Cornel Hardiman’s friend used to practice doing hair on him. She wanted more knowledge of Black hair care — anything from relaxers to braided extensions. She was the first transgender person Hardiman had met.
One day, before she passed away, she looked at him and said, “You have really pretty eyes. Have you ever thought about doing drag?”
He hadn’t. At the time, he was married and had three daughters with his wife. Doing drag had never really crossed his mind. But after some convincing, he decided to give it a shot.
Twenty-five years later, Hardiman is one of Eugene’s most beloved drag queens; he shows up each year as a Best of Eugene top choice. He’s since been divorced and has come out as gay.
By day, Hardiman works at the Kiva Grocery, but by night, he’s Karress Ann Slaughter. As Karress, Hardiman usually performs four to six times a month at venues such as Cowfish Danceclub, the Axe & Fiddle, Public House and Spectrum Bar.
For the past five months, though, Hardiman’s drag persona hasn’t been on stage. With social distancing orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic, drag shows haven’t been a feasible source of entertainment.
Two weeks ago, Hardiman performed his first show in months in Salem at the Southside Speakeasy. Sporting a plastic face shield, Karress Ann Slaughter finally got to make an appearance. “Dancing with a shield is the weirdest thing,” Hardiman says. “When you get out and the light hits you, you can’t even see in front of your face.”
On a normal night, Hardiman is an expressive performer who loves crowd interaction — audience members will slip drag queens tips as they dance and sing. But at this show, things had to be socially distant, with the audience sitting six feet apart from one another. “You do notice the slight disconnect with people, because I’m the kind of performer that’s in your face,” Hardiman says. “I’m on the dance floor right there in front of you. But once the energy was flowing, it was really nice. I’d do it again.”
In Eugene, Spectrum Bar hosts the highest number of drag shows. It’s Eugene’s only gay bar, but its motto is “more than just a gay bar.” Spectrum opened in 2018, shortly after the closing of the Wayward Lamb, Eugene’s previous LGBTQ-centric bar.
Over the past two years, Spectrum has become a space for marginalized people to gather safely. General manager Jen McElroy says the bar typically hosts up to 40 events each month — everything from comedy to live music, board game nights to drag shows.
That number has gone down to zero in recent months due to COVID-19. Despite many bars and restaurants opening with limited indoor and outdoor seating, Spectrum decided to keep its doors closed altogether. “We thought about opening with limited seating,” McElroy says. “But any interaction with the public would be putting us at risk, putting the public at risk, and we just don’t think it’s a good idea. We’re really concerned about other people’s safety.”
Currently, Spectrum isn’t generating any money. McElroy says it’s been difficult to stay afloat financially. “We really hope that the money doesn’t run out. We’re hanging on by a thread with our dollars from sales,” she says, referring to pre-pandemic sales of drinks and food.
While Spectrum can’t host events right now, the venue continues to connect with the LGBTQ+ community and provide resources. According to McElroy, Spectrum is working on a project for suicide prevention within LGBTQ+ and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) youth. They have also been doing street feed with CORE (Community Outreach through Radical Empowerment) for over a year, providing water and food to unhoused people in Eugene.
With coronavirus cases on the rise, and Lane County dialing back on reopening, it will likely be a while until Spectrum will be back in business, but McElroy remains hopeful that it will reopen. “We will definitely be back,” McElroy says. “We really look forward to serving our community again.”
For more information on Spectrum, visit SpectrumEugene.com. To learn more about Eugene’s drag scene, check out the Imperial Sovereign Court of the Emerald Empire at ICCEE.org.