in partnership
Gavin transforms into Summer Knight behind the scenes at Perry's in January 2017. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/DC Refined)

How an Alabama teenager rose to become DMV drag royalty

Every Sunday, Summer Knight shimmies around the dining room of Perry’s in Adams Morgan and it’s impossible to ignore her. Standing at six-foot-two in heels, she lip-syncs, dances and cracks sharp-witted, often dirty, jokes. Her hair is teased into oblivion and huge, glittering jewels plunge into her rubber cleavage, where flushed patrons stuff dollar bills as thanks for her entertainment.

At home in the Bayview neighborhood of Baltimore, it’s hard to believe that Gavin Hebert-Martinez is the same person. The glittering heels Gavin dons for drag shows, when he transforms into Summer, have been swapped out for slippers - he’s all of five-foot-eight-and-a-half. A backwards baseball cap covers his bald head, but Gavin is the first to admit that the differences between himself and his alter-ego are more than just physical.

“I’m shy,” Gavin explained with an unmistakable southern drawl. “[Summer is] an extension of myself. I think that often times we create these characters within ourselves that we yearn to be. It’s like that age-old thing, we always say we want what we can’t have.”

Gavin was raised in Valley, Alabama, a town of less than 10,000 people close to the Georgia border. The youngest of three boys, he was acutely aware from an early age that he didn’t fit in. “I’d much rather twirl a baton than throw a ball,” he said. “I got picked at a lot, even from my own family.”

Despite the taunting, Gavin was entranced by the drag queens he saw on daytime television during his pre-adolescent years. He was a 13-year-old student at a Baptist school when he started wearing makeup every day. A year later, Gavin graduated with the help of an accelerated academic program, left Alabama and enrolled at George Washington University with the hope of eventually becoming a lawyer.

Gavin was drawn to the stage because it provided an outlet, but he was hooked on drag after his first performance. “My first big role was in a parody of Phantom of the Opera called Phantom of the Country Opera,” he said. “I got to play the mother… and she was just this campy, ridiculous, outrageous, foul-mouthed woman.”

“I got to not worry about Gavin anymore and what he was going through because I was so clearly someone else.”

That same year, Gavin said he was taken in by drag queens who helped set his career in motion. He danced go-go and won his first drag competition at 16, but his performances remained a side hustle as he graduated from college with a degree in business and joined the corporate world. Gavin bounced between Atlanta and Baltimore as he transitioned from being a paralegal to a makeup artist to a master trainer for a cosmetic company.

Although drag wasn’t Gavin’s full-time occupation until this past April, over the course of the past 17 years he’s achieved a lot. All three rooms of Gavin’s basement are crowded with costumes he’s sown himself and placards honoring his achievements as Summer line the walls. This August, Gavin won Miss Gay Maryland USofA and he’ll be competing at a national level this spring in Dallas, Texas.

This will be Gavin’s fifth time competing nationally and he’s already preparing for the final event with dress fittings in Las Vegas and flights to Dallas for rehearsal. “You’re good for that night and what you present on that stage,” he said. “So it takes a lot of preparation and rehearsal and dedication to make sure what you present on that night is going to make you the best.”

Gavin has never lost sight of how he came to be a successful performer. “The only thing that sets me apart is that I’m me and the journey I’ve gone through.”

For Gavin, Summer Knight is an extension of that journey. “[Drag is] not a shield of armor, it’s a badge of honor because it’s taking all of the experiences I’ve had as Gavin and making fun of it or turning it into art rather than being afraid of it.”

The drag community of Baltimore took in Gavin as a teenager and helped him feel wanted and protected in a way that he wasn’t at home. As an adult, Gavin is trying to return the love. Part of the proceeds for his fundraiser to pay for his upcoming competition will go to PFLAG (formerly known as Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and he mentors other drag performers in the LGBTQ community.

Gavin describes himself as a motherly figure and he recently rekindled his relationship with his own parents, although the relationship is still tenuous. “At my wedding (in December), my step-father told me ‘I’m proud of you’ and that’s something I’ve waited 34 years to hear.”

Despite openly struggling with the depression and anxiety that forced him to quit his last job, Gavin’s message is relentlessly positive and welcoming – perhaps something a gay teenager from small-town Alabama needed to hear.