Features  The show must go on

Queering Montreal's drag scene

“Gays don’t like drag in general, because of all the associated bitchiness. It’s more of a popular thing with straight people.”

Despite his grievances with Montreal’s mainstream drag scene, *Felipe still enjoys his hobby. “I started doing it to be with my friends,” he explains in French. “I really enjoy preparing for the show, and once you’re on stage, it can really be a blast.” Felipe first considered trying drag when he noticed how repetitive and predictable his nights out were becoming. He thought drag might be a fun way to mix things up, but quickly realized that queens were, for the most part, even more superficial than the gay men he encountered in clubs. “People do this so they get compliments. They’re searching for the attention,” says Felipe. “Queens love when you compliment them.”

Historically, drag shows and gay cabarets were sites of radical gender bending and safe havens for gay communities. Gay villages, such as the ones in Montreal and Toronto, were the homes of such underground shows and activities. Today, Montreal’s more mainstream drag scene has become emblematic of the changing nature of the Village. In the past decade, the Village has become one of the most commercial gay neighbourhoods in the world. There is a fear that popular acclaim and commercial success is drawing performers and audiences away from drag’s more cutting-edge exploration of gender. Nina Arsenault, a famous Canadian transsexual artist, recently commented on how she “doesn’t differentiate between gay people and straight people anymore, [but] between queer people and normative people.” As a new queer alternative begins to root, is the shift in the Village’s drag scene a sad ending, or the beginning of something beautiful?

. . .

Antonio Bavaro, aka drag queen Connie Lingua, has been performing as a queen for ten years. “Once you get your own show,” Bavaro explains, “there’s a territorial sense to it.” Bavaro, an Edmonton-to-Montreal transplant, first came onto the scene in the famous Cabaret Café Cleopatra on the lower Main. Since then, he’s performed at Sky, Drugstore, Mado, and Cocktail. Considering the expansion of the drag scene outside of the Village, Bavaro has branched out to neighbourhoods like Parc Ex, Mile End, and St. Henri for his gigs.

Like Bavaro, Michel Dorion, a drag queen, co-owner, and the artistic director of Bar Le Cocktail, started his career at 18. “When I was young, I used to look like a girl. I didn’t say anything, even though I always got teased,” he tells me in French. His friends took him out to Entrepôt (now the popular Cabaret Mado, named after its famous queen) for his 18th birthday. “The club was announcing an amateur contest that night, and my friends encouraged me to sign up, but I didn’t want to. They signed me up anyway. I was very shy back then, I could barely speak in public. I got home, told my mom I was in a contest and had to dress up as a girl and sing. My mom and stepdad helped me prepare. They made my costume. The first time I performed, I got a thrill from being on stage. I liked people’s reactions, so I developed this craft and continued.”

“It’s much easier to go on stage in drag,” Dorion emphasizes. Becoming comfortable on stage was a gradual process for him, as for many other performers. “At first, it helps because you feel like someone else; you can do whatever you want and it doesn’t matter. Now when I’m on stage, I don’t feel hidden anymore. I don’t feel the makeup anymore: it’s me. I don’t speak like a character. On stage, I forget my costume and makeup.”

Performing drag is, at best, a part-time remunerated hobby for most. Famous Montreal queens like Dorion and Mado La Motte are among the few who make a living from performing, while others struggle to deal with the financial strain of drag.

“I make most of my costumes,” Dorion explains. “It would cost too much to buy them.” Bavaro considers himself lucky, relying on many vintage finds for his costumes. Even with the help of such thrifty tricks, performers often end up spending hundreds of dollars annually on their craft. As soon as I saw Dorion’s dressing room, I understood why. He had a wall full of wigs, a shelf full of shoes, a table scattered with makeup, and a large rack bursting with costumes. Most of Dorion’s costumes are carefully sewn with intricate details, with a particular preference for sequins.

Pre-show preparation extends beyond slipping on a dress. As Felipe shows me his extensive equipment – dozens of makeup brushes of various sizes, a few pairs of sky-high platform shoes, and a luxurious lace coat he received as a gift – he explains the process of going from man to drag queen. Felipe takes about two hours to do his makeup. With 25 years of performance under his belt, Dorion has cut down this prep time to twenty minutes. Felipe used to remove all of his body hair with an epilator, but now prefers less time-consuming razors. Felipe explains the techniques he’s learned, including how he hides his genitals (testes are pushed up, and the penis is taped towards the back). Felipe tells me his boyfriend doesn’t like drag queens – they’re too over-the-top. “He makes an exception for me, though,” Felipe explains, “because he thinks I look good as a woman.”

“It takes a while to stand and move like a woman,” Felipe clarifies. “It’s definitely something that has to be learned. When I first started out, I was rubbish.” Dorion also emphasizes this need to tap into an “inner femininity” when performing in drag. “When we do this, we certainly have a stronger feminine side inside of us, and this is a way to externalize it.”

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Drag’s emulation of a certain feminine ideal was ill-received by some second-wave feminists. In 1979, feminist activist Janice Raymond wrote in The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male that “all transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves.”

Critiques like Raymond’s book, which cite performances of femininity as an invasion and appropriation of women’s bodies, have led to some hesitation on the part of trans* people to be involved with feminism, explains Lucas Crawford, a postdoctoral fellow at McGill’s Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies (IGSF). Queer theory, which emerged in the 1970s, helped broaden the discussion on drag. While much of “feminist and queer theory overlap, queer theory seeks to problematize society’s prescribed gender behaviours, to an even greater degree’ Crawford explains. Queer theory, for the most part, espouses drag and its surrounding culture as a tool for gender performance and exploration.

Despite drag’s potential for diversity, conceptions of gender remain relatively traditional in the Village. Dorion tells me performers are simply gay men who dress up as women to perform – limiting gender fluidity to a male-to-female performance restricted to the stage. Dorion has rarely encountered drag kings in his career. “I know one who performs regularly, but that’s all,” Dorion explains. “She’s good, she actually sings and plays around with lyrics, and performs a lot. I wouldn’t hire her here though, we’ve tried that and the audience tells us they don’t understand. They want to see a guy dressed up as a girl. It’s still hard to get [drag kings] accepted.”

Crawford sheds light on the significance of Dorion’s comments. “There’s a certain reassurance to the idea that this is only a show,” says Crawford. “It becomes disrupting to some when it reaches into everyday life and ceases to be just masquerade.”

Drag venues in the village have been drawing crowds other than local gay men for decades now. Dorion explains how “straight people from the suburbs and gays from all over the city” attend Cocktail’s weekend performances. This trend is even more evident at big name venues like Mado. “There used to be more gays than straights,” says Dorion, “but it was still pretty much half-half. Now that Mado performs there, the audience has more straight members than gays, because she’s more well-known.” In fact, in his experience, gay audiences often prove harder to please. Members of the gay community have been seeing drag shows for years and are more difficult to rouse as a group. “Straight people tend to be more receptive,” says Dorion. “They’re amazed; you do anything and they’re enthralled.”

The Village population is changing, reflecting Montrealers’ greater open-mindedness as straight couples and young families flock to the neighbourhood. “Some gays hate the Village now,” Dorion says. “They avoid coming here.”

Dorion has visited drag venues in Paris, Las Vegas, Miami, and New York. In Vegas, he tells me, ticket prices are upward of $45, compared to Montreal shows where ticket prices rarely exceed $10. “I prefer what we do in Montreal,” says Dorion. “It’s more personal, we’re closer to the people.” He ascribes this warmth and communicative approach to the inherently hospitable Quebecois character.

Yet this hospitality has its limits. While the Montreal scene may offer more bang for your buck, it is ridden with prejudices other than a gay/straight binary. Bavaro has noticed racist elements in certain drag queen comedy routines and has been personally trash-talked at Village venues – including Mado and Sky – for being anglophone and Albertan.

Cocktail’s traditional cabaret style and location in the Village tend to attract an older, more conservative audience searching for an entertaining show that isn’t disruptive to their notions of gender. The Village may be lingering in the past, but Montreal drag is changing, Bavaro explains, reaching out to include a wider variety of performers. Crawford describes this growing alternative scene as “queering the practice of drag.” While Bavaro describes mainstream drag happenings such as a recent glitzy ball thrown by Mado as “fake, unacceptable community events,” alternative drag venues strive to encompass diverse manifestations of gender performance.

The emerging alternative drag scene spreading across the city has opened up space for differences and disagreements, both personal and political. “We are inherently political,” Bavaro says of queens. Nightime entertainment seekers are flocking to popular new venues such as Mile End’s Royal Phoenix on Bernard. Faggity Ass Fridays, which aims to benefit a sex education program called the Sense project, is a dance party. “Faggity Ass Fridays is a queer dance party by and for the queer community in Montreal,” the event’s Facebook page explains. “It is outside of the village, and it creates space for radical queer performance art, drag, cabaret, music, DJs, and lots of sequins.” Similarly, Radical Queer Semaine, a radical queer and trans* collective, strives to “create opportunity to exchange, entertain, learn, challenge and politicize ourselves, network and organize around current social justice struggles,” according to their page. Crawford, who frequents Faggity and Royal Phoenix, says that unlike the Mile End venues, “Village performances don’t move me or surprise me at the level of ideas of the body and of desires.”

Radical Queer Semaine and Faggity Ass Fridays are good representations of Montreal’s underground queer scene – egalitarian, mobile, temporary, and promoted mainly through word of mouth. Moving away, quite literally, from the business of entertaining, the queer drag scene “incorporates art and thinking with entertainment,” says Crawford.

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Right after his first musical number, Dorion singles me out in the crowd, pointing his microphone in my direction –  “are you straight or are you gay?” he asks – explaining to the audience that he had forgotten to ask me during our interview. I humour him and answer his delicate question as straightforwardly as he’s asked it, while he laughs and retorts: “You never know with young people these days, it’s really become an all-you-can-eat buffet.”

Bavaro agrees that gender and sexuality are more fluid categories than drag queens sometimes depict. “Judith Butler was right,” Bavaro says. “There is definitely a power to performing gender.” Bavaro explains that we can’t completely shut ourselves out from mainstream ideas of gender. “Women and gay men are brought up and marketed to in a certain way, in order to correspond to certain gender roles inherent in our culture.” Bavaro himself fears being typecast as a drag queen. “I don’t want that to be everything about me,” he says, mentioning the “intersectionalities of [his] identity.” Bavaro believes Montreal lends itself well to “crossing boundaries of gender.” The city’s alternative drag scene features drag kings as well as queens, and what Bavaro refers to as “transgods and transgodesses.” While the alternative scene distances itself in many ways from popular commercial drag, Bavaro points to a certain “degree of integration, a give-and-take with dominant culture.”

Bavaro performs at HIV/AIDS fundraisers, and Dorion is a member of the Montreal gay pride administrative committee. “We’ll have [activism] as long as not everyone all over the world doesn’t have the same rights and equalities,” states Dorion. “There’s never anything that should be taken for granted.” Ultimately, drag – like any form of art – is a communication tool. An increasing emphasis on mainstream commercial ventures poses a certain threat to the innovative power drag holds. Yet people like Bavaro are guiding the queer movement against the pull of conservative entertainment forces, continuing to challenge and expand existing conceptions of gender and sexuality through playful and political performances. Crawford’s students were enthusiastic about his proposal to put on a drag show. “This was not just a fun performance,” says Crawford, “but permission to play with gender and experiment.”

As the multiple incarnations of drag increase, queer performances spread throughout the city, infiltrating Montreal and seeping into neighbourhood life outside the Village. Along with this geographic spread of queer approaches to drag, gender as experimental performance is also extending into our everyday lives. Gender-bending is no longer restricted to the stage. While Bavaro and Crawford’s world is still a somewhat elusive underground scene, their queering of drag offers an alternative to commercialized mainstream drag, contributing a voice to Montreal’s increasingly diverse dialogue of gender expressions.