There is something hypnotic about Alexandher Brandy’s drag. It could be the way he commands the stage through his prowess, the way he swivels his hips in rhythm to the music, or the way he surprises you with a hilarious gag. Or, it could be the way he subverts binary mentality that obnoxiously encompasses mainstream views of the drag scene and its culture.
Before this story can carry on any further it is imperative for you as the reader to understand the multifaceted nature that revolves around drag culture. (So, for those of you who already know, feel free to skip to the next paragraph.) At its traditional core, drag is defined as the art of impersonating the opposite gender. So, drag queens present as women hyperbolizing and satirizing femininity, while drag kings present as men doing the same with masculinity. Though that is traditionally what drag is, it is not an inclusionary definition, especially when there is a multitude of transgender and non-binary drag performers that are just as talented as their cisgender counterparts.
The first time I saw Alex perform was at Buddies in Bad Times, a theatre located right in the heart of Toronto’s Church-Wellesley Village. It’s one of the few remaining LGBTQ2SIA+ inclusive spaces left in the city.
That night marked the first collaborative event hosted by East King Productions and House of Kings, two of the most prominent trans and queer owned drag king houses in Toronto (though unfortunately that’s not saying much considering this niche is still small in the city.) The audience - a colourful cast of characters filled with friendly regulars and readying drag or gender performers (those who theatrically bend traditional gender roles) - crowded around the main stage at the front of the industrial-like space. They clutched onto the glasses of their rail drinks or sipped from the necks of their brown-bottled beers, and cheered loudly when every performer graced the stage. Positivity and support radiated from the crowd. It was, in itself, intoxicating.
After the hosts Prettyy Riikkii and ZacKey Lime introduced Alexandher Brandy, the crowd pushed in closer to the stage, Canadian bills clutched in anticipation. Punchy electric guitar riffs and Tim Curry’s distinctive vocals boomed through the speakers, cueing up the 1970s cult classic tune “Sweet Transvestite” from Rocky Horror Picture Show.
In my opinion, it truly is the kind of performance you could see every day. Not just because of the quality of entertainment Brandy produced with it, but because of the message it delivered on the main stage. It takes a certain amount of courage and vulnerability, and perhaps even rebellion, to stand nearly naked in front of a crowd with “STILL A MAN” emblazoned on your back in thick black ink. The message gleamed proudly and defiantly under the bright stage lighting for all to see. Fitting with the lyrics Curry just crooned - “don’t get strung out by the way I look, don’t judge a book by its cover” - Brandy is telling the audience to do precisely that. Not just during the moments when he is performing as a drag king, but during all moments of his day-to-day life - because that is his identity, that is who he is: a man.
The crowd that night knew exactly who he was, but in other LGBTQ+ inclusive spaces, he has had to fight for recognition and acceptance from the audience. Though Alexandher Brandy is well-known and well-respected amongst performers, there are still times where crowd members exhibit a total lack of respect.
“Oh sweetie, what are you doing here? Are you lost?”
“Titties! I love your tits, yaaas queen!”
Alex would be working the Village, going from one venue to the next, working the same stages as drag queens like Priyanka and Ivory Towers. But even so, people won’t recognize him because he doesn’t fit their picture of what drag is. He’ll get misgendered, where folks will use the wrong pronouns, or worse yet, have people completely forget what consent is and grab his breasts - just because they are out.
“A lot of people’s thought process is like, ‘Oh well, I’m a gay man, I obviously don’t want them’,” said Brandy, one afternoon when we met for coffee. “But, they’re still on my body, I can still feel you doing this, and it’s not like I want them out.”
According to Brandy, consent is something that is often forgotten about in the queer scene. Same with the use of preferred pronouns. The thought of creating an event for trans-masculine individuals percolated in his mind for quite some time before Trans Masc Individuals graced the stage of The Drink.
Every third Monday of the month, Trans Masc Individuals - or TMI as it is wittily dubbed - provides a safe and trans-focused space, which brings trans awareness forward to the mainstream audience. Any kind of discrimination - transphobia, homophobia, racism, sexism, or anything remotely dickish - is not tolerated.
There have since been four TMI performances, but at the time we first spoke it just debuted. Brandy gushed enthusiastically about how well the first show went. He brimmed with pride knowing that there were trans folks present in the audience that night, some who had never even braved the Village before.
“What I fought for actually resulted to something and that makes me happy - and it’s going to result to more,” he continued. “We’re going to have more representation and people can stop being so obnoxious.”
Kyle Feistmantl has yet to experience the same kind of overtly obnoxious audience members like Alexandher Brandy has.
“I’m blessed, I haven’t had too many bad experiences as a performer,” said Feistmantl. “I had one girl scared of me because she was scared of clowns… that was a weird one.”
Her drag persona, Lady Kunterpunt - which, yes, is a multilingual pun based off the German word kunterbunt (definitively meaning colourful) - is a bright green haired, Sims-inspired queen that serves an adorably quirky clown persona onstage. You can see her at least once a month performing with her house, Diet Ghosts, at a totally wild and theatrical extravaganza that takes months in advance to contrive and expertly execute.
Though she is still relatively fresh and new to drag, she says her life has completely changed because of it - and in ways she never could have expected.
“I never thought drag would be quite as powerful,” she said. “Drag has changed my life in so many ways… my gender has come full circle because of drag.”
Drag was her first opportunity to step out and present herself as a woman. It was also one of her first experiences when others viewed her as a woman.
“That was such a moment for me, to have people constantly saying she,” grinned Feistmantl. “There’s a difference between when someone thinks you’re a boy, and when someone thinks you’re a girl. You’re socialized differently - entirely - and I learned that doing drag.”
It’s a long explorative journey. Feistmantl is still playing around with pronouns, and is still having discoveries about her identity - but she is absolutely loving the process.
“It’s cute”, she added.
Having the ability to parse through the many layers of your identity while combating the heteronormative binary mindedness of society is truly awe-inspiring. It surely is a feat that does not receive the right amount of adulation that it should, especially for those like Brandy and Feistmantl who are able to do so while entrenched in a performative art that was traditionally intended for opposite genders to poke fun at the other’s stereotypes.
Perhaps RuPaul’s Drag Race, and its host RuPaul Andre Charles, contributes to this problem. For those of you who aren’t aware, RuPaul’s Drag Race is a competitive reality show in search for America’s next drag queen superstar. RuPaul is a legend in the world of drag, who has been in performing drag back when the club kid scene was still thriving. As a black gay man, RuPaul has had his fair share of discrimination and hardships, and so to be a drag queen during that time and become the powerhouse that he is today, cements his status as a true icon and role model for drag queens.
Though he is the proverbial beacon of hope for the drag queen community, and should continue to be so, for having brought drag queen culture to mainstream media (and have it applauded and celebrated, too) RuPaul’s Drag Race showcases only a fraction of the kind of drag that is out there. Most of the competitors are pageant girls or campy girls (campy, meaning the traditional, over-the-top drag you would see from older queens.) But, since drag is a performative art, everyone will have different ideas of how they should present themselves, and the show should work on having proper representation. Especially since his fan-base - which is largely white, cisgender gay male and cisgender female audience - tends to compare the queens on television to their local queens.
His stance on who should perform drag is, also, shockingly close-minded. In an interview with The Guardian last year, RuPaul admitted that he would probably never have a transgender contestant who has fully transitioned compete on his show.
“Drag loses its sense of danger and irony once it’s not men doing it, because at its core, it’s a social statement and a big f-you to male-dominated culture. So for men to do it, it’s really punk rock, because it’s a real rejection of masculinity.”
This mindset subverts and discredits the work of transgender and nonbinary drag performers. It also foments close-minded views on acceptable drag performance, which can make it difficult for performers like Alexandher Brandy and Lady Kunterpunt to exist in their local community. And, for someone like RuPaul who is setting the standard to the mainstream audience of what is to be expected in the drag scene, he needs to be more inclusive and set an example for his fellow LGBTQ2SIA+ members.
“The idea of opposite gender drag is so old school, I feel,” said Feistmantl. “It’s binary minded, and binary is never the right option - unless it’s code, but we’re not in computer class.”
Though there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of representation in mainstream media for transgender and non-binary performers, it seems like Toronto’s drag scene is making progressive waves in being an inclusionary space for these folks.
September 23: The title of this article was "Toronto Is Burning", which was a great oversight on my part. This article does not discuss ball culture, or features folks from the BIPOC community, which Paris Is Burning is about. Due to this improper use, the title was immediately changed.
Writer's note: It took a few months (January to April of this year) to investigate for this story. Even though it still took some time, I know there is still more to discover about Toronto's drag scene. I am beyond appreciative for the time and patience Alexandher Brandy and Lady Kunterpunt exhibited over the time it's taken to write this story (through interviews, photo ops, and the like) --- I really couldn't have done this without you both. As a straight-passing, cisgender woman, I acknowledge the fact I won't ever truly understand this experience, and so I hope what I wrote in this article did this topic justice.
Here are a few that you can check out:
Twice a month, House Of Kings perform at Glad Day Bookshop
Diet Ghosts Presents runs a performance every fourth Friday of the month