Oxford Drag: Creating safe spaces for LGBTQ+ Youth
Ginger Tart, founder of the Oxfordshire Drag Collective, on giving the panto a modern twist with the inclusive Away with the Fairies and the power of drag to teach kids tolerance and creative self-expression.
Today, it can feel like it’s easier than ever for LGBTQ+ youth to be themselves. However, it’s still far from easy.
- Nearly half of lesbian, gay, bi and trans pupils (45%) – including 64% of trans pupils – are bullied for being LGBT at school.*
- Only half of lesbian, gay and bi people (46%) and trans people (47%) feel able to be open about their sexual orientation and/or gender identity to their whole family.**
- Just two in five LGBT young people (40%) have an adult at home they can talk to about being LGBT.*
- Almost one in five LGBT people (18%) have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives.**
It’s not surprising that LGBTQ+ youth look to drag performers as a symbol of hope and queer*** community. Drag performers are public figures who are so openly, brazenly, and unapologetically queer, and are applauded for it, with shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race making it accessible to the masses. It’s a rare opportunity to see visibly queer adults thriving.
What is drag? It’s an incredibly broad performance art which can incorporate singing, dancing, comedy and so much more. It’s a place where the gender lines are blurred and self expression reaches bold new heights, with often wildly over the top costumes, hair and make-up. It is for all genders, body types, and identities and celebrates individuality. And, at its heart, it is undeniably queer.
Away with the Fairies: Teaching kids tolerance & creativity through drag
I formed the Oxfordshire Drag Collective because I was sick of all the preconceived limited notions of what drag could be. I had seen the somewhat underground, queer cabaret scene where people were using drag to explore and critique and play with gender. It’s a rejection of gender rules. It was powerful. It was political. And it was for everyone. If you think drag just consists of cis**** men in dresses you are missing out on a whole world of gender expression. Women, trans, and non-binary people have been performing in drag for centuries, as kings, queens, and genderless alien creatures, like club kids. The Oxfordshire Drag Collective was formed with this in mind and features a diverse range of queer identities and genders, all expressed differently through drag.
We often perform in bars and music venues, all of which come with an 18+ age limit. However, when we perform at all-ages events such as Oxford Pride, we get to see the impact drag can have on youth. Kids of all ages are drawn to the bright colours, fun music and quirky characters. For younger children in particular, it’s like cartoons are being brought to life with 7 feet tall women and aliens and fairy-like creatures with giant hair. They get to see people expressing gender in new and exciting ways whilst having an awful lot of fun.
In the children’s book Julian is a Mermaid, Julian feels inspired to dress up as a mermaid after seeing women dressed up as mermaids on the subway. It’s only after seeing confident adults dressing up that Julian feels comfortable to try dressing up himself. His grandmother responds with love and support when she sees him, meaning that Julian then feels more confident expressing himself around her. He can explore his identity in a creative environment, without judgement. By watching adults play with self-expression through dress-up, it normalises and legitimises it for young people. Dress-up that plays with gender, such as mermaids (ever-popular among trans people partly due to the fact that their bottom halves are genderless) or drag, can give children a wider scope for exploring gender and challenging gendered limitations and rules.
It can broaden their minds and make them more tolerant and creative people overall.
I wanted to create a piece specifically for our younger fan base. The idea to create a drag panto had been in my head for years, but it wasn’t until I had the Oxfordshire Drag Collective to work with that it could become a reality and a group of us came together to write Away with the Fairies: A Queer Drag Panto. A lot of us were first introduced to drag as children through the world of panto: with campy dames and dashing lead boys. However, we wanted to modernise things to reflect the diversity we see in the community. So, like the cast, the characters identify broadly across the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. It's still panto, stuffed silly with stupid puns and predictable plot lines, but with a smarter, more inclusive approach - instead of jokes about men in dresses. It's very much written by queer people for queer people, with a message of love and acceptance at its core. It’s a perfect example of how youth theatre can be adapted to better reflect queer people.
Away with the Fairies: A Queer Drag Panto. Photo credit: Fiona Cue
The collective has also seen teens coming to terms with their sexuality/gender identity, especially at Pride events. There are teenagers joyously brandishing rainbow, trans, bi flags, and more. They’re always keen to meet their local drag performers and talk about their own queer identity, instantly seeing us as safe people to share these feelings with. Some say they feel more comfortable and hopeful, seeing performers like us so at home with our own gender identities. We get reminded how much LGBTQ+ teens in particular crave the sense of community and self-expression drag can offer. As drag continues to permeate mainstream culture with shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, many teens have a strong passion for drag and all it represents already, but find themselves locked out of the local scene due to age restrictions. Not that it curbs their enthusiasm in the slightest.
We created the project Teen Drag Camp as an environment for teens to explore drag on their own terms through a series of workshops focusing on drag as a performance art. We've already run all-ages drag workshops with queer youth group My Normal and wanted to expand. By taking them through the history of drag to where it is now as a dynamic, boundary-pushing artform, we hope to equip teens with knowledge, confidence and a range of skills. Also, perhaps more importantly, we hope to give them a feeling of community and support. Many of these teens feel like they can’t be themselves at school, home, or even with friends.
One thing drag has historically excelled at is creating a sense of family. Look at Paris is Burning and the ballroom culture of 1990s New York. It was a scene fuelled by queer people of colour, many of whom had been left homeless after being disowned by their families. “Mothers” would take in queer folk and create “houses” to perform together as. This became their new family who would love and accept them no matter what, whilst serving some sickening looks. This sense of chosen family is still so important to this day, and drag can act as a beacon for people seeking out that same sense of support and respite.
Drag is far from perfect. Like the wider LGBTQ+ scene it often struggles with racism, misogyny and transphobia. However, there are many pockets of the scene striving for inclusivity and accessibility for all. And those spaces have the ability to become somewhere where queer youth can find and express themselves, free from judgement.
*Stonewall School Report 2017
**Stonewall LGBT in Britain - Home and Communities Report
***Many LGBTQ+ people have reclaimed the word queer as an umbrella term for the LGBTQ+ community.
**** Cisgender means you identify as the gender you were assigned at birth. Essentially it means non-trans.
Oxfordshire Drag Collective, What the Fest. Photo credit: Lynn Christer
Mother of the Oxford drag scene, Ginger Tart is a dynamic force to be reckoned with. This must-see performer has been tearing up the cabaret scene for nearly 5 years, from her silly and surreal acts to her queer and boundary-breaking events. Ginger also runs OxPHWOARd: the home of camp, queer and eclectic cabaret in Oxford and founded the Oxfordshire Drag Collective.
About the Oxfordshire Drag Collective:
Ever since its founding in January 2018 by mother of the Oxford drag scene Ginger Tart, the Oxfordshire Drag Collective has been making big queer waves across Oxford. We always aim to foster new and existing drag talent in Oxfordshire. Having performed at events such as Oxford Pride, Queerfest and OxPHWOARd, this group knows how to put on an exciting show. We’re also not afraid to stand up for what we believe in and LGBTQ+ rights and inclusivity is at the heart of what we do. We started our original cabaret SPUDS in October 2018 and have been selling out shows ever since.
You can see the Oxfordshire Drag Collective at Away with the Fairies: A Queer Drag Panto at the Old Fire Station on 24-25 January. There is a family-friendly matinee on Sat 25 Jan at 2:30pm.