On any given night, you can expect to see an assortment of characters, from drag queens to sorority girls, on the dance floor illuminated by flashing lights as the smell of sweat mixes with the trails of perfume left behind the performers at University Club.
The local nightclub recently turned 30 years old in April, and is a place where anyone, regardless of their sexuality or gender, is accepted and welcomed by its owner, Mark Spangler.
Spangler opened the doors to the first gay club in Gainesville in April 1990. With time, he created what he calls a safe haven for the local LGBTQ+ community.
As far as performers go, University Club has helped many start their careers as Drag Queens–one, in particular, Jade Jolie, made it onto RuPaul’s Drag Race, a reality-competition show, and was also featured in Taylor Swift’s music video for “You Need To Calm Down.”
What makes this nightclub unique from other local clubs is the sense of family and community it forms within the drag and LGBTQ+ community, Spangler said. Four performers, with different backgrounds and experiences, talk about their lives as drag queens.
More than just performance: Aurora Whorealis
Christian Acevedo, a 20-year-old Santa Fe entomology sophomore, uses his platform to raise awareness for topics like rising sea levels and the decline in bee pollination during his performances as Aurora Whorealis.
Growing up in Miami, he was involved in theatre and cheerleading because, as a Leo, he said he thrives in the spotlight. So on the night of May 3, 2018, Acevedo transformed into Aurora for her first drag competition, and to her surprise, she ended up winning.
For Acevedo, the concepts of sexuality and gender belong on a spectrum where people are allowed to fluctuate freely. Transforming into Aurora has allowed Acevedo to realize that the drag community includes anyone from a transgender man to a biological cis-gender woman.
After the three-hour transformation into Aurora, he instantly notices the shift in his confidence: he feels like the “creme de la creme” after finishing the final touches on his brightly colored makeup and lacing up his five-inch stilettos.
Despite not receiving support from his father, who accidentally found out Acevedo dressed in drag when he opened his suitcase full of heels and wigs, Acevedo is grateful that he can freely express himself with other family members and friends.
A piece of advice that has stayed with him throughout his time as a performer is, “At the end of the day, you’re not doing drag for anyone, you’re doing drag for yourself.”
Never too late- Sarah Nevada
Had her family not accepted that she was a transgender woman, Sarah Cole, 56, said she is unsure she would have gotten this far in her life.
Cole grew up in St. Petersburg and when she was 11, she said she would often sneak into her sister’s room to try on her ballet costumes. During those secret moments, Cole said she felt a certain freedom that comes with departing from gender norms.
But it would be another 10 years before she came out to her parents, unsure of how they would react because of their Catholic upbringing, yet relieved by the idea of not having to entertain the notion that she was a male to her parents anymore. Her coming out experience wasn’t always as well-received, however, as she was fired by Home Depot in the late ’90s for being a transgender woman, Cole said.
She attended her first drag show in the late ’80s – a time when being in the LGBTQ+ community was not widely accepted. Now 40 years later, Cole tried on drag for the first time in September and now regularly performs as Sarah Nevada, who she describes as a rebel, at University Club. Her opening line is: “The oasis in the rainbow desert, and I am here to quench your thirst.”
Double life- Anna Phylaxxis
Unlike Cole, Anna Phylaxxis (who asked The Alligator not to disclose their personal name) keeps their drag performances a secret from their family and colleagues. They said they live a double life as they pursue a PhD degree in biology at UF while simultaneously performing in drag at University Club.
Phylaxxis finds solace in balancing their scientific background with drag because it creatively enriches their life, they said.
“I always kind of wanted to find a way to combine the two,” they said. “I’ve just never been happy being purely scientific or purely creative.”
At University Club, Phylaxxis has managed to intertwine their science background into their performances by creating special effects like putting baking soda and vinegar inside a beaker to make foam when they’re doing a “mad scientist” act and aiming for accuracy while creating their makeup looks, they said.
Although their biological family does not know about this part of their life, Phylaxxis has created what they call a family of their own within the drag community at University Club.
When Phylaxxis dresses up in drag, they said they embody confidence. But they describe their other persona as a people pleaser who lets people walk over them. In a way, they said Anna Phylaxxis has allowed them to unconditionally embrace who they are as they’ve never done before.
Small town boy moves onto bigger things- Alexia Fantasia
As a small-town boy who grew up in Statesville, North Carolina, Paeton Nutting, a 20-year-old UF business administration junior, had limited exposure to the LGBTQ+ community until he attended his first Pride in 2016 in Charlotte.
It was a pivotal moment for him, he said, because it was when his curiosity about drag began.
“It gave me the opportunity to kind of blossom and really explore who I am as a person and who Alexia is,” Nutting said.
Coming from a close-minded southern town, Nutting said he was opposed to wearing makeup due to fear of the backlash he could have received. He explained that it was rare for the LGBTQ+ community in his town to explore and challenge their gender and sexuality, and he often felt he was combining two personalities into one.
It took time for Nutting to deconstruct the gender norms he had created for himself in order to fit a certain mold, and that’s when he created Alexia Fantasia, an energetic and confident persona who dances to “It’s Raining Men” by the Weather Girls.
University Club needs your help
Locals and visitors alike have gravitated to University Club, but as COVID-19 cases in Florida continue to break daily records, Gov. Ron Desantis ordered all bars, including UC, to close down starting on Tuesday.
Unsure of what the future holds for University Club, Kelly Kelly, a 25-year-old drag performer for the club, created a GoFundMe with the goal of reaching $10,000. Once the fundraiser reaches its goal, it will be used to pay UC’s $4,000 rent for July, help cover any expenses or utilities bills from this month and pay the furloughed employees and entertainers.
“I hate that this pandemic is affecting it in such a negative way. I don’t want the owners to feel bad about not being able to help out their employees or entertainers more,” Kelly said.
Contact Valentina Botero at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @lvbotero_.