Culture

The Big Idea: Defend Drag Shows

We need a way to protect LGBTQ+ Canadians—especially drag performers—from harm. An Ontario traffic law could work.

“I’d love it if these bubbles started popping up across the country, in drag capitals like Toronto and in small towns alike. I’d love it even more if we didn’t need to use them.” (Illustration by Pete Ryan)

Kristyn Wong-Tam is a member of provincial parliament and the critic on 2SLGBTQ+ issues for the Ontario New Democratic Party.

I don’t do heels very well. I never have. I came out when I was a teenager, and my introduction to the world of drag largely happened in nightclubs and at parties in downtown Toronto. There I was, an awkward kid with limited life experience, watching queens like Michelle Ross entertain their admirers at Komrads dance club, strutting like Amazons across a shining floor to the tunes of Donna Summer. One of my most powerful drag memories is of watching RuPaul perform at the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation in 1993. I was in a 10-person lineup for the porta-potty when the early beats of “Supermodel (You Better Work)” came on; everyone deserted the queue to watch Ru own the stage in her wig, American flag–inspired bodysuit and sky-high boots. Back on earth—and in runners—I was giddy.

LGBTQ+ rights have come a long way since then. (RuPaul’s Drag Race just finished its 15th season.) But certain folks want us to go back to the Dark Ages. In recent years, trans and non-binary individuals—who make up a tiny fraction of the population—have found themselves the targets of a ramped-up global disinformation campaign by conservative religious fundamentalists to sway public opinion toward hatred. Not all drag artists are trans, but their joyful, gender-blurring acts have nonetheless become a wedge issue, and the performers themselves have been wrongly vilified as “groomers.”

Canadians sometimes like to think of ourselves as different from our American neighbours, but the anti-trans sentiment flying around state senates has germinated here all on its own. Between 2020 and 2021, Statistics Canada documented a 64 per cent increase in reported hate crimes against the LGBTQ+ community—and those are just the ones we know about. Attacks on drag performers and events have also swept the country: a Calgary drag-on-ice event scheduled for February was shut down over safety concerns. Drag storytimes in Peterborough, Ontario, and Coquitlam, B.C., received torrents of online backlash, as did a recent “Winter’s A Drag” event hosted by a distillery in Elora, Ontario.

RELATED: Far-right religious groups protest my drag storytime events. Here’s why I won’t stop.

A performer named Crystal Quartz, who is based in Guelph, Ontario, opened my eyes to how these protests unfold in real life. Not only was she being doxxed—her home address was published online—Crystal had to contact the police in every jurisdiction where she’d booked shows to make sure she’d be protected. Venue owners often had to call in extra security. Last winter, I travelled to Hamilton for one of Crystal’s performances and saw the reason for myself: a dozen angry protesters, clad in balaclavas and army fatigues, yelling and waving upside-down Canada flags a few metres away from young families heading into a restaurant for a fun, glittery lunch. I’ve seen a lot of protests in my life, but that experience was entirely jarring.

In early April, I introduced a private member’s bill, the Keeping 2SLGBTQI+ Communities Safe Act, in the Ontario legislature as a way to protect this community. One clause would set up an advisory committee to establish a long-term strategy to deal with anti-LGBTQ+ hate. Until this bill, there was nothing on the books that covered sporadic, one-off events—like drag brunches and storytimes—which typically move between venues. So the bill’s other, shorter-term clause would allow “community safety zones” to protect drag performances across the province. Ontarians might recognize this term from traffic signage that threatens to double their speeding fines in school zones. But in the past, this provision has also been used to establish safe perimeters around abortion facilities and vaccine clinics, which drew protests during the pandemic. We’d essentially be borrowing this old tool for a new purpose.

In the interest of preventing any more vitriol from reaching patrons, the act (if passed) would give Ontario’s attorney general the power to establish temporary community safety zones 100 metres in front of and around the venue doors. Anyone who commits anti-LGBTQ+ intimidation, harassment or hate speech within that bubble would be subject to a fine of up to $25,000. (The upper limit of that penalty would likely be applied in cases of criminal assault, not the simple honking of horns.)

The attorney general could work with emergency services and local law enforcement—who are used to monitoring potential public disturbances online—to set the address and timelines for the bubbles and announce them via media advisories that cost taxpayers nothing. There would be no burden on business owners to call in extra police services, which pulls resources from nearby cities. When the performance is over, the bubble zone would be lifted. At the very least, the mere existence of these zones could act as a deterrent.

MORE: A rainbow house beaming with Pride in the face of anti-LGBTQ hate crimes

I also want to make one thing clear: this legislation would not stop Canadians from exercising their right to free speech. In the days following the bill’s announcement, my staff told me it was covered by Fox News and Breitbart. (My team acted as a buffer between me and the backlash for a few days.) Online commenters did not seem particularly interested in an important nuance of the bill, which is that it protects citizens’ rights to congregate and to protest. Basically, bring your signs (within reason) and MAGA swag, but if this bill passes, you’re not crossing that invisible line.

Private member’s bills don’t typically pass because many are tabled by opposition or independent MPPs. If the attorney general pushes it through, however, the Keeping 2SLGBTQI+ Communities Safe Act could pass within weeks. If he doesn’t, it could take years. As scary as things are out there, government officials are looking for solutions on how to keep LGBTQ+ people safe. In fact, some cities already have their own community safety zones, just under a different name. I’d love it if these bubbles started popping up across the country, in drag capitals like Toronto and in small towns alike. I’d love it even more if we didn’t need to use them.

Drag means different things to different people. To bachelorette parties, it’s a fun evening-ender. To chain restaurants, it’s a novel way to fill seats outside of peak service times. A lot of drag performers will tell you that they’re just entertainers looking to make a living; others see themselves as cultural storykeepers for the queer community, peppering their routines with political commentary. Some parents aren’t into the idea of drag storytime. They’re welcome to stay home for that hour or two.

The point of these safety zones isn’t to force people to embrace drag. It’s to show that these events, and the people who run them, deserve safety—even if the pastime isn’t for everyone. Take my four-year-old son, for example. Right now, he can’t sit through a full meal, and mascots in Paw Patrol costumes scare him, so drag brunch isn’t his scene. But my wife and I are both queer, and soon we’ll bring him to one, as we’ve done with Pride events since he was born. We want him to know we live in a beautiful, diverse world. I hope one day he leaves a drag event thinking the same thing I did after seeing RuPaul in Washington all those years ago: There are so many of us. They can’t do anything to stop us.

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