Drag has gone digital in the age of quarantine

Here's how you can help it adapt.

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(Tahlia Amanson)

By Jake Cohen

As of today, March 31, I have been practicing social distancing from the comfort of my own home for over two and a half weeks. Each morning since the news of my school’s closure, as well as the shutdown of my parents’ places of work, it’s gotten exceedingly difficult to not fall into a pit of panicked headline reading and worrying about statistical analysis.

But while it’s gotten hard to avoid scrolling past the latest apocalyptic headline from the White House or grim sound bite from the CDC, one byproduct of this outbreak is an impact on the lives of many queer people when it comes to the way America’s drag economy has gone digital, and how young people, for the first time in their lives, are able to experience a live drag performance. 

In recent weeks, drag queens have been forced to get creative and digital with how they make their livings, following increasingly restrictive and absolutely necessary social distancing guidelines around the world. 

Since the 2009 premiere of RuPaul’s Drag Race, a reality-competition show where drag queens compete for $100,000 and the title of “America’s Next Drag Superstar,” certain aspects of drag culture have been thrust into the mainstream. Because of this, over 100 queens from the show have garnered almost instant international fame and social media followings, particularly among queer audiences. 

Queens from Drag Race, as well as local entertainers with smaller platforms, all rely heavily on making an income through performances at bars, clubs, or local tours, which pay them through some combination of booking fees, and audience tips. But in recent weeks, the COVID-19 outbreak sweeping the world has forced drag entertainers of all categories to adapt. Since then, either independently or through management agencies like Voss Events, an agency managing prominent drag entertainers, have had to cancel their shows across the globe while still ensuring that queens, dancers, producers, interns, and anyone else involved are still able to make an income. The solution? Bringing drag to the masses through the power of the internet. 

When tuning into any of the seemingly thousands of scheduled livestream events that drag performers have been advertising across social media, one can’t help but notice the almost campy adjustments any given queen has quickly made for their act. While it takes a second to adjust to seeing performers who regularly take the spotlight in a crowded club or music hall perform from their living rooms, the new format brings with it a new sense of intimacy as well, particularly for young queer viewers who may not have had access before.

Online performances aren’t the only change to the drag community that’s come from the guidelines surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak. For young people like me — not yet old enough to go see most drag shows outside of the Castro Theatre, at pride parades, or from our TV screens — this is a rare opportunity to be exposed to the drag that exists outside of what is accessible to us in the mainstream. And especially for fans of drag, or Drag Race particularly, who aren’t members of the queer community, these digital shows give you no excuse to skip out on these shows. Queer drag performers deserve your support 365 days of the year, but especially now in this time of crisis. In other words, there is no reason not to show up as an ally for the queer people struggling right now just because you can’t leave your house; this is an opportunity to demonstrate support.

Notably, Voss Events, known for their “Werq The World” tour bringing Drag Race stars to audiences around the world, recently announced the formation of a digital-drag global livestream set for Saturday, April 4. In the event, queens are not only given the opportunity to make money themselves through social-media livestreams and online tipping via Venmo and PayPal, but are also raising money to aid local drag entertainers not managed by large production companies. The announcement on their site reads, “RuPaul’s Drag Race Werq The World has visited 95 cities across 28 countries over 5 continents.

“Now the largest drag show on the planet jumps from stage to screen for a massive global fundraiser to help displaced local drag entertainers who have lost their source of income due to the COVID-19 shutdown of bars and clubs!”

Additionally, the site offers an application for “Local Queen Aid” where entertainers losing money from social distancing guidelines can apply to receive aid money from a portion of the digital livestream proceeds. (And for those looking to support the event, tickets, being sold for $9.99 as of 3/30, are available here.)

Similarly, an even larger event entitled Digital Drag Fest 2020 (presented by P.E.G.) is set to take place every day for the next month until April 30. It boasts large names and over 40 different queens, from legendary New York City club kid Amanda Lepore to Northern Ireland’s own Blu Hydrangea, who aren’t letting anyone’s lack of ability to attend in-person events stop them from entertaining the masses. And perhaps most notably, not only did the first shows sell out in the first 48 hours, but a whopping 50 percent of all of the shows merchandise processes will be donated to GLAAD. (Visit Digital Drag Fest’s site here to learn more about tickets, scheduling, and each queen’s specific act.)

The resiliency of the queer nightlife economy, specifically when it comes to drag, is more widespread than just this first, higher-profile event. Queens from all levels of fame and exposure have been forced to get creative when it comes to the new restrictions that prevent them, just as millions of other Americans and global citizens, from making their income as they usually do. But these performances aren’t all lip-syncs and stand-up comedy. 

London queen Dolly Trolley, who wanted to continue her regular mid-weekly “Drag Aerobics” class — a mix of Jane-Fonda 1980s workout video-esque fun and pure camp comedy — has now gone digital. “Loss of routine is a massive thing to have taken away,” Trolley told the BBC. “It’s what people need right now, a bit of laugh, an excuse to put on some Lycra, and an opportunity to dance, have a move, and create some community and togetherness,” even if that means it has to happen in her living room. (Information concerning upcoming classes can be found on Dolly’s Instagram.) 

Being stuck in my home — granted, one that is massively supportive of all things queer — has allowed for my own even deeper exploration of varied gender-expression though experimenting with drag within the confines of my own bedroom. Not just as a way to distract myself, when I can, or from the circumstances the world is finding itself in, but also as a way to explore essential queer history through my love of makeup, drag, fashion, and more. 

I hope this momentary shift in the way drag shows are performed can do for people is inspire their own love of drag and what playing with one’s own gender expression might be able to offer. What more people, particularly straight and cis folks, need to realize, is that drag doesn’t just exist once a year at pride parades, during Halloween, or on Drag Race. Drag is everywhere. Whether it’s in your living room or live on stage, it’s something everyone needs to take advantage of this opportunity to learn more about, or even participate in it. Take it from me, someone able to explore my gender expression and my drag-related hobbies in newfound ways, even if my only audience is my dog, Ruby, who refuses to tip.