A confidence taller than high heels
Alex Peters steps onto a stage as Heidi N. Dix in a cat suit he sewed himself, the stretchy material hugging every limb. The full-face makeup accentuates his features as he lip-syncs to Fifth Harmony’s “Sledge Hammer.”
A confidence lifts him even taller than the high heels. It’s the kind of confidence that fills his chest, spreading out into his fingertips, contorting them into a flourish as he gestures while performing in another drag show.
He didn’t always have that confidence.
In fact, the first time he picked out his own clothes was in high school after he went to live with his father and stepmother. Now, a few years later, he is an apparel design major at Iowa State who can make his own cat suits in a few hours.
Peters, who identifies as a gay man, said he wants to spend his life performing in drag shows. But it wasn’t until he was searching the internet to determine the defining characteristics of gay culture that he discovered drag shows.
“I had never even heard of it before except when I was a little kid looking through all this gay stuff on my computer trying to figure out what ‘gay’ is, (and) I saw a show,” Peters said. “I knew I wanted to do something weird and different because that’s what I was.”
The first time Peters was told he was pretty was when he was in drag, a significant moment for a slightly chubby child whose mother nicknamed him “Muffin Top.”
He grew up in Truro, Iowa, a town of about 400, in a home he describes as abusive. His stepfather, who Peters describes as the instigator, would mock him and verbally put him down. His mother would either ignore the taunts, follow along or simply not be present to hear them.
“A lot of treating me differently came from her husband because she was fine with it,” Peters said.
Though Barbie dolls caught his attention more than stereotypical boy toys and he was a more effeminate child, his stepfather would use homophobic and gender slurs like “cocksucker” to describe people he didn’t like.
“Growing up, we pretty much didn’t talk at all,” Peters said. “I tried to really avoid him because I knew what direction I was going in, and I knew where he was with everything, so I just tried to steer clear of him unless I absolutely had to.”
His mother was a woman who needed control, he said. She was a distant person whose behavior rubbed off on her son as he hid his emotions and did his best to distance himself so he wouldn’t be singled out as an “other.”
“I don’t really talk to my biological mother much, but if I had to say anything to her, it would be, ‘Thank you for giving me the strength to not be like her’,” Peters said. “She was angry and lashing out. It was her way or no way.”
While Peters was exploring what it meant to be gay, or to simply be himself, a staff member in his high school would say during class that gay people would burn in hell and that he would support gay conversion therapy if his own children came out as homosexual.
Peters often would look at apps meant to connect the gay community, and he would see the same people on the apps who acted homophobic toward LGBT community members. They were trying to denounce homosexuality to keep the attention from landing on them, Peters said.
“I understand they were doing what they had to do to survive.”
For Peters to survive, he had to fold his identity into himself, always careful not to rock the boat so as not to unlodge the hard pit of his true self bubbling just under the surface. He was not flagrantly different, but he also was not conformative enough to be accepted by his family and everyone in the community.
A break came every two weeks when Peters went to stay with his father. A picture of Peters in a lace dress, mismatched plastic dangling earrings and a sun hat prove an early testament to the way he was allowed to express himself with his father.
When he lived with his mother, though, he lived in fear.
“You know deep down your family isn’t OK with it, so you have to push it down and hide it out of fear of being rejected,” Peters said. “I knew of some people who got kicked out of their house for being gay, and I didn’t want that to happen to me, especially when I knew I couldn’t support myself.
“I knew it wasn’t safe for me school-wise or home-wise,” he said.
When Alex told his father he wanted to start school at Southeast Polk High School with his step-siblings, Peters’ father began a four-year custody battle that ended with the 17-year-old senior’s request being denied by the courts. For a month afterward, Peters and his mother did not speak a word to each other.
“In the long run, we did not prevail, and he had to go back, which was devastating,” said Rochelle Peters, Alex’s stepmom who he refers to as his real mother.
During the court case, though, Peters came out to his father’s family. Shortly afterward, his biological mother discovered Alex was gay.
“One day, [his mother] just came into my room, and she told me she was done with me and that when I left for school that morning never to come back,” Peters said. “So I packed up all the stuff I could into my car, and I went to school, I went to work, and then I went to Pleasant Hill.”
Alex began to make the transformation outwardly to become the person he had always been inside, a difficult process for any member of the LGBT community. But the acceptance he had missed during the first part of his life was more easily attained than he thought it would be.
Not only was the Southeast Polk School District supportive, with a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender alliance club and a student body and staff that were inclusive, but he was also able to express himself at home. The teen who had always hidden himself picked out his own clothes for the first time. He began playing with his style and hair color.
“[The change was] day and night,” Rochelle said. “He had a smile on his face a lot more often. His demeanor was just happier. He was able to go to prom and pick his male date. His whole mannerisms changed.”
“He was able to be his true self,” Will Peters, Alex’s father, said.
Alex told his father and his stepmother that he was worried about coming out to his extended family, and he had several conversations with Rochelle about those concerns.
“Your family already knows,” Rochelle told him, “and not because we told them.
“They know you and love you and know who you are,” she said. “No one treats you differently, and no one’s going to treat you differently because you haven’t changed in their eyes.
“It’s just that you feel different.”
Rochelle said it was a wonderful experience to see Alex develop further after coming to Iowa State, where he began to cross dress and perform in drag shows.
“We want him to be him,” Rochelle said about Alex’s performances. “He is so in his element. He just rocks the scene. There are things that might push our comfortableness sometimes, but every college student is going to do that.”
His cause, though, is much more than his drag show performances. As Rochelle and Alex discussed, the transition toward equality for the LGBT community is the cause of Alex’s generation, the same way the civil rights movement was championed in the 1960s.
Homophobia hopefully will be the hatred of the past, Alex said. While Iowa was the fourth state in the United States to legalize gay marriage, social rights are still not completely accepted by all of Iowa.
Alex attributes the homophobic behavior he saw in his hometown to a lack of exposure. People are uncomfortable and fear what they do not know. In the same way Americans may have been shocked to see different racial groups on their favorite TV shows in the 1960s, many are shocked to see same-sex couples, Alex said.
But diversity is here to stay, he said, and soon fluid gender identities and sexualities will be normalized. And there’s still room for improvement, he said.
“Gays and lesbians are being brought up, but nobody really talks about asexual or transgender people,” Alex said. “There’s still all these sexual and gender minorities that aren’t being talked about because we’re trying to slowly adjust people. When you get a new fish, you have to slowly put them in the water before you release them.”
Rachel Wagner, associate director of residence at Iowa State and adviser for the LGBTA Alliance, said it is important for students in the community to be valued for their uniqueness, not to be treated as a pariah for their differences in gender identities and sexualities.
No reason should exist for members of the LGBT community to be treated differently, since gender and sexuality are so fluid, Wagner said, who is also a member of the LGBT community as a lesbian woman.
“I believe that everyone deserves love, attention and to have their physical and emotional needs met,” Wagner said. “If you do [treat others as a lesser being], than you need to ask yourself why that is. It says more about you than the person you made feel ‘other.’”
When Alex came to Iowa State, he transformed again. He joined the LGBTA Alliance, where he met people with similar backgrounds as him. As a senior, he is now president of the Alliance, where he helps foster a compassionate environment that acts as that safety net for students working to discover themselves. He wants to provide the support system he only recently received.
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