Could drag performers use a union? This Alberta collective is pushing fair werk for fair pay

More and more, it seems like drag has become synonymous with competition. A performer’s rise to stardom is often characterized by a simple condition: they must establish themselves as superior through more gigs, coins and overall recognition in the community. But a group in the Prairies is redefining the scene in significant ways. CBC Arts talked to Party Queens, an Edmonton-based drag collective that is instead focusing on collaboration and solidarity.

About four years ago, Party Queens founder Sister Mary Clarence was getting busier with show and production requests, so they started mentoring other performers in negotiating fair fees and conditions. 

Today, the collective operates in major cities across Canada, but it started with a simple yet essential goal from Sister Mary Clarence, who wanted to promote a “more fair and equitable distribution of gigs and coin.” Based on principles of fairness and equity, their mentality at the beginning of the group was “if you are brave enough to put on the wig and the lashes, then you’re a Party Queen.”

Party Queens executive producer Emmonia remembers the state of the industry even just a few years ago: “Mostly in private bookings, there would be people expecting to have queens doing a couple of numbers and interact for $100 total for all of them.” The amount of work it actually takes to show up to an event in drag seemed to be a popular misunderstanding among event bookers, which led to the conception of the group.

If you have an all-white cast, you’re gonna have an all-white audience.-Gemma Nye, Party Queens CEO

Party Queens CEO Gemma Nye explains that one of the main pillars of the collective is to promote standard and transparent pay to performers, regardless of their experience. The group successfully acts like a union for workers who are often underpaid and unsupported. They’re redefining the industry with essential practices like compensating performers fairly for fair work — rights granted by law to workers in multiple other fields.

The other pillar of Party Queens is diversity. As we know, queer spaces are not immune from reproducing cis-het and white privileges. In fact, some gay bars can really take the theme “white party” a tad too far. Shay Nanigans, an Edmonton drag king who hosts Party Queens’ Global Getdown, a show exclusively highlighting performers of colour, shares that, historically, many shows have included “a lot of white drag performers or designated POC performers.” And, as Gemma Nye says, “If you have an all-white cast, you’re gonna have an all-white audience.”

It’s a familiar story: a bar meets performers who are trans or people of colour, who they really like, and continuously book them exclusively to demonstrate a performative commitment to diversity. Shay Nanigans advises that producers and bookers talk to a lot of people, as organizers tend to fall into this trap and invite the same folks over and over again.

According to Gemma Nye, diversity is the foundation of everything Party Queens does. But it extends deeper than just race and gender, the CEO explains, to include all kinds of bodies and abilities. “We try to extend the platform of drag to people who have been pushed out of it for so long just based on the RuPaul’s Drag Race standards. It’s not just out of a need for diversity, but we wanna create an amazing f–king talented drag scene.”

From Party Queens’ Fresh Fruits series, which interviews new trans and non-binary performers, to their outdoor and virtual drag shows during the pandemic, the collective is focused on removing barriers. By allowing those who usually don’t see themselves represented in mainstream drag to have a platform, Party Queens has become an important support, collaborator and booster for LGBTQ2S+ communities.

Gemma Nye, God, Jizz Elle, Shay Nanigans and Artasia outside the Neon Sign Museum as part of Fruit Loop AR Pride in May 2021. (Party Queens)

A few years ago, Sister Mary Clarence chose to step down as Party Queens’ owner. They didn’t think it was their place as a cis-presenting white drag queen to be organizing all of the performers when there was such a diverse drag scene in the city. It was really important, they felt, to have someone who represented the community better. “So that’s why I passed it down to my drag child, Gemma Nye, who is a trans drag artist in the city,” Sister Mary Clarence says. “I felt like that was the right step, and I can see how much they’ve evolved the entire company into a better reflection of what our community needs. I think it’s really uplifted a lot of other trans performers to step into the light.”

When it comes to the future of Party Queens, the group is ambitious. Gemma Nye sees the collective “expanding their reach and services, normalizing drag entertainment as a trade and encouraging others to come to Party Queens’ level.” The group has already grown its operation to cities including Vancouver, Montreal and the GTA through successful collaborations with community partners. 

Solidarity is critical to their work and their practices are based on fairness and giving others a chance. Most importantly, though, Party Queens does not compromise diversity or fair pay in an industry that often relies on undervaluing its talent. Rather, they fight for it by platforming new talent and highlighting diversity. Drag has been around for a long time and it will continue to evolve as an art form, but how we treat and pay performers can determine whether our commitment is just making bank or truly uplifting queer and trans communities.

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