Entertainment that challenges the norms of gender and sexuality
My personal and professional interest in drag performance stems directly from activism in resisting the pervasive homophobia and transphobia that characterised StFX and Antigonish when I arrived here in 2004.
During the academic year of 2004-2005, the LGBTQ2SIA community and allies were rocked by two serious homophobic assaults. This prompted two demonstrations and gave momentum to initiatives that sought to turn the situation around.
One initiative was the Positive Spaces training program, designed to reduce homophobia and transphobia, and to train allies; another was the LGBT Safety Initiative Project, which inspired a StFX conference on rural queer experiences, held in February 2005. This brought together national and provincial leaders in the LGBTQ2SIA community with youth and adults in Antigonish, to establish an agenda for organizing locally. This lent a tremendous impulse to the formation of X-Pride, the queer student society at StFX, and the formation of an off-campus youth peer support group, known as the Rainbow Warriors.
The conference also featured a drag show, showcasing local talent alongside performers from a Halifax-based organization called the Imperial and Sovereign Court of Nova Scotia (ISCANS). That was the birth of “Priscilla, Queen of Highlands,” which is now in its 14th year at StFX.
Since its inception, Priscilla has represented the best of what drag can offer – it is a venue of queer culture that fills a huge void at StFX and in Antigonish: a safe space for queers and allies to be themselves without fear.
It was this experience that eventually led to my research on the history of drag in Nova Scotia.
What I have discovered is that drag has a surprisingly long history in this province, punctuated by big gaps and silences – mainly because it is a history that has not yet been recorded.
One of the earliest known drag performers came from Pugwash, Nova Scotia. His name was Ross Hamilton, who volunteered for the Canadian army in World War One. Ross had a talent for drag, a talent that he put to good use as part of an entertainment unit that performed for the troops on the frontlines on the Western front. Ross created “Marjorie,” who was wildly popular among the troops, and it was an act that he continued to pursue with success into the 1930s. Ross reprised that role in the Second World War, and even starred as Marjorie in a Canadian military recruitment film made by the National Film board – called “A Letter From Camp Borden.”
Drag seems to have disappeared after 1945 – or more accurately, it went underground, a victim of so-called “pink scare” in the 1950s and 1960s, which led to an intensification of homophobia that saw gay men and lesbians purged ruthlessly from government and military service and persecuted by legal authorities.
Drag reappeared with the emergence of the gay liberation movement in the 1970s, which reached Nova Scotia in 1972 with the formation of the Gay Alliance for Equality (GAE) in Halifax. In 1975, GAE purchased the Turret, a space in a building known as Khyber Club, located on Barrington Street, which transformed into a community centre for the queer community, and also a private gay night club. This gave rise to the modern version of drag in Nova Scotia.
Since then, drag has continued to grow and evolve, and is now entering what might be a “golden age.” The art form not only features drag queens, but also drag kings, and artists performing what is known as “gender-fuck”. Drag at its best not only entertains, but does so through questioning and challenging the norms of gender and sexuality in a society that remains dominated by heterosexual values.
It is a highly visual and exciting art form, inhabited by powerful narratives – that have rarely been told. Telling those stories, and understanding the history behind this art form – and the role it has played in bringing together and sustaining the queer community – is the purpose of my research. And it is becoming an increasingly urgent task as we lose more of those early drag performers.