Tygra was Tristan at first—a “Marine brat,” she says, growing up in Scottsdale, Arizona. She went to college in Omaha, Nebraska, where she studied nursing. And there, one night in a bar, she saw a drag performance.
“I was 20, not even old enough to be in a bar, slowly coming out as a gay boy,” she says. This was in 2011, before she discovered that she identified more as a woman. She watched the drag queen Chanel Savage work the crowd, and decided at least one part of her future. “I said, Whatever that is, I gotta be a part of it. That has to be me.” Later that year she made her stage debut, and by 2012 she was competing in drag pageants as Tygra Slarii.
Tygra will perform, along with drag queen Julia Starr, at Mia’s Third Thursday event on June 15, an evening presented in partnership with Twin Cities Pride.* Tygra moved to Minneapolis just six months ago and continues to work in nursing, though she’s often on the road—in Nebraska, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Oklahoma. She prefers to compete in pageants. In August, she will represent Minnesota and Iowa in the Miss Gay USofA Newcomer pageant in Dallas.
But she has performed in the usual gay nightspots in Minneapolis: LUSH, Gay 90s, the Saloon. “It’s a very respectful scene,” she says of Minneapolis, “though that doesn’t mean there’s not some shade thrown behind that.” She’s learned to deal with it, along with the hetero minority out for some vicarious thrills in a gay bar. “If the men are too tanked, you know, you’re beautiful and they want to touch, they want to find out what’s going on in there. Uh-uh. I’ll respect your boundaries if you respect mine.”
She and other local drag performers also deal with so-called “RuPaul girls”—imitators of the iconic drag queen who tour the country like Elvis impersonators once did, taking up performance slots in the bars and for more money than the hometown queens. “RuPaul is great, he has done great things for education and visibility, so the hetero community can see us and know we’re not monsters,” Tygra says. “But financially it hurts.”
Mostly, she seeks out college kids and teenagers, sharing her story in any forum she can. “My life is a testament,” she says. “When people say, No one’s going to love me [if I come out], I say you just have to be able to know your self-worth and that you are beautiful. When someone can tell that you’re open, that you’re okay with yourself, whether you’re a gay man or a trans woman or simply queer, people will see it and want to be around you and fall in love with you. But if you cloud yourself in darkness they’ll walk right past you.
“I’d rather pass on light than darkness. Think about our young minds. If your child comes home and all you say is You did this and this wrong, that’s how we create bullies, through the way we talk. If you pass darkness around, soon you’ll create a world where no light can be found.”
Seven years into being Tygra, the upbeat queen, it’s no longer an act. “It comes with maturity, the realization that in the big picture any upset is really so small,” she says. “I’m Tygra every day—that’s my stage name and my offstage name. I live this live, 24/7, whether I’m with a patient at work or in front of a crowd. The only difference is how much makeup I have on and how big my boots are.”
*Third Thursday: Pride pop-up drag performances curated the by Flip Phone.