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A Brief History of Drag: From 618 A.D to COVID-19

November 14th, 2020     by Maighdlin Mahoney     Comments

Illustration by Marlee Jennings

“When the shutdown happened, things moved online in like a day. I swear I woke up and I was like, ‘there’s live streams happening.’” Heath V. Salazar, a non-binary Drag King who performs as Gay Jesus, noticed right away how rapidly drag performance moved online when the pandemic hit in March. Drag in Canada has since been able to maintain a consistent and growing online presence, and is thriving despite the inability to hold in-person performances. What makes drag uniquely adaptable to a pandemic? In chatting with Salazar and Eli Holliday, a Drag Thing who performs as Dank Sinatra, I got to hear their answers to the question of pandemic drag, as well as talk more about their experiences with online drag and how some Canadian drag performers are working to expose audiences to a more diverse range of gender performers than you might see on an episode of Canada’s Drag Race.

For any of us who haven’t been tuning in to online drag, let me quickly answer the question – what even is drag? Drag is a queer performance that plays with gender conventions and ultimately critiques the notion of fixed or ‘real’ genders entirely. In other words, by performing gender in different ways, drag artists remind us that all gender is really only a performance. Drag artists identify in various different ways including, but not limited to, Drag Queens, Drag Kings, or Drag Things (a term that emphasizes a non-binary approach to drag). Ultimately, drag consists of folx whose performances emphasize the fluidity and expansiveness of gender itself.

Gay Jesus, photo taken by Sly Pereira

Drag has been around for centuries – the first recorded instance of a woman performing on stage dressed as a man, for example, occurred during the Tang Dynasty in China between 618-908 AD. It also has often had to adapt to changing societal conventions and norms. One example from more recent history is the 1930s “Pansy Craze”, a period where some drag performers were popular and accepted enough to be starring in Hollywood movies. However, in 1934 Hollywood started enforcing the “Hays Code”, a moral code for movies that censored anything ‘illicit’ and was used to ban drag from motion pictures. While Canada didn’t have any equivalent code, provincial governments generally banned drag content from movies at the time as well. Drag had to go deeper underground, and didn’t emerge into broad public view again until the 1960s and 70s.

The coronavirus pandemic has been another adjustment, and Salazar and Holliday have moved their drag practices completely online. Salazar did their first live streamed drag shortly after the pandemic hit and remembers being “freaked out” – but now, Salazar regularly does drag online and has been making pre-recorded drag videos that incorporate their own poetry. Holliday also was totally new to online drag, but simply began embracing online opportunities when it became clear that they were the only option. Now, Holliday co-produces a weekly online drag show called Category Is and frequently appears in the growing number of other drag shows online.

Both Holliday and Salazar credit drag’s long history of adaptation and perseverance when they talk about why drag has been able to weather the pandemic. “We’re in a particularly unique moment and people are really interested in talking about drag and thinking about drag and thinking about those histories”, says Holliday, continuing that they “hope that and believe that the histories of queer community and drag community resilience have impacted” drag’s ability to adapt to the pandemic. Salazar, similarly, reminds us that “this isn’t our first pandemic as queer people”, and says that “one of the things that [they] really cherish about drag is that it is a practice that has been happening for so long and in such different ways within a bunch of different cultures.”

More than that, this history of drag is not only drag performance itself but the history of queer community and connection. Holliday talked about the role that isolation often plays in the lives of queer folx, and the experience many people have of growing up and experiencing their queerness in isolation before finding a community. For them, the pandemic is “an interesting time to think about queer isolation and what new things we can offer to people who feel isolated and people who have to isolate.”

The move to predominantly online drag, in Salazar’s view, has even made possible different kinds of community connection. A latinx king themselves, being online has allowed them to meet other Latinx kings in the US – “it never would have occurred to be to meet kings online, and we have a supportive community now”. It also allows audience members to get more involved in the community, says Salazar, citing online panels and discussion groups about drag as places where “people who typically don’t get to engage with the drag performers in their community got to just like have a conversation or ask a question.”

Dank Sinatra, photo taken by Eirik Hutchinson

Online drag has also been offering the queer community relief from the stress of the pandemic by just “giving people like a really escapist entertainment …like stupid, campy, silly entertainment. It’s just people being fucking clowns and letting you laugh at it and people are desperate for that,” says Holliday. Salazar also talks about how drag performers, as community leaders, “immediately stepped into a position where they were bringing people joy in a time that was very stressful”. As a reprieve from stress and isolation, online drag has been a venue for queer community to continue to come together and be joyful and campy and silly, regardless of outside circumstances.

While drag had been moving online and onto streaming platforms in Canada even before the pandemic, this latest wave of online drag has the potential to offer a more diverse range of gender performers. Certainly, shows like Canada’s Drag Race, which aired this summer, can be credited with exposing many folx to drag for the first time. But Rupaul’s Drag Race generally tends to feature almost exclusively Drag Queens, and other kinds of gender performers like Drag Kings and Drag Things are often marginalized even in the midst of drag’s current popularity. However, Salazar notes that with the influx of online drag, “people are finding the option to be able to find drag that fits for them. “The amount of people who were like, “I didn’t know drag kings were a thing” and were like, “I wanna be a drag king”” after watching Salazar’s online performances reminded them that people haven’t always known which other kinds of drag are out there. Holliday is hopeful about this as well. “If you’re trying to seek out drag performances online actively then anyone who’s trying to do that is in a better position to find performers of all kinds…but I think there has to be like a desire and also maybe some inkling that there are other things to find”, they say, hoping that popular Drag Queens will take the initiative in bringing more exposure to Drag Kings and Drag Things.

Online drag also has the potential to increase accessibility for audiences and performers generally. Salazar emphasizes that online drag is available for folx who are at home sick, working in hospitals, or taking care of their families. “So many people gave feedback that they’ve really enjoyed the fact that they can now just log into a show”, they said. Additionally, Salazar notes that online drag has been “an incredible equalizer” in terms of budgets – since everyone is now at home and “all just working with what [they] had”, any pressure to need expensive costumes or props is lessened.

“Drag is something that people have been doing in their bedrooms forever,” says Holliday, and now more than ever performers and audiences can engage with drag even when they’re isolated. There are tons of great places to find Canadian drag online these days!

Category is, co-hosted and co-produced by Holliday alongside drag performer Ocean Giovanni, airs every Friday at 7pm EST on http://twitch.tv/thehouseroyale and features a rotating cast of drag performers, and even monthly Open Stage nights which make room for folx who are new to the drag world. Salazar, as Gay Jesus, was featured in CBC’s Canada’s A Drag, which aired before the pandemic and profiled drag performers from all across the country. It remains available online at CBC Gem. You can also follow Eli Holliday at @dank.is.a.drag and Heath V. Salazar at @theirholiness on Instagram to keep updated on their upcoming performances.

About the author: Maighdlin Mahoney(she/her) is a writer with a background in theatre creation, production, and performance. As a writer, her interest is in writing non-fiction and fiction that interrogate the stories we tell about our pasts and ourselves, as well as the effect that these stories have on how we understand our world and one another. She was a co-producer, co-creator, and actor in Nasty, a feminist exploration of history, which appeared in the 2017 Toronto Fringe Festival and the 2018 Feminist Fuck It Fest. She is a recent graduate of the University of Toronto, where she received an Honours Bachelor Degree with a double major in English Literature and History.

Tags: art, covid19, drag, drag history

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