Why Vancouver's making space for gender exploration.
Every seat in the planetarium was full—every generation and gender expression represented under the domed roof. With our hands waving above our heads, we sang along with a drag queen’s rendition of Elton John’s “Rocket Man.”
“This song is way too binary, why don’t we change it to ‘Rocket Them,’” says Dust, one of three performers at the all-ages show Splendor in Space: A Drag Odyssey at H.R. Macmillan’s Space Centre.
The sold-out event was akin to a School House Rock episode on queer culture, giving underage drag enthusiasts the chance to experience a live show. YouTube and Netflix have brought drag into mainstream culture, entertaining younger audiences while demonstrating different ways people express their gender. Kids are now leading a new frontier for drag, and demanding more opportunities to engage with the culture; luckily, Vancouver is delivering.
“I started my show in 2017 and from the first show we saw interest ,” Dust says, post-show. They’re the host of Commercial Drag, a weekly show at East Vancouver’s London Pub that’s open to all-ages. “Kids love being in their imagination, and if I’d had access to drag in my youth, it would have put a lot in perspective for me and helped me with my confidence.”
For Louise Walker, Commercial Drag is one of the few places she can regularly take her 14-year-old that isn’t a cis-gendered, hetero-normative environment. Her teen Elliot is trans non-binary, and takes their courses online for school.
“It warms my heart to see Elliot find, in essence, a tribe,” says Walker. As someone who frequented Vancouver’s drag scene 25 years ago, she says she’s excited to see this generation of performers’ eagerness to break through gender barriers. “Life can be difficult for kids who don’t fit in that binary box, but now I know my kids going to be okay. Even though they’re under 19, I know they have a spot in that community."
Elliot has a spot on stage too, performing as Minor Disappointment just two weeks after coming to their first Commercial Drag show. “I don’t remember any of it but I got up on stage and I did it,” they say. After they performed, London Pub roared with applause as Dust held up Elliot's hand in triumph. “That’s when I knew I wanted to keep doing this. I see myself doing drag for as long as I live.”
While that East Vancouver show is switching to a bi-weekly schedule this summer, the Walkers have a new drag community they can tap into regularly at Vancouver’s first drag camp for kids. Hosted by the Storytelling for Drag Queens Foundation at Havana Theatre, the camp is offering four monthly workshops on a drop in basis.
The inaugural camp kicked off on April 7th, with drag performer Tommi starring in a story time show before teaching costume design through a kid friendly sewing project. The next three sessions will offer workshops on makeup, performance and drag-culture respectively.
“I wanted to go beyond a reading and performance and give kids interactive workshops,” explains Candie Tanaka, who began organizing Storytelling with Drag Queens three years ago while working for Vancouver’s International Centre of Arts and Technology (ICOATT).
“A lot of kids just want to see themselves represented in culture, which is why storytelling is an important aspect--it shows diversity and inclusion in literature,” Tanaka explains. Massy Books has partnered with the camp, and will be on site selling LGBTQ inclusive children books.
Storytelling with Drag Queens for Kids has become so popular that a recent show at Port Moody’s main library brought 300 attendees. But Tanaka says they were still surprised to see so many young kids attending the camp with their parents. “I don't really know if they're taking a risk bringing their kids, but I think that they just have to be strong with what they believe in and the kids really have to be strong with how they're expressing themselves,” explains Tanaka.
“I was really impressed with the parents who brought their young kids because I don't think I would have,” says Louise, who today sees drag as a way to educate children on gender expression, identity and community. “For the parents who argue drag is inappropriate, I think it’s better than letting my kid sit through some kind of superhero movie with tons of guns and violence.”
Montreal mom Jessica Ma considers herself an ambassador of parenting a drag kid, and agrees that parenting drag kids requires thick skin. Her son, Nemis Quinn Mélançon Golden became a viral sensation at eight years old back in 2017, when he was brought on stage by a winning queen from Ru Paul’s Drag Race, Bianca del Rio.
“The drama looks worse online than it is in real life,” Ma says, although online it looks pretty bad. This time last year, Ma was facing several abuse complaints and had to meet with Child Protection Services. Now, a system is set up where those calls are immediately deemed malicious. “You open yourself up to a lot of criticism when you have a drag kid, but at the end of the day your child is happy and living their best life, doing what they love.” Ma says.
She still has to deal with calls from her son’s teachers though, asking that he keep Lactatia out of the classroom. All the voguing is distracting other students.
When asked what pronouns her child prefers to use, she barely pauses before answering, “Nemis prefers to identify as awesome.”
Back at the Space Centre in Vancouver, Elliot and Louise make sure to get pictures with all the performers before driving back home to White Rock.
“Would you ever perform in a place like this?” Louise asks Elliot. The teenager, noticeably less awkward when surrounded by gender-bending adults, lights up.
“That would be a dream come true.”