Beneva Fruitville (aka Berry Ayers) (courtesy the artist)

I am a drag queen performer from Florida. I was born in Winter Haven Hospital and lived and studied in the state for 17 years before I finally got out in 1993. I left because I had the drive and passion to pursue musical theatre for a living. I did, however, have an incredible education and opportunities to excel before leaving. I went to a performing arts high school, where I worked with and was mentored by some of the best people in the musical theatre industry, including Ann Reinking. I also felt comfortable with myself and the world that I existed in to come out as gay when I was 15 in 1991. But I was so ready to get out and see the world.

I was later accepted to every college program I auditioned for, including schools in New York, Boston, Florida, and Ohio. I settled on the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and its illustrious musical theatre BFA program. Four years later, I began working in New York. I sustained myself in musical theatre for 17 years. Somewhere during that time, I discovered drag. It became an outlet for me that combined my talents and education, while branching into a whole new form of entertainment that focused on my own work and my ideas, instead of those of a theater director. I fell in love with drag and the character I created, Beneva Fruitville. I got my drag name from an actual intersection in Sarasota, Florida. The first time I heard of it, I thought it would be a perfect drag name. I worked as Beneva for 13 years. I loved her, and being her taught me how to love myself.

I was on the board of directors for an LGBTQ+ youth organization when Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill was proposed. I was working with youth and helping the organization’s programming in various events frequently scheduled. It was a devastating blow the day the legislation passed, mostly because I truly did not understand what it all meant as a trans woman who performed as a drag queen. The subsequent issues and further legislation continued to obscure and blur lines to the point where I do not know what it is I am allowed to do. I have been scheduled for events, specifically a book reading event where I was threatened not to attend. I had planned to take the gig, but on the morning of the event, I had a full-on panic attack and couldn’t stop crying or leave my bed. I felt horrible for the organizers because I left them in a lurch but I could not, physically and mentally, handle leaving my bed. I lost several regular gigs, mostly in restaurants. None of them overtly said it was because they were scared, but I’m sure they just didn’t want any trouble. All those regular gigs were how I made a living. Feeling unwelcome in Florida, I decided to move out but when I lost all of my work, I couldn’t afford to do that, and I had great trouble finding a job in the professional world as a trans woman. As a result, I asked my mother, who is on a fixed income in Florida, if I could stay with her. She has been amazing, but finding work outside the entertainment industry and being trans in Florida is impossible. I have supported myself as an entertainer and business owner for at least five years and all of that is now gone. My anxiety and depression have almost made me agoraphobic. I sugarcoat the helplessness I feel with ideas of just laying low and trying to figure out what my next step in life is, but I’m truly at a loss for what to do for work and what kind of life I can expect to live.

I just know that staying in Florida is not an option. It is draconian and dystopian here. I live in fear. As an activist and advocate for LGBTQ+ youth, I have had to take a step back for my mother’s safety and mine. I stopped using Facebook because I received multiple anonymous threats and hateful messages. It became so toxic and time-consuming trying not only to explain that I deserve to exist, live, and thrive but to also dispel misconceptions about my life. It blows my mind how much misinformation there is about what being trans actually means and how Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) and hormone blockers affect the body. People eat fast-food crap and yet worry about what a medicine that has been through dozens of tests does. It’s mostly ignorance, prejudice, and outright hate of the “other.”

I want to work and help out and fight, but I am so exhausted and depressed. When your entire existence is on the news every day and subject to legislation, it makes it extremely uncomfortable to exist in this world. I feel like I let so many people down by my semi-retirement as Beneva, but I don’t know exactly what to do. The thing I’m most proud of doing as Beneva was working with LGBTQ+ youth because if I had opportunities and mentorship in my own teens, it could have saved me from some major problems I had in my 20s with drugs and sex. Through Beneva, I found a love for myself that I didn’t have before. I couldn’t imagine that it would help to heal me. That ultimately made me want to give this gift to others. Through story times, flash mobs, family-friendly Pride events, LGBTQ+ prom, and my work with a youth group, I was able to connect and share love and acceptance with hundreds of kids who may not feel that they are allowed to be who they are.

I had a conversation with a friend during one of my last mentoring sessions with LGBTQ+ youth. I began to cry as I knew this would probably be my last visit. I told her how exhausted I was and that I have been fighting for nearly 30 years: beginning in college with Act Up, later with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, CAN Community Health, Suncoast AIDS Theater Project, and most recently ALSO Youth. 

My friend said to me so lovingly, “It’s okay for you to rest now, we’ve got this.” But I can’t stop feeling like a failure. I know in my head that these laws and legislations are wrong and harmful, but my heart is so broken and my sense of self is shaken. Instead of fighting the fight publicly, I’m now fighting the fight internally to allow myself to exist. It’s the biggest battle I’ve ever fought, and some days I feel like I’m losing.

Beneva Fruitville aka Berry Ayers is a musical theater professional and drag queen. Her work has been seen on stages from LA to NYC and every continent except Antarctica. She has worked as an activist...