BY: EMILY CRAIG-EVANS
Under pink light, in front of a red-checked curtain, a man about five-and-a-half feet tall is bobbing around to some version of “River of Jordan” inside a box made to look like a killer whale that hangs by string from his shoulders. His thick dark chinstrap beard makes his light blue eyes pop. A girl with long hair saunters onto the stage and lies on her back with a five dollar bill in her mouth. She looks invitingly at Clarke, who jaunts his way over to her. He stands straddled over her, bends forward and takes the bill with his teeth before planting a peck on her lips. She runs off the stage giggling and soon the song ends, ending Clarke’s performance. The thing about Clarke is that most of the time, he’s Sarah Clarke.
It’s Wednesday drag king night at Zipperz/Cellblock in Toronto’s gay village, and a number of women have manned up to sate some frisky-feeling patrons. Zipperz is the only venue in the city offering a weekly slot for drag kings. But the night might not last much longer.
In case you didn’t know, drag does not imply transgenderism. Transgendered individuals consistently identify with a gender that doesn’t match their biological sex in a binary gender model. Drag allows individuals to play with gender and its boundaries within temporary time frames. It is the theatric embodiment of gender fluidity.
Cameron, a stoic king with short, dark hair and matching lashes, has played a large role in managing Zipperz’ Wednesday night debauchery for 10 years now. By the age of 28, Karan “Cameron” Paterson has created countless track-matched line-ups for the DJ, distributed drink tickets and saw that hosts got paid. Another local night club—Crews and Tango’s—used to offer the weekly slot, but when they closed briefly in 2009, Cameron came to Zipperz owner, Harry Singh, with a small group of performers to ask him to host the night. Harry gave them a trial period.
The crowds flocked to the red-lit cabaret and secured the night’s persistence. But now Cameron is stepping down from his managing role and Lisa “Blake” Brooks, a 25-year-old king who’s been active at Zipperz for two years, is stepping into the position. Wednesday nights typically see around 150 mostly female giggling guests under 30, but Harry told Blake their weekly slot is in jeopardy unless they pull larger crowds. Even if the night does stick, it could be threatened once again in a few years when Harry says condo development is going to force him to either retire or move Zipperz to a new location.
Cameron doesn’t seem too cut up about it.
“Everything changes on this street,” he shrugged. But Blake is feeling the stress.
“I don’t sleep at night,” he half-jokingly shudders.
Zipperz currently provides kings the only opportunity to perform on a weekly basis.
Blake is used to layering identity. Lisa “Blake” Brooks works during the day as undercover security. While working on a Wednesday, she’ll listen to her iPod to begin getting into Blake’s groove and chooses his tracks for that night. When she gets home she has a couple of drinks while she trims the tips of a wig the same colour as her short sandy hair, and then sculpts his facial hair using sticky spirit gum. She chooses his outfits, slips into a top designed to flatten her chest and places a penis made of silicone inside her pants for the final touch to become him. Many Toronto kings purchase these two gender-bending necessities at Come As You Are sex shop on Queen west, where Blake also hopes to begin advertising the Wednesday night show.
When the show gets rolling, Blake has a few more drinks. One of his favourite parts of performing at Zipperz is the interaction with the crowd. Heavy drinking is heavily encouraged; it lubricates the personal space-invading gyrations that the front row glows for.
And the entire event seems to lubricate conversation about sexuality. More can be overheard about personal kinks, sexual experimentation and gender fluidity at Zipperz on a Wednesday than during a night out at your average heteronormative club. Woven beneath a sense of normalcy is a sense of elation about the freedom of expression present in the room. A University of Toronto neurology student teeters happily over her short mixed cocktail to tell me she loves seeing people “uninhibited by societal bullshit and genuinely expressing their sexuality.”
So why is it that kings are fighting for their time to shine when you could find a show featuring drag queens somewhere in the city almost every night of the week?
Yolanda “Maximum Capacity” Lloyd is a part of the Toronto based Yes-Men drag king collective, and only performs at Zipperz occasionally. She partially credits the lesser popularity of kings than queens to discrepancy in pop culture representation. Many people have heard of, if not seen, at least one of Rocky Horror Picture Show, Pricilla Queen of the Desert, or To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar—films featuring lead roles as drag queens.
“There is no film with a leading drag king,” Maximum Capacity pointed out, and this is true regarding films with the same recognition as those featuring queens. She also credits fewer kings active in Toronto than queens. She says where there may be around 10-15 regularly active drag kings there are hundreds of queens. But the lesser opportunity to perform and frequency of drag king shows likely perpetuates the shortage of kings. Blake says lesbians compose the majority of their audience and there are less lesbians in Toronto’s gay village. A night out in the village could certainly make it seem this way. Drag king shows just don’t pull the same variety in the audience as queen shows do.
If they don’t reach a wider audience soon, Wednesday drag king night at Zipperz might shut down, leaving drag kings with even less opportunity.
After being delivered yet another drink on stage by one more smitten young lady, Blake wavers and huffs, “raise your glasses if you have to work in the morning” into the mic.
He downs the drink and tries not to think about the next day, slipping off backstage and into a fur coat for his next number.