Isolation’s a drag: Australia’s queer performers are sustaining communities through the coronavirus crisis

Source: Bryce Waters

Social isolation and the loss of gigs aren’t stopping Australia’s queer performers from entertaining the masses and sustaining community, writes Melbourne drag queen Victoria Bitter.

2020 has been a testing time for the arts. We’ve survived budget cuts, raised millions in funds for bushfire relief, and now the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down our entire sector. The closure of all clubs and venues amid public health concerns has seen the Australian arts industry lose over $300 million in vital income, which is only going to rise in the coming months. 

As I sit at home on day seven in self-isolation, worried about whether I have toilet paper -- let alone a career -- I can’t help but wonder how my community is still so connected and prepared to give.

Earning a living and accessing medical services as a queer artist is precarious at the best of times, considering that queer and transgender people, people of colour and sex workers are amongst the most at-risk people in our community for discrimination. Those who are socially isolating or quarantined are even more susceptible to worsening mental health

For some of our disabled and chronically ill queers, isolation was already the norm before this crisis, as is the reality for Melbourne performer Charlotte Webb. 

“It’s been strange seeing people’s reactions to social isolation because I have realised it’s such a big part of my everyday life anyway, and you forget that’s not normal for a lot of people. I have endometriosis and the first week of socially isolating I barely noticed because I was bedridden and exhausted from pain,” says Charlotte.

“Suddenly the government is making services more accessible and compassionate because people can’t work and can’t leave their houses, and you wonder where that empathy was for so many people living like that before the pandemic.”

Yet regardless of the distance, queer performers aren’t hanging up their wigs or setting aside their duty to their community. 

Drag queens -- the drunk aunties of the queer family -- are picking up their devices and going live to take care of everyone and start the drama. 

Victoria Bitters
Melbourne drag queen Victoria Bitter is inspired by the way Australia's queer performers have banded together in the face of COVID-19.
Bryce Waters

It’s unprecedented for drag to go digital like this. We used to be hesitant to film our performances because you lose the certain je ne sais quoi of the sweaty club. But now I’ve seen everything -- queens live-streaming makeup, movie reviewing, cooking, gaming, performances, DJ sets and workouts.

Betty Grumble, a Sydney-based drag performer, has been activating our collective cores with the only reason I have to get out of bed before 10am - a free, daily Grumble Boogie aerobic workout on Instagram Live

“The Grumble Boogie is an ongoing dance celebration and prayer. I'm excited by the new connections I found doing it daily online. It has made it accessible and moving in new ways,” says Grumble.

“One way I have kept my spirit aloft is turning and connecting to our already abundant and dynamic community as it reaches its tendrils in cyberspace. Holding and acknowledging the paradox of the corporate data-frothing censorship-queens, we are using their platforms as extensions of our corporeal bodies in a time where we must practice 'isolation' to be compassionate citizens.”

Betty Grumble
Dean Tirkot

Personally, I already have a packed schedule with the amount of digital content queens are pushing out. 

Alaska Thunderf**k, Rock M Sakura, Juno Birch and other big names in drag in the US and UK held the world’s first Digital Drag Show on Saturday, streaming live through the platform Twitch with 30 performers all connecting through their living rooms.

We are seeing this level of action locally with Melbourne/Geelong venues Piano Bar and Pride of Our Footscray streaming entire shows live. Meanwhile in Sydney, artist RACKETT and Heaps Gay are creating their own virtual stage for Australian performers.

“COVID-19 has cancelled gigs and closed stages, threatening the artist's ability to connect with fans in a live environment. Our program aims to tackle the issue of segregation, not only throughout this period of isolation, but the broader segregation of the queer community,” says RACKETT.

“Our program is a virtual stage for artists, musicians and drag queens to come together, enabling them to reach new fans through diversified targeting. Our crew will produce, direct and edit a series of 15-minute episodes combining performances by artists in their homes, presented in a TV show format by our Heaps Gay hosts and RACKETT.”

“Within 24hrs of initiating the project we received more than 50 expressions of interest from artists across NSW, VIC & QLD.” An initiative to keep your eye on as they launch in the coming weeks.

While artists are finding ways to continue their practice, bringing joy and hopefully making some coin, there remains an overarching expectation of productivity that is difficult for many at this time.

The fact that many queer performers are finding ways to persevere right now shouldn’t erase the fact that these performers are still suffering enormous disruptions to their livelihoods. 

And while maintaining a routine is important for mental wellbeing, seeing how much work you can churn out during a crisis doesn’t determine your value. For many, just taking care of themselves and their loved ones is more than enough.   

Grumble acknowledges this notion and stresses the importance of community care.

“Our health is a great privilege and we can use our power to look at who may need the most assistance during this time. We are all learning, still reaching to complete and reanimate circuits of energy.” 

It’s possible that the recent rapid uptake in streaming may help digital platforms, venues and patrons adapt to support performers the way performers are supporting the community. 

Queer Space, for instance, has responded to the closures of its events with an immediate financial aid initiative called #BuyATicket.

“Because we have had to cancel our events for two months, this means that over 30 queer artists will be directly affected. Not only do these artists depend on Queer Space to provide some income for their art, but our events allow these artists to receive publicity which in turn allows them to get more gigs,” said James Christie-Murray, founder of Queer Space.

“Our events are focused on regional cities such as Wollongong and Canberra, where there isn’t an abundance of queer events. The initiative has built a bridge to allow our regular patrons to continue to support queer artists during this difficult time of physical isolation.” 

If you’ve ever wanted to see a drag show, it’s never been more accessible than right now.  

Don’t forget to tip queens, buy their merch, subscribe to their crowdfunding pages, and hire them for their varied services. We need your support now more than ever -- Scomo certainly isn’t lining up to see us. 

In the words of Grumble, “Queers and creatives are experts in divine defiance. We are angry and connected.”

We can do this together, quarantinis at the ready! 

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You can find Melbourne drag queen Victoria Bitter on Instagram

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News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus.