Tara Nicole Brooks has performed in drag for more than three decades and become a local legend in Wilmington. She’s performing nearly 20 events this June, alongside many other local performers, including a Pride block party hosted by several local bars that brought hundreds of people out into the streets.
While the city itself has never hosted Pride events, local businesses and organizations have stepped up to fill the void.
Still, something felt different this year, Brooks said – more tense. In the wake of a proposal to ban drag shows in the legislature and outcry against local shows across both the state and the country, this year’s events felt as much like a protest as a party.
Brooks has long been an unofficial spokesperson for the local drag and LGBTQ community, and serves as entertainment director at Ibiza, Wilmington’s premiere gay bar. For this year’s festivities, she wore four handmade dresses, each emblazoned with a saying:
“Drag Is Not A Crime.”
“Trans Lives Matter.”
“Love Is Love.”
“I Am What I Am.”
“I can’t believe it’s 2023 and we’re having to do this all over again,” she told The Assembly. “I’ve been put in a position where I have a voice and I’m using it.”
Brooks grew up in the small rural town of Beulaville, North Carolina. After her mother passed away when she was young, she spent much of her time with her grandmother who taught Brooks how to sew. She eventually moved to Wilmington and began performing in drag shows.
Ibiza became Brooks’ second home soon after it opened in 2001. On stage, amongst the pulsing lights and pounding music, she is at peace. “Any sadness goes away,” she says. “Any anxiety goes away. Everything else just fades away. It’s my happy place.”
She describes her journey to coming out as transgender as “a process” – scary at times, but “doing drag made me more comfortable being Tara Brooks.”
Brooks will turn 60 later this year. She plans to have a blow-out birthday party at Ibiza, where murals of her adorn the dressing room and collages of her hang behind the bar.
She has no plans to slow down. “If it stops being fun, I’ll stop,” she says. That hasn’t happened yet.
Madeline Gray is a Wilmington-based photographer. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Mother Jones, and The Wall Street Journal. See more of her work here.