“When I was 4, I told my grandma I wanted to be a little girl, and she said, ‘Don’t ever say that again,’” says Precious Davis (BA ’13). Though her Pentecostal upbringing in Omaha, Neb., made it difficult to realize her gender identity, that didn’t stop Davis from becoming an acclaimed drag performer, and ultimately a national trans advocate who coordinates youth outreach at Center on Halsted, an organization in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood that provides support for the LGBT community.
No matter what her grandmother said, Davis loved being a girl; as a child, she slipped on her older sister’s high heels at every opportunity.
“It was magic,” she says. “I felt superhuman.” An early introduction to theatre gave Davis an outlet for expressing herself, and she took to the spotlight immediately. The lights, the costumes and the supercharged moment before she entered the stage all made the young Davis fall in love with performing.
Though she kept up with drama and music throughout high school, Davis found her true calling performing drag. One night out during college at the University of Nebraska, she entered and won a drag contest for newbies, performing under the pet name she had always called her friends in high school: Precious Jewel.
“I liked being Precious,” Davis says. “She felt right; she felt whole.”
After making a name for herself performing drag in Lincoln—emulating divas such as Whitney Houston and rocking an ’80s vibe— Davis felt she had grown too big for that pond and moved to Chicago, enrolling in Columbia College’s theatre program. She later added liberal education to her major.
“I feel like I’m imparting to the next generation empowerment, encouragement, a space to identify with who they are.”
Theatre professor Brian Shaw ushered Davis into an internship with About Face Theatre, a company that aims to shed light on LGBT issues. Davis now serves as an artistic associate, helping to select programming each season.
Davis’ time at Columbia was hectic but formative. She worked part time in retail, paid her own way through school and performed drag in Boystown many a sleepless night, living off of tips and nominal booking fees. Just before graduating, she had to take a two-year pause in her education, during which she started working at Center on Halsted.
As a youth outreach coordinator, Davis—who made GLAAD’s 2013 and 2014 “Trans 100” lists and was named one of Windy City Times’ “30 Under 30”—plans events for African-American and Hispanic LGBT youth, from art shows to dance parties, and teaches HIV prevention. And when she says the kids have taught her, it’s more than a platitude: They unknowingly convinced Davis to make the medical transition in 2011. “I feel like the young people were subconsciously putting a mirror up to me,” she says. “I sat at my desk and said, ‘I wish I could be sitting here as Precious,’ and someone said to me, ‘Why can’t you?’ And it just sort of switched something in my head.”
In return, Davis offers her support to a new wave of LGBT people, giving them the acceptance and resources she didn’t have.
“The work is inspiring,” she says. “I feel like I’m imparting to the next generation empowerment, encouragement, a space to identify with who they are.” —Hannah Lorenz (’16)