When local drag performer Aleksa Manila went to check on her drag daughter Atasha Manila soon after Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-home order took effect, she was surprised to see her protégé emerge from her apartment in full drag makeup and dress. Atasha did not have any upcoming performances — she was in quarantine!
Aleksa understood this as a cry for help. She encouraged a reluctant Atasha to put on a virtual drag show, because she knew that’s what Atasha needed. Knowing Atasha wouldn’t ask for help, Aleksa took a photo of Atasha in drag, made it into a poster for a show and posted it online. Hundreds of viewers turned out for Atasha’s show.
“I knew it meant a lot to her to be able to express herself,” said Aleksa. “In times like these it’s so important to connect, because for some people this is their life. … For some people this is their livelihood, this is their lifeline. So when you take away drag … you cut off their lifeline.”
The shutdown of Seattle’s bars and performance venues due to the coronavirus pandemic has left many performance artists and entertainers out of work and off the stage. For drag performers and appreciators, however, drag is much more than work, and the stage is more than a performance platform.
“It’s our community, it’s our family, it’s our church,” said Seattle drag king Vincent Milay. “Especially people who don’t have a family, that’s their family. To not be able to see your family and touch them is really difficult right now. But drag gives us this beautiful thing.”
For some, it’s a different, magical universe from which drag artists and appreciators can explore, express and push the boundaries of gender identity, make sociopolitical statements, imagine more inclusive worlds, or escape unsupportive or hostile home environments. For many drag performers, these local drag shows may be the only places they feel safe to be themselves.
The loss of these spaces and the community support that comes with them is an additional form of isolation on top of the stay-home order.
But drag communities have a long history of resilience and leadership in the face of persecution and social alienation. And like their drag ancestors, Washington’s drag performers are tapping their creativity to turn living rooms into virtual stages, adapt to new technologies, and support each other through the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.
“That’s how the gay community is,” said Floyd Lovelady, DJ and general manager at R Place, a 33-year-old LGBTQ+ bar and regular drag venue in Seattle. “We find a way.” (LGBTQ+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning, with the + denoting everything along the gender and sexuality spectrum.)
Keeping the community intact
As drag performer Ladie Chablis kicked off R Place’s first-ever virtual drag show on April 3 with a high-energy gospel song over livestreaming platform Twitch, messages of praise and support rolled through the comments.
“Chablis Yes!” wrote one viewer.
“Get it gurl!!” cheered another as Chablis danced and waved a prop bible in front of a sparkly curtain draped as a background in her living room. A spotlight was fashioned out of what appeared to be a bright lamp with a tilted shade.
Despite some technical difficulties, the audience was nothing but grateful, responding in the comments with encouragement:
“Don’t even sweat it! It’s wonderful!”
“You got this!”
“It’s fine yo. We have nowhere to be.”
There was no shouting or cheering or waving of dollar bills. The costumes didn’t shine quite as brightly on laptop screens as they might have under stage lights, and the performers couldn’t savor and entice the crowd’s adoration. But no one seemed to mind much.
“I’m so glad we still have drag during these weird times” wrote one commenter.
“Still feels like R Place #amiright,” wrote another.
Virtual drag shows aside, the stay-at-home order has led to local drag performers doing solo shows from home, hosting online trivia and game nights on Zoom, holding virtual Q&A sessions and makeup tutorials, and even livestreaming themselves cooking or playing video games in drag.
Local drag personality Betty Wetter has stepped up to help fellow drag performers adapt to their new situation.
A host for trivia nights and bingo at various venues, Wetter has continued much of her work virtually. She helps other artists by bringing performers on to her virtual shows as guests, and as her own aptitude for virtual platforms grows, she is teaching other artists tricks and tips to optimize their virtual performances.
“I allow myself one breakdown a week, then back to work,” said Wetter. “[I want] to make sure in the end of all of this the community is still intact.”
These adaptations are heartening displays of creativity and community support, but there are still many unique challenges, both for the drag artists creating this content and for those who have found a home and a place to be themselves among the drag community.
“Our goal is to make sure they’re not feeling alone”
At Julia’s on Broadway, a skeleton crew of four performers and a lighting technician who usually perform with Le Faux Show now strut their stuff to an empty room and a camera every Wednesday while maintaining 6 feet of distance from each other.
“[There’s] no clapping, no energy from the audience. There’s nothing,” said Eladio Preciado, Julia’s on Broadway owner and the producer and director of Le Faux Show. “It’s like a surprise party with no guests.”
Still, Preciado says he sees a sense of calm come over the artists after they perform, and they seem refreshed after reading the comments on the videos afterward.
For some drag artists, drag is more than just performance or a way to earn money — it’s part of who they are.
“As a trans man, I am Vincent, Vincent is me. My drag persona that started out as Vincent is now who I am legally,” said Milay. “For me, it’s a heightened version of who I am or who I’ve always wanted to be. For a lot of us in the drag community, a lot of us are trans in some way. Being able to go out [in drag] and be and feel like you have this armor. … You feel so protected.”
For some, drag shows are the way they express, explore and grow confident in their gender identities.
Nyx Shakley and Rowan Lenihan, drag performers and founders of the Kitsap County variety show “Queerly Beloved,” felt a moral obligation to maintain the community they’ve built around their show through the pandemic, not just for their performers but also for their loyal audiences.
Kitsap County is less accepting of LGBTQ+ people than Seattle, Lenihan says, so it’s important for “Queerly Beloved” to continue programming through the stay-home order to support and rally its LGBTQ+ community.
“Our goal is more focused toward those at-risk queer individuals who just need a place to be where they can be themselves,” said Shakley. “I know there are a number of those individuals who are still at home with people who are unsupportive and don’t understand, and they’re currently in lockdown with those people. Our goal is to make sure they’re not feeling alone.”
Mac Weatherill, a Kitsap County drag king who uses they/them pronouns, says drag helped them gain confidence and explore their gender.
“I learned after starting drag that I might actually be nonbinary, not a cis-woman, but I know I’m not a man. … Drag has helped me bring that out,” said Weatherill. “When I transform into Noah [Spades], I gain this confidence that I don’t normally have. … I transform into a character that has helped me in my real life. It’s helped me overcome some obstacles that I didn’t even know I had until I started exploring drag.”
Weatherill typically performed weekly, so when the stay-home order began and all arts performances were halted, they acutely felt the loss of their drag community. Not being able to perform felt like “turning off a light switch,” Weatherill said.
Then, “Queerly Beloved” started hosting live family-friendly Q&A sessions, makeup tutorials, performances, and sometimes just letting drag artists talk or improvise on Facebook Live.
Now, even though they’re only connecting with the community online, Weatherill says “the light switch comes back on.”
“Our community will be reshaped”
Performing virtually has been helpful, but it’s not the same, drag performers say. They miss the physical interaction with their audience that’s such a big part of these shows. Still, Milay is confident that the drag community will get through this and find a way to thrive afterward.
“We’re the kind of people where we’ve been either kept in a closet in some way or we’ve been oppressed in some way that we just find a way to break through,” said Milay. “We’ll figure this out because we’ve had to, we’ve always had to figure it out.”
But what will “afterward” look like?
With the toll the pandemic is taking on small businesses, drag artists predict that even after the city opens back up, some regular drag venues will have permanently closed, and it may be some time before larger gatherings are allowed or people are comfortable attending them. To compound that, many full-time drag artists will likely have to take on other employment to make up for the lack of gigs.
It’s almost certain that the drag community, like everything else, will be fundamentally changed by the pandemic. Some speculate that the ways performers and audiences have adapted to this crisis may stick around even after social distancing guidelines are lifted, and perhaps, drag may find a larger audience online even after the stay-home order ends.
“This happened at just the right time with the internet,” said Wetter.
If the stay-at-home order is extended, Milay envisions a weekly directory like a TV guide that lets people know when and on what platforms drag performances are happening.
When in-person shows are allowed again, Wetter imagines it may be the end of fans waving dollar bills. Instead, she says, maybe people will show their appreciation via money-exchange apps like Venmo and Cash App.
Either way, local drag artists are confident that drag will survive this crisis.
“Drag performers have existed since before we were even legal, so I don’t think we’re going anywhere,” said Wetter. “I think a lot of our community will be reshaped, hopefully stronger.”
One thing Milay says he knows for sure: “The moment we’re allowed back in those bars, it’s gonna be a party.”