By David Cutting
VANCOUVER — In June of 1969, Marsha P. Johnson played a pivotal role in catalyzing the Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village, standing up and fighting for the rights of the LGBT community alongside her peers. Johnson was a drag queen and her actions solidified drag performers as the guardians of the gay community. Johnson’s act of bravery and rebellion opened the door for us to spit back in the face of oppression and fear, and say, “Fuck you! We are people too!”
Vancouver’s Pride Parade is one of the biggest parades of any kind in Western Canada. According to some, the first parade was in 1978, while some say it didn’t actually take place until 1981. Pride celebrations are a place where the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities and their allies can come together to continue moving toward a world of peace and full acceptance.
Queens, kings, and things have had a role in pride celebrations around the world. Their shows act as a soapbox from which they can rally the communities to speak up for their rights and freedoms. As performers, they have the ability to speak beyond the little boxes that may be imposed upon them by society, making them less subservient and more powerful. It’s difficult to singularly define what drag is, as it is based on both performer and audience interpretation, but one thing drag most certainly does is bring joy and comfort to the hearts of people looking for validation in being who they are.
The drag community in Vancouver is booming. Here at BeatRoute, we thought it would be powerful to hear the voices of the queens, kings, and things from our local scene. Most drag performers aren’t given a public avenue besides social media to have a voice, so we have assembled a group that ranges in generation, gender, style, and experience to help us better understand where Vancouver drag started, what roles it plays in the community, and where it is going.
Meet the Queens
Jaylene Tyme is the host of XY Legends (Sundays at 9:30 p.m.) and a legend herself. Her impersonations are masterclass and her stage presence is mesmerizing. She is a pillar of support for many individuals in the community.
Carlotta Gurl is the hostess of The Barron Gurl Show (Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m.) and Absolutely Dragulous (Saturdays at 11:30 p.m.) at Junction. Her performances are legendary and her presence in the drag community is infamous.
Dynasty (also pictured on the print cover below) is one of the 2016 runner-ups for the Mr/Miss Cobalt competition. With fierce fashion and high-energy performances, we cannot wait to see more from her.
Shay Dior (also pictured on the print cover below) is one of the 2016 runner-ups for the Mr/Miss Cobalt competition. Serving some serious diva, this queen is a rising star with much to offer.
Alma Bitches is the host of Sanctuary at 1181 (Sundays at 11:30 p.m.) and Sanctuary the Sequel at XY (Sundays at 1 a.m.). From her beginnings as a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence, this bearded queen has turned into a force to be reckoned with. Her shows leave people waiting in the streets.
Rose Butch is a member of the monthly show at the Cobalt, Man Up, and the 2015 winner of the Mr/Miss Cobalt competition. They are a performance maestro in the community. They define themselves as a drag “Thing.”
Shanda Leer is the host of Studio with Shanda (First Saturday of every month at 9:30 p.m.) at XY and is a co-host of BRATPACK (Thursdays at 11:30 p.m.) at the Junction. She is East Van’s “favourite tipsy aunt at a wedding.” Shanda was also BeatRoute’s Queen of the Month in April.
Karmella Barr (also pictured on the print cover below) is a member of the Man Up family (Monthly) at the Cobalt. This Chocolate Queen serves sass and class. She is named “Princess Royale” under the 2016 reigning empress for the Dogwood Monarchist Society.
Jem (also pictured on the print cover below) is a co-host of BRATPACK (Thursdays at 11:30 p.m.) at the Junction. This self proclaimed Cool Mom is the winner of Mr/Miss Cobalt 2012. Jem can also be seen as Sporty Spice in Vancouver’s own “Spice Gurls.”
Isolde N Barron is the Queen of East Van. She is the head Judge of the Mr/Miss Cobalt Competition, as well as co-host of The Barron Gurl Show (Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m.) Isolde is a powerful queen who influences and helps many younger queens in the city.
The following answers are the sole opinions of the interviewees. It is a conversation about drag. Facts, dates, and names appear as queens/kings/things answered them.
BeatRoute: How did the Vancouver Drag scene start?
Shanda: One night after a few too many, Lord Stanley was messing around and put on his wife’s heels. The rest is history.
Alma: Well that was a very long time ago so maybe ask Carlotta Gurl since she was there.
Carlotta: Contrary to some people’s belief (Thanks Alma!), I wasn’t around when the drag scene first started in Vancouver. But from what I’ve heard from the more senior members of the drag community, the scene started many years ago, even when it wasn’t acceptable to do so.
Jaylene: I have had the pleasure to know some community icons that were around back in the 1960s and 1970s when drag started to become popular in Vancouver, names like ted northe, Charity, Sandy St. Peters, and Bill Monroe. Back then they couldn’t freely walk the streets in drag and they had to get out of drag when they finished their performances. It’s because of people like this that we enjoy the freedoms we have today. They stood up against the bigots and pushed through the discrimination. We are all indebted to their strength and courage.
Isolde: It’s hard to pinpoint the beginning of the drag scene anywhere because drag has been around in some form forever. It was also such a taboo, underground thing that it was not ever properly recorded, as most live performances aren’t. The modern drag scene in Vancouver as we know it today however, has its roots partially in the way liquor licenses worked – you could get a cabaret license but you needed a show. What better way to signal you were a gay bar before it was legal to be gay, than by having a man in a dress. The Dogwood Monarchist Society also had a major hand in modern drag culture. It [was] started 45 years ago by ted northe, who was known as the Empress of Canada and was even addressed as such by Trudeau (the senior). It was an organization that elected an Empress for all the queens who worked at the various bars as a means to combat infighting within the community. Drag courts have subsequently sprung up in cities all across Canada but Vancouver is known as the Mother Court of Canada.
BR: What is unique about Vancouver’s drag culture?
Shanda: We’re all lawyers by day.
Rose: There are so many different kinds of drag artists in the city who all approach drag from their unique perspective, which not only makes for interesting shows to watch, but the fact that everyone is co-mingling and sharing ideas makes for a really diverse and vibrant community.
Dynasty: All the performers here work and interact with each other! We live in a small city so there aren’t any real “scenes” that divide us. It’s great because we are often introduced to many different types of performers and artists and it allows us to not only understand each other’s work but it also let us learn from each other. We share our experiences and knowledge; there’s a very strong communal bond to the Vancouver drag scene.
BR: Drag is heavily involved in Pride celebrations around the world. What is its importance?
Jaylene: Pride is a time for us to celebrate the people who came before us and paved the way for the rights and freedoms we enjoy today. Drag queens have historically been there to support and bring awareness to many issues in our communities; from raising money for the needs of our vulnerable community members, to standing up to bigotry and homophobia. I’ve always felt that a smile, some glitter, and a big wig can heal a lot of things. And with drag performers, generally speaking, we bring an exciting energy to the community.
Isolde: I’ve always believed kings, queens, and things to be part cheerleader and part foot soldier for the queer rights movement. We are the ones who could never pass for straight so we learned to survive at a young age and that often leads to making people laugh.
Jem: A drag queen started the riots at stonewall, a drag queen started theatre, a drag queen has always been there at the beginning: fighting for what’s right and making them laugh along the way.
Alma: Drag queens have always been leaders in the LGBTQ community. They have rioted and fundraised, all while putting on shows where the community can come together; not just during Pride, but always.
Karmella: Drag is a freedom of expression and it represents freedom to be who you want in the world and I think that pairing drag with pride is very profound.
Dynasty: Pride isn’t about celebrating queerness alone, it’s about celebrating our collective struggle, our persecution, and our fight. It is that one time in the year where we can shove our queerness to the patriarchal, homophobic, and misogynistic ideals that our society upholds so dearly and say “Fuck you!”
BR: Drag is becoming a little more commonplace, what is the significance of this?
Rose: The fantasy of drag is so appealing, so I completely understand the fascination. On that note, I don’t understand folks who aren’t totally intrigued by drag as an art. Like, where is your imagination and do you hate fun?
Isolde: I think on the one hand it’s great. It educates folks, but on the other hand it’s limiting because there are so many types of drag out there, but we are only seeing a few represented. The baby queens are growing up seeing the Drag Race girls and copying them without discovering their own artistry.
Shay: It’s giving new people the opportunity to let go of heteronormative ideals and stigmas in the community, explore a new set of skills, and play with some gender bending.
Dynasty: So many young queer kids are turning to drag as a mode of artistic expression and are giving drag a new exposure to people who wouldn’t otherwise seek out drag shows. The significance of this is that people are more aware, tolerant, understanding, and empathetic of different gender representations and sexualities, all of which make better people and a better community.
BR: What do people need to know about drag culture?
Shanda: Beneath all the jokes and reads and shade and wigs and heels, there’s a very deep, complex history that you don’t even begin to understand even if you’ve watched every episode of Drag Race.
Rose: That it’s playful and political and means nothing and everything! Drag is a big amorphous angel/monster/titan.
Shay: Drag is a creative art form on gender. Don’t limit your idea of drag because of TV.
Oh and tip these hard working performers, but not during a choreographed number.
Karmella: I think people need to know that drag queens, much like other entertainers, are people.
Jaylene: It is artistry. It is fun. It is community. It is diverse: an authentic representation of freedom steeped in tradition. Family.
Jem: It’s where great culture, art, and revolution have and will take place. Making fun of yourself and everything serious is what drag is about to moi (French for me).
Isolde: It’s about overcoming struggle. It’s about loving yourself, and it’s about entertaining your audience. I don’t care how well you paint or how well you’re styled, if you bore me on stage, take off the hint of lip-gloss and go home.
BR: What is missing from Vancouver drag culture?
Jaylene: I think our Vancouver drag culture is really awesome! I do, however, believe that the new generation of drag performers really need to be aware of the magical history of Vancouver drag. Be fabulous, be kind, and encourage others to do the same. I think that’s honouring our history and paying tribute to the art of drag and expression!
Rose: The next generation of drag kings and things! WHO’S NEXT?
Dynasty: A safe performance space for POC (people of colour)! We are living on unceded First Nations territory. Colonialism is literally in the soil that we live on. I think in general there is a lack of awareness of the history of imperialism and race issues in this city.
Karmella: I think we need to continue to have eager queens who are always willing to work on their craft and better themselves.
BR: What is the future of drag?
Shanda: I can’t even start my show on time, what makes you think I can see the future?
Alma: I hope the future of drag in Vancouver includes activism, community, and fundraising as well as queens turning the party. Big love to the queens who do it all.
Dynasty: The future of drag is more drag! In all honesty though, what fun would it be if you’d already know what the future upholds?
Shay: You can’t predict constant creativity.
Carlotta: The future of drag is big, bright, and beautiful. Lots of new talent is emerging and new innovative ideas are flourishing. Can only go up from here.
Isolde: If I could tell the future darling I’d charge a lot more.BC, British Columbia, drag, LGBT, Pride 2016, Vancouver drag, Vancouver Pride