A Performer Battles the Anti-Drag Tide[ad_1]
Another the Sashay Café show is getting started at Victoria’s Caffe Fantastico.
Attendees can buy colourful slips of paper called “drag dollars” at the ticket table, each worth a dollar and sanitized for performers’ safety. The room is filled with warm amber light as audience members find their seats.
The show begins and drag performers, dressed in everything from a fuzzy pink bear costume to strapping young newsie gear, take turns lip syncing their ways through the crowd, circulating from table to table, collecting drag dollars from the outstretched hands of audience members. At one table, a couple of young girls in sparkly dresses sip orange soda, accompanied by their parents, squealing each time a performer comes near.
There are other family groups in the room, some young adults and a senior couple.
“Do you think this will make a good colour for the skirt?” an older woman asks her partner at one point, holding up a swatch of green yarn. He nods and she returns to her knitting.
Hurrying through the crowd comes Sloane Chomeakwich, wearing a big smile and a denim jacket, weaving gracefully between tables, collecting any extra drag dollars performers missed and picking up abandoned costume pieces.
Chomeakwich, who belongs to the collective Brick & Lavender Productions (formerly For the Love of Drag), is the organizing force behind this all-ages drag show held monthly at Caffe Fantastico in Victoria. The performers are volunteers for the show, which all are welcome to attend. Since its debut in 2018, Sashay Café has quickly become known as an ideal event for young performers to make their drag debuts in because of its friendly, accepting atmosphere.
But on June 15, 2022, Caffe Fantastico received a call from a man who threatened to shoot up that weekend’s show.
Chomeakwich was tempted to go on with the show despite the threat, as a demonstration of resistance and resilience, but for the safety of both the performers and the show-goers, they cancelled it.
As Chomeakwich retells the story, a sullenness settles over them. They couldn’t risk the threat of real violence for the sake of a brave face, they explain.
Promoting drag, Chomeakwich says, is “a labour of love.” It creates a space that was missing for themself when they were growing up. But the hateful phone call promising violence marked a change in how they see their mission. Along with joyful celebration now came the burden of fighting for basic respect and safety.
“I want to press charges if possible. This person threatened to shoot children,” Chomeakwich wrote in an email to the Victoria Police Department at the time of the incident.
According to Chomeakwich, the police later tracked the caller’s phone number, identifying him as a man who has allegedly made threats like this to other businesses and organizations in the past.
But, as far as Chomeakwich knows, police interest in the case ended with a statement issued by the VPD expressing that hate has no place in Victoria. Police added they hoped for the safe return of the event in the future.
‘Cops don’t keep us safe; we keep us safe’
The police response to the incident was disappointing, Chomeakwich says, but based on the LGBTQ2S+ community’s history with law enforcement, it was typical.
They tell me this over peppermint tea on a bustling afternoon at Caffe Fantastico, having arrived, as promised by text, sporting “a red buffalo plaid jacket.”
Chomeakwich is commenting publicly for the first time on the police response since the incident took place nearly a year ago.
“It’s been a saying in the queer community for a very long time. ‘Cops don’t keep us safe; we keep us safe.’ The police probably can’t do much, but the community can do the work,” they say.
Cst. Markus Anastasiades, public information and communications officer with the Saanich Police, said police don’t lay charges in B.C. The decision is up to Crown prosecutors.
The police suggested seeking a protection order, he said.
Chomeakwich considers that an absurd response. Why expect an individual who is brazen enough to threaten gun violence to adhere to a restraining order?
Before the shooting threat, Caffe Fantastico had also received anonymous calls from somebody accusing the Sashay Café show runners of being groomers. The caller threatened to come to the cafe, stand outside, and film the show.
“It’s just people lip syncing to pop songs,” Chomeakwich says. “We’re like, there’s windows all around, film us. But then who’s the creep for filming a bunch of underaged kids without their consent?”
So why did Chomeakwich remain quiet about their displeasure with the police for all these months, and why are they speaking out now?
Because sharing their story could help bolster community support, the value of which, at this crucial point in time, overshadows the potential risk of public visibility.
Culture war politics waged by the right are driving the danger. Drag, an art form centred around expression, exploration and joy, has been framed as dangerous and inappropriate by its critics, leading to threats of violence and hate toward the drag and LGBTQ2S+ communities.
At the time of the threat phoned into Caffe Fantastico, “reporters kept asking me for an interview, and I was like, no,” Chomeakwich says. They told themself then, “What if someone was reading this article and was like ‘I hate drag queens too!’ And they know who to target.”
But now, the way Chomeakwich calculates the safety equation had changed. In the current climate, it would be naïve, they say, to imagine Victoria’s drag scene as “immune.”
More than 120 events featuring drag performers faced threats in the United States in 2022, but such danger is not limited to America, nor are accusations that drag performers are “pedophiles” and “grooming children.” Recently, there have been demonstrations of hate against drag performers outside of drag storytime events in Coquitlam and Kelowna.
Drag is “the Trojan horse for anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-trans laws they want to put in place. They always need a people to oppress,” says Ace Mann, vice-president of the Victoria Pride Society and organizer for the society’s Community Engagement Centre.
Critics of drag performance often rely on stereotypes, like the supposed sexual nature of drag performances, that aren’t always accurate and are taken out of context — especially when it comes to events like drag storytimes, which are designed to be appropriate for young audiences.
This kind of “drag panic,” according to Mann, falls under the larger phenomenological umbrella of moral panics.
Mann, who has a background in neuroscience, says that fear-mongering is a useful tactic for those feeding into the drag panic, because it keeps people suspended in a heightened emotional state, which prevents them from logically interrogating their feelings about something new or foreign to them.
By externalizing the issue of discrimination and hate and projecting it onto drag performance, Mann says, the logic of discrimination against LGBTQ2S+ people isn’t being examined.
Last June, after getting the first hateful phone calls directed at drag performers, Chomeakwich posted the news on Instagram. Members of Victoria’s LGBTQ2S+ community rallied behind them, offering to line the perimeter of the venue to keep the performers and audience members safe.
That is, until the shooting threat was called in shortly after. Suddenly, the joyful ambience of the café pre-show was tainted by the threat of danger.
Now, Chomeakwich says, the drag and larger queer community must solidify a culture of resistance, learning how to protect themselves and support one another in the face of hate.
The threat their show faced is not evidence of a new phenomenon, Chomeakwich says, but rather, an iteration of the “hate du jour” the far right has, for decades, waged on the LGBTQ2S+ community.
This hate is “cyclical,” Chomeakwich says, and it’s recurring today in the form of drag panic. But, they say, the LGBTQ2S+ is resilient.
“We’ve dealt with it before, we’ll deal with it now,” they say.
Community care and protection
Victoria drag king Kelly Legge, who runs Victoria collective Staches and Lashes, explains the importance of creating spaces for young people to get involved with drag. She says that drag is a way of expressing our “superhero selves,” and that makes sense to kids.
“Young people really understand drag because it’s creative ways to express the colourful, weird, and wonderful sides of ourselves, and kids get that,” Legge says.
The question, then, is: what is the solution to the hate from those who oppose the art of drag, especially in relation to children?
“Police do not prevent crimes, social systems do,” Mann explains. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
According to them, community care is the best course of preventative action that can be taken in protecting the LGBTQ2S+ and drag communities from this influx of violence and hate.
Community care includes mental health supports, spending time with the community, and making sure basic needs are being met, but most importantly, it means exactly what is indicated by the name: that the community cares about you.
Community care means being there, even when — especially when — it’s a difficult time to do so. In the face of a great evil, Mann says, the bravest thing you can do is show up.
The thousands of folks in attendance at this year’s pride parade in Victoria were a shimmering example of community care, according to Chomeakwich.
There had been rumours that protesters from Alberta were going to disrupt the parade, they explain. “It never materialized. [But] if it had, you know, there were 60,000 people there to support us.”
Ace explains that we’ve come to a point where, since law enforcement and the justice system are set up to react to crime, not prevent it, and the world is becoming increasingly dangerous for drag performers and LGBTQ2S+ folks, it’s time for allies to act.
“I would love to see it not just be community care, but also be allies care. I’d like to see people put action to their words, because love is a verb.”
For Chomeakwich, the answer to mounting harassment, online trolling and threats against queer people and the drag community in particular is simple: carry on.
Chomeakwich explains that they see themselves as a sort of screen for the youth in their collective — let the threats, the hate, the negativity all come through them, so the kids don’t have to know what it’s like to face that kind of radical opposition to their existence.
“For a lot of our community, for community leaders, that’s what it’s about. Building a better world for [the younger generation],” Chomeakwich explains.
“That’s the whole point” of the work they do, promoting — and now defending — the drag community in Victoria, says Chomeakwich.
“And that’s why I will always fight.”
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