In October 2014, Cyril Cinder was on Facebook raving about a drag show he had just seen. “If I was a man I would be a drag queen, because drag queens are amazing,” he posted on Facebook. A friend commented on his post. “Well, have you heard about drag kings?”
Cinder hadn’t, but after doing some research, he was immediately interested in performing. Two months later, Cinder was on stage for the first time. “I’m not sure I would be out today if it weren’t for drag,” Cinder says now. “It was this very queer space about very queer expression and I had never experienced that in my life before.”
Cinder (who uses male pronouns in his drag king persona) went from cosplaying only male characters to performing as a drag king, but the whole time he identified as straight. He was attracted to men and women, but dismissed or disregarded his attraction to women for a variety of personal reasons. And then drag came along and gradually coaxed him out of the closet.
“It was the fact that drag was a space where exploring those kinds of ideas was so openly and overtly encouraged,” says Cinder, who now identifies as bisexual.
Cinder started performing drag in Ottawa in 2014, but now lives in Toronto. In Ottawa, he was able to perform regularly at a couple of local venues, including Swizzles, a bar that hosts a drag night every Thursday, and Rainbow Bistro, which has a twice-monthly variety show that welcomes kings.
“But it was very much a shock to go from that in Ottawa, where I was doing at least three shows a month, to Toronto where I didn’t perform for the first three months I lived here, because there are no shows like that here,” he says.
He attributes the difficulty of new kings finding gigs in Toronto in part to the rigours of competing with established kings in a small market.
“When you have a roster of talented, established, reliable drag kings in a city, it can be hard to also get your name added to the list,” he says. “When there’s a show that wants a drag king, you’ve got a pretty good pool to pull from, and you say ‘I know this person . . . let’s bring them on’ and that’s that.”
And yet in the Toronto scene, Canada’s largest LGBT hub, drag queens have steady gigs at bars all over the Village and across the city while new and emerging kings struggle to find opportunities to perform. Dozens of venues in Toronto (including almost every bar in the Village) have weekly or monthly shows, parties or other events focused on, hosted by or featuring drag queens. You can catch queens on a regular basis at Woody’s, Crews and Tangos, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Pegasus, O’Grady’s, El Convento Rico, Blyss, Glad Day Bookshop and Garage — just to name a few. Cinder says one reason he thinks the market is so small for kings relative to the market for drag queens is that the queer community has been dominated by gay men for a long time. And since it’s generally gay men who perform as drag queens there are more drag queen shows. Cinder also says there’s a belief that drag queens necessarily put on a better show — which he strongly disputes.
“Femininity is viewed as inherently more performative than masculinity,” he says, in reference to how men don’t usually put on heels and makeup and wigs and all. “We see women as putting on a show and men as existing the way they naturally are, so when thinking of which presentation will put on a better show, we look toward the female presentation.”
“But I bind my tits and pack my underwear with a big penis, and completely change the shape of my face — tons of things happen.”
Kinging, a verb used to describe the act of performing, has a long history and its own culture. Books that discuss drag kinging include Judith Jack Halberstam’s The Drag King Book and Dianne Torr’s Sex, Drag and Male Roles. The BBC series Tipping the Velvet and the film Victor Victoria are also part of drag king heritage.
The International Drag King Community Extravaganza (IDKE), an annual drag king conference, ran for 13 years after its inception in 1999. The Austin International Drag Festival picked up the torch in 2014 and continues to draw loads of kings and queens each year.
Online, New York City drag king Wang Newton hosts Wang TV, a web series where he interviews a variety of performers, including kings. Beginning in early 2017, kings are now starting to compete on the newly minted King Me: Rise of a King.
Lou Henry Hoover, Spikey Van Dykey, Goldie Peacock, Ken Vegas, Murray Hill and Toronto’s own Flare are just a few of the internationally known kings.
With 20 years of experience, Flare has seen some things change in the drag king world, and some things stay the same.
Based in Toronto, Flare has performed all across North America and founded several drag king troupes. In 2016, he headlined at the Austin International Drag Festival. He was even an Elvis impersonator on one episode of the American version of Queer as Folk.
Flare was one of the directors of the 2008 documentary A Drag King Extravaganza, which covers the first 10 years of IDKE. He says the academic version (there’s an academic version and a shorter one for film festivals) is now used in gender studies classes in universities.
Flare says there’s a consistent lack of opportunities for kings to perform in Toronto.
“It’s interesting to me that it hasn’t changed very much,” he says, adding that one show would usually end as another was beginning. “[Recurring drag king shows] do exist, they have existed, but do we have two going at the same time? Not normally, no.”
Until Zipperz closed in the summer of 2016, its Wednesday night drag show, organized by the troupe The Toronto Kings, was the place to go for kings who wanted a regular place to perform.
With the bar’s closure, now there’s very little. A new king’s best bet is to try to get on the lineup for Kings and Classics, a monthly show at Buddies that launched in January 2017.
“[Kings and Classics] coming in now is great timing,” Flare says. “But it has only so many slots for new kings each month.”
The other option is to try to get booked to perform on a live, on-stage variety show event, like Butch Femme Salon, a recurring party very popular among women and trans folk, and dedicated to, as its Facebook page says, “femmes and butches of all stripes.” There are also occasional opportunities to perform alongside The Yes Men, a Toronto-based troupe that formed in 2013, at one of its larger shows.
“Our community needs more,” says Flare, who encourages kings to start their own events to fill the gap. “It would be good for new kings to be able to have a weekly thing where people could just come and try it. Everybody should be able to — if they have the urge to — try and perform.”
Johnny Ryder’s first performance as a drag king was at the now-defunct bar Zipperz in summer 2016, back on its Wednesday nights. Wearing what he calls “Justin Bieber pants” (drop-crotch trousers from the men’s section at Zara), a black button-up shirt with a chest binder underneath (a garment used to hide the breasts), a goatee and some contouring makeup to emphasize his jawline and cheekbones, he lip-synched as he danced to the pop song “Wrong” by Max. The sound system faltered halfway through, but he still came off the stage with a grin on his face and a new love of performing.
Ryder recently had his second performance at the first Kings and Classics event at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in January 2017. Drag provides Ryder with an important outlet: it allows him to explore and express his boyish side in a supportive environment.
“I do identify as female, as a lesbian, but this is kind of a way to be a different me,” he says. “It’s like an alter-ego version of me — the man version of who I am.”
For Gay Jesus, who started doing drag in June 2016, performing is important for a few different reasons. Their bold name choice, coupled with tutus or dresses, a beard, and “as much glitter as I can find in my house,” makes their drag persona a challenge to both Christianity and gender norms.
Gay Jesus was raised Roman Catholic, but stopped believing in part because of the church’s lack of support for the queer community. “In many ways, [being Gay Jesus] became a protest,” they say. “Drag for me personally is an act of protest against the conditioning of gender, and against religion.”
Gay Jesus, who performed at the Kings and Classics show in March, says they have been lucky enough to find several gigs in their short career as a king, but regrets that the scarcity of king events in Toronto means they don’t get to see other kings perform as much as they would like.
“There aren’t a lot of drag kings I can go see, which is very big for me,” they say. “Because part of being able to do it is being able to have the community, is being able to scream when it’s great, is being around people who are like you and do this thing you do.”
For them, drag is also a way for them to connect to the queer community and try to keep its history alive. “I think of it as passing on of tradition,” they say. “We have huge chunks of generations missing because of violence and because of illness, and it’s very hard to be able to even have things like this to pass on.”
As early arrivals to the first Kings and Classics event froze their butts off in the late-January weather while waiting in line outside of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, a king with a soul patch, vest and arm tattoos jogged out through the venue’s side door and down the ramp to share passionate, forceful kisses with a girl who’d just walked up Alexander Street.
When the doors finally opened, a diverse group of high femmes, butches, trans folk, cisgender women and men, older people and younger people trooped in. There was even a contingent of bears (who promptly stationed themselves in a clump near the staircase in the middle of the room). King fans are enthusiastic and usually go the extra mile to make it to the rare king shows that pop up now and then.
The event took place in Buddies’ cabaret space, the smaller of the two rooms in the complex, and was a standing-only event. Local luminaries abounded. Flare was there, dapper in a brown blazer and flat cap. Burlesque performers Belle Jumelles and Kelsey Slammer made the rounds, both wearing leopard print outfits (and loudly claiming it was a coincidence, but we know better).
Spencer Munny and Pretty Riikkii (who together make up Pretty Munny Productions) hope their Kings and Classics shows will help new and emerging kings (known as “baby kings” or “princes”), in part because established kings don’t need the help as much.
“One issue with the Toronto drag scene is that there is little or no platform for new performers in the king community to get their start,” Munny says. “The kings that are now active in Toronto — they have their contacts.”
Munny and Riikkii also want to give new kings the mentoring that the producing duo didn’t get when they started out.
“I started off duct-taping my chest as a binder,” says Riikkii, who’s been performing for seven years (Munny has been performing for six years). “I came off the stage the first time and almost ripped off half my skin. I had cuts all around my body. My ribs were bruised. I didn’t have anybody to help me.”
Each show will feature both new and more established kings. They plan to offer drag king 101-style guidance for new kings as well. That means tips on facial hair, songs, binding, packing, costumes, choreography, how the Buddies stage is laid out — the works.
“To say that we’ve created space for performers like us when we were younger but didn’t receive that nurturing — where it was like sink or swim — it’s really important to us,” Munny says.
Munny and Riikkii also plan to promote an expanded definition of drag kinging. “We’re trying to nurture performers that aren’t centred in that one masculine type of drag,” Munny says. “You can wear glitter beards, can have long hair, can decide not to bind if you don’t want to, can decide not to pack — whatever you want. Drag is an interpretation of your own art.”
To them, working to build up the drag king community in this way is about more than just helping performers perform.
“[Drag] helps a lot with feeling comfortable with yourself,” Riikkii says. “I know for me, I struggled a lot with who I was. So, to be privileged enough to offer that space — to be like ‘come and be whoever you want to be on our stage,’ and the fact that this show is happening for the reasons we want it to happen — I could almost cry.”
While queens continue to dominate the stages of Church Street, kings are still struggling and competing with each other for the few spots that exist. And if you’re a new king, it’s even harder. For many, kinging is about putting on a good show, but it’s also about something deeper — performing as a king can be an integral part of some people’s experience of being queer, an art worth preserving.
“Drag kings are super underrated. We’re overshadowed,” Munny says. “Drag kings can hit it just as hard as drag queens, it’s just that there’s not any space for them to grow in Toronto, specifically to that level.”