How a drag show deep in the Everglades dismantled stereotypes and changed minds

Deep in the Florida Everglades almost 2000 years ago, the native populations began discarding oyster shells on a nearby reef. Eventually, sand and mangroves took root on the manufactured island and Chokoloskee was born. 

On the same site 2000 years later, a drag queen did a full split to the pounding beat of electronic music at the HavAnna Cafe.

“Oh, the show was just so incredible,” said Annie Turner, 69, who’s lived on the island since the 70s, “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Turner was one of the many locals who attended the drag show held at the cafe owned by Aaron Tabor and his partner David Ardelean on Jan. 14. 

In Florida, drag performances have become a divisive issue, and in Chokoloskee, located in a precinct that voted 80.8% for Ron Desantis in the 2022 gubernatorial election, hosting the show was likely to elicit backlash. But for Tabor, who was raised on the island, the show was an opportunity to prove that he can live unapologetically as himself in his conservative hometown.

Tabor moved to Chokoloskee at age 5 and spent his youth on the water in the maze of mangrove alcoves that make up the Ten Thousand Islands region.

“On school nights as kids we used to come out here on our boats and try and get lost so we wouldn’t have to go to school the next day,” said Tabor, “It never worked though, they always found us.”

As a teen, Tabor worked at the Parkway Motel and Marina on the island, before he got a chance to work as a plumber with his father and moved away, eventually settling in Fort Lauderdale in 2007. It was there he met and fell in love with Ardelean. 

Tabor (left) and Matthews as she performs at HavAnna cafe. (Photo courtesy of Carolina Bonnelly).

On a trip back to Chokoloskee, Tabor took Ardelean on a boat ride to watch the sunset that ended less romantically than intended when the light vanished.

“It was getting dark and I wasn’t quite sure where the pass was to come in, but eventually I found it,” said Tabor. “We ran aground a few times, which happens out here.”

David was much less calm about the situation.

“I was a hot mess, without instrumentation, without GPS. Aaron was navigating like a boy scout, with a compass and just watching the way the water ripples.”

Despite the rocky start, Ardelean, who has a degree in marine biology, quickly fell in love with the natural beauty of the area.

“I love it down here, I love the ecology, the biology, the marine component, the botany, the old growth of Fakahatchee and Big Cypress,” said Ardelean, “This part of Florida has some incredible flora and fauna that’s really unique.”

So on New Year’s Eve 2021 they bought the Parkway Motel and Marina, the same establishment Tabor worked at as a teen.

“I spent my whole life trying to get out of here, and now we’re back!” joked Tabor.

A year later, they bought the HavAnna Cafe, a bustling in-season spot that opens from October to April, in the summer of 2022.

Heading into their second season, Tabor and Ardelean were looking for help in the kitchen before Alandra Matthews reached out.

Matthews inspired the idea of hosting a drag show at the restaurant. Matthews and Tabor were friends when they both lived in Fort Lauderdale, where Matthews frequently performed drag under the name Alondra Sparks. In 2019 Matthews moved to Fargo, North Dakota, with her now-husband Ian. There the environment for drag performances was much less welcoming.

“I’m used to Fort Lauderdale, where there’s drag every day,” said Matthews, “But up there we were doing drag in basements, out of sight of everyone.”

Matthews collecting tips at HavAnna Cafe. (Courtesy of Carolina Bonnelly).

Matthews thought that moving back to Florida meant that she could perform more openly, but the Florida she left and the Florida she returned to were much different. 

In May 2023, Florida passed a law that made it a misdemeanor for someone to use a bathroom that doesn’t align with their sex assigned at birth. Later that month, the Legislature passed a law that banned children from attending “adult live performances” – a law that has been blocked by the Supreme Court. In addition, legislators have not shied away from the narrative that drag shows are grooming children. State Rep.Taylor Yarkovsky, Florida House District 25, has tweeted that drag is “evil grooming and confusing of our young kids.”

It is in this political climate that HavAnna cafe decided to hold its drag show on Jan. 14. 

Tabor was adamant that the show would be PG. That meant no swearing, no crude jokes, no dollar bills in g-strings. But since the show was advertised online, negative comments and rumors began to swirl. A post on TripAdvisor slammed the restaurant for hosting the show, and even made a fake poster featuring photos of the performers from their more explicitly adult shows to imply the atmosphere wouldn’t be family friendly.

“What scumbags they are to say that it’s not for kids, when they’re making stuff up and lying,” said Tabor, “but we called (TripAdvisor) and they took it down.”

Even Tabor’s personal Facebook posts weren’t spared. One post about the event on Jan. 11th featured a comment from a user named Sherri Mcrander Thompson who’s facebook profile lists her as living in New Albany, Ind.

“Why do grown homosexual men need to dress up as women, to make fun of real women? It is disgusting, and disturbing..stop influencing the young children, by telling them its OK..this is a small family community . And for them to do their show on a Sunday at church service time right next door..just not right ..period.“

Rumors began that a church in Fort Myers would bring picketters down, and another church in nearby Everglades City also would protest.

Amid this negativity, Jesse Wilson, the pastor of the only church on the island, the Chokoloskee Family Church, took a different approach. 

“At no time are we thinking about picketing or planning anything like that,” said Wilson, “Aaron knows that none of that was gonna come from us.”

Wilson believes that homosexuality is a sin. But he preaches that disapproval for a sin is a separate affair from disapproval of a person.

“We as a church disagree with the homosexual agenda, but we love homosexuals,” said Wilson, “God loves the sinner, but hates the sin. We will love the individual, but we won’t agree with the lifestyle.”

Ardelean, who sometimes attends the Church’s Thursday bible study, was appreciative of  Wilson’s message.

There was another preacher who used to be here, who was very fire and brimstone, humiliating people until they submit,” he said, “To have a pastor as progressive as he (Wilson) is, it’s great, it’s forward moving.

According to Ardelean, much of the trepidations from locals stemmed from a fear of the unknown.

“A lot of people are afraid of the unknown. A lot of city slickers are afraid to come to the Everglades because of snakes and gators and bugs,” he said, “And a lot of people here may be scared of the theatrical arts because they’ve never seen it before and they don’t know what to expect.”

The day of the show, no protestors arrived, the rumors turned out to be just that. Instead what happened was two sold out performances and 320 satisfied guests.

“I think it shocked everyone that they were in nice pretty long gowns,” said local Cami Willamson. “Then they had these outfits on underneath, and those were cool too!”

The success of the shows was especially meaningful to Tabor.

“After going through all that, being in my hometown, a small town, you always have to be on your soapbox defending yourself,” he said, “At one point, and it still gives me goosebumps, I saw every single person with a huge smile on their face.”

It even inspired some of those who missed out to reconsider. Matthews recalled an encounter she had at the recent seafood festival.

“I ran into an older gentleman who had tipped me at the show,” she said, ”He introduced me to his friend who didn’t come to the show because he was scared. He said he would come to the next one.”

There are still those who will choose to disagree and boycott the restaurant, but they are a small minority.

“Some people stopped eating there as soon as they (Tabor and Ardelean) bought the restaurant. But we didn’t, so we continued to eat there,” said Wilson. “They haven’t lost us.”

The timing of the next show is still up for discussion, but the impact of the first ever drag show on Chokoloskee was resoundingly positive. 

“By continuing to shine our light, we give a green light for other people,” said Ardelean, “It’s ok to be queer and from a small town, it’s not something that impossible, in that empowerment, it’s good, it’s a good thing.”

Carlton is a Digital Broadcasting student and intends to pursue a career in journalism. Born and raised in Broward County, he hopes to combine his passion for this community and storytelling to deliver news, insights, and perspectives to the people of South Florida.