Kelly Sullivan/The AS Review
The dimly lit, blue-hued dance floor at Rumors Cabaret is empty. The walls are lined with patrons, their eyes transfixed on the center of the room. Here stands the bodacious Bellingham icon, Betty Desire. On the spot-lit stage, she is in her element, wooing the crowd with witty quips and sexual innuendos, forcing even the tight-lipped to shake with laughter.
Desire says her enthusiasm for her weekly cabaret hasn’t diminished after 15 years.
It is always a real exchange of energy between entertainer and audience.
“That’s true of any performer,” she said. “When I see everybody, it’s invigorating.”
Nick Milhoan, Desire’s friend and fellow gay pride parade committee member, said the show is always entertaining.
“It’s never boring,” Milhoan said. “If you’re with Betty you always have a good time.”
The idea to develop a drag identity came about when Desire decided to come out publicly as a gay man. Desire found that being part of the gay scene in Bellingham meant sitting in a bar where socializing wasn’t necessarily encouraged.
“I felt like I was sitting in an observation box,” said Desire.
She still remembers where she was when she heard that Harvey Milk, the first openly gay official elected to office, had been assassinated. She honors Milk in small ways.
“Visibility saves lives,” said Desire, recalling Milks mantra. Desire said that she walks to her show every Wednesday in full costume. She said she believes that if the gay community is given greater exposure, then more of the public will start to see the gay and lesbian lifestyle as normal. When someone tells Desire that knowing her changed the way they felt about gay people, it is the best compliment, she said.
Brian Spencer, editor of the Betty Pages, Washington’s second-largest alternative lifestyle publication, which Desire produces, said Desire has been a part of the unification of Whatcom County’s gay community.
“She is a really iconic figure,” Spencer said. “She can really rally the troops when needed.”
When Referendum 71, a 2009 ballot measure extending domestic partnership rights to gay and lesbian couples in Washington, was up to vote, Desire sat on the steps of the Federal Building in downtown Bellingham in the cold and rain every day for a month and a half.
“It was the first time any rights had been extended to gays and lesbians by ballot box anywhere,” Desire said.
Activism has always been a part of Desire’s life. Before coming out to her family, she said she was, “a right wing activist, if you can believe it.”
Desire was raised Catholic, but at the age of 16 became deeply involved in an evangelical fundamentalist Christian church, which told her they would be able to turn her straight.
In the late 1980s Desire’s grandparents passed away, and the grieving process was the catalyst to a new mentality.
“I literally did everything I could to become heterosexual.If god had wanted to change my orientation he would have done so,” Desire said. “I’ve been gay since I was in sixth grade. I believe you are who you are and you are born that way.”
After coming out to her family in the early ‘90s, Desire opened a coffee shop in Ferndale which she said drew the most eclectic crowd. Being around the people that came to her shop helped her build a new kind of comfort with herself and make some long lasting friends. She said this helped her begin to come out publicly.
In addition to her adult-oriented drag show at Rumors, Desire also performs for younger audiences. She does an all-ages show at the Old World Deli on State Street every Monday night, and she has also performed at Western and Whatcom Community College.
Desire has twice been named Empress of the Imperial Sovereign Court of the Evergreen Empire, the Bellingham chapter of an international drag organization. She has also won Miss Gay Bellingham four times.
“Betty is always there as a support person for the community as a whole,” Milhoan said. “If anything needs a voice, she’s a very loud voice which works very well.”
Desire said she loves her local celebrity status, but is still looking for a romantic relationship with someone who can handle her busy lifestyle.
“I can honestly say that I love my life and what I do. Any guy that sweeps me off my feet has to know he has to share me with the rest of the community,” said Desire.