Back in April, hundreds of drag performers and their supporters gathered in Tallahassee to protest the anti-drag laws sweeping through the capital. Gov. Ron DeSantis and his allies wanted to classify drag as adult entertainment, putting a chokehold on public Pride events as well as drag story times.
As the protesters made their way through the heartbeat of Florida politics, there was something else they all had in common: a small purple and blue ribbon with a silver crown and rhinestone heart fastening it together.
These ribbons were all handmade by Ben Johansen of Orlando — in one week, he made 800 of the ribbons to prepare the queens for their trip to Tallahassee. In total, he’s made 5,000 of them for drag supporters across the country.
“When I looked through all the pictures, the thousands of pictures, and every single person had them on, it made me feel really good,” he says. “It makes me feel like I'm doing something good.”
The founder of the Orlando Ribbon project and the owner of a theatrical and cosplay store in Orlando, the former drag queen has been making ribbons since the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016. Since then, he’s handmade 1.7 million ribbons for different causes, from remembering the 49 killed at Pulse to supporting gun control, the trans community, Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and drag queens.
“We are one of the faces, literally, of the LGBTQ community,” he says of drag queens. “When people think of a gay bar, they immediately think of drag queens. Who’s going to be at the bar tonight? It is going to be one of RuPaul’s girls? Is it going to be one of the local queens? Drag has brought a lot of love and joy into my life, and I’ve been told that I’ve brought a lot of love and joy into other people’s lives performing in drag.”
Johansen did drag for 11 years as Eureka Fish, performing at Parliament House, the Savoy, and Southern Nights, and Mr. Sisters. At his store, Embellish FX, customers include drag queens purchasing makeup and accessories for shows as well as newly out trans women who need a little help navigating blush and eyeshadow. He also brings in makeup artists to help customers become more comfortable with makeup.
After the Pulse shooting, Johansen made memorial ribbons for employees and volunteers at The Center in Orlando. Whenever someone dropped off donations, they would also get a ribbon. Then, WKMG anchor and meteorologist Julie Broughton asked Johansen for 100 ribbons for a private event she was hosting at her home.
“It was the first order of 100 I ever received, so I quickly made them up for her event and then right after that I was flooded with requests for the ribbons to show respect for the 49,” Johansen remembers. “They still come in. I get orders for hundreds of ribbons, I get orders for one ribbon.”
Ricki Lake was photographed wearing a ribbon at the TCM Classic Film Festival 2023, and Margaret Cho wore one of his ribbons during a May comedy show in Orlando.
“I wasn’t expecting it. I don’t expect any of this. I do it for the love of my community. It gives me something to do, it’s another way for me to help out. It’s a small little thing, it’s just a piece of ribbon but it means a lot to me and it means a lot to a lot of people.”
The catch? There is none — Johansen does this all for free. Sitting in front of the TV, he’ll cut the rainbow ribbon, burn the edges with a candle to avoid fraying, and then put the snaps and other decor together. One by one, his hands seem to work on autodrive at this point. When people ask how they can support him, he simply asks for more ribbon and supplies to keep the project going.
“I don’t need to charge for them as they are a symbol of my love for my community and for the 49 people that we lost in the terrible tragedy,” he explains.
Calling the governor “an absolute anti-LGBTQ bigot,” Johansen says his latest flurry of ribbons are a small way for him to show support for his drag family.
“[DeSantis] makes us sound and feel like we’re criminals and we haven’t done anything wrong except for putting makeup on and a dress,” he says.
To order a ribbon or support the project, visit facebook.com/theribbonmaker.