07/03/2012 02:47 pm ET | Updated Sep 02, 2012

The Girl in the Red Sequined Dress

One balmy Tuesday night, I'm wearing a red sequined dress and strappy gold shoes -- waiting for someone special in the dim, iridescent light of Rooster's on North College Street. In the uptown business district of Charlotte, NC, it's too early to start the weekend and too late to count the day as an extension of Sunday, but this is an once-in-a-lifetime occasion. I keep looking at the glass door, sipping my pineapple cocktail, searching for a familiar face. And then she walks in, flaming red hair framing her angular jawline, donning a tight black sheath and peep toe heels. Her piercing blue eyes invite you to come in, but not too close at first.

The lady in black is Miss Coco Peru. She walks into the after-party for her latest show "There Comes a Time" to raucous applause and whoops. The candid storyteller slash monologist slash drag queen has been performing for 20 years. The star of the movie "Girls Will Be Girls" lives in Los Angeles and has come to Charlotte three times to perform at Queen City Theatre Company -- founded by Kristian Wedolowski and Glenn T. Griffin. Peru is famous for weaving tales equal parts humor and tragedy about AIDS, the gay community, and her personal life -- slipping a healthy dose of medicine into the tasty chocolate mousse we love to eat.

"I try to do it in a kind of humorous way that's relatable and not too morbid," said Peru. "The fact that these young gay kids are coming up and that's the one part of the show they're thanking me for is really satisfying. In fact, I'm disappointed there weren't more young gay people at the show tonight here in Charlotte."


Although my best friend and I were about ten to twenty years younger than most people in the audience, I got all of Peru's references and songs -- I've been a fan of classic fabulous movies and music since birth. Miss Peru's lush voice carried tunes like "Rainy Days and Mondays," the "Green Acres" theme song, and the Peter Allen classic, "Once Before I Go." Her comedy routine hearkened to the 70s and 80s when drag queens were the spokespeople of the LGBT movement -- where being openly gay was a life-threatening liability and AIDS spelled instant death.

"I wanted to reminisce about what inspired me to do drag," said Peru. "I also wanted younger people to know that when I was in my 20s, my friends were actually dying in their twenties."

Peru preaches to young people in Charlotte and across the nation that the danger is still out there. In Mecklenburg County -- where Charlotte is located -- the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services reported 34 new cases of HIV and 60 new AIDS infections from January to March 2012 -- which was an increase from the previous year. LGBT civil rights are also still at issue. On May 8, North Carolina voted to pass Amendment One to the state constitution, banning domestic partnerships and benefits -- plus outlawing gay marriage, which was already illegal.

Because of the ruling, many Democrats second-guessed why Charlotte was selected as the host city for the Democratic National Convention from September 3 through 7. They were quick to lump my city into the mass of pro-amendment voters -- even though if the vote had been up to only Mecklenburg County, the amendment would have been defeated. I was saddened to hear many people question why I would still live in a city with such a measure on the state's books.

Peru assures me not all is lost, and while some are protesting the DNC here in Charlotte with their wallets, others are still behind the Queen City. As our evening together draws to a close, she gives me hope for a more balanced national discussion about the city I have called home for 17 years -- and will stay to fight for.

"They don't want people to spend money here as a form of protest," said Peru. "I can understand that and I can respect it, but I have connections here, I have family that lives here, and I can't just turn my back."