It is not every day that an undergraduate student is invited to present at a national conference, nor is it a common sight for academics to present research dressed in drag. But changing the tides of tradition requires creative and critical thinkers, and when it comes to research that directly impacts the LGBTQ2IA+ community, the University of Guelph is making waves.
Gig work is loosely defined as temporary or freelance work performed by independent contractors on an on-demand basis. It has, in recent years, transformed the job market.
With recent graduate Matt Sbrissa, the project is shifting the way research is conducted in marginalized communities – building trust, engaging directly with queer performers and prioritizing diversity. The result is one of the first comprehensive looks at what it means for a drag performer to be viewed as a worker, rather than solely an entertainer.
For centuries, drag performance has been recognized as an art form, entertainment and, in a modern context, a form of leadership in queer communities, Sasso says.
Sbrissa reached out to Sasso after taking a class with him to be part of independent studies for a Bachelor of Arts and Sciences. “I never would have thought in a hundred years that drag could be something studied in academia,” he says.
In Sasso’s view, that is part of his job as a researcher, “to do research that matters with a community that doesn’t get prioritized.”
Co-founder of the Sexual and Gender Diversity Research Lab, he is also the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion coordinator at Lang. His research in the Department of Management focuses on understanding and improving the experiences of diverse and marginalized populations across industries and sectors, with a particular focus on LGBTQ2IA+ communities.
‘Drag as Werk’: Pushing boundaries in traditional academia
For attendees of the Canadian Psychological Association Convention earlier this year, Sbrissa’s presentation “Drag as Werk” pushed boundaries, providing context to the experiences of drag performers.
Clad in colour and donning the persona of his alter ego Chimaera, Sbrissa broke down the data, presenting it in three academic posters that went on to win the Canadian Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Award.
Comparing drag performance to other gig work, such as delivery drivers who work for well-known companies such as Uber, gave the audience pause and many approached Sbrissa to commend the work. “It received a massively positive reception,” he says. “We’re really excited.”
To Sasso’s knowledge, Chimaera is the first drag performer to take the stage at this conference. “This is an enormous accomplishment in general, as it is a competitive award, and it is rare for an undergraduate student to present at this conference, let alone be the lead author on three submissions.
“It is particularly noteworthy given the current political context of violence toward drag workers.”
The data included in Sbrissa’s presentation was collected through an online survey, taking a quick snapshot of the landscape drag performers currently work in. The dream of this project was always to connect with drag performers but in an ethical manner, and Sasso wanted someone from within the community to lead the study. The goal is to support drag performers advocating for better working conditions with empirical evidence.
There is distrust in the LGBTQ2IA+ community, the result of a long history of mistreatment by academics and researchers, he explains. Sbrissa brought a valuable lens to the project as a queer person and drag performer, he says.
“There was initially a little backlash from the queer community,” Sbrissa says, “because people were worried about exploitation.”
Diversity in the drag, LGBTQ2IA+ communities
The research found that among the drag performers surveyed, their ages range from 17 to 48 years old. Nearly 70 per cent were working in Canada and 30 per cent in the U.S.
Among them, eight per cent identified as First Nations, Inuit or Métis, 67 per cent identified as white or European, eight per cent identified as Black, African or Caribbean and six per cent as Latin American. Performers identified with a range of genders including non-binary, genderqueer, male, female, transgender, cisgender, two-spirit and agender. They also represented a spectrum of sexuality including queer, gay, straight, bisexual, lesbian, asexual, pansexual and two-spirit.
“We are a very diverse community with people from many different demographics,” Sbrissa says. “It’s important to know every individual’s experience is valid.”
Researchers inquired about the logistics of being a drag performer, how it builds community, how drag artists feel about their safety, how they feel about their job stability, compensation and industry oversight.
Less than 25 per cent of drag workers said the majority of their income is derived from performing, however, on a personal level, 80 per cent or more said being a drag performer helps them better understand themselves, contributes to their life’s meaning, makes a positive difference to the world and serves a greater purpose.
“We don’t typically view entertainment gig workers, like drag artists, as appropriate or professional,” Sbrissa says. This affects the safety and equity of the working conditions, the prospect of unionization, even the venues or environments available to those who perform this kind of art.
“Unfortunately, we have to legitimize our community through these normative standards of work,” says Sasso, “rather than recognizing that diverse communities bring different roles, positions and experiences.”
Drag is a performance art displayed through an array of shapes, forms and colours, Sasso says. In adult venues it can be more sexualized or satirical and in all-ages community spaces, it can be an educational tool for respect, acceptance of others and inclusivity with adult elements completely removed.
Drag performance is modified to fit the audience, just like any other actor, musician or artist.
“Right now, there are people in our community who are being scapegoated through misinformation to suggest that drag is something vile or problematic,” Sasso says, pointing out drag was not critiqued the same way when Robin Williams played Mrs. Doubtfire.
“It’s critiqued when it is queer people working to advocate for queer rights,” he says.
As a member of a Drag House, Sbrissa’s network provided a path for performers to suggest ways to broaden the project’s reach. He asked them to share the topics they felt further research should focus on, not typically the way traditional academic research is done.
“This project means so much to me and to every other drag performer in this country and beyond,” Sbrissa says. “This is going to help further the advancement of drag as a form of employment for the community. It can help achieve safer and fairer working conditions that all workers deserve.”
Prof. Thomas Sasso