A number of restaurants, clubs and bars in the Prairies have benefited from the entertainment and pop-culture appeal of drag performers in recent years. But while some protesters have set their targets on these locales and the fundamental human rights of queer people, it feels as though it’s time for allied businesses to step up to the plate.
Katrina Tessier is the owner of Scout: Coffee + Tea in Winnipeg. The family-oriented café opened in 2017 and has been a queer-friendly environment since its inception.
Last October, Scout had protesters show up to a drag storytime event. While it hasn’t happened again, Ms. Tessier says they have received negative e-mails from angry individuals who disapprove of their inclusive event programming.
“It used to be that a business shouldn’t ‘take sides,’ but when it’s coming down to people potentially losing their basic rights you need to pick a side,” she explains. “If you’re not being vocal about it then you’re picking the side against marginalized people.”
With complaints and the protest in the rear-view mirror, her café happily continues to offer programming that makes all Winnipeggers feel welcome. Over all, Ms. Tessier says, she has seen more queer-leaning, family-friendly events in the city and the number of protests dissipate.
“We’re hoping that we’ve been able to normalize queer people in child-focused spaces a bit more. We have multiple queer families using our space – since before these events – and having queer-focused events can let those families feel included within the community,” she says.
Landing somewhere between an allied and queer-owned business is Okotoks’s popular Salute. This is because the wine and cocktail bar is co-owned by Tanya Douglas and Tom Barker, who is best known as the popular drag queen Birthday Girl.
Salute has become a welcoming watering hole in a part of Alberta – including you in this sentiment, Calgary – that hasn’t always been known for its progressive nature. As an 18+ venue, Ms. Douglas and Mr. Barker have not had to deal with protests or complaints, but that does not make the role of Salute in the small community any less vital than the role family-friendly establishments play.
Mr. Barker is touted with bringing the art of drag to Okotoks – Salute’s weekly Birthday Girl drag shows are more or less sold out until the fall – and he also spearheaded the city’s first Pride festival last year, in which 4,500 locals came out in support. As a drag performer, Birthday Girl has performed at an array of venues and stages across the province and knows what to look for when walking into a space that claims to be allied and safe. And it goes well beyond a Pride flag sticker on the door.
“The first thing I look at is the staff. Having a portion of your staff that’s visibly part of the community immediately tells me that you care about diversity,” Mr. Barker says. “The second is the clientele. If you cultivate a culture of inclusivity, then you’re going to attract those types of people.”
Beyond physical spaces, Mr. Barker says much can be interpreted about an establishment by its social-media stream. Inclusivity is a message that can be easily peppered throughout the year and not just ramped up for Pride season.
Recently, I also caught wind of Edmonton’s inaugural drag festival. Set to take place June 17 in Louise McKinney Riverfront Park, festival event manager Conroy Smith says they are expecting at least 1,500 attendees.
“The specific goals and objectives of this year’s festival are about promoting acceptance, raising awareness about issues affecting the 2SLGBTQIA+ community,” Mr. Smith says. “[We’re hoping to help] foster a sense of community and belonging, in spite of the current political climate around drag and drag culture.”
The Edmonton Drag Festival is looking for food and drink businesses to get involved. This provides a great opportunity for ally-identifying owners to help bolster a message of inclusion.
Mr. Smith notes that non-queer-owned businesses can easily expand their patronage by simply opening, supporting and celebrating diversity.
“We all know there is an active fight against drag performers, especially in the United States. And for Canadians to be pro-active and show solidarity with our performers, it give us hopes that the 2SLGBTQIA+ community here in Canada will be safe.”
As I put the finishing touches on this story, a press release for Calgary’s soon-to-be-open Sweet Loretta finds its way into my inbox.
Before now, not much was known about the restaurant aside from rumours that it would be Concorde Group’s first intentionally inclusive (read queer-run) establishment. Being one part disco, one part “snack bar” and one part lounge, it’s fair to assume that Calgarians will have another welcoming environment to feel safe in very soon.
In an anxiety-ridden world, where attempts to ignore basic human rights are all too common, the impending arrival of Calgary’s Sweet Loretta and a celebratory drag festival in Edmonton feel both timely and needed.