Drag has sashayed into the mainstream while at the same time being at the tipping point of social protest. Hamilton’s drag queens just keep being fierce.
For the faithful, Easter weekend is a holy celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. Among the more secular, it’s a time to gather with family under bright, early-April morning skies as little ones scurry through backyards in search of their elusive Easter booty. Painted eggs figure prominently, as do bunnies, baskets, and bonnets.
And this year at a downtown Hamilton hotspot, so did drag queens.
“Welcome to our Easter Sunday Drag Service!” shouts the enormously popular Karma to a sold-out crowd at Moodys Pizza Bar & Arcade. She’s gorgeously decked out in a full habit; think Sister Act in heels and with tons of camp. “I’ll be honest, I’d originally suggested a different vibe, because I’ve wanted to do an Easter show forever. It was going to be Disney-themed, and I was going to call it ‘Hakuna Stigmata’. It means ‘No worries! We’ll be back in three days.’ Laughter erupts from the crowd, comprised of every creed and colour of the proverbial rainbow (and almost every age, too; a table of silver-haired seniors laughs and applauds her antics with fervor). “Have a good time, people – that’s what we’re here to do. Now I’m going to do a song for you, because not only am I your hostess, but I am a nun today and I am your Mother Superior. But you can call me Mama. Give it up for me – Karma Kameleon!”
As the applause roars, she launches into Lady Gaga’s “Judas” without any protests from the crowd. And without any protests outside, either. Her next songs are “I Will Follow Him” and “Living on a Prayer,” and this audience is here for it.
Depending on who you ask, a religious-themed Easter drag event is blasphemous. Indeed, there are those who would deem any drag show a sacrilege; such has been evident with the slew of nationwide protests as of late. Certainly not anyone in this crowd finds drag obscene, though – and certainly not Steven Hilliard. His event planning company House of Adam and Steve has organized this event, just one of many drag shows and parties in the Hamilton area that literally fill the social calendar. It’s no stretch to say that, in many ways, he’s had a huge hand in revitalizing the drag scene in the city. What started as house parties in his living room with some drag queen friends providing the entertainment soon blossomed into a thriving business that now helps set the stage for Hamilton drag and for queer-friendly spaces in general.
“If I’m being honest with you, when queer bars disappeared, Hamilton became less fun,” Hilliard tells me over a drink at Farside on James North, indeed one of the queer-friendliest areas in town. “I travel a lot, and I always trust a city more when it has a thriving queer scene, because that usually means it's going to be rich in art and culture. In my opinion, queer presence in cities fosters that.”
Back in 2015, Hilliard and his then-boyfriend Adam conceived House of Adam and Steve (“With names like ours, how can you not take advantage of it?”) to bring the queer flavour back to the city, which shortly before was home to a solid handful of queer-themed establishments. The Embassy, The Werx, M Bar, Crush, and Steel Lounge had all closed. Did the lack of LGBTQ+ establishments symbolize growing tolerance, thereby eradicating the need for such spaces? Maybe, but it also meant that members of the Hamilton queer community had no places to call their own – and certainly no places to witness drag. Some had questioned whether the queer scene in Hamilton had died altogether.
But Hilliard knew that there was still a demand. And if there were no longer any queer bars in the city, he pledged to make as many existing bars around town queer-friendly, at the very least.
“Queer spaces have to exist, because we need places where we feel like we can be ourselves without persecution and without fear of violence,” Hillard says. “Of course, there's no such thing as a perfectly safe space, but it's about creating safer spaces so that if something happens, you know that the owners of the bar and the security all understand what's going on and they will be supportive. They need to know how to react to homophobia and transphobia in a way that is conducive to a safe space. But these spaces don't need to be gay bars, and that's something that Adam and I saw a need for in Hamilton. We asked ourselves, ‘How can we make spaces that already exist more queer-friendly and more queer-safe?’”
They definitely figured it out – and with drag. From a one-off event at the former Baltimore House to wildly successful parties at Absinthe, their business has helped bring drag back to the masses. House of Adam and Steve organizes drag shows and parties that would make 2015 emerald-green with envy, and stages them at establishments that hadn’t previously thought to host such events. Nowadays, it seems there’s a drag show somewhere in town almost any day of the week. And the bars and their clientele are loving it. Adam White, operations manager at Moodys Pizza Bar & Arcade, tells me that “the sense of community and positivity that radiates back and forth between the guests, the queens, and the staff is infectious and undeniable. We love it, and drag will always have a home here.” Other bar owners I spoke to echo more of the same.
That’s music to Karma’s pierced ears. A regular drag performer and a Hamilton queer-scene darling, she’s a hugely visible part of Hamilton’s now-vibrant tapestry of queens. As a queer youth in Hamilton trying to find a voice and an identity, Ms. Kameleon fell in love with drama class in high school and then with the idea of self-expression in general. From experimenting with makeup to working up the courage to perform at an open-stage night in Toronto about five years ago, a young Karma-in-waiting fell in love with drag and now considers it to be an artform.
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But ask your regular Joe or Jill on the street what drag actually is and why it’s important, and it’s quite possible you’ll attract some dismissive laughter or an uncomfortable stare. Shows like Canada’s Drag Race (which has filmed at locations right here in Hamilton) have brought drag into the mainstream, but it’s sometimes portrayed on TV as oversexualized and perhaps even trashy. It certainly can be those things, says Karma, but she contends that drag is often misunderstood in popular media.
“To me, drag is the ultimate form of self-expression, which always sounds so dumb, because you’re expressing someone completely different,” she tells me over coffee at Redchurch Café on King Street East, where she’s performed numerous times. “But in physically presenting as someone different, it gives you the freedom to use your authentic voice because it's not you using it. It's someone else. So then you kind of get to be more open and honest with how you express yourself. And I'm not here to deny that certain aspects are hypersexualized. But drag is art, and it’s always geared to a certain audience.”
Cue the controversy. Just who that certain audience should and shouldn’t be has become a heated debate among the more conservative folk all over the country. But if you ask the protesters, they’re not necessarily “conservative.” They’re just trying to save the children.
Drag queen story time events at public libraries, while enormously popular, certainly have come with fierce backlash. This is where the misconceptions of drag are perhaps best illustrated, says the animated and colourful Hexe Noire. She was the headliner at a drag queen story time event this past November at Hamilton’s Terryberry Library, where around 20 protesters voiced their objections outside. They were flanked on the other side of the divide by fierce defenders of the event – rainbow flags and supportive signs in hand – that absolutely outnumbered the protesters. Still, Hexe knew about the protests the night before from social media and didn’t know what kind of turmoil (or worse) would await her. She kissed her kids goodbye on the morning of the event and told them she loved them. But would those protesters have been surprised to learn that the drag queen inside has four children of her own? What’s more, would they have shown up at all had they known that Hexe Noire is actually a cisgender female?
“I think what people don't realize is that drag is just an artform. And to limit a form of art to one gender is completely ridiculous to me,” Hexe tells me during a candid phone interview. From a young age, she was fascinated by the spectacle and grandeur of drag queens being “100 per cent unapologetically themselves, glittering and fabulous. It really resonated with me as a younger person trying to figure out where I fit in the world.”
Not that the purpose of these story-time events is to encourage little ones to grow up to become drag queens. The point of drag queen story time is to teach kids that they certainly can if they want to, though, just as they can choose to be actors or accountants. In addition to promoting literacy, a drag queen reading stories to children at the public library teaches them that it’s OK to be themselves, no matter what the rest of the world says. There’s no “grooming.” Instead, a colourful character is teaching them about embracing the world around them. A Kermit the Frog puppet joins Hexe in relaying these messages, and one of the books she reads is called, It’s Okay To Be Different.
“It teaches that it's OK to have a big nose. It's OK to be in a wheelchair. It's OK to have two moms or two dads. Just letting kids know that we’re all different living on this planet and we should all be celebrated for our differences. And that it's OK to be who you are. Then we sing. We dance. And it’s all with simple messages about love and understanding.”
Hexe certainly doesn’t fit the stereotype foisted by protesters of a creepy, cross-dressing man who desperately wants to indoctrinate kids. But here’s the newsflash: no drag queen fits that grossly inaccurate description.
The incomparable Kenadie St. James is no stranger to all-ages events, in addition to evening performances geared for the adult crowd. Her event planning company CNR Productions works with a number of restos in Hamilton, and she – as all the queens do – understands that the flavour, costumes, and subject matter of drag shows depend entirely on the audience in attendance.
“The drag queens reading to kids at the library are presenting in a completely non-sexual form, and they speak a language that children understand,” she tells me as she applies her flawless makeup in the dressing room of The Well just before an evening show. “It's easier for people to grow up knowing there’s a spectrum of people out there, that not everybody in the world is going to be exactly like you and your mom and your dad. That there are people with different points of view. Kids have an easier time computing that, because they haven't already had the stigma of society pushed on them that they have to think in a certain way.”
Though Kenadie, who is transgender (“Everything on my paperwork says female, so if you want to look at it from a legal standpoint, I’m a woman playing dress-up”), does prefer a bit of a raunchier show geared towards adults, she’s also experienced the backlash from a mindset that believes that all drag is adult-themed and hypersexualized, and that the entire idea of drag is harmful to kids. Back in February, east-end eatery BBQ Bandits made disparaging remarks on social media about “Draglicious Dinner,” an event hosted by Kenadie at Augusta Street pub B-Side Social. “Isn’t there enough weird stuff happening already?” the comment read. “We should think of next generation kids and what we represent. Plain wrong.” But the event at B-Side wasn’t seeking an audience of children – it was a 19-plus evening.
“It’s an adult show,” Kenadie says. “And we make sure that we advertise that, because drag can conform to whatever audience you're performing for. Am I able to conform my shows for a younger audience? Yes, I can cover up and wear long sleeves and just be pretty and do Disney songs all day, and there’s a time and a place for that. But I prefer an adult audience, so I like to be humorous and vulgar and talk about adult issues, because I'm an adult. The moment that restaurant made those comments, everyone started harping on them.”
Her next two shows at B-Side sold out almost immediately. “Hey, all publicity is good publicity,” she says with a smirk.
To be fair, there are certain types of performance in any genre that not everyone is going to like. If someone is opposed to lewd comedy in general, perhaps they should switch the channel when seeing a raunchy stand-up comedian on TV. But not all comedy is adults-only, and the same can be said for drag. Cancelling drag in general (17 U.S. states have bills in the works to ban drag in public places or where children could be present) would therefore be akin to cancelling any artform due to its sometimes-adult content.
Karma agrees. “It's the same if one were to say all music should be banned because you find a Cardi B song explicit. Or that all movies should be banned cause The Exorcist isn't something you would show a three-year-old. There's a spectrum of drag, and I think because of that, people who are very queerphobic and transphobic like to pick the most extreme example of what drag could be to kind of formulate that argument.”
I ask Karma and Kenadie one final question in hopes of finally dispelling misconceptions about drag queens and their art: Why is drag – whether geared toward beer-sipping patrons at a nightclub or cross-legged kids at the library – important for an audience to witness and embrace? What should people know about drag that might shatter their stereotypes?
Karma finishes her last sip of coffee as our interview at Red Church winds down, telling me, “As a drag queen at story time, your motivation and your message as a character is teaching acceptance, self-worth, love, and inclusivity. Those things are so important for a child and can be easily delivered in a child-friendly way. Why wouldn't you want that? It's such an open form of expression. And my message and my motivation as an entertainer at midnight in the bar is just to entertain someone. But I think the younger we get people to understand the reality that gender is on a spectrum, that we are all valid being who we are, the easier the journey is to accepting yourself for what you are. But I think there is so much more that can be done in setting up the generations that come after us to be better than we were. We can shape them into being better than what we grew up with, and I think as a society, that's the only thing we can really do.”
And Kenadie? She smiles and bats a false lash my way, applying one last touch of lipstick before the show upstairs at The Well gets pumping. “In relation to drag story time and a midnight show, there’s a difference between someone who's teaching sex education and walking you through the Kama Sutra, and someone who's teaching a kindergarten class. They're both teachers. They’re just teaching a vastly different subject. And drag isn't about wanting to be a woman. It's about expressing yourself through a feminine outlet. It's like women putting on makeup. You've seen those videos where a woman transforms herself into something completely opposite with just the power of makeup. It's exactly the same thing. But now it's done on stage, and it's sometimes done by someone of the opposite gender. And by the way, high heels were invented for men in the first place. In the French court, they were meant to make men look taller. Surprise! People think that drag is a new thing. Men dressing up as women is as old as time.”
So are the utopian ideals of love, understanding, and acceptance. Maybe drag queens will be the ones to finally and fully instill those values into a new generation – and perhaps do the same for certain adults along the way.
Drag queens taking on New Blue-driven hate
When a few prominent queens were invited by Kitchener entertainment complex Bingemans to bring the fun to a holiday event called “Jingle Bell Rock” last December, they innocently wandered into a maelstrom of hate and bigotry from the New Blue Party of Ontario.
Why the backlash? For starters, the event was – gasp! – headlined by drag queens. Secondly, it was funded by the Ontario government. And the scandalous cherry on top? The evening was billed as an all-ages event.
“We knew that kids would be in attendance,” Hamilton drag veteran Monro tells me as she recalls the evening. Monro has stunningly sparkled and glittered onstage for decades, but here in the comfort of her homey living room, she’s soft spoken, wearing a cozy sweater, and offering me tea. Outside of her drag persona, she reminds me of a kindergarten teacher I had once; a threat to children is the last thing that comes to mind. “We were dressed in high drag – princess-type drag. We pulled out the big costumes for that show.”
Soon after the festive evening, New Blue Party president and Cambridge MPP Belinda Karahalios distributed flyers to local mailboxes, adorned with photos of the queens – Miss Drew and Crew – who had performed at the holiday event. “Doug Ford Funds ‘All Ages’ Drag Show. They’re All In It Together,” the flyers read, slamming the Ford government for the luridness of financing such an atrocity. After all, kids were in attendance.
“The New Blue took this event that we did in Kitchener and tried to use it against Doug Ford,” Monro says, “because the Conservative government had fundraised some money for this establishment to do their Christmas special and we were paid (from that money). That’s such dirty politics. And it sort of shows how desperate they really are.”
But shady politics or not, this attack on Ford’s government was also a fierce backhand toward the queens themselves, who were providing harmless fun and entertainment to the community. Innocent songs and princess gowns aren’t exactly going to destroy humanity, but that’s seemingly what the New Blue party wanted voters to believe.
“It is ridiculous that Ontario taxpayer money is being used to put on a ‘drag’ show. But a ‘drag’ show for children? That is outrageous,” Karahalios wrote on her party’s website after the event. “With your support, we will continue to expose the corruption and the perversion.”
Supporters of Karahalios and the New Blue party took to social media, posting comments such as, “Drag shows aren’t for any ages” and “Stay away from my kids with this demented, perverted clown show.”
Miss Drew of Miss Drew and Crew is not only a beloved Hamilton drag queen, she’s also helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for countless charitable organizations throughout the years. She says that what bothers her most about the hatred cast toward her and the other queens – and drag in general – is the insensitivity and ignorance displayed by Karahalios and her supporters.
“The thing that really bugs me is how uneducated this politician was. This all came about two weeks after the Colorado Springs shooting,” she tells me at downtown Hamilton queer bar The Well (of which she is also the general manager). Miss Drew is, of course, referring to the unprovoked attack at Club Q on Nov. 19, where five people were killed and 25 more were injured after a gunman opened fire. “(Karahalios’) followers are now sending me hate mail, and those followers probably have the mindset of that shooter.”
On Karahalios’ Facebook page, one of her supporters wrote, “Want a drag? (Put a) rope around (your) leg and let the horse drag it,” complete with a smiley emoji.
And that’s just the tip of the hate iceberg. At the time this story went to press, hundreds of hateful comments aimed at drag and drag performers were still posted on Karahalios’ Facebook page by her adherents.
“These are supposed to be community leaders running for election, yet it’s OK for their supporters to spew this hate on their social media pages? It’s pushing the limits,” Miss Drew tells me. “After all the positive work I’ve done in the community, everyone would rather focus on something that they consider negative.”
Certainly, there’s nothing negative about Miss Drew’s philanthropy. As she posted on her own Facebook page, “New Blue, did you know that these drag queens (at the holiday event) were part of a team that raised more than $6,000 for charity just in the month of February in support of (Club Q) in Colorado Springs? Are you familiar with what happened?”
Sadly, most supporters of hateful ideology are aware of what happened in Colorado – and of countless other attacks on an already marginalized community. But Monro says that until the bigots want to make efforts to understand that community, no inroads can be made.
“It would be nice if we could open up a line of communication with those people that feel so against us, but I don’t know if that will ever happen,” she laments. “They’re convinced that drag is taboo. We’ll never be able to explain to certain people that it's ‘taboo’ only because you feel it's taboo.”
Miss Drew, too, knows that the only taboo when it comes to all-ages drag events should be the ignorance that tries to tear them down. “When I do a drag story time, the kids love it because they see me the same as they see a Disney character. They love the sparkle, they love the fun, and they love that it’s all about just dressing up in costume. I remember growing up and watching Mr. Dressup. It’s the same thing. And I turned out OK.”