A funny thing happened on the way to a drag show in Portland the other night. The local queer community forgot to show up.
Or, should I say, a gaggle of bachelorette and birthday parties consisting of shrieking straight women descended on Darcelle XV Showplace like a swarm of hungry locusts, making up more than 90 percent of the audience.
Performers at the home of the self-proclaimed longest-running American drag show seemed anything but surprised, though. They posed for photographs, and the evening went off without a hitch, although the straight community has yet to catch on to the mid-performance tipping ritual.
With the increasing popularity of RuPaul’s arsenal of television properties (my mother’s favourite show is Drag U), drag has never before had this degree of mainstream visibility. Are gay bars in Vancouver seeing a similar onslaught of straight drag fans? Are long-time queer patrons feeling pushed to the sides?
If you ask Vancouver’s litany of drag performers, business has become more mixed over the years, but a night at Junction or Oasis in the Davie Village, or even at The Cobalt on Main Street, is far from an all-straight affair.
“I don’t see a straight crowd taking over a drag performance in the West End,” says Robyn Graves. “It might happen at a typically straight venue outside of the usual queer spaces, but that sort of crowd is Darcelle’s bread and butter. I don’t see it happening here.”
“There is a long-running drag show in Calgary that has a primarily straight audience, but it’s out in the Inglewood neighbourhood, so nowhere near the gaybourhood,” Carlotta Gurl says.
Still, crowds have gotten much straighter with the declining number of queer establishments, Symone notes. “I wouldn’t say it’s a bad thing, it’s just a thing.”
To feel the true impact straight people are having on Vancouver’s drag scene, you need to extract yourself from the clubs entirely. Corporate and private events have become the domain of the fabulous.
“When I first started, the audience was always primarily queer, but there were a handful of straights that wanted to see something different,” Gurl says. “Over the last 10 years, there has been a huge movement to have a drag performer at your private party or corporate event.”
“The straight crowd has such a visceral response to our performances, while the typical queer crowd has a bit of the ‘been there, done that’ attitude, so it’s really a different experience for the performers,” Gurl adds.
“If the queens are given a choice of performing at a gay club for $100 or performing at a straight gig for $400, the choice is easy. I am a performer, plain and simple,” Conni Smudge says. “If they have the cash, I have the lash!”
While a perceived loss of queer space might be alarming to some, Vancouver’s drag performers instead view it as an opportunity not only for them, but for every queer in the city to dip their toes into spaces that might have intimidated them previously.
“This mixing of audiences is opening up doors for queers across the city,” Symone says. “I wouldn’t say it’s a loss of queer space; I’d say it’s increasing the spaces where queers can go drink and dance and have fun.”
“I’ve got a new show Sundays at Scarlet on Granville, and that’s primarily a straight venue,” Smudge says. “I feel like a one-person gay pride parade that’s helping to make more queer space.”
While certain performers can lure straight drag fans into gay spaces, it’s the promoters who truly have the power. The right ad placement, a subtle shift in attitude and your bar’s demographics can change practically overnight.
“For our dinner-drag event we have on Fridays, I’d say the crowd is 50 percent straight,” Steve Neville, general manager at Oasis, says.
“We get bridal parties and straight birthday parties, but it’s mostly after-work groups,” Neville says. “We do advertise in the WestEnder, and we hand out information to hotel concierges. Every Friday we have at least one person here who saw a picture of a man in a dress and they’re there to check it out.
“Drag for the straight community is still amazing,” he points out. “It isn’t in the queer community, so if you have the right venue at the right time, you’ll get a straighter audience.”
Darcelle’s clearly bills itself as a special-event venue, something to do the night before you get married or on your birthday. James Steck, promotions and marketing manager at Celebrities, believes that it is this element more than anything that draws a straighter audience.
“On nights when you have a major production, I think you get a straighter audience than when you have a $5 cover on your average Friday night,” he says. “This sort of big production is something that the Vancouver market doesn’t have on a regular basis.”
Asked what they think of straighter crowds in gay spaces, Vancouver drag patrons’ attitudes range from mild curiosity to a general sense of meh. One man says his only fear would be that his favourite club or bar would suddenly become a straight club overnight. As long as it remains a gay space, he says, he’d have no problem watching drag with a primarily straight audience.