course, also the other half of Public Access TV's "Cherie and Yolanda Show." The blonde half. The louder half. The whooping, squealing, wrapped-in-plastic, bosom-adjusting, stocking-tugging, out-RAY-geous sidekick to that most refined of local celebrities, Cherie Tartt.
In dessert terms, Cherie Tartt is like an elegant souffle, something both pampered and whipped to get the effect. Yolanda is more like an ice cream sundae, or maybe a banana split. There's something for everybody in there, which is exactly how Yolanda sees it. There's something in everybody for everybody, she thinks.
"I really want us all to learn how to work together," she remarks over coffee at Muddy Waters. She says it several times: "We need to find a way to work together. I think people think that means we all have to like each other. We don't."
At the moment, specifically, Burlington's second-most famous drag queen is concerned about what she sees as "complacency" in the gay and lesbian community, along with in-fighting, petty bickering and the kind of mischief that inevitably results when people come together in groups. Without going into any details — because Yolanda can be discreet, and she doesn't want to criticize anyone — she sees the current self-absorption of the various factions of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community as a dangerous distraction from community issues of greater importance. Like what?
"It really feels to me like we've lost sight of the importance of gay and lesbian liberation," says Yolanda, who, dressed today like Roger Mapes, neither whoops nor squeals when she talks. In person, out of costume, she is quiet and calm, words that would hardly spring to the mind of anyone who's seen her in performance. On stage, Yolanda is uncontained and uncontrollable, clowning, carousing, flirting, fixing her hair and belting out songs — with a degree of unself-conscious abandon that can only be described as "heartfelt."
"I feel we are complacent, but I see it as a trend across the nation, too. People 'don't want to be political.' They say, 'I'm just out to have fun.' Well, I love to party — I'm a party girl. But actually, you know, we can't get together without being political." For those who have a hard time recognizing "politics" in Yolanda's particular brand of mad-cap, lids-off entertainment, she says they miss the point.
"What has come up for me is that I really think the community needs to revisit and re-understand what we're talking about when we express Pride," Yolanda says. "It's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Pride. It's not just another party. There are real issues. AIDS is still an issue. Hate crimes happen in this state. People get harassed on the street. We can't just sit around and say, 'This is Vermont, nothing's going to happen to me here.'"
As an example, Yolanda points to the state of Maine, where voters recently defeated a gay-rights equal-protection statute. She also points out "Take It to the People," the incipient movement right here in Vermont that has come out against the legalization of gay marriage.
"It's time people thought about it and got some organization around political issues," Yolanda says firmly. Not that she has any intention of not partying for Pride this weekend. On Saturday night, Yolanda and her Plastic Family band will join Cherie Tartt and Endora at Club Toast in "A Faery Home Companion," described as "yet another incredible drag event featuring the performers who have made the 'Winter Is A Drag Ball' an international success."
Yolanda herself once "shocked Chicago," according to the first issue of her newsletter, "Welcome to Yolanda World," in which she introduces herself, her work, her band and her plans to an audience that seems to be growing bigger and bigger. She and her bandmates are already at work on their first recording.
"There are four men and one woman in the band," Yolanda says, "and all of them are straight. It's an incredible experience to make music with them. They share my vision in a way I would never expect someone without the G/L/B/T experience to do. And that's another really incredible and lovely thing for me."
It is, in fact, "transgendered," a label Yolanda proudly wears, even if no one in the larger G/L/B/T community seems able to define it exactly. For Yolanda, it means that she is not "a polarized person, male or female, gay or straight. The word means the ability to maneuver through the polarities between male and female. I'm a gay male, but I'm also a radical drag queen. I can be very butch and very masculine [seeing him without a wig, you believe it] or very femme and very feminine." But when Yolanda is in drag, she offers, "I'm something else. I don't even know what to call it. I'm just way out there!"
For someone who blithely announces that she was born "a little baby drag queen in Muscle Shoals, Alabama," there was no place else to go. Yolanda first came to Burlington in 1994, after 15 years of auditioning, performing and banging on doors in New York City.
"I got most of my indoctrination as a young gay male there," she says wryly, ever mindful that someone from "Take it to the People" might be listening at the next table. "I have a résumé I'm proud of, but the recording contracts didn't come."
In her mid-thirties, Yolanda got tired and came to Vermont, having hooked up with the Radical Faeries — that flaming collection of Pans and Pagans who are doing a lot nationally to put their own stamp on the "trans" phenomenon.
"The Radical Faeries are a tribe of spiritual gay men who incorporated the use of magic, ritual and drag to empower themselves and hopefully to make a radical change in the prevailing patriarchal culture," Yolanda writes. She lived with the Faeries on their land outside Northfield for about a year, before heading to the "Queen" City, as if on cue.
"The greatest thing about Burlington is that it reawakened my desire to perform. Because I thought I was through with that. The music scene here really inspired me, and then the meeting with Cherie inspired me to perfect my drag."
But don't look for rivalries among the desserts: "Cherie has been a great friend and a great influence," Yolanda asserts. Their TV show inspired her "beyond inspiration" and just set her loose.
Describing her band, Yolanda declares, "we've come a long way musically. I have something to say. I feel very clear on what I have to do."
Recently Yolanda has been working as an AIDS prevention coordinator at Vermont CARES. Diagnosed last year with HIV, she has put AIDS issues, so to speak, on her front burner. As a coordinator for Men's Health Project, she works daily with men in Burlington who are either infected or at risk for infection.
"HIV has made me very focused," she remarks. "At first I was just wallowing around in it, scared. But once I realized I wasn't going to die right now, I began to think seriously about what I wanted to do. I can't die without recording a CD. We're really cranked."
Not that death is even on Yolanda's horizon. She's on combination therapy and is doing well, although, like anyone else who has to endure it, she chafes at the strict timing schedule and dietary requirements the AIDS "miracle drugs" require.
At Vermont CARES, Yolanda brings a needed voice of personal experience to the effort to connect with men and women whose lives are at risk from this disease. And she's single.
"I'm looking," she concedes. "Dating in Burlington is lousy, and I don't know what the solution is about that. Call me. Ask me out." If you do, you'll be getting a banana with your sundae, don't forget.
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