Celebrating local Pride Heroes: This Md. drag king is bringing fire-eating back to the DC Dyke March

Every week, WTOP is celebrating a Pride Hero who has made a difference in the LGBTQ+ community in the D.C. area as part of our Pride Month coverage. Check back all throughout June as we share these stories on air and online.

Celebrating local Pride Heroes: Dr. Torcher revives fire-eating tradition

Dr. Torcher, a Maryland drag king and sideshow art performer who uses they/them pronouns, is famous for being a fire-eater. Now, they are bringing back a tradition of fire-eating at the D.C. Dyke March.

“Learning to eat fire was a reclamation of my own power,” they told WTOP. Learning the empowering act a decade ago helped Dr. Torcher to deal with PTSD and panic attacks they had after a violent attack years before.

“Doing this kind of thing on stage really helped me to take control of my fear response,” they said.

The drag king taught two fire-eating workshops for queer people around the D.C. area last year, honoring a history of fire-eating at marches, including a demonstration in front of the White House at the first D.C. Dyke March in 1993.

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Reclaiming fire’s power

“People took to it so quickly,” they said. “When they make the decision, ‘I can do this,’ it’s like their whole body changes, and I could see it happen. It was really, really rewarding and validating for me to go through that process with every single one of those people.”

Dr. Torcher and a group of pupils did a fire-eating demonstration at the 2023 D.C. Dyke March, marking 30 years since the original protest.

Jennifer Miller, a famous circus performer and professor, first introduced fire-eating as an act of LGBTQ+ rebellion and strength at the New York City Dyke March in 1992. Miller wanted to honor two queer people, Hattie Mae Cohens and Brian Mock, who were killed by a racist, homophobic group that set fire to their Oregon home on Sept. 26, 1992.

“And so Jennifer had this idea,” Dr. Torcher said. “Well, what if we reclaim this act of eating fire in a way that shows that as a way to push back against violence, as a way to say, ‘you can set us on fire, and we will survive.’ And what a powerful image.”

March organizers were extremely excited when they pitched the idea of bringing their 10 years of experience with fire-eating to the Dyke March.

“It just felt like this was meant to be. I’m supposed to be here right now and I’m ready to do this,” they said. “So it felt like a real culmination of the journey that I’ve been on with fire.”

Dr. Torcher taught two fire-eating classes, before this demonstration in Dupont Circle at the 2023 D.C. Dyke March. (Courtesy D.C. Dyke March)
Dr. Torcher leading a fire-eating demonstration at the D.C. Dyke March in June 2023. (Courtesy D.C. Dyke March)
The Highball Productions team: Dr. Torcher, Vagenesis, Dabatha Christie, and Citrine . (left to right)
Dr. Torcher in Billy Flynn costume for Highball Productions’ “SHECAGO” show. (Courtesy Highball Productions)
The Highball Productions team, Citrine, Dabatha Christie, Dr. Torcher and Vagenesis . (left to right)

How drag triggered ‘a total revelation’

Even before they were Dr. Torcher, they always had a love for performance. After working as a stripper to pay for graduate school, they got into improv and stand-up classes.

Onstage, they became increasingly aware of how their more feminine appearance, sporting “long blonde hair” and acrylic nails at the time, made people assume that they would act stereotypically feminine and demure. Instead, they were loud and told “crass, gross” jokes.

They loved upending those expectations, so it seemed like a natural next step to eat fire and swallow swords. After a weekend of sideshow training from a retired “carny” in Pennsylvania, Dr. Torcher was born.

They chose the intimidating stage name because they’re ironically “really stupid and funny on stage.” Plus, they moved to the D.C. area over 20 years ago to get a doctoral degree in anthropology at American University.

For seven years, Dr. Torcher produced and performed in the D.C. Weirdo Show, an inclusive monthly circus show that became increasingly “queer” under their direction.

Eventually, drag “became a natural outgrowth” of their performances. Drawing on a mustache, chiseling their face with makeup, and wearing masculine clothes for performances sent Dr. Torcher on a gender identity journey.

“To look in the mirror and see myself this way was a total revelation,” they said. “It just becomes a way to try this out and play with gender onstage in a really powerful way. And really reflect back to the audience that this is OK, to play with your gender and try different things.”

They started identifying as nonbinary and realized that they had been slowly discovering this part of their identity throughout their performance career.

“I really firmly hold that everything we do onstage is autobiographical,” they said. “Everything I look back on that I’ve ever done on stage, I can see how that’s connected to my inner child … to some form of expression that I wasn’t allowed to do as a person who was socialized to be a girl, I wasn’t allowed to take up space or be loud or be gross.”

Now, Dr. Torcher combines fire-eating and drag performances to spread awareness of different gender identities. They’ve watched acceptance of LGBTQ+ people expand over the past few years, from performing at small-town pride events, like Culpeper Pride, to conversations with their own father, who is “a conservative ex-military guy.”

“He has made the effort to come down and see me perform. And every time he does, he gets more and more comfortable,” they said.

They tearfully recounted how, after their last performance, “he was talking so compassionately about, ‘if I was gay, I would want a space like this.’ It made sense to him. … It was amazing to hear him talk like that.”

Two years ago, they started performing, and more recently producing, for Highball Productions, which “takes musicals and re-envisions them as queered drag extravaganzas, and it is fully rehearsed, fully choreographed, very high quality,” despite having an extremely low cover charge.

“It’s been so wonderful to work with Vagenesis, Citrine and Dabatha Christie. It’s a wonderful team,” they said. “It’s unusual for drag queens to see the value of drag kings and invite us in. And I was really thrilled that they just get it — I don’t have to explain to them why drag kings matter.”

Dr. Torcher and the production company were recently nominated for a number of D.C. Drag Awards after their May production of “SHECAGO” at JR’s, a bar in the Dupont Circle neighborhood.

“We’re looking at expanding out,” they said. “So, for instance, we do have a June show called ‘Twerk-ules,’ which is a musical version of ‘Hercules,’ as you can imagine, and that will be at Shaw’s Tavern.”

From bringing fire-eating demonstrations back to the D.C. Dyke March to spreading the joy of drag musicals with Highball Productions, Dr. Torcher continues to preserve LGBTQ+ history and inspire people to embrace their authentic self.

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Emily Venezky

Emily Venezky is a digital writer/editor at WTOP. Emily grew up listening to and reading local news in Los Angeles, and she’s excited to cover stories in her chosen home of the DMV. She recently graduated from The George Washington University, where she studied political science and journalism.

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