Last summer I was in full drag, sitting outside East London’s Old Street Records where I was about to sing, mentally going through my set. I got talking with the venue’s straight PR manager – he expressed his gratitude to me for bringing the “Pink Pound” to his club, and for helping to “draw the punters in” by standing outside. My simply getting fresh air was an apparent attraction, unbeknownst to me. While annoying, the remark wasn’t surprising. As a professional drag performer, my services have for years been used – often without financial compensation – as a colourful “cherry on top” to help generate income for heteronormative establishments. Talk to any queer performer and they’ll probably tell you the same thing. We are always asked to perform at events for free. Always. The reasons why point to some entrenched systemic prejudices.
When I’m offered gigs that aren’t “LGBTQIA+” focused, there’s an assumption that I’ll most likely be pretty mediocre in the talent department. People expect glamour of drag queens, for us to whip out a crude joke once in a while, to act as glittery ice-sculptures around which the event ensues. Such assumptions mean that the fees we’re offered are pretty demeaning (sometimes just £50 for a whole night’s work). What’s ignored is the sheer effort it takes to travel to a venue with bags of drag, the three hours of well-rehearsed make-up application and the bravery required to assert one’s queer identity so publicly. And then, heaven forbid, we might actually be skilled comedians and/or strong singers.“Oh, you’re actually good!” is a phrase I frequently hear after being hired for a performance. Why is this a surprise for most people?
Drag occupies the “low-cultural” end in the public imaginary; it’s pictured as a place into which queer performers have been forced to retreat – a last chance “refuge”.
As well as being reactionary, drag is a choice that I’ve made with agency, because of its social, political and comedic potentials. It is a highly skilled practice coalescing comedy, politics, music, fashion and make-up. It requires an encyclopedic-knowledge of the pop-cultural spectrum, which drag reflects, refracts and critiques.
We arrive at dessert time, a mere bit of a fun to help a more often than not middle-class audience unwind, who momentarily project their unlived transgressions onto us (before returning home and stuffing them back up in the closet).
The notion that drag queens are the result of being “excluded” from normative space constructs a narrative in the heteronormative imaginary where “just being invited to the party” suffices as our compensation. The initial offer I get for a performance – even in venues that can afford to pay me – is usually “drink tickets and an invitation”. Because this value system is so engrained, it has meant that fee rates for drag queens are so low that you just have to take whatever you can get to stay in the game and keep working. And because we queer people have suffered so much exclusion in our lives, we will sometimes just take whatever is offered.
In fact, in accepting less, we facilitate our own co-option in capitalism’s hierarchal distribution of wealth, where we are undervalued and bottom of the pile.
The wonderful Simon Amstell once said this to me: “you have to teach people how to treat you.” In a society where queer people are systemically under-valued, we must not accept the mere crumbs of gratification offered by the Establishment.
When queer performers perform at LGBTQIA+ events or fundraisers, say, collectively supporting each other for free is of course essential. But when the Establishment co-opts our services to pat themselves on the back for being “transgressive”, tokenising our work, we must stand up for ourselves, showing them just how much we’re worth.