Melinda Ryder (Bruce Winter) and Kirk Nelson are among Kansas City’s most well-known and beloved couples. The two met in 1982 at a softball tournament in Houston.
“I got to see Bruce and Melinda in the same day,” Nelson begins. “I thought he was the cutest guy there and someone told me he was a drag queen. The only drag queen I’d ever seen was a scrawny thing that looked like a prostitute, but Bruce wasn’t a small guy and seemed pretty masculine, so I just couldn’t picture it. That evening, I saw Melinda perform alongside the top drag queens in the country and I was amazed by the transformation.”
Born and raised in St. Louis, Melinda regularly performed at the Red Bull. “The River Queens there were top notch and taught me a lot. In 1976, I was crowned ‘Most Promising New Entertainer’ and I guess they knew what they were talking about. I’m still at it nearly 40 years later,” Ryder says.
That same year she moved to Kansas City, where drag queens weren’t even allowed in gay bars. “There was a club called the Jewel Box where straight people went to see drag queens, much like La Cage in Paris,” Ryder recalls. “It was a tourist attraction, but drag was frowned upon in gay bars until the early 80s. Back then, everyone was trying to be butch and even the nelliest queen in the bar would be wearing a flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up.”
However, the gay bars would come calling when they needed to raise money, and Ryder used those openings to push for change, convincing bar owners that drag was good for business. In the following years, she directed shows at every club in town.
The transformation from Bruce to Melinda takes 90 minutes. “About 45 minutes for the face, and 45 for the padding, hair, and getting dressed,” Ryder explains. “And Kirk is the ultimate drag husband.”
“I’ve always been in the theatre,” Nelson says. “At first, I would just do her costuming, hair and makeup for special events.
Now I do it all the time.”
“We’re totally in sync,” Ryder says. “When preparing for a show, I know what he wants me to do without him saying a word.”
Ryder says the boyfriends of drag performers often feel pushed aside, but in addition to Nelson’s interest in theatre and costuming, he’s a performer in his own right with singing gigs around town. Their shared interest in show business has made their relationship fun and effortless.
“At first, there was a little conflict because I was staying out ‘til three or four in the morning, because you preform until one and then you want to have a few hours of fun yourself,” Ryder says. “But at our age, it’s not fun to just hang out at a bar, so Kirk doesn’t go out at all. We only go out when there’s a show and we’re always together. We’re heavily involved in our community, serving on several boards including the LikeMe Lighthouse, which is Kansas City’s LGBT Center, and Gay and Lesbian Archives of Mid-America (GLAMA).
They don’t know many other relationships like theirs.
“It seems a lot of drag queens have a boyfriend one minute and the next they don’t,” Nelson says. “I think some try to hide the fact they’re a drag queen at first, out of fear of being rejected. But when it comes to the person you’re with, you have to respect their personal interests.”
Regarding their advice for longevity, Nelson continues, “If you’re out and something makes you mad, don’t make a scene! Just be mad for a day or two, talk about it and don’t break up over it.”
On their 30 anniversary, the two were legally married in Iowa, and then they held what they call “our big drag wedding” at Kansas City Museum’s palatial Corinthian Hall, also known as the “Palace on Gladstone Boulevard,” in what was the event of the season.
A lavish spectacle fit for a Queen.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JON BARBE