Toronto
3 min

Neglected culture seeks critic

It’s Saturday night at Woody’s and the drag show has just begun. A new girl dressed in shades and a lot of pink comes out and promptly loses the crowd. Annoyed and a little defensive, she berates the audience members for their lack of interest and demands that they do better. It’s the classic beginner’s mistake — blame the victim — and it doesn’t work.

Minutes later, Sofonda emerges and changes the vibe entirely. She chats to the tourists in the front row, flatters the cute guys and very quickly assembles a cast of eager exhibitionists for the best-whatever showdown. One guy, a professional dancer, is so enthused he demands his own music and does Chippendale-style splits all over the stage.

Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is show business — the ability to warm up an ice-cold room in two seconds flat and look like you’re not even trying. That kind of ability is rare (see paragraph one above) but it has a huge impact on the local mood.

Drag shows attract large crowds, play into bar profits and, most importantly, can make or break an evening. Get a good queen and you can smile your face off; get an angry, defensive one and you can slink home in despair. Funny, though, how we never report either the good or the bad.

Some queens are better than others and everyone knows it, especially bar owners looking for marquee names, but the knowledge is slightly underground, the purview of bartenders and hard-core fans. Like a lot of the most important things in gay life it goes unanalyzed, travelling only by word of mouth.

Over the years I’ve suggested to several editors that the local press really ought to review drag. The usual reaction? “What, do you want to get killed?”

Yet what we review says a lot about what we value. Toronto papers once reviewed Sunday sermons. (I kid you not.) Now it’s books, films, plays, restaurants and increasingly shops and even condos.

Things like bars, baths and drag are important to gay culture and yet we don’t review them and you have to wonder why. It’s almost as if they are too fragile to withstand criticism or we are too afraid to dish it out.

Sites like Squirt.org (operated by Pink Triangle Press which also publishes Xtra) try to get around the antsiness by agglomerating reader comments to form a kind of group review. It covers gay cruising spots around the world — everything from bars to trucks stops — and if you want you can read, oh, about 100 comments on cruising at U of T washrooms or Hanlon’s Point or the latest hot gay gym. But it’s a lot of work, unless you actually like trolling through underpunctuated remarks from strangers with unknown interests and attitudes.

What’s wanted is a particular point of view. Not a bitchy queen with a snide jibe at the ready. Just an informed observer willing to give careful and considered attention to the local scene.

As annoying as individual reviewers may be, they offer a touchstone. Once you get to know their individual style and taste, you can decide how much of their advice to accept or discount. Kind of like the friend who used to tell me about all the hot guys he met at the baths. His idea of hot didn’t match mine and I knew I could safely ignore his advice.

We need undaunted reviewers. Only then will we get answers to such pressing questions as:

Bars: What’s the best night to go, when do the cuties show up and what’s the best way to avoid feeling invisible?

Baths: Is there really soap in those dispensers? Why don’t the really cute guys ever arrive until it’s too late to make any difference? When the guy at the front desk says there are 70 men in the building and only 12 have rooms (“Is that enough for your hole?”) and you can find only one lonely guy trolling the halls, does that mean he’s lying or you’re ugly?

Taxi drivers: Do any of them stop talking on their cell phones long enough to notice where they’re going? Do any of them care?

Panhandlers: Which beggars offer the best inducement to stop and tarry? (One guy gave a friend a glimpse of hard dick, right there on Church St.)

If all this seems like it’s skewing to the skanky, well, we could get really serious and review couples. “Married” twosomes are an increasingly important part of the culture and yet they tend to fly below the radar. Even gay fiction tends to ignore them.

Yet reviewing couples for, say, intensity, intimacy and longevity might teach the rest of us a thing or two. After all, everything’s a performance, right, and some people do it better than others.