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Texas Renaissance Festival Strives to Be an LGBTQ “Safe Space”

Queer vendors and performers preview this year’s medieval experience.

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Chip Ware is an ambassador guide coordinator for the Texas Rennaissance Festival (photo via Facebook)

On the nearly hour-long drive from downtown Houston to the Texas Renaissance Festival (TRF) in Todd Mission, folks may come across many advertisements for the theme park, like a billboard of a blond child in medieval-inspired robes chomping a turkey leg next to the slogan: “Come as You Aren’t.” 

Many guests live by these words—wearing flowy gowns, sparkling wings, and armor made of metal as they approach the festival’s main entrance and step into what feels like another era in a land far from home.

TRF is open to the public through November 28. Folks can enjoy the festival from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturdays, Sundays, and the Friday after Thanksgiving. 

Comprising nearly 300 acres of land and camping facilities, TRF is one of the nation’s largest Renaissance-themed festivals. Upon arrival, people can browse through 400 on-site shops and take in over 150 performances by myriad entertainers, many of whom belong to the LGBTQ community.

TRF’s ambassador guide coordinator Chip Ware, a nonbinary individual who uses they/them pronouns, leads free tours around the festival.

“Even if you’re sad, you won’t be for long,” Ware says. “You’re going to find an entertainer who lifts your spirits, vendors who’ve made the best bath bombs you’ve ever had. You’re going to have a great experience.”

Ware has been going to the festival at least once a year since they first attended in 1995 as part of a school trip. They say everyone should take part in the festival, especially members of the queer community, because TRF has always been LGBTQ-affirming and even had some of their entertainers march in Houston’s Pride parade. “With so many of our safe spaces revolving around the nightlife and bar culture, TRF gives us an additional safe space for all of us.”  

Due to COVID-19, the festival was capped at 50 percent capacity in 2020. According to a former TRF manager in a 2020 Houston Chronicle article, about 15 percent of their vendors chose not to participate in the festival last year. 

Ware says many of the vendors and performers returning this year want to see their fans and share what they’ve been working on. “They’re pretty much pulling out all the stops.” 

Those who attend the 2021 TRF are not required to wear masks or get vaccinated. Employees, vendors, and performers are allowed entry only if they are vaccinated or can provide a negative COVID-19 test taken no more than three days before the festival. TRF will also offer the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and free testing at the main entrance.

What: Texas Renaissance Festival 2021
When: Saturdays and Sundays through November 28
Where: 21778 FM 1774, Todd Mission
Info: texrenfest.com


Meet some of TRF’s LGBTQ vendors and performers below:

THE GREEN HOUR

At the Wyrmwood Public House, up a flight of stairs and at the far end of an air-conditioned room with a built-in bar, lies a stage where The Green Hour culminates. 

The popular four-act burlesque and variety show narrates the history of absinthe. Tifa Tittlywinks, a pansexual artist and the The Green Hour’s co-producer and scriptwriter, says the response to the show has been overwhelming. When the show first premiered last year, a man walked up to the stage and said, “I would like to pay $100 for the writer’s pasties!” To which a cast member shouted, “$100 each!” The man agreed to pay $200 for Tittlywink’s bedazzled coverings and gave them to his wife. 

Tifa Tittlywinks (center) surrounded by cast members of ‘The Green Hour’ (courtesy photo)

Tittlywinks says the show means a lot to her and her team, many of whom also belong to the LGBTQ community. 

Due to the pandemic, The Green Hour crew had nothing to do and nowhere to work. “All of the artists were like, ‘Are we ever going to [work] again?’” Tittlywinks recalls. Determined, they spent months rehearsing The Green Hour, and the show became one of TRF’s most sought-after performances. 

Tittlywinks says it is the best show she has ever produced. “I’m not a scriptwriter, so the fact that I can get a lot of burlesquers to deliver lines is an achievement in itself,” laughs Tittlywinks.

The show is not only important to Tittlywinks professionally, but also personally. “In a matter of six months, I lost my father and my entire life dream plan,” she says, adding that she was supposed to move to McCarthy, Alaska, in April 2021. “This show means the world to me because it came to me when everything was ripped away from me.” 

She encourages others to come to support the show and escape to a welcoming, colorful realm. “TRF is kind of what would have happened if the queers ran the Renaissance,” Tittlywinks says. “Everything out here is pure whim, love, joy, and elation.” 

Catch a showing of The Green Hour at the Wyrmword Public House on Saturdays at 4 and 6 p.m., and on Sundays at 4 p.m. To reserve a seat, visit bit.ly/3aQj5j4.


BARBARIAN BOMBSHELLS 

People can come see the Barbarian Bombshells belt out battle cries and more at the Barbarian Inn. Throughout the day, the group of warriors shows audiences (or women and “filthy manservants”) how to drink, fight, and have a good time outside of the British elite’s sexist rule. 

During the show, barbarians Lola Von Smash, Viio, and Becky Bombshell cheekily stare down the audience and do pelvic thrusts as they masterfully debate about spears and eggplants. In between lines, they’ll nod to viewers on the inn’s first and second floor, ensuring, no, they don’t really think that members of the audience have “small swords.”  

‘Barbarian Bombshell’ cast members Viio, Lola Von Smash, and Becky Bombshell (courtesy photo)

Smash, a pansexual performer with a fluid gender identity, uses she/they pronouns. They perform as the group’s front man. 

The show was originally written to increase the amount of female representation at TRF. Now, Smash and the other barbarians are working to make the show a beacon of LGBTQ representation as well.  

While Smash has been performing as the show’s lead barbarian for the last few years, this is the first year they’re making the character their own. The other barbarians refer to Smash’s character with they/them pronouns and mention Smash’s girlfriend and history with women. They’ve even given their character a new, androgynous name: Xamora Vil Smash. 

“I finally feel comfortable to put myself into the role,” Smash says.

Like Smash, another pansexual actress, Viio, initially struggled with her performance. When she first got the role, she was a nervous budding actress who felt like she had big shoes to fill. But now, years later, she’s made the character her own and can confidently recite a speech about slicing “eggplants” while staring down men in the crowd, no problem. 

“I got a compliment this past weekend from an audience member; he called me scary, and that made me 100 times more confident,” Viio laughs.

As one of the few people of color who perform at TRF, Viio hopes other underrepresented folk become interested in the fair, because it has done so much for her. 

Not only did Barbarian Bombshells build her confidence as an actress, but the show also helped her embrace her sexuality. Growing up in a Christian household and community, Viio was told throughout her life that being gay was a sin, and she only dated cisgender men out of fear of reproach. However, once she became a part of the Barbarian Bombshells and met other members of the LGBTQ community, she started living her best queer life.  

Smash says the group loves doing the show partly because it’s never exactly the same. They add, “We have such a good time, jumping from table to table. Anyone who comes through can see the heart behind it. And who doesn’t need more of that in their life?”

People can head to the Barbarian Inn to see Barbarian Bombshells in-person Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m., and 5 p.m. 


CIRQUE OLYMPUS

Guests will hear shouts of “Opa!” when they walk by the Agora Stage, where the Cirque Olympus performs throughout the day. Inspired by Greek mythology, the show features performances by Greek gods—from Apollo juggling several bowling pins while balancing on a board atop a ball to Aphrodite firing an arrow over her head with her feet. 

Nikki Knockout, a native Houstonian, and the entertainer who plays Aphrodite, wrote and produced the show. Coming up with the jokes was her favorite part of the creation process. 

“We have what we like to call ‘Shrek humor,’” she says, referencing the 2001 DreamWorks Animation film. “We have some adult jokes that go over children’s heads. It’s still family-friendly, but made for everyone.”

At one point, Aphrodite gets on all fours to help Athena reach the trapeze for her aerial act. “I remember the first time I got on my knees,” she says with a knowing smile. “I was praying.” 

‘Cirque Olympus’ actors Circus Bonnie, Noah Maudlin, and Nikki Knockout (photo by Lillian Hoang)

The show also includes many teaching moments. For example, how gay the Greek gods were.

“When we made this, we were like, ‘All the gods were very gay,’ so we wanted to really keep that behind the character,” Knockout says.

The gods’ sexualities reflect their performer’s sexuality. Knockout (Aphrodite) is bisexual. Circus Bonnie, who plays Athena, is pansexual. Noah Maudlin, who plays Apollo, is also pansexual and uses he/him pronouns, but “when the wig is on” or when he’s cross-dressing and performing in drag as Nadia, Maudlin uses she/her pronouns. 

During the show, Athena asked the crowd if they’ve ever been catfished. Apollo sheepishly raises his hand and shouts, “But they said they loved me!” rather than, “She said she loved me!” alluding to the Greek god’s relationships with people of many genders. 

Knockout says she likes to put many “nods” in every show she creates. “It’s very Republican out here, and I like to push that envelope in such a red town.”

The show’s openness around the gods’ sexualities is a good way to educate audiences at TRF, Maudlin adds. “People who would not normally accept some of those things are more open as they walk through the front gate. It gives them that ability to put down their guard.” 

Bonnie agrees and says, “Fair brings together people that are more conversative and people that are more liberal. Being in a space made for everybody and not being shamed in any way is very comforting.”

TRF is a place where Maudlin can be out and accepted—an experience he says he can’t get anywhere else. He encourages everyone, including members of the LGBTQ community, to come see Cirque Olympus to have a similar experience. “People from the community who come to see the shows will feel like they become part of it because we’re being open to them.”

Guests can stop by the Agora Stage to watch the Cirque Olympus perform on Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m., and 5 p.m. 


OAK, ASH, AND THORN

At the Oak, Ash, and Thorn, inside the shop’s white tent, patrons will come across a plethora of refillable leather-crafted journals. They’ll also find candles, lavenders, herbs, and other “tools one may need to lift their spirits,” says store manager Ariel Patrick-Muñoz. 

A sister shop to The Broom Closet, Oak, Ash, and Thorn is opening for the first time at the festival. Patrick-Muñoz describes The Broom Closet as a “mystical witch shop,” while Oak, Ash, and Thorn is a “druidry shop” that’s more focused on healing and getting back in touch with nature. 

Oak, Ash, and Thorn manager Ariel Patrick-Muñoz (photo by Lillian Hoang)

A native Houstonian, Patrick-Muñoz is transmasculine and uses he/they pronouns. Their sexuality is “yes.” They’ve been working at the TRF since they were 15 years old and spent nearly a decade at the New World Kettle Corn and helping manage the Dragonslayer souvenir shop near the festival’s main entrance. 

Patrick-Muñoz encourages attendees to stop by for an unforgettable experience. “I can almost guarantee we have something in there that people haven’t seen before.”

Like other people who work and perform at TRF, the festival means a lot to Patrick-Muñoz. “It was out here that I first started finding an actual queer community that went out of its way to take care of each other,” Patrick-Muñoz says, adding they learned about mutual aid and community help while at TRF. 

Shari Silkoff, the owner of Oak, Ash, and Thorn, has always been supportive of Patrick-Muñoz and their transition. They say they’ve had bosses who accepted them only because they were useful, but Silkoff is different. “Shari, she’s willing to accept what we have to tell her and move on with it,” Patrick-Muñoz says with tears running down their face. 

They are not the only trans person at the shop and work hard to offer other employees a space where they can be themselves and explore how they want to be perceived. “I don’t know if I would’ve transitioned as early or as easily as I did without the Renaissance Festival,” they admit.

Patrick-Muñoz sees the festival as an opportunity for people to become whoever they want. “We have no other context for people. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s bad, but for the most part, I wouldn’t trade it for anything because I don’t know where else you’re going to get such a real-life testing ground for someone you might want to be,” Patrick-Muñoz says, echoing TRF’s slogan: “Come as You Aren’t.” 

Oak, Ash, and Thorn is located in booth 18. For more information on the shop, visit texrenfest.com/things-to-do/shoppes.

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Lillian Hoang

Lillian Hoang is a staff reporter for OutSmart Magazine. She graduated from the University of Houston with a degree in journalism and minor in Asian American studies. She works as a College of Education communication assistant and hopes to become an editor-in-chief.
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