This entry has been in the queue for over a year but first came a month-long trip to India and of course after that came the pandemic and this project fell by the wayside. As things are beginning to improve, I think the time has come to resume this, first with a couple queued entries, and then some new ones.
On a cold November night, Sage and I head to Glad Day Bookshop, Canada’s first queer-focused bookshop and oldest bookstore serving the LGBTQ community in the world. It opened in 1970 meaning that we’re the same age.
In the age of Amazon and intense gentrification, we are seeing an unprecedented closure of bookshops worldwide. Ordinary booksellers don’t seem to be able to survive in the city in a time when even before the pandemic, people can order a book from their couch and have it delivered the next day – or instantly if it’s electronic. In many cases this has meant that the bookstores that survive are ones that give value beyond simply offering books. In some cases like Bakka-Phoenix, it means selling science fiction books and hiring extremely knowledgeable staff who can give excellent recommendations. In the case of A Different Booklist it means showcasing the literature of the African and Caribbean diaspora, and the global south. And in all cases including Glad Day it also means transforming from simply a store selling books to becoming a community space by holding events of interest to your patrons.
This transformation happened to Glad Day in 2016 when their Yonge Street location closed and they moved to a space on Church Street in Toronto’s Gay Village. They moved to a larger, more open space that had room for a counter for serving coffee and drinks and additional room for events.
On this night we’re here for Drag Bingo, a combination of a traditional bingo game with a drag show. It sounded like a strange and fun enough combination that we knew we had to include it here. It was made even more fun by the fact that our friend Glittur Dunn was hosting. It looks like she knew we were coming because our table already had a place setting:
So how does Drag Bingo work? We play normal rounds of bingo with Glittur Dunn calling out numbers. As the numbers are called, we mark them on our cards. When someone gets bingo, they call it out and prizes such as votive candles with images of drag performers on them are awarded.
Tonight there are two performers, a drag queen Erin Brockobić and a drag king, Cyril Cinder. During their sets, they dance, lip sync, engage with the audience, sometimes flirting, and getting tips from enthusiastic audience members.
I know for many, gender, and drag performance can be complicated. Some feel uncomfortable with the idea of someone biologically one sex, dressing in a way commonly associated with another gender. For some it’s wrapped up with sex which can get really complicated if that same person is also homophobic. For me, it feels more like performance art with performers creating a character they enjoy playing and just as in improv, heightening that character’s behaviour and appearance to great proportions. And tonight we definitely saw that.
What I really enjoyed about the performance was the feedback loop that seemed to be created between the audience and the performers. The performers loved what they were doing, and the audience wasn’t shy about appreciating it. This fueled the performers further so that a great time was had by all. It reminds me very much of a recent class I took in Clown performance in which we were taught to pay close attention to what the audience is enjoying and do more of that until they’re ready to move on and then do something else. And sometimes it can heighten bigger and bigger until at one point, Erin Brockobić, left the bookstore, danced in front of the window for a bit before going out to the middle of Church Street literally stopping traffic with her dancing. That positive feedback loop is what makes events like this so much fun.
Of course these sorts of events depend on the host. I actually met Glittur Dunn under totally different circumstances – a mixer for creatives wanting to connect with others to potentially collaborate with. Creative people are often very introverted and just putting us all in a room together is not going to be enough. She and my friend Erin created an atmosphere where we felt comfortable with one another and I met many interesting folks there.
The same talent: taking a diverse group of people and making one cohesive audience family of them and then connecting them to the performers is something she does so well. The atmosphere was so positive and inclusive that before long we were just a huge group of friends having a party together.
When the pandemic is over, I would definitely go back – and if you’re in Toronto or somewhere where something similar is happening, I encourage you to give it a try. You will definitely have a bunch of fun.
This topic had me thinking a lot about how weird we are as a culture – likely a species even – about clothing and people’s choices. We have so many detailed specifications as to what we should be wearing based on gender, age, economic class, religion, or location – home, work, and even what type of work. I would be expected to wear something different working in a warehouse versus a bank versus an edgy startup. But what is it anyway and why do some people get so invested in what other people wear and how they present themselves? If I wear jeans and a t-shirt you’ll think one thing of me. If I wear acid washed jeans and a neon t-shirt you’ll think I am wearing clothes from the wrong decade and judge me. And if, god forbid, someone wears the clothes typically associated with a different gender, all sorts of assumptions and judgements get made. Have a look at this video, for example:
There are men in red dresses, some in red bikinis, and they’re all getting on bikes and riding together. What conclusions do you make? Who are they? What are they like?
Now a bit more information: That film was taken in 2010 on the Friends for Life Bike Rally, a charity ride that raises millions for the Toronto People with AIDS foundation. I actually was riding with all of those folks that day though in standard bike kit as about half the people do. That day was our shortest ride – about 60 kilometres on a 600 kilometre ride from Toronto to Montreal.
I did the ride again in 2011 and was determined to raise even more money than the first year. This time I decided to see if I could use people’s weird attitudes about what people wear to my advantage. I posted to social media and even LinkedIn that if I could raise $500 that day I would participate and ride wearing a red dress on Red Dress Day. Even though I knew people would be surprised, I was shocked at the response. By the end of the day I’d raised over $1,000 when normally I might see $20-50/day. Even people I didn’t know were chipping in.
So what was it like? Going to the store to try on a dress was a little strange but this is Toronto – it’s not unheard of. The dress I chose fit OK though I will say that it did not flatter my figure so much. On the big day I wore bike shorts underneath and rode in a sparkly red dress that reached mid-thigh. Cycling in it wasn’t bad. People ask if it felt weird to be wearing a dress in public and I have to say that it didn’t. Inwardly there was no aversion or nervousness. It was clothing, it covered my body so I wasn’t riding naked. As for outwardly, I have to say I had more privilege than a lot of others who might want to wear a dress on another day. There were over 300 riders, probably 1/3 of which were men also wearing dresses, and there was a “legit reason” to wear one. So this idea that my sponsors had that it would be some great embarrassment was far from the truth. (I’m glad, though, as that idea raised good money for charity.). But I did know that if I were to keep the dress on and, say, go out to the grocery store my treatment would not be good and I would quite likely be at risk of physical harm.
In the end, though, I was left with an even bigger observation: Whether it be about clothing, walk, behaviour or attitude, in every culture I know of, one of the worst insults is to say that they’re “Like a woman.” in one way or another. Think about that for a minute or two and what that means about our cultures’ attitudes toward women.
If you’re curious and want to know more about what drag is all about, have a look at the show my friend Tracy Erin Smith was a part of making, Drag Heals, following several performers through building their own drag performance / solo show and learning more about who they are and where they’re coming from. It’s an excellent watch and is available on Amazon Prime. Both Erin Broncobic and Cyril Cinder have appeared on this show.