It would be hard to talk about Philadelphia’s drag scene—and all the progressions that have happened over the past few decades—without mentioning Brittany Lynn.
Today, the founder of Philly Drag Mafia is known as a staple in the community and beyond, but back in the 80s, Lynn (who’s birth name is Ian Morrison) was a gay kid living in Northeast Philadelphia just trying to find a way to connect.
“[At that time,] it wasn’t so great to be gay. Now, everyone loves it—it’s amazing,” says Lynn.
Living in a time where there was no internet and no chat rooms available, it wasn’t until she arrived at Temple University and discovered a group for gay students that there was any point of connection for her. Lynn then came out to her parents in 1993, and eventually, started doing drag with ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ (as Frank-N-Furter) at the Theatre of The Living Arts on South Street and at a theater in Jersey.
“Playing that was kind of boot camp for drag. I had to walk in heels obviously, wear corsets, fishnets, the bustier—the whole thing. And in the 90s, being gay and body-conscious, it was a lot to take in. That was the first time my mom, dad and grandparents saw me in drag,” Lynn recalls.
That gig led to a stint as Alice in a musical based on ‘The Brady Bunch’, which played in Philly that same year, which then eventually led to a night out with the cast. While out and still in costume, Lynn was called on stage by Tinsel Garland (a Philly icon) who was performing at 12th Air Command (now Tabu.) Garland motivated Lynn to try out a drag competition, which she did. And she won on her first try.
“It was kind of born out of the necessity of money, and also being a struggling college student. It also gave me an outlet to perform and do comedy. I wanted to stand up at the time, and 27 years later, here we are,” she explains.
And why keep up with drag?
“There are a whole bunch of reasons. There is the fun of being in front of an audience, and when you’re in drag, you really get to show your true self. I can voice my opinion on anything, not only as a drag queen but as a comedian. So it comes two-fold,” Lynn explains. “You have the drag as a protective barrier and layer that gives you a little more ability to say your real thoughts and feelings.”
At Temple University, the drag queen studied Journalism and PR, and that led her to land a few gigs which ultimately helped launch her career. One was as Editor at Philly Gay News (which she landed right out of college after doing a book review for the publication), and the other was becoming the PR and Advertising Director for 1-800-Gay-Live.
While there, her job was to go to cities and set up parties and events for LGBT visibility, representation and things of that nature. While working, she got to meet big producers and anyone who worked in nightclubs—and it really brought her up not just professionally, but also as Brittany.
“For a big chunk of my life, I made all of my money from the LGBTQ community,” says Lynn. “All of my jobs were with this community, everybody I know is in this community. And when you get to reach a certain age—you have to give back.”
Giving back led to working with every gay charity that was around, and at one point, she was working with at least 15 to 16 charities in Philly alone.
“Now, I’m kind of that lady that a lot of places come to when they need to have a hostess or are putting together some charity event. That kind of led me to doing Drag Queen Storytime,” she remembers.
Drag Queen Storytime began in 2015 with the Philadelphia Public Library System, and then it moved on to museums and then Parks and Rec. Now, the activation is also in some schools—including Northeast High School, Kensington CAPA, some colleges, and hopefully, will be picked up at elementary schools as part of their curriculum.
“Which I never thought was going to be able to happen, but it’s amazing,” says Lynn. “Different cultures [and] different lifestyles are accepting of us and want to learn more about us and what we do as our art. So it’s really these kind of events, the Storytimes, and the school appearances that is my new motivation and what keeps me going.”
Lynn recently turned 50, and as she says, there has been a lot of change in terms of perception of the community (“Although some people still hate us,” she laughs), and the Storytime events prove it. She grew up in a time where some gay venues had darkened windows and bars on the windows out of fear. Now, Philadelphia’s Gayborhood is bright, active and full of life.
Another change—which came directly from Lynn—came out of working conditions for drag queens in the community. Back in the day, the only performances you really saw were for competitions or pageants. Performers had to get ready in public bathrooms, they never got paid (unless you won), and they didn’t even get a free drink, despite bringing in cash flow for many establishments.
“I wanted the other people I worked with to be able to come out and express their art freely without any boundaries. So, I started hosting Drag Shows—regular shows, not a competition or pageant,” says Lynn. “When people worked for me, they knew they were going to have a dressing area, drink tickets, a certain pay rate, things like that…which really wasn’t ever established here, or anywhere else during that time.”
It wasn’t too long until Brittany Lynn’s reach stretched past gay bars. Soon, many other establishments went to Lynn for shows and pop-ups.
“When I lived in South Philly and they asked what’s the name of your group? I said, oh, well, we’re the Drag Mafia. It’s a nod to South Philly and a nod that we took over places,” she explains. “Everybody had a safe place to change, and everybody got taken care of. So, it really was like a union.”
Philadelphians themselves can check out the Philly Drag Mafia year-round at some events (a full schedule is posted on their website.) But for Pride Month specifically, there are some stand out events like the Drag Teas every Saturday at Sofitel Philadelphia (which benefit the William Way LGBT Community Center), cabarets, shows, brunches and of course, Storytimes (that full schedule can be found on DQS’ Facebook.)
But, even with the success of her name and legacy, what really brings one of Philadelphia’s most notable drag queens joy is what other people feel and see when hearing the word pride—whether they are in the community or not.
“It gives me a feeling of accomplishment—not for myself, but for the opportunities I’m able to give my friends. I want to push the same message that visibility matters and representation matters, and it’s pride in the communities that welcome me in,” Lynn finishes. “That’s just showing their progression and their open-mindedness. It gives me more pride to get calls from these areas that you wouldn’t have thought would even want gay people there. We’re so well received. I don’t work in the Gayborhood hardly ever—I’ve done all that, I’ve worked in the gay bars. Now my journey and my mission is to spread this message of acceptance into these other communities, knowing they reach out to bring me in. That’s what gives me the most pride.”
To learn more, visit phillydragmafia.com