Metro Weekly

The Academy of Washington closes

After years of declining membership and participation, the venerated D.C. social club for drag performers dissolves

Members of the Academy of Washington at the annual Golden Boy Awards (Photo courtesy of: Andre Hopfer).
Members of the Academy of Washington at the annual Golden Boy Awards (Photo courtesy of: Andre Hopfer).

After 55 years, the Academy of Washington, a social club for drag performers, has shut down. On Monday, Oct. 26, the board of directors decided to dissolve the corporation, effective immediately. In an email to its members, the corporate officers implied that the decision was a long time coming.

“As many of you have been aware, the Academy of Washington has been on life support for several years,” the email obtained by Metro Weekly reads. “It’s not working and there hasn’t been any movement forward at all — in fact, it’s been moving in the opposite direction. We are unable to get contestants for contests such as Miss Gaye America (DC), Mr. and Miss Gaye USA (DC), and Zodiac…. [We] have operated at a loss of the 2015 calendar year.

“With the creation of a functioning, responsive Board of Directors, we had hoped that we could start turning things around. However it has become clear to the Board that the membership has no confidence in the leadership of the organization,” the email continues. “It is time to take responsible action to save the reputation of the Academy. Action needs to be taken now before things get worse or we are financially forced to take action.”

According to the email, all current titleholders must return the crowns and title regalia provided to them to the board of directors, as those items are considered corporate assets. The House Mothers of Addison Road and Beekman Place, will contact individual members to discuss the impact of the decision and what it means for them.

Andre Hopfer, a.k.a. Tula, says the decision was difficult but ultimately necessary.

“Even though it was a social club, the Academy was a business,” says Hopfer. “It’s depending on income to pay for things, and over the last few years, membership has dropped. People had other things to do, other places to go. You know, people moved away, we didn’t gain a lot of new members. So it was really a financial decision, because we just couldn’t keep the group going for lack of income. We couldn’t afford to rent places anymore where we could meet and do shows. So that was one of the driving factors.”

Hopfer attributes the Academy’s struggles to recruit pageant contestants to the decrease in dues-paying members, claiming that there was simply less interest in competing for drag pageant titles. But he also notes that greater acceptance of the LGBT community, and in particular, drag performers, has reduced the need for an Academy-type organization — which was once a safe haven for drag performers.

Members of the Academy at the 50th Annual Golden Boy Awards (Photo: Andre Hopfer).
Members of the Academy at the 50th Annual Golden Boy Awards (Photo: Andre Hopfer).

“When the Academy was created in the ’60s, it was illegal to do drag,” he says. “It was an issue to be gay. Doing drag was something that was against the law, you could be arrested for impersonations. So the Academy was created for people to have a safe place to go, and then it grew and was enormously popular into the 1990s.”

“When the Academy first started, it was really the only place that you could do drag,” adds Frank Taylor, a.k.a. Danielle Devereaux. “The bars in D.C. didn’t accept drag, a lot of the gay community didn’t accept it. I think there are just a lot of options available now, that weren’t available before.”

Taylor, who recently celebrated 29 years with the Academy, says he is certain that the Academy performers will be able to find other outlets where they can perform, noting that several are also involved with the Imperial Court drag system.

“I hope that the legacy we leave is one of acceptance of various forms of drag and acceptance of a culture,” he says.

“I’m very, very sad,” says Hopfer, “because it’s been a very important part of my life. For 22 years, I’ve planned my fall, winter and spring around the organization. It’s like losing a family member…. It’s devastating. And it’s going to be difficult, because people are going to ask questions, they’re going to say, ‘Well, why did it happen?’ I don’t think there’s a clear answer. So many variables are involved it’s like there is no straightforward answer. Sometimes things just go.”

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