Society

How drag is revitalizing queer culture in rural Canada

The growing popularity of drag shows in places like Kingston has turned performers into celebrities
Kallan Lyons

There were families, university students, seniors—a kaleidoscope of people draped in rainbow flags. Some arrived in drag, adorned in multicoloured outfits. Saturday’s Pride parade in Kingston, Ontario, saw the biggest turnout ever in its 30-year history as more than 3,000 locals took to the streets to celebrate.  

Queer culture is being revived in Canadian towns like Kingston, where the pandemic helped bring it into the mainstream, empowering the community in the process and creating safe spaces.  

Scenes from Kingston’s Pride parade (courtesy Kallan Lyons)

Six years ago, local drag performer Rowena Whey left her hometown. “I actually ended up leaving Kingston because I didn’t feel like there was much of a supportive queer community,” says Whey, who started performing in Edmonton before recently returning home. “When I moved back it wasn’t about finding a community—it was about building the community.”

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Now the president of Kingston Pride, Whey also created Open Stage, a monthly drop-in show for new drag performers, which has drawn locals of all ages to cheer on some of the city’s brightest talent. 

The Kingston drag scene was small and had flown under the radar for years. Just as Whey felt her shows were starting to gain momentum, the pandemic hit and performers across the country were forced to take their shows online. When bars and restaurants in Kingston reopened, venues banned live music. Drag shows, however, were permitted. 

Scenes from Kingston’s Pride parade (courtesy Kallan Lyons)

Suddenly, people were lining up down the street hoping to get tickets (the release of the first season of the popular reality TV show Canada’s Drag Race certainly helped). At her first all-ages show, Whey noticed two young kids sitting up front with their parents.  During the intermission, the parents thanked her for providing their children with access to other people like them. 

“For some people. drag is their earliest form of different gender expression,” says Whey. “It gives us an opportunity to be visible, because a lot of people don’t know that there’s a queer community in Kingston at all. And when you know it’s there, and you know how to find it, you feel comfortable exposing yourself to the community.”

Kingston’s queer history is buried beneath its military past. But it’s there. 

In 1984, Jas Morgan, who was born and raised in Kingston, helped organize the city’s first unofficial Pride parade, marching alongside a small group of out-and-proud Kingstonians down busy Princess Street without experiencing harassment or hostility.

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Kingston’s LGBTQ+ community managed to carve out queer-friendly spaces in several local bars. The city’s first gay bar, The Office, opened in the early 1980s above the local gentleman’s club. The club became the birthplace of Kingston drag. 

Morgan, a trans woman who legally adopted her drag name, recruited 21 other people for Kingston’s first drag show in the late ’80s. Eventually, shows were packed with queer and straight audience members alike. Afterwards, Morgan would wander to another pub in full makeup for a drink. “I never felt intimidated or threatened. Kingston was an amazing city for those reasons,” she says.

Jas Morgan, right (Photo courtesy Morgan)

In 1992, the mayor of Kingston first proclaimed June 20 as the annual Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Pride Day, having voted against it the year before. 

Yet by the time Morgan moved to Toronto 16 years ago, the city’s drag scene had all but disappeared. The Office, which had since been renamed several times, closed in the early 2000s. Morgan’s protege (a.k.a. “drag daughter”) Tyffanie Morgan had the difficult task of single-handedly keeping queer culture in Kingston alive.

“When I first turned up [in the late ’90s], I would be happy to have 40 people at a show,” says Morgan, who also runs fundraisers in support of queer causes and community members, including conversion therapy survivors. “And then we started getting a lot more women. We had grandmothers out at the last show.”

Scenes from Kingston’s Pride parade (courtesy Kallan Lyons)

Traditionally associated with queer men, today’s drag queens and kings include cisgender women, transgender and non-binary people and even some straight men.

“In my mind, drag is queer culture,” says Morgan. 

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Thanks to the rising popularity of drag shows, queer visibility in Kingston has exploded. Whey says more areas of the city and businesses are accepting of queer people and events, including making inclusivity a priority in their advertising and promotions. Queen’s University has created groups for queer employees, Indigenous peoples and the BIPOC community. There is even a new queer climbing club.  

As for Whey, she is the first Canadian drag queen to be featured on a beer available at liquor stores across Ontario, thanks to her partnership with a local brewery. Aptly named Queen of Wheat, a portion of the proceeds go toward the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity.

The growing presence of Kingston’s LGBTQ+ community is helping to inspire nearby towns. Napanee, for example, hosted their first ever Pride parade earlier this month. 

“I feel happy that I have a place that I feel welcome in now,” says Whey. “I’m really proud to live here.”