Drag kings like Duke Carson are taking center stage in transforming queer spaces through some family love and the art of drag
Shruti Ramani // Contributor
Anais Bayle // Illustration
On a chilly, whimsical night, Café Deux Soleil is host to a spectacle brimming with anticipation of the unknown. Akin to the stars of tonight’s show, the laidback Commercial Drive spot transforms from daytime café into a mesmerizing mirage of queens and kings in all their glory. The energy is palpably infectious, cheers and hoots engulf the performers on stage, drowning out Cee Lo Green blaring over the speakers. Tonight’s acts are something of a potpourri—from ambiguous choreography aiming to make a commentary to displays of sheer athleticism and grace. The crowd teeters on feral, raining a hurricane of dollar bills onto the stage. Each act is equal parts wild and unique, but one thing they share is a ferocity and confidence that oozes from their personas.
Thanks to the popularity of series like RuPaul’s Drag Race and Dragula, the perception that drag is just lip syncing to pop songs in makeup is becoming more scarce. The art of drag is as intricate as any other, requiring time, dedication and practice. It’s impossible not to be drawn in by the drag kings’ personas at Cafe Deux Soleil—and as an androgynous presenting queer woman, I can’t help but wonder if someone like me could be a king too.
Duke Carson, reigning champion of Alberta’s Next Drag Superstar, is quick on the draw: “Literally anybody can be a drag king! Get together with your close ones. Ones that will be supportive of your first performance and dive right in,” he says. Jordan May has been performing as Duke Carson for over six years now. They, along with other kings in the community, have been instrumental in actively curating spaces that welcome and celebrate kings. May found drag in early 2014 and shortly after made their debut performance at Dickens—a popular underground dive in Calgary—to Midnight Show by The Killers. May says it’s still their home base, and favourite place to perform. For May, winning Alberta’s Next Drag Superstar has been vital to realizing who Duke was and who Duke wanted to be.
Family is built into the foundation of the queer community. “It takes a community to raise a king,” says May, who emphasizes that the community and opportunities they found through Dickens were invaluable to their career. Off stage, May steps into the role of parent to an adopted son, but as Duke they are still searching for a drag family to adopt them officially. Much like real families, drag families are diverse, and involve intrinsic relationships that often extend far beyond titles. May reflects on their journey from watching Youtube videos, to sharing stage and off-stage space with other drag artists. Drag families can be pillars of emotional support and encouragement to pursue one’s identity and ambitions. As a parent, May believes resilience and growth come from making your own mistakes, learning from them and finding your own solutions. Parenthood is both rewarding and challenging at once. Like any other parent-child dynamic, sometimes it’s best to take a step back as a parent and give children the space to make their own discoveries and curate their identity.
“Drag is exhilarating, passionate and freeing,” says May. It provides a space for artists to be, to feel and to flourish. Drag aims to be a safe haven for the queer community and to be the world that unifies people from all walks of life, despite gender identity, orientation and chosen personas. The reality, however, like with other artforms, drag is far from perfect. Although it has made leaps and bounds over the last few decades, drag has a long path ahead of it with regards to acceptance and making reparations. Kings often struggle to receive the success and recognition that queens happen upon with seemingly relative ease. Reflecting upon the adversities May faced as Duke in the Albertan drag scenes, they admit that a lot of legwork went into birthing venues other than Dickens that welcomed and appreciated kings with the same grandeur as their counterparts.
“Being a drag king is representing a part of queer history that has been widely underrepresented, [compared to] recognition [one gets] as a drag queen,” says May. The reason for the divide, according to May, “it’s still a man’s world!” In a purist kind of a way and historically, queens have been personas adopted by men presenting as women. These distinctions cannot be stereotyped into binary categories anymore, especially now that drag is including more non-bindary gender identities and performers. Yet still, women and non-binary folks trying to be drag monarchs are often met with resistance. May touches on the incidents where kings are often denied pay, as opposed to their paid counterparts. They also describe instances where they would be shunned from pub drag events. May believes drag kings seizing opportunities to be seen and heard is a part of the leg-work required to not only be a king, but create meaningful equality in the world of drag.
COVID-19 has actively revolutionized how other art forms realize themselves, and the same can be said for drag. The drag community has found common ground with the challenges they face through realizing their passion for keeping the art alive and thriving. The lack of physical spaces could have seen drag fizzle out, but many artists like May continue to create despite the challenges. In some ways, re-defining what drag performance necessitates requires remodelling their art to fit online platforms. Duke Carson has a loyal fan base that has kept them active in these exceptional circumstances. They are making music videos to keep their audiences engaged. “I became a movie producer, low-key!” said May. A lot of artists have had to find innovative ways to engage with technology to reach audiences during the pandemic.
Drag shows are notorious for being hosted at late hours of the night and at niche queer venues. A case can be made that online drag has made the art-form more accessible and to a wider audience. Digital Drag Fest debuted in March 2020 with the intention of being a limited engagement, but ran until May due to overwhelming demand. Dragula Season Two winner Biqtch Puddin’ brought in over 8,000 viewers to her Digital Drag Show on popular streaming platform Twitch. Puddin’s show included distanced performances from other well-known queens like Alaska Thunderfuck and Laganja Estranja. “Drag is like the church of community, it’s a safe haven” Puddin’ said in an interview with Rolling Stone about her breakout streaming success, and why things like Digital Drag Show are needed right now.
RuPaul’s Drag Race set a precedent by involving audiences outside of the queer community to scratch the proverbial surface of drag. May explains how the drag community in Alberta is flourishing, despite the sometimes intense external political pressure of the conservative government. It’s a testament to the power of this community, in the larger scheme of things. The Vancouver drag scene is also picking up momentum with regards to the freedom in performance practises. Spaces like London Pub, Café Deux Soleil, Junction, PumpJack pub and many others have been established as safe spaces for queer artists, and kings in particular, to take center stage and thrive. Queer artists from all over Canada are flocking to the scene to experience it and get involved.
This year has made us hyper-aware of our mortality, and it’s hard to imagine what next year will look like, let alone what drag will look like ten years from now. Arguably, the soul and the spontaneity of this art form is obscured without a live audience and their tangible reactions. Drag, like other artforms, thrives on collaboration, and on family. May hopes that new life can be breathed back into drag, although they’re still reminiscent of pre-pandemic performances with live audiences. The future for May, however, holds something altogether different than what we’ve seen before. “There’s nothing like the energy you get from being in the same room as someone you’re performing with,” May mused.
Jordan May and many other kings and queens are doing the work so that drag can continue reaching people globally. In uncertain times where it seems the world is becoming more polarised than ever, the monarchs of drag have many life lessons to share about finding our own families, respect and communities. Like all things in nature, metamorphosis is both essential and bewitching. From our backyards to the dressing rooms at a drag show, even if sometimes it’s difficult to see, there’s always an opportunity to shed our skin and embrace something new.