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4 min

Ottawa queens converge on city hall

Zelda Marshall on the evolution of Ottawa’s drag scene

Ottawa queen Zelda Marshall says Ottawa’s drag scene is diverse and multitalented, even if it can be a bit hard to find. Credit: Julie Cruikshank

UPDATE Xtra has just been informed by Zelda Marshall that Queens in the Hall has been rescheduled until November 15. Xtra will follow up with further details when they become available.

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Ottawa has a reputation for being buttoned up, but while its residents are largely public servants by day, they do tend to let their hair down by night — albeit cautiously. In a city where government jobs prevail and conservatism is key, finding the alternative scene can be a bit like looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack.

The drag scene, too, can be tricky to find. While bars like the Lookout host regular shows and you can always find China Doll at the Shanghai on a Friday night, big, over-the-top shows that showcase the talents of multiple queens are rarer.

But it looks like an over-the-top drag show has finally come to Ottawa. Billing itself as Ottawa’s biggest drag show ever, Queens in the Hall will see more than 20 queens converge on city hall for an extravaganza of glitter and sequins. Performers include Deedee Deelite, Cherie Blossom, Alyna Moore, Koko Domenique Shennel, Zelda Marshall and plenty of others.

A mainstay in the Ottawa drag scene, Marshall is a prime example of someone who is mild mannered by day and wild by night. She identifies as trans and says she sees drag as a form of gender exploration.“I came out as a gender-variant individual before I came out as a drag queen,” she says. “Drag was just a natural extension for me of my gender-expression explorations.”

Marshall learned the ropes first from Dixie Landers and then Ginette Bobo before heading out on her own and crafting her unique style. Striking in a little black dress that shows off her legs and crowned with a halo of blonde curls, she’s also got the smarts to back the looks, being well-versed in feminism and gender politics.

“I don’t see myself as wanting to live my whole life 100 percent as male or 100 percent as female,” she explains, saying she prefers to identify as bigendered. “I want the freedom to move between the two and just be partly a gender rebel.”

Drag, she says, is much more fluid than one might suppose, even down to the orientation of the performers. “For the most part, probably, they’re mostly gay, but you’ll find some bisexuals, you’ll find some straights, you’ll find some polysexuals, asexuals . . .” While drag is still dominated by homosexuals, she says, as an art form it’s by no means exclusive. Marshall herself, for instance, is in a relationship with a female partner.

One thing she has observed during her 13 years in the Ottawa drag scene is the rise of drag kings. Once something of a fringe movement, the kings have mobilized and the city now has its own troupe — the Capital Kings — as well as official representation in the Pride parade in the form of Mr Capital Pride.

Unlike queens, who tend to be solo performers, Marshall says she’s impressed by how drag kings tend to come together for group performances. “One thing that really has worked for them, the way they’ve stood out, is because they do work as a troupe. You’ll see a lot of group numbers that they do and they’ve rehearsed and choreographed them.”

When it comes to her own persona, Marshall says she tries to keep a distinction between the character she is performing and who she is as a person. “Usually when I’m performing a character . . . I will try very much to get into the character. That was something that my first drag mother definitely trained me for was to be very true to the artist and true to the song.

“As for blurring between where it’s my own psyche and the psyche of the person, for the most part in my numbers, I do try to keep them separate. But then if there’s a number where the performer is less important than the song, then I will let more of myself come through.” Marshall says she identifies more as an entertainment queen than a glam queen. “I like to do it, really, for the entertainment.”

Showing her true personality is something Marshall says she’s still very cautious about, particularly after witnessing her partner lose her job over her association with the transgender community. It’s this sort of thing, she says, that leads many in Ottawa’s drag and fetish communities to keep their after-work personas very guarded and makes those scenes harder to find.

With this in mind, the fact that Ottawa City Hall is playing host to such a large drag show is especially significant. “Definitely, this is quite the spectacle,” Marshall says. “The idea of putting that many queens together in one show and hopefully not having any dressing-room fights.” She says Queens in the Hall is the biggest drag show she’s seen in Ottawa.

That the city is on board with the show also speaks to the division that exists in Ottawa between municipal and federal politics, she says. “It’s easy to sort of separate what we have municipally and provincially from what we have federally in Ottawa because, you know, just looking at trans rights, I see at what levels we have it and at what level we don’t have it.” Often, she says, the city itself is supportive in ways the federal government is not.

Despite its slightly furtive nature, the Ottawa drag scene remains a diverse and multi-talented one. And Queens in the Hall is a great chance to see that talent on display, Marshall says. “It’s definitely going to be interesting because there is a very good supply of drag queen talent in Ottawa, and it’s quite diverse. So it’s going to be an interesting spectacle to see, for sure.”