Over three decades ago, Portland met a new face—that of Poison Waters. She's vivacious, peppy and delightfully direct, with a large personality you honestly can't get enough of. The same can be said for Kevin Cook, the man behind the woman, and what Kevin does with Poison Waters speaks wonders to what one person can do with themselves: He gives back to our community in so many ways.
Cook has co-hosted shows at the country's longest-running drag club, Darcelle XV Showplace, since the early '90s, but he often takes his talents to other stages, where he hosts and MCs various fundraisers and events for nonprofit organizations locally and nationally. As himself and as Poison Waters, the list of causes he supports runs deep, including organizations like Camp KC (Kids Connection), Friendly House, the American Civil Liberties Union, Cascade AIDS Project and Habitat for Humanity.
Having faced financial and racial adversity himself, Cook holds community building, education and management as his top priorities. He's the definition of booked and busy, and he hopes to make waves and change lives by filling every day in his schedule. It's hard work—but he wouldn't have it any other way.
G!G: It seems like you are always doing a lot. What drives you to keep going so much and so hard?
When I was growing up, we were very poor. We didn't have a lot. Nonprofits would help us with utilities, rent, food and clothing—it was very impactful, and I want to make sure I don't let that go to waste. I see a lot of people not doing anything to give back, but I always have to keep doing something. I don't want to slow down. I'm really aware of how lucky I am to be where I am, because I know it could've gone a whole other way being a poor little black boy in Portland. I recognize that I need to take advantage of the blessings I have, the talent I have and the positive attitude I have. I need to keep pushing that out there. I know that bringing my unique presence to each event helps raise more than what they might have otherwise. No one's going to benefit from me sitting on the couch.
Because you've been here for so long building and fostering relationships in the community, how have you seen the drag community and the communities of color change?
They have all changed—some for the better and some not so much for the better. I came out in the late '80s, when HIV and AIDS were taking their toll within the community and outside the community. Within the community, it was killing everybody. Outside of the community, it was making us lepers. It was before the world knew that straight people could get it, that women could get it and that children could get it. Within our community, we were doing everything we could in drag to uplift people and just have as much fun as we could, but we were also holding fundraisers and shows to try to make money for our friends who didn't have anything. Even within the black community, the overall consensus was us black drag queens—and there was a good ol' bunch of us back then—were our own black community within the greater black community. The rest of Portland wasn't trying to deal with gay, drag queen black boys. We were ostracized.
Hopefully, it's not that way anymore, though— especially considering how a lot of the spaces you work in now are ostracizing in different ways. So, having to work in typically white spaces—especially with your intersectional identities—is it ever emotionally draining for you?
It used to be. People literally used to say, "You're the prettiest colored girl I've ever met!" or, "What are you doing dressed up like this, shouldn't you be playing basketball?" People saying things like that would make it draining for me back then. I would have to hold it in and just smile. Now, I'm at a time in my life where I've realized that ignorance is ignorance, and me just being in these places is the first step in educating those folks. Sometimes, I'm the only black person in a room of 500. If I can at least show that black people are OK, gay people are OK and drag queens are OK, that makes me feel good—like in some way I'm able to chip away at those walls.
Outside of those types of situations, with everything that's going on locally and nationally against our communities, is it ever hard for you to get up and put that face on?
Yes, totally. I'm a really emotional person, but I don't present myself that way. It kind of goes back to what you first asked about why I keep so busy—if I stopped and thought about reality, I wouldn't be able to get out of bed. Even when I think about the kids at my camp, I think about their realities and it just breaks me down. I can't even focus. Part of me compartmentalizes a lot of that stuff. It's not difficult to get up and keep going, because I've brainwashed myself into knowing that's the only way, because if I don't, oh my gosh. Thanks for that, got me over here sniffling!
I know, I'm sorry! Only real questions over here. What are some tips you might have for staying physically fabulous as well as mentally and emotionally fabulous?
People always say, "I can't afford to support the charities the way that you do," but I tell people all of the time it's not about writing a check. I rarely write checks—for the most part, I just want to give my time and energy, and people really appreciate that. It keeps me balanced, too, because it's so easy to think one moment that your life is so great and the next that it's so terrible. But, when you go out and start working with people and hearing stories, you realize that there are people doing so much better than you and people doing so much worse. So really, being out in the community is a really good leveler for me. I know it sounds cheesy, but I tell my friends it's good for the soul. It helps keep me calm just knowing that there are other people out there who are getting the help they need or an ear to listen to them. If you don't think about yourself for a moment and do something for somebody else, it comes back and surprises you by making you feel like you've done something great for yourself. That would be my tip, to go out and find somewhere to volunteer. It doesn't have to be anything huge at all. I think that's the easiest way to enrich your soul and also help the community. It can hopefully create a ripple effect, where the person you help goes and helps someone else. People helped me growing up, and I never forgot that.
Right. So then as far as people who want to build their community without necessarily going to an outside organization, how would you suggest they do that?
This is going to sound so basic, but food is the all-time best way to gather community—it's the glue. If you want to plan something, have a meal around it. Invite the people you know and have them invite people you don't know, so you're not just preaching to the choir. That's a problem that happens a lot. Don't tell the people who know already—you need to inform others. Sometimes the people you're helping may not want to see a big corporation coming at them. They want to see individual faces, they want a grassroots approach. Identify who you want to help and why you want to help them. Once you do that, you're good.
That makes sense. Well then, as someone who gives so much of their time and so much of themselves to others, why do you think so many people are apprehensive to give anything, even if it is just their time?
This is so cliché to even say, but I think people are afraid of what they don't know. Sometimes, they may think they don't have anything in common with a homeless person or they don't know anyone who is gay or anyone with AIDS, so they can't relate. I also think people are afraid of themselves, afraid to be vulnerable, and afraid to be accessible to a community they know nothing about. It's easy to make excuses, but a lot of people also just don't know how to help. I always tell people—it's easy, it doesn't take a lot of time and there really is a benefit that they will receive, mentally and emotionally. They will get something out of it that they won't even be able to describe.