February 20, 2024 | B.J. Daniels

Harry James Hanson: the trouble with Harry

Harry has lived life on their own terms since age 2. In 2023, Hanson's Legends of Drag: Queens of a Certain Age project became a national sensation.
Harry James Hanson (photo by Jess Richmond)

“I was two years old when I told my mother “I’m a girl inside my head.” I’m very fortunate that her response was “That’s great that you know that about yourself, Harry,” and that my parents were accepting and encouraging of my self-expression.”

After that declaration, what was it like growing up with that knowledge of yourself?

The bullying started in fifth grade.  These boys started calling me a faggot and a hermaphrodite. 

Were they wrong? Nope! But it’s jarring to your sense of self when your peers figure out who you are before you do. I put an end to it by getting four boys suspended in one day. 

I started doing drag in a more focused way in 2004 at Rocky Horror, winning all the costume contests and eventually joining the cast. 

As a teenager, I assumed I was a gay guy, but once I had an understanding of non-binary identities that just clicked.

Did you have a support network?

Shorewood High School Drama Director Barbara Gensler was a tremendous source of support and inspiration. She held us to really high standards and taught me what it took to execute complex, collaborative creative projects.

What was your first gay bar and what do you remember about it?

My ex-boyfriend was a bartender at This Is It. This was before they expanded it. It was just a narrow dive. You could still smoke inside. I remember they had bowls of ham salad (!) just sitting out on the bar.  We put our cigarettes out in the ham salad.  One friend took off her shirt and got on top of the bar. Then she puked on the bathroom floor and another friend slipped in it and was covered in vomit. Just a casual Tuesday night, I’m sure.

How has the community / scene changed since that time? What would surprise younger people to know about that era?

I haven’t lived in Wisconsin since I was 18. 

As a teenager, my queer life centered around Rocky Horror, high school theater, and doing photo shoots with my friends. Everyone would gather at my house before Rocky and we’d all get in drag, then walk over to the Oriental together. 

Eventually, we realized we didn’t have to wait around for Rocky, and we could just get in drag and terrorize the East Side whenever we wanted.  This was pre-Drag Race, pre-YouTube makeup tutorials. We looked absolutely feral, but we had so much fun.

What are some of your favorite memories from that time?

One of my favorite places in all of Milwaukee was the Value Village on North Avenue and Martin Luther King Drive.

I was around 14 when I realized you didn’t have to buy your clothes at Kohl’s or the mall, and it radically changed my life. I still have vintage t-shirts I bought there as a teenager, which are some of my most treasured pieces.

In December, they would put out a whole rack of sequin dresses called the “New Year’s section.” I waited all year for that section, honey!

I’ve been to thrift stores all over the country -- but there was uniquely magical thrift energy present at that North Avenue store.

What is something that happened back then that could never happen today?

One day, while wandering around downtown, we discovered an unsecured and out of use Wisconsin Electric Power Company building just west of the river. 

It was probably 12 stories tall, labyrinthine, and absolutely filthy.  It was covered in dead birds, but it did have roof access!  It became our hangout spot. We hauled in a mattress and some candles. 

On one particularly raucous evening, we stole cases of beer from Riversplash using my wheeled duffel bag and hauled them back to headquarters. The whole house ate! The building has since been torn down. I think it’s a parking lot now.

How did you get your start in drag? What was your first number and show?

I’ve had a dress up box since I was three. My drag took a more public turn in 2004 at Rocky Horror, where I won all the costume contests and eventually joined the cast. The first lip sync number I did was my farewell show when I left for college. I did Barbie Girl in a Hedwig wig, and my good sis Brian Firkus played Ken. I sucked on a dildo even though my mother was in the audience. Sorry mom!

In 2006 I won the Changing Faces youth drag competition at PrideFest, doing Vogue by Madonna. I had six backup dancers, four drag kings and two queens, including my Legends of Drag collaborator Devin Antheus. We rehearsed for weeks to recreate the music video choreography. One of the judges tried to read me for not shaving my legs. I knew I had it in the bag when I was the only girl who changed outfits for crowning.

How would you describe your drag style?

Irreverent, clownish, stunty, undeniably glamorous!

What do you consider your “best in show” performance ever?

I made my international debut at Bushwig Berlin in 2018, where I performed ‘American Life’ by Madonna. For the final reveal, I pull an American flag out of my ass. 

The Germans loved it!

How has drag changed since you got your start? Where is it headed next?

These days, a 22 year old can get on Drag Race and become a huge star without having any real connection to drag community outside of the show. 

If you so choose, your drag can be fully centered around capitalism or ego instead of art, community, or a connection to this ancient, inherited and deeply magical tradition. 

I hope we’re headed toward more opportunities for intergenerational exchange, more platforming of trans performers, more organizing within and between drag communities to support one another.

Who are some of the performers who inspired you then – and who inspires you now?

I had good taste early: Divine, Amanda Lepore, Grace Jones. They still inspire me to this day! I was really into Party Monster as a teenager, so I added all the old school club kids I could find on MySpace and Facebook. I remember being so stunned and inspired by JoJo Baby’s looks. In the category of conceptual and avant-garde freak-show drag, she’s one of the greatest to ever do it.

What concerns you about the future of LGBTQ life in Wisconsin? What needs to change?

Bigotry that results in violence and trauma is always a concern. I want queer and trans people to protect themselves by any means necessary. Supporting the most vulnerable members of our community makes everyone stronger.

What advice do you have for the next generation?

Take care of your friends. Don’t fret about being judged, those people feel threatened by you because they lead boring conformist lives. Rigid identity categories have limited usefulness. 

Just vibe, baby!!

Milwaukee-born Harry James Hanson is one of the creative team (with collaborator and fellow Wisconsinite, Devin Antheus) behind Legends of Drag: Queens of a Certain Age, a photography and queer history book spotlighting 81 drag queen elders in 16 cities. Since the book came out, it has received praise in the New York Times and Vogue, and spawned a national tour of Legends Live events, as well as two museum exhibitions. The book can be found online and wherever books are sold.

Devin Antheus and Harry James Hanson (2023)

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The concept for this web site was envisioned by Don Schwamb in 2003, and over the next 15 years, he was the sole researcher, programmer and primary contributor, bearing all costs for hosting the web site personally.