PAINTED ARMOUR: The changing face of Edmonton’s underground drag queens

This article originally appeared on The Scavenger.

by Benjamin Hollihan

Transformation Continues
The transformation continues. Photo by Benjamin Hollihan. 

Just off Jasper Avenue, two men enter the infamous Chez Pierre Cabaret, a strip club with endearing rough edges. The spotlights of the Edmonton venue illuminate the checkerboard stage, a phallic pole piercing the centre. Patrons fidget in the cracked leather chairs, impatient for the show to start. The sun is down and the bar is in full swing. The bearded bartender fends off the crowd of weekend warriors vying for the next cheap brew. The two in their mid-30s are stopped in their steel-toed tracks at the door. They have come to Chez Pierre for the same reason anyone else does on a Saturday night: ogling. They are in for something a little different tonight.

Confusion gives way to understanding as a slender figure struts by. In the dim light, they see the outline of a massive silver blowout and catch glimpses of a face hyperbolized with lip liner and eyeshadow. This is no stripper, they realize. They are correct. It’s drag queen Gemma Nye. After sharing a look, the two men give in to curiosity and grab a seat near the back. The show, Not Yr Type, is about to begin.

***

Across the river, earlier that day, a silhouette appears in a frosted Whyte Avenue window, gleaming with afternoon sunlight. The door opens, revealing a surprise.

“I decided to get started early for tonight, I’m trying out this new white triangle thing and I just wanted to see how it looks.”

Aberdeen Hill, or Deen, is drag queen Gemma Nye. Between his drag shows, stick-and-poke tattoo studio, and job as a customs broker, the 22-year-old hardly has time for himself, but that’s the way he likes it. Hill is a trans man, which, in his case, means he was born female but has transitioned to male. Not all trans people transition to the opposite gender. Many live in between the dichotomy; they are nonbinary.

Hill has already started applying his makeup. A white triangle stretches across his shaved eyebrows to his temples and down to his lips. His apartment is dominated by a massive makeup table. Hill sits back down and continues working. The transformation is underway.

Hill is making waves in the drag community by creating space for marginalized performers. He is a co-producer of the monthly Not Yr Type show series, which features something you won’t find at any other drag show in Edmonton: The performers in the show’s company are all trans. For many of them, it is the only place they can find acceptance onstage.

Within the drag community, Hill is grappling with bio essentialism: the idea that our gender can be reduced to a set of biological characteristics. In many ways, drag performers are expected to adhere to these characteristics.

“One thing is, I won’t wear boobs. I got top surgery when I was 17, I paid thousands of dollars and spent months in bed to get my boobs off. You think I’m going to put boobs on? No,” Hill says. “And plenty of women don’t have boobs, which I think is a new concept for a lot of people.”

Hill is talking about “fishy” drag, the traditional female impersonation many performers strive for. He pauses to exhale a plume of cannabis smoke. The realization of his trans identity is entwined with his drag story.

“I remember when I was a kid… I was playing the prince in The Princess and the Pea, and I thought ‘Oh I have all these people fooled, they all think I’m a boy but I’m actually a girl but I’m dressed up as a boy.’ Little did I know I had myself fooled.” He stops applying lip liner to laugh.

Zenda Medeiros, Hill’s mother, has always been accepting, but struggled with the concept that Hill wasn’t a female. In 2013, Hill attempted suicide after Medeiros’s ex-boyfriend told him: “You were born with a vagina, you’re a girl, you always will be.” Medeiros realized then the lack of acceptance could kill her son.

“To me, [drag] was just another extension of Deen’s love to perform, to express himself onstage,” she said, sitting front row centre at Chez Pierre. “It is just another part of him he allows to thrive under the spotlight.”

Hill’s first time in drag was Dec. 2, 2018, post-transition. He had always been averse to makeup of any kind, “because I had something inside myself I was hiding, running from. The insecurity of being perceived as feminine. I was expected to adhere to the role of being a ‘guy’, even within the trans community.”

But after seeing a friend perform Hill realized drag was so much more than appearing feminine.

“He wasn’t dressed as a woman, he was dressed as a clown,” Hill says. “It’s not femininity at all, it’s completely masquerading. The focus has shifted away from looking like a passable woman that you would see on the street, partly because we have no interest in being a passable woman.”

Hill was hooked after his first performance, though he still faces some pushback from the drag community about Gemma Nye. Hill believes this is an echo of society. The expectation to conform to gender norms is an issue even within the trans and drag communities — communities that claim to accept all.

“You see a trans woman walking down the street and she isn’t putting on this image of femininity for the spectator’s benefit,” he says, “and therefore there is something wrong with her.”

Canadian Literary Festivals
Gemma Nye is not your type. Photo by Benjamin Hollihan

He says this shift away from the traditional “female impersonation” within the younger community has created a generational rift. Some in the older community are struggling to adapt to the change.

Unwilling to accept the lack of space for trans performers, Aberdeen Hill created one: Not Yr Type.

***

Darrin Hagen sits in his office on the University of Alberta campus. The 56-year-old is known across Canada by a catchier name: The Edmonton Queen. Hagen is the unofficial historian laureate of Edmonton drag. He documented his experience as drag queen Gloria Hole during the 1980s in his 1996 chronicle The Edmonton Queen: Not a Riverboat Story.

In the 1980s, Hagen’s generation were the progressives, bending drag tradition and normalizing public drag. But drag is changing as the new guard moves in with radical ideals about gender expression. Hagen says he welcomes the trans drag movement, but some of his peers struggle to see the institution of drag they created change.

“A lot of the older generation is having trouble wrapping our head around what trans means now. When we were young, trans meant transsexual. Because society was rigid and binary, if you were trans, you had to get an operation. There was no room for anything outside the binary. There was no safe place to live in between. Now people can express themselves however they want and be accepted.”

As culture shifts, some of the old guard find themselves publicly shamed for crossing boundaries of language and ideology. Hagen has emphasized repeatedly that this conflict is extremely nuanced and complex. The AIDS crisis decimated the queer population in the 1990s, resulting in a generational gap. Today’s young adult drag community grew up without the same drag mentorship Hagen’s had.

For Hagen, an important issue that has sparked much of the infighting is the discussion of the younger generation’s privilege. Many of the older queens grew up in an Alberta that was not accepting of drag in any form, and their worldviews reflect that.

But if Hagen’s generation bent the rules of gender, Not Yr Type breaks them. Although Hill is a key part of the movement, some are willing to be more outspoken about the issue.

Sachit Vashisht is not shy about the controversy. The 19-year-old University of Alberta student sits inside the Nook Café, airing grievances about the drag community. They are nonbinary and use they/them pronouns.

Vashisht, who performs with Not Yr Type as drag queen Agnes, has faced hardship for refusing to shave their body hair for drag. They feel as though the older generation are the ones doing the policing, with new performers expected to justify their presence by garnering favour within the community. This includes adhering to the expectations of drag costuming, of which breasts and body hair are the two most contentious issues.

“There is a racial divide, there is a gender-based divide, and there is this idea that just because they fought the [AIDS] war — and a lot of them didn’t, the ones who fought the war are dead — the ones who are still alive are the privileged ones that managed to slither out of the way of the crisis. I’m a radical,” they say. “What they do is simply pure gatekeeping.”

For Vashisht, the divide will never be healed until the older members begin to respect the younger generation and their war for trans acceptance.

 “I am not really in favour of those drag queens that are always trying to look like women, because that’s not drag. In general, people that do tend to oppress and push their ideologies onto people who don’t do fishy drag.”

To many performers, the concept of fishy drag reinforces harmful stereotypes about what a woman or man can and cannot look like. Not Yr Type is intentionally undoing these harmful assumptions.

***

Back-alley cigarettes finished, the Not Yr Type company seeks refuge from the freezing winter night inside Chez Pierre. The second set about to begin. In the dressing room sits an empty plastic package of gummy worms that Gemma Nye has been stress eating since the pre-show.

gemma nye vanta blaque
Gemma Nye onstage with Vanta Blaque. Photo by Benjamin Hollihan. 

When in drag, many performers change their pronouns. Gemma Nye is referred to as she/her.

A group of men have been sitting near the front of the stage, throwing the occasional heckle up at the performers. The distinction between binary and nonbinary is not something that concerns them. Audience members have already complained about their behaviour, but the men are spending money. They are allowed to stay.

As Gemma Nye mingles, she sees one of these men standing at the bar, talking to one of her friends. Gemma is already aware of these patrons. When not in drag, Hill admits he is often “too nice” to people, preferring to avoid confrontation, but Gemma Nye strides right over to end the harassment.

The man deflects: “Sorry, I don’t normally go to shows like this.”

Gemma steps in between him and her friend, cutting the man off. The man retaliates, shoving Gemma and ripping her wig off.

“Okay, you just assaulted me.” Gemma is stunned.

The man slurs, “Well, you got in my way.”

 Gemma points a finger at the man.

 “This guy has got to go.”

During a Not Yr Type show, no one argues with Gemma Nye. A short-haired bartender with a popped collar and another long-haired employee come around the bar to see what happened. Upon hearing Gemma’s story, they promptly throw all four men out.

 Gemma Nye has never been violated like that before. The usually laidback queen beelines for the dressing room to release a scream.

“I feel like we have a lot of work to do still,” Hill admits, “but it’s a start.”

In many ways, Hill is the face of a new generation of queer identity. The reluctant activist stands on the shoulders of Hagen’s generation, reaching for what Hill sees as the lock affixed on the gate of Edmonton’s drag scene — and Not Yr Type will pass through, by force or invitation.

“When you are in drag, you are wearing armour,” Hill says.

Gemma Nye stands in the wings of the stage, wig fixed. The emcee, Indigo, walks offstage. It’s time for the second set. Gemma Nye pushes back the curtain and leaves us behind for the ethereal world of performance.

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