Arts & Entertainment
5 min

Renaissance men

Toronto's drag kings find their place

Forget the suit and tie. Drag kinging in Toronto is rapidly evolving into an art form that goes well beyond the portrayal of a single macho stereotype. With the inclusion of faux-kings, trans performers, bio queens and other genderbending acts, drag has become as fluid as the gender spectrum itself.

“A drag king is not necessarily a masculine-identified individual. We cross spectrums,” says Flare, a local drag legend who has been a performer and producer since the birth of the long-gone troupe The Fabulous Drag Kings in 1998.

A lot has changed since 1995 when the only game in town was the Toronto Drag King Collective shows at Pope Joan’s. Today there are at least two weekly drag nights, three bi-monthly shows and two annual drag king events in Toronto featuring an ever-expanding roster of performers with a variety of styles. With audiences coming out to support this proliferation of events, has the Toronto drag king community finally come into its own?

“I’ve noticed a stepping up of performance strengths in the last six to eight months,” says local drag legend Deb “Dirk” Pearce. “There was a time when the shows were just not as strong and not as tight as they could have been.

“I’ve been in the scene for 15 years and only now am I starting to appreciate again what I’m seeing on stage. It’s about genderbending, genderblending and genderplaying. It’s more of a performance art now.”

Beginning around 2003 there was a kind of a dark period for Toronto kings that included lots of disorganized shows with bad lip-synching and nonexistent choreography and costuming.

The drag king scene remained fragmented for several years, but now there’s a renaissance underway, a new era of creativity and cooperation between kings and other genderbending performers culminating in a slew of new and improved performances.

The year-old pansexual club Goodhandy’s is largely credited with reigniting the Toronto drag king scene.

“I’ve had people come up to me recently at Goodhandy’s telling me they went to the shows at Pope’s and that they are glad the quality of acts is coming back,” says Xtra coverboy Milo de Milo, who coproduces A King’s Ransom at Slack’s with his faux-lover and roommate Sabastien Cognito.

Of course, Goodhandy’s isn’t the first bar to give the kings this level of respect. The defunct dyke bar Pope Joan’s served up a weekly drag king show for seven years before it closed in 2004 and Buddies In Bad Times Theatre has hosted drag king shows including de Milo’s first Colour Me Dragg and the all-but-extinct Hussihop. Tango, too, has had a weekly drag king show for many years.

“The difference with Goodhandy’s is that we’re able to have an opportunity to really work with an establishment that is willing to give us a little bit more power and not charge us money [for the use of the space],” says Flare, who is the reigning Mr Goodhandy’s. The pageant held in December was the first drag king title competition in Toronto, if not in Canada.

When Goodhandy’s opened its doors in May 2006, owners Mandy Goodhandy and Todd Klinck say they didn’t have much exposure to kinging, so when they agreed to have a weekly drag king show, they didn’t know what they were getting into. But it wasn’t long before they recognized the potential of the local performers.

“We wanted to tell them they’re great,” says Mandy. “We wanted to tell them they could do better.”

Goodhandy says that the Friday night drag king shows have become her favourite at the club because of the appreciation she and Klinck receive from the performers. A longtime performer herself and former entertainment director at the long-lost Club Colby’s, Mandy describes the relationship she has with the kings who perform at Goodhandy’s as “a two-way love affair.”

It rings true with the way the kings talk about Goodhandy’s and its owners.

“From the day that I met Mandy and Todd they treated us with respect so we wanted to treat them with respect and put on a good show,” says de Milo.

Although the drag king night at Goodhandy’s started out as an open stage event, they soon shifted to booked gigs with a regular, rotating cast of performers. Now there are two rotating events, King For A Night, in which a particular performer is given control of the evening’s entertainment and its promotion. The other event is the King’s Cabaret, in which a core cast presents a fully choreographed themed show. Past editions have included a hoedown theme and a salute to the ’90s.

“Once kings started on the Goodhandy’s stage, Mandy started encouraging them to put more effort into their performances,” says Klinck. “She is very strict about quality, and she did not want to allow them to go up on stage in a T-shirt and jeans and dance around for their friends. She encouraged them to practice, to introduce choreography, to put on suits and costumes and do duets.”

For her part, Goodhandy attributes the increasing popularity of the Friday night shows to the kings’ passion for performance.

“You’ve got to love what you’re doing,” she says. “The audience needs to see it.”

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The recent renewal of the local drag scene has opened up avenues for new performers with different ways of playing with gender expression.

Skylar Rocket, producer of Genderfukt, a bimonthly show that currently makes its home at Hacienda Lounge, says the changes in the drag king scene mirror changes in larger queer women’s/trans scene.

“First there were lesbians, then there were butch lesbians and femme lesbians, then there were trannies,” says Rocket. “I think the next ‘thing’ is gender fluidity and androgyny.

“The only thing we’re looking for is some sort of performance of gender,” says Rocket of Genderfukt. “We don’t censor performances. We don’t censor art.”

“When you limit people from performing because of how they identify, what they look like or how long their hair is, that stops us from being artists,” says King’s Ransom’s Cognito.

Many kings, however, say there is still pressure for some kings not to perform because they are too feminine or because they are trans.

“One of the producers at Tango was only asking boyish-looking girls to perform,” says Justin Zaas, a Goodhandy’s convert. “There are women in this community who want to perform but they’re afraid to because they don’t look like a boy and they feel like people are going to laugh at them.”

“I am now at a place from performing at Goodhandy’s where I can get up on stage in a skirt or a dress and still call myself a drag king,” says Logan, who did just that at a recent King’s Cabaret performance at Goodhandy’s.

The international stages have also recognized this change. The annual drag king conference, which takes place at varying locations across North America, recently changed its name to the International Drag King Community Extravaganza to reflect the diversity of its performers.

Opening the scene up to a diversity of gender expression isn’t the only sticking point in the drag scene.

“Currently there is still a huge percentage of white drag kings in the community compared to people of colour,” says de Milo who produces Colour Me Dragg, a showcase for drag performers of colour (the next of which will be Tue, Jun 19 at Goodhandy’s).

However, things are slowly turning around thanks to establishments like Goodhandy’s that promote an environment that is open to all sexualities, genders and colours, and to producers who recognize the need for change.

“As the community gets more comfortable with its diversities, so do the performers, because we are part of this community, too,” says Cognito.