As senior English major Jack Hoda practiced his makeup for his first drag show, he pointed out a scar in his eyebrow that was impossible to cover up.
“When I was a kid, I loved makeup and wearing high heels, so I would get in trouble all the time for taking my mom’s and grandma’s lipsticks. One day, when I was like three years old, my grandma was making lunch, and she walked in on me when I was going through her purse looking for her lipstick,” Hoda said. “So, I took off running and ran directly into a rocking chair. I was a little baby drag queen.”
On Saturday, Feb. 23, Hattiesburg’s LGBTQ+ community the Spectrum Center hosted its first amateur drag show, Queens and Carnival, at the Thirsty Hippo.
Although Hoda shined with confidence throughout his drag performance, his experience as a gay man was not always as exciting.
“For most of high school, I was in the closet. I was the super religious guy. I dated girls even though I knew I was gay,” Hoda said. “I was just in this culture where I was told my whole life that I was going to hell if I was gay.”
Hoda came out as gay near the end of his junior year of high school, and like others in the LGBTQ+ community, struggled with bullying and acceptance.
“People were bullying, sending me messages on Instagram and Twitter, sending me Bible verses—that was probably one of the most emotionally tumultuous times of my life,” Hoda said. “I didn’t feel like I could go to church anymore, and I felt unsafe and disrespected at school.”
In an effort to support Hoda, a group of friends helped him establish a Gay-Straight Alliance at his school. When the school’s administration immediately shut down the group, an anonymous friend of Hoda got in touch with an attorney from Mississippi’s branch of ACLU.
“She helped me print out several Mississippi legislation codes, so when we went back and met with the school principal, we had the legal proof that we could sue [the administration] if it did not allow us to create a GSA,” Hoda said.
Hoda attributes this experience to be the beginning of his love for political activism.
“I think that was when I realized that policies can truly be used to help people,” Hoda said.
At Southern Miss, Hoda has served as a senator for the College of Arts and Letters in the Student Government Association. In 2018, he passed a resolution that modified the admissions application to include the optional self-indicators for prospective students to express their preferred pronouns, gender identity and sexual orientation.
In addition to his involvement in student government, Hoda is also conducting a qualitative study on the experiences of Deep South LGBTQ+ students from public schools for his honors thesis project.
“When I began the research, I found that everything is focused so much on the negatives—suicidality, depression, bullying,” Hoda said. “There’s an interesting sociological theory on how only focusing on the negative experiences eventually stigmatizes the LGBTQ+ experience and reproduces the problem, so my study is focusing on positive experiences to try and combat that problem.”
When discussing the contrast between his political involvement and his participation in the amateur drag show, Hoda said that he believes drag is political in itself.
“Because of cultural ideas of gender, and obviously due to the oppression of the LGBTQ+ community in general, I think it’s a naturally political practice,” Hoda said. “Most drag queens are extremely politically active. People don’t realize that drag started in a place of protest and solidarity among LGBTQ+ people.”
On Saturday, Hoda performed as Jackie N Finity and won first place. The venue was full of Hoda’s childhood friends, members of SGA and supportive members of the Hattiesburg community. Hayden Scott, Hoda’s boyfriend, voiced his support after Hoda won the drag contest.
“I am so proud of my boyfriend. He works so hard in everything he does. I love him. He’s gorgeous as both Jack and Jackie,” Scott said.
Keenon Walker, vice president of the Spectrum Center, helped create the event and mentioned his support for Hoda.
“I met Jack at Hattiesburg Pride when he came up to me, hugged me and told me it was his first Pride. Since this is our first drag show, the whole time he was performing I was about to cry,” Walker said. “I’ve seen him grow up and discover himself, and it’s very special.”
After graduation, Hoda will continue his political involvement by working on an economic and workforce development project for Mayor Lumumba in Jackson, Miss. The project will create access networks to help train and employ the unemployed population.
“I want to continue working in public service and in government, I’m really passionate about education, workforce development and LGBTQ+ rights,” Hoda said. “I’d be happy working in local government or nonprofits that focus on those topics.”
Long-term, Hoda plans to stay in Mississippi to continue helping Mississippi’s LGBTQ+ community.
“Mississippi is my love,” Hoda said. “My ultimate dream is to be the first queer governor of Mississippi.”