By Andrea Josic
The Church Wellesley Village, Canada’s largest “gaybourhood,” has been the city’s queer haven for decades. With the popularization of drag in the past few years, largely thanks to RuPaul’s Drag Race, drag culture in Toronto thrives more than ever before with all of its glamour and bad bitch energy.
A big middle finger to misogyny and the systems of patriarchy, drag is about embracing femininity, individuality and defying gender norms. Drag has always been an iconic part of queer culture. The beginning of the gay liberation movement is generally marked by the Stonewall Riots in 1969, pioneered by drag queens and transgender activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.
The Stonewall Riots, a resistance to systemic discrimination, were an era-defining moment of social and political change for the LGBTQ+ community. Still located in the Greenwich Village in New York City, the Stonewall was one of the only establishments in the 1960s that welcomed members of the LGBTQ+ community. When police raided the bar on June 28, 1969 and began arresting the gay patrons, Johnson was reportedly one of the first people to resist the arrests and Rivera was the first to throw a bottle at the police.
Following the raids, Johnson and Rivera founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) to provide shelter for homeless queer youth — mainly trans and gender non-conforming folks — and was the first LGBTQ+ shelter in America. Through their activism, it was two drag queens of colour who paved the future for LGBTQ+ rights by protesting for justice and equality.
While the LGBTQ+ community has deep roots in drag culture, only in recent years has drag really been getting mainstream attention. Some of Toronto’s veteran queens like Heroine, who has been a queen since 2007, have noticed significant changes in the drag community. While Drag Race has introduced local talent onto the scene, several gay bars in the Village have closed down, ultimately reducing the number of stages for queens to perform on. Popular gay bar Zipperz closed down in 2016 for condo developments, while others are unable to afford rent surges when leases expire. As the number of queens continues to grow, it can get difficult to secure gigs.
Queen Tynomi Banks acknowledges the differences between older and newer queens. “This new generation is just amazing. They’re born more accepting. [And] they also have it easy. It’s so easy to get help,” says Banks. When Banks first started doing drag in 2006, there wasn’t a lot of competition and she recognizes that Drag Race brought many fresh faces to the scene. Before Drag Race, it was harder and more expensive to get resources like costumes, wigs and makeup.
Despite these challenges, Toronto queens continue to hustle and create names for themselves. Some queens have day jobs or part-time jobs and do drag when they can, while some queens do drag for a living. “We all still work hard, but I feel like Toronto [has] the hardest working drag queens in the world,” says JuiceBoxx, who works full-time as a drag queen.
Regardless of how long they’ve been on the scene or the work they have to put in to keep doing what they love, Toronto’s drag queens are passionate and dedicated. Here are some of their thoughts about the art of drag:
Natasha Walker is Tash Riot, drag queen since 2018
“One of the reasons I fell in love with drag is the limitless nature of it. And that’s truly a word I love to use with drag. Limitless. The point is that I’ve always performed, I’ve done lots of different things, but the reason that drag is my thing is that there are no rules. And if there are rules, they’re meant to be broken. And it’s not necessarily something that everyone understands but that’s the point. It’s this ultimate form of expression and you should be able to do whatever the hell you want.”
Sheldon McIntosh is Tynomi Banks, drag queen since 2006
“Drag has helped me find out the person that I am. And I don’t take bullshit. And I love that I don’t. Now I have people who are inspired by me. People who aren’t even in drag. I have people sending me messages how I’m such a light, how it’s so refreshing and how it gives them hope for the future because I give them truth...I understand what the idea of me means for other people. But I didn’t realize, a little child who wants to do drag for the first time, they see a black queen and think, ‘Oh my God, I can be her one day.’ I’m 37, so I realize these things now.”
Aleksandar Golijanin is Erin Brockobić, drag queen since 2016
“Drag is for everybody. Performing is not, but drag is. Some people realize they’re not meant for the stage, but do enjoy wigs and makeup and hair and outfits. And that’s great. Everybody should be able to enjoy drag. I love seeing it. I think we’re stronger as a community if there’s more of us. We support femme energy and we support women and empower women and that’s ultimately the best thing. We eradicate this toxic masculine culture. We’re laughing in the patriarchy’s face.”
Jo Primeau is JuiceBoxx, drag queen since 2014
“You get a lot of attention. People just move out of your way when you’re walking in a bar in full drag, because drag queens, at the beginning of the gay rights movement, drag queens were a huge voice, right? For gay men and lesbians and people who fell in between. You were those people that people looked up to. Now that it’s mainstream, everybody’s like, ‘I want to be that person, I want to be a part of that legacy,’ so then they want to be a part of that movement because they see how accessible it is and how easy it is.”
Matteo Cassano is Heroine, drag queen since 2007
“As long as I can meet people that really appreciate my art, then that’s all that matters. I’m not really in this for the money. Yeah, money’s great. Money is how I’m surviving and doing this. But my goal in drag is, if I can make someone laugh, then that’s all that matters. This whole creation I’ve put together, it’s designed to make people laugh and feel something. And if I can make someone chuckle, then that makes me happy.”
Jordan Leuthel is Tiffany Boxx, drag queen since 2018
“With it being mainstream, you are giving yourself so many different opportunities and different people to listen to you. I was at DragCon back in May and it’s extremely heartwarming and exciting to see kids that are 7 meeting drag queens and dressing up in drag. And it’s so cool seeing people that may not fully know what their identities are at that age but being willing to explore. They want to meet somebody they saw on TV and they don’t care that you’re a man in a wig or a woman in lots of makeup.”