The evolution of drag in Kingston

The Journal spoke with two alumni and two current students about participating in drag while at Queen’s

Drag queens and kings speak to their experiences on the Kingston scene. 

This piece uses “Queer and Trans Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (QTBIPOC)” to refer to the experiences of Queer racialized students. We acknowledge this term is not universal.

Tyfannie Morgan, ArtSci ’03, moved to Kingston in September 1999 to go to Queen’s and was immediately entranced with the local drag community. By March 2000, she had gotten dressed up and performed her first drag show.

“It was really just a circle of friends. We’d get together at each other’s apartments and then do a show together or just go out, and go out shopping together, too. It was well before buying things on the internet.”

Similarly, drag queen Ricky Raunch Morgan started while a student at Queen’s six years earlier, in 1993. Drag felt like a natural next step from their role as costume and prop coordinator for the drama department, although they never envisioned themselves on stage.

“Drag was all about being fabulous, which is what the 90s were all about.”

The Journal spoke with Raunch Morgan and Morgan about their experiences with drag in Kingston and how the practice has evolved over time. We also spoke with drag kings Vinny Von Vinci, PhD ’23, and Fabian Fabulous, ArtSci ’21, about their experiences as up-and-comers on the scene.

“Drag has been an incredible experience for me, I love getting on a stage and vibing off the energy that my audience gives back,” Fabulous said. “As a drag king of colour, I want to set an inspiring example to all those QTBIPOC out there that we can do anything we are passionate about, and that life can be as fruitful as we make it.”

Digging into the roots of drag in Kingston

In the early 90s, the HIV/AIDS crisis personally touched the lives of many Queer folk in Kingston. According to Raunch Morgan, most drag at the time came out of a need to raise money for local HIV/AIDS organizations through live entertainment.

“People were dying, so the community stepped up, got together, and did a lot of fundraising.”

Raunch Morgan spoke highly of drag queen Jazz Morgan who, alongside their partner, formed the Morgansone of the first drag families in Kingston. The two inspired much of the charity work being done in Kingston at the time.

When Raunch Morgan first started, they were a different kind of drag queen than those in the mainstream, choosing to set aside traditional femininity in portraying a woman and settling on characters with more androgynous energy. They began by emulating the aesthetics of icons like Janis Joplin.

“They called me a ‘lesbian’ drag queen. I did all these tortured singer-songwriter artists, and people hadn’t seen anything like that before […] I didn’t hear the part where it said you had to be a pretty woman, I just heard the part where it said you had to look like a woman.”

One of their biggest roadblocks was pressure to shave their eyebrows off, which was common practice for drag queens at the time. Raunch Morgan fought against this, insisting they’d be able to embrace drag in their own way.

“I didn’t want to walk around with no eyebrows during the day, that was my main reason, really.”

Morgan holds fond memories of her early days in drag, when Trinity Social was a 24/7 Italian restaurant and there were a handful of gay bars throughout Kingston where shows would be held.

Her role as a drag queen has transformed from performer to organizer, and she continues to hold both live and virtual shows to bring together drag queens and kings throughout the city.

“You have the performer who has this artistic need to express themselves and perform at a show, but then you also have that other aspect of someone has to organize that show, find a venue, and get the performers together to do that, and that’s always been a challenge, and that’s something that I do.”

There have, of course, always been barriers relating to Queerphobia.

Raunch Morgan recalled being part of an era when drag was just finding mainstream acceptance. “It had just come into itself since the Gay community was a little more out there—we had Will and Grace on TV, there were drag queens on TV, we’d never seen that before.”

“I did shows in Northern PEI in the early 2000s. I was worried I was gonna get bottles thrown at me. Queens like me had to go through stuff like that so there is a RuPaul’s drag Race Canada.”

For Morgan, the difficulties presented themselves in shopping for makeup, wigs, and costumes.

“We tried to stick to the shops we knew weren’t really that judgemental, because there were a few shops who were and quite often there were the glares and ‘this is an immediate final sale.’”

Being an Up-and-Comer today

Today, the drag community in Kingston has continued to grow, but looks quite different. Morgan said a new struggle exists with finding venues, as no gay bars remain in the city. Performing—and finding places to perform—now requires new kinds of creativity.

“We had a designated gay bar where you just do the shows there and then suddenly you don’t. So where do you do live entertainment?” Morgan said.

Fabulous got into the Kingston scene around two years ago and remains one of the few people of colour on the scene.

“It’s difficult because I don’t really know these people [on the scene] that well. I’m always worried I can’t relate to them enough […] they’re mostly white.”

His first performance was at The Underground. He initially felt nervous and had a sense of imposter syndrome but was excited to find audience members cheering him on.

He’s since found more drag kings on the scene, which he’s grateful for, but still wishes he knew more people of colour doing drag in Kingston.

Von Vinci began drag back home in Amsterdam through a drag king academy. The academy involved 15 women coming together for regular drag workshops, which is now called the House of Lost Boys.

Before arriving in Kingston, Von Vinci connected with a local drag king and was performing within a week of being at Queen’s. A major difference between the Amsterdam scene and the Kingston scene is the emphasis on performances.

“Back home, we would come together to do workshops. We’d drag up, try different things, and figure out what we would like to perform or if we would like to perform. Here, it’s much more evolving around the show. You have a couple each month, and that’s where the community comes together.”

Von Vinci said this can create a barrier for those interested in drag but not wanting to perform. It can also be difficult for new performers to be booked for shows.

For them, being a drag king has not only encouraged them to explore masculinity, but also femininity in their daily life.

“As soon as you start to perform gender, I guess it leads to a redefining of what gender and femininity is.”

The practice of drag also looks different today than it did in the early 90s. Performers are more able to create their own characters and personas, with less of a focus on imitating celebrities and other public figures, according to Raunch Morgan.

The pandemic has stalled many live shows from happening, though some continue while following social distancing guidelines. Other shows have moved to virtual platforms. Local shows can be found online and by following local drag kings and queens on social media.

Morgan has been involved in a few virtual shows but finds it difficult to get the same level of engagement performers normally depend on.

“For a lot of the performers, it’s sharing their art but it’s a two-way feedback: they’re also taking in all the response from the audience, and when you’re doing it online, you’re not getting that immediate feedback.”

Morgan recently helped organize two holiday shows on Dec. 11 and Dec. 12 in Kingston, which raised money for Rainbow Railroad, an organization that helps Queer folk worldwide escape persecution and violence.

For those attending live shows, it’s also important to tip performers if able.

To help up-and-comers, Von Vinci is currently running an in-person drag academy, modelled after the one they attended in Amsterdam. The academy will aim to bring together assigned female at birth (AFAB) and gender-nonconforming people who might ordinarily be left out of the scene.

“With RuPaul’s drag Race, everybody gets exposed to cis male drag queens. But for women it’s really important also to have these role models and these infrastructures.”

Moving Forward

The clientele which drag serves has expanded beyond white gay and genderqueer people, according to Morgan.

“That [the early scene] was predominately a gay clientele, but now when I’m doing shows I have a lot of allies and people who are just interested. I even have requests like: ‘can I bring my underage kids because they love RuPaul and I want to get them to know what drag is in Kingston.’”

This means that straight allies attending drag shows should be conscious of how they’re interacting with and supporting performers. Von Vinci suggests preparing to be a little uncomfortable, since drag is about pushing gender boundaries beyond what might feel ‘normal.’

“It’s important to remember, as a straight ally, that you are visiting a Queer space and to respect that and think about the thoughts that are invoked by these drag performances—that it’s not only entertainment.”

Straight allies and Queer folk alike can also help the scene by supporting diverse performers within drag, especially drag kings. Fabulous recommended that if you go to a show and see something unconventional that you like, make sure to be vocal about it to both the performers and their producers.

For those looking to get into performing, all four people interviewed suggested reaching out to local drag kings and queens.

“If somebody reached out to them asking for help, I don’t think there’s any drag performer that would say no to that, because that’s how we learn,” Von Vinci said. “Almost everybody in drag has been taught by a senior drag performer.”

In the same vein, it’s important to have confidence in your own ability and learn independently as well as with mentors, said Raunch Morgan.

“That’s how you express yourself fully. If you do your own makeup, hair, and costume, from top-to-bottom, you have that pride in what you’ve done and it fully represents you.”

They also noted the importance of appreciating the generations of performers that came before, as well as their struggles, which are not widely known.

As a starting point, Raunch Morgan recommended checking out documentaries about drag and films featured in the annual Reelout Queer Film Festival, which was started by a group of drag queens in 1992.

“There’s so much to learn from those people, even the generation before me did it very different than I did it, but I learned so much from them.”

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