When Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all bars and restaurants in Pennsylvania to close in mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic, Pittsburgh drag queen Scarlet Fairweather had to cancel a voter registration performance planned at Blue Moon Bar in Lawrenceville.
“Usually I will tell everyone to vote at least once or twice during a show,” Scarlet said. The performance would have had a political theme with special cocktails.
Scarlet, who says she’s known as the “soccer mom of Pittsburgh drag,” said she agreed with the postponement, and made the decision to start live-streaming shows online.
“It was a brave new world,” Scarlet said. “Everyone got thrust online and if you weren’t ready, you weren’t ready.”
Across the country, many drag queens took to Instagram and Facebook live platforms to perform for fans through their cell phone screens. It was an adjustment for many, going from lip-syncing to a packed bar or club to performing to virtual viewers through a tiny camera.
“It was hard because I like to interact with the crowd,” said Pittsburgh queen Agnes Senga, who’s been doing drag for three-and-a-half years. So much of the energy of doing drag, Agnes said, comes from the cheers of the audience.
When queens started to go online, Agnes worried about the volume of performances popping up on the internet.
“You don’t want to overlap … but at the same time, we’re all just doing our job.”
After all, drag queens are gig workers, a segment of people in the labor industry who rely on part-time jobs or contracted work. Some queens are paid a booking fee at venues across the city, but many rely on tips--typically $1 bills gathered by the performers from the outstretched hands of audience members.
Queens typically perform at venues during night shows and weekends. Many don’t begin until after midnight, which Agnes acknowledges can make attendance impossible for some drag fans.
“The most enjoyable part of this is that anybody and everybody can watch,” Agnes said. “It’s not just 21-plus people … I just got a message the other day that somebody said their daughter was watching and they were so excited about the show.”
Younger people can view the shows, and others who don’t typically attend live performances because they don’t want to be around alcohol can tune in without the bar atmosphere.
“I also know people that live so far away and they enjoy seeing these entertainers, but they don’t get to see them because they don’t live here,” Scarlet said. “It’s been a really nice way to open up our perspective and our entertainment to a much wider audience.”
Queens Dixie Surewood and Amneeja, roommates and friends who performed together across the city, echoed that increased accessibility has led to far-flung family being able to watch them perform for the first time.
“It gives them a chance to see us,” said Amneeja. “I think we’ll continue to do this [even] when in-person shows resume.”
Online drag forces creativity
In Pittsburgh, many venues with drag performances don’t have large stages like the ones at theaters downtown, but living rooms and the scope of a camera are even smaller. Amneeja said their small living room has forced them to get creative.
“You make use of as many walls as possible,” Amneeja said. “It changes the way you perform.”
Instead of breaking into the performance to pluck a tip from the audience, comments and Venmo or PayPal payments pop up instead.
“The amount of time you have to fill because you’re not taking a tip from someone, it can be hard,” Dixie said.
The pair respond to comments throughout their live-streamed shows, and often banter between each other, which Dixie said isn’t always possible at an in-person show.
“Sometimes performing you can be a little insecure because you can see people’s faces,” Dixie said. “When you’re at home with just yourself or one other person, you can’t see that. So we’re living for ourselves.”
Diversifying the Pittsburgh scene
Pittsburgh’s drag scene, much like the city itself, faces a diversity problem. It’s an issue that RuPaul Charles, a drag queen and host of the popular competition series RuPaul’s Drag Race, has been criticized for, and has led to discussions within the LGBTQ+ community.
Diversity in drag means representing all races of performers, as well as including those of various gender identities and sexual orientations.
“It’s drag queens and kings and non-binary burlesque performers,” Agnes said. Drag kings are performers who identify as female, non-binary people are folks who do not align with a single gender and burlesque performers often do striptease dances as part of their shows.
With online drag, Scarlet Fairweather said queens and other performers who represent the city’s diversity are able to access a wider audience than hey might at a live venue. Scarlet also notes that often, the shows are filled with people who all already know each other.
“It’s easy to cast your friends and have people that look like you,” Scarlet said. “These online shows give us an opportunity to expand connections, to make new friends, and to bring the perspectives of drag into areas that normally do not see them.”
Mario Josie Ashkar, curates online events under the name Princess Jafar, and Princess Jafar and Friends. They describe their drag as a “high-concept character like Pee Wee Herman or Elvira,” adopting a persona for their shows.
As a queer Arab-American, Jafar says they see the lack of diversity in drag bookings firsthand and try to combat it by centering artists of color. While new drag queens of color emerge on the Pittsburgh scene each year, Jafar said many don’t feel welcomed.
“Undoing segregation, undoing white preference is everyone's responsibility and it is especially the responsibility of show producers to create shows and foster environments that don't harm,” Jafar said. “That's how low the bar is, we just want show producers who don't harm the community.”
At a time when the country is grappling with police brutality against black and brown communities, Jafar echoed the need to support queer performers, whether they are online, or at brick-and-mortar venues.
“Drag itself is a Trans Black artform,” Jafar said, referring to the historical rise of drag in black queer communities, and the 1969 Stonewall riots, which were led by black transgender women and drag queens. “And besides, shows that aren't diverse are boring and we are entertainers!”