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It was just over a year ago when Anita Otter – until then a full-time barista – decided to embrace her inner drag queen. Wearing a red, Mickey Mouse-esque dress her mom had given her, she strutted onto the stage for her first-ever drag show at an arts studio in the city’s west end, performing as a 1950s-era housewife to Lady Gaga’s Sex Dreams.

Since then, she’s landed a regular monthly gig, and also makes money doing smaller shows, open stages and other events. The summer months were the busiest – especially June, when Pride celebrations typically draw hundreds of thousands of visitors to the city and attendance at shows skyrockets.

Then came COVID-19, which shut down bars and clubs everywhere, and forced Pride to take its festivities online – leaving Ms. Otter and many of the city’s other drag queens and kings without a major source of income. “I can’t put into words how difficult it is to have an art form that started to become an income, and then not have that be an option anymore,” Ms. Otter says.

Like many performers, she turned to the internet. She rearranged the furniture in her apartment, set up a backdrop and some lights, and started performing live-streamed shows on Instagram and Facebook Live once or twice a week to try to make up some of her lost income through virtual tips.

But she’s only making a fraction of what she’d make in a typical night on stage. “Tips are almost non-existent,” she says, “especially since this is a time of financial instability for everyone.”

It’s not just the money, either. A big part of doing drag is feeding off the energy of the audience – people who appreciate an art form that’s both fun to watch and fosters a sense of connection among the LGBTQ community. “Doing drag was an opportunity to improve my mental health and have a purpose in my community,” says Ms. Otter, “as well as to support and entertain people, and share the love of drag with others who appreciate it.”

But online shows simply can’t compete with the real thing. “You’re not able to hear the crowd or have somebody come up and give you a tip, or interact with people you see on the regular in these performance spaces,” she says.

Regina Gently has been a drag queen in Toronto for nine years. June should be her busiest month – she would typically have between 12 and 15 gigs over a three-week period, and the majority would be higher-paying corporate gigs (because Pride Month, she says, is “kind of like the gay Christmas”). And although Pride organizers are hosting a weekly virtual Drag Hour on Saturday nights, they can only put so many performers on the bill. “I don’t have any of those gigs,” Ms. Gently says. “In terms of income, it’s kind of a scary month.”

Until live gigs come back, Ms. Gently has been collecting CERB payments and picking up part-time jobs, as well as performing live through Instagram, Facebook and even Zoom. There’s still money to be made from virtual shows, she says, but while the tips tend to be bigger – someone might tip $20 online versus $5 in person – there are definitely fewer of them, and she’d make far more performing at a club. Still, she says, “I can be creative and connecting with a certain amount of people. It’s kind of the only option, other than just not performing at all.”

Live-streamed shows do have a shelf life, however. “When everything shut down, people wanted to be entertained, and the entertainers wanted to entertain people who were bored at home,” Ms. Gently says. “In that sense, they filled this immediate void that was there. But I don’t see it being a lasting thing – people like to gather, and they like to be around actual humans.”

In response to the mounting financial losses, the Toronto-based non-profit Community One Foundation has created a $50,000 COVID-19 relief fund geared specifically to the local drag community. It will hand out $500 grants to 100 drag artists in the Greater Toronto Area whose drag revenue was a significant portion of their income and who need those funds to cover essential expenses. The grants are fully funded by donations.

Sam Katz, secretary of the foundation’s board of directors, says performing in bars and clubs was a career for many in the drag community, and those venues are probably going to be the last to open.

He and fellow board member Cory Stewart say they decided to create the fund because of the personal inspiration they’d received from the drag community. “Drag kings and queens have been the essence and the building blocks of the LGBT+ community as far back as the Stonewall Riots,” says Mr. Katz, referring to the LGBTQ uprising after New York City police raided a gay club in 1969. “They are a symbol of what brings us together. It’s for that reason that it’s so important for us to support them during their time of need.”

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