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Drag performer Jeszika Mae responds to bigotry through art

“I apparently can’t walk out of my door without people having opinions of my existence,” says Mae

It was a sold-out show on Nov. 19 when a crowd packed into the Yukon Transportation Museum for the Queerlesque Convoy Cabaret Showcase and Peepshow Extravaganza.

The night featured drag and burlesque performers stripping down to their pasties, singing, dancing, hula hooping, and more.

The show was produced by Jeszika Mae, a queer drag and multidisciplinary artist, under the moniker Come What Mae. Burlesque dancer Chérie Coquette co-produced.

Mae has worked with the museum before. He jumped at the opportunity when the museum approached him with the idea of putting on a cabaret.

“They want to become more of a venue for shows and see what they can do there other than just being a museum that has people going through. So, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’d love to do it!’ And it just grew from there. And transportation is super gay,” Mae told the News.

Some of the event’s artists included Lau d’Arta, Emma Aslett, Spank Karr, AJ, Ula La, Mixence Gold, and Beau Ryder.

‘Being visibly Queer & Trans is not inherently sexual’

Queerlesque was more than just an evening of drag and performance art. For Mae, it was partially a political statement.

Last June, Mae helped put on Drag Story Time, reading books to kids and families as part of Whitehorse’s Arts in the Park festival. A photo of Mae at that event was later published in the Whitehorse Star, which prompted a letter to the editor in the same paper from Jonas Smith. In 2021, Smith ran as an independent in the race to become Yukon’s member of Parliament after he was dropped by the Conservatives over his opposition to COVID-19 guidelines.

The letter titled “Introducing kids to sexual themes is inappropriate,” suggested that Mae’s act was “grooming.” Smith went on to say he was “taken aback” to see the photo published in the paper.

That caused Smith to come under scrutiny in the public eye. In response, Queer Yukon published an editorial comparing Smith’s letter to rhetoric of far-right radicals.

“Being visibly Queer & Trans is not inherently sexual just as being visibly Cis & Straight. Presenting a child with representation allows them the possibility of understanding themselves better,” the editorial partly read.

As for Mae, he felt Smith’s letter was a lot to unpack emotionally.

“He didn’t just go out and say ‘hey these people are grooming kids and blah blah blah,’ it was the fact that he called me male in the paper at a time when I was just coming out as trans and coming out as a trans man. So, it was like the dude just validated me while being super bigoted,” said Mae.

Mae feels that others can wear wigs and costumes and it is generally seen as fine, but because they’re queer it’s controversial.

“I literally just read kids books from the library to kids, dressed head to toe, female bodied, female presenting, and people got upset,” said Mae.

‘What can I do other than take this and turn it into something artistic and process until it doesn’t sting anymore?’

For Mae, drag is a safe way to respond to hate and heal. The Queerlesque show poked fun at the whole thing. The word “convoy” in the show’s title is a dig at anti-COVID restriction protestors, and Mae took to the stage as their character Joan Assmith. The character is described in promotional material as a “failed politician,” “on a mission to spread love, crush toxic ideologies, and elevate marginalized voices.”

“Joan Assmith is definitely a response to Jonas and what he had to say,” said Mae. “At the end of the day, what can I do other than take this and turn it into something artistic and process until it doesn’t sting anymore?”

Mae started off their performance by re-enacting Drag Story Time. They then read Smith’s letter. The audience bellowed out boos as Mae read “signed Jonas Smith.” Next, Mae took off their clothes and transformed into Assmith. Dawning a dress of bubble wrap to represent fragile masculinity, they broke into song.

“I really would like my artwork to not be political but I apparently can’t walk out of my door without people having opinions of my existence,” Mae said.

Now that the curtains are closed on the Queerlesque Convoy Cabaret, Mae hopes to continue Drag Story Time and encourage kids to explore.

“Reading is illuminating. It opens your mind to so many different things.” said Mae.

Dylan MacNeil is a freelance writer based in Whitehorse.