Canberra – it’s not a drag at all
Wigs, heels, painted faces and fishnet tights catch the eye as I look around the room.
Bouts of laughter can be heard over the thumping music as drinks flow freely from the bar.
At a glance this could be mistaken for an average Saturday night at the Transit Bar in Canberra’s Civic district. But there is something unique about the crowd tonight.
This is Canberra’s emerging drag scene – a diverse array of members from the queer community and other curious onlookers.
Among the crowd is JJ Briedenhann, but tonight he is Mausoleum, his drag persona. Made-up with pink face – and pink pants to match – his blue lipstick is mesmerising as he talks about the significance of this event.
“At the beginning, it was just a bit of fun for myself,” JJ says. “But I started realising how much people needed this safe space to come and just be themselves and party. Because going out clubbing is a bit hard when you’re queer.”
These events have not always existed in Canberra and for many years the drag scene operated underground, driven down deeper by the fear of judgement and physical violence.
While many in Canberra’s drag scene have long-felt it was safer to hide themselves, the undercurrent of a vibrant community is starting to emerge in public.
By day, these people are public servants, tattoo artists, waitresses or your next-door neighbour. But by night, they are happy to put their drag persona on show.
Lee Maddocks is a drag king who goes by the name of Guy Alias, which means she lives day-to-day as a female but performs in drag as a male. Starting drag at the age of 36 definitely took some of Lee’s family by surprise.
“This is the importance of visibility out there because was I pretty closeted for a long time,” Lee says.
“I am married, and had been married for 16 years nearly, and I actually left that marriage at the end of last year because this all kind of came to a head.”
Lee was determined to stay true to herself even though it tested the foundations of some of her closest relationships.
“It was just too much and it really went to pieces but I can happily say after a year of separation we are actually back together, because he (her husband) has learned this is actually great. And a lot of that has actually been showing people in spaces that this isn’t scary, and this is normal and, more so this is fun.”
James Christie-Murray came to Canberra to go to university and found his way into the city’s drag community by his drag name of Pablo.
But it wasn’t easy because expressing himself meant James was bullied for being too feminine and gay. He says he does drag because it frees him to be “feminine on his own terms”.
After James graduated, he moved back to his home-town Wollongong, only to realise the drag culture there was non-existent. He decided to change that.
James started a business to create events that enable people to truly be themselves. It started with just a Facebook page and has grown into monthly queer events in Canberra.
He says the business has been hosting monthly events in the nation’s capital for a year and has noticed a significant shift in the drag culture during that time.
“Since the business started, the drag scene in Canberra has definitely diversified.”
Queer Space Australia now hosts event all across the south-east of Australia and even provides queer people in small towns an opportunity to party.
Others are following suit with bars and nightclubs holding Gender Bender Bingo that are presented by a drag queen called Penny Tration and are regularly booked out.
“It’s gone from 0 to 11 really quickly and I hope we can keep that momentum going,” Lee Maddocks says.
“Apart from a few snarky comments…Canberra, overall, has been so supportive. I think it’s just a good time to do it right now.”
Lee says this is a sign of drag becoming more accepted in a city better known for the serious business of politics and the public service.
“I’ve walked through Civic with demon horns on my head and four suitcases and bows dripping off my back and people just totally ignore it, whereas previously, I have been so nervous to walk around like that.”