Maybe you remember seeing this photo that went viral in March 2017, featuring two women sitting next to each other on the New York City subway: one was a presumably Muslim woman with her entire face nearly covered, the other was a drag queen in a massive orange wig and short blue dress, looking at her phone. In the tone of a dire warning, a Twitter user shared it with the caption “This is the future that liberals want.” The liberal reaction online was overwhelmingly positive, affirming that indeed, they did want this future. (The New Yorker has a nice summary of the dust-up here.)
The drag queen in the photo was Gilda Wabbit, given name Samuel Penn, a classically-trained opera singer who grew up in Frankfort, Kentucky. I’m also a classically-trained opera singer, so I did a little research through my networks and found that Sam and I know dozens of people in common. I was in New York last spring to do some interviews, and I met up with Sam at his apartment in Astoria, Queens — a one bedroom, which he called his “drag room,” completely full of wigs, costumes, makeup and shoes.
During that interview, Sam mentioned that he was considering moving back to Kentucky, and he did just that a couple of months ago. You’ll hear a special update from Sam at the end of the interview. Gilda Wabbit is now a featured performer at Play Louisville, and she continues to make appearances around the region and in New York.
On how he came up with the name Gilda Wabbit:
“I’m a classically-trained opera singer, so one of my favorite things growing up was ‘Looney Tunes.’ I loved the classical music, I loved the animation, I wanted to go into animation, I loved the beauty of the art but also the ridiculousness of the comedy that went along. And there’s an episode of ‘Looney Tunes’ called ‘What’s Opera, Doc?’ And in it, Bugs Bunny is running from Elmer Fudd, and they’re singing along to Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries,’ and Elmer Fudd sings, “Kill da wabbit, kill da wabbit, kill da wabbit.’ And I thought, ‘Gilda Wabbit.'”
How creating his drag identity helped him feel more like himself:
“I moved to New York to become myself. I felt a little trapped by the expectations of everyone I knew in Kentucky, expectations of my family, expectations of my music teachers, expectations of my friends, and I moved to New York to sort of get a tabula rasa, a fresh slate. Let me learn who I actually am. I moved here when I was 23. I needed a place to become myself, and drag really became that for me, which sounds funny because I’m becoming a different person onstage. But through finding out what I wanted Gilda to be, I also found out who Sam actually was.”
On coming out as a gay man when he was 16 years old:
“Based on the fact that I lived in Kentucky, based on the fact that I was raised in a conservative Christian household, based on the fact that I knew my parents were Republicans, I had this vision in my head of how terribly things would go when I came out. I thought that I would be shunned in my church family. I didn’t think they would kick me out, they weren’t those kind of people, but I thought that they would really want to make me straight.”