Duncan drag show backlash met with community support

Event sponsors received threatening calls and emails, but ‘there’s more love than hate in the world, in Duncan and in Cowichan.’
An older couple surrounded by sunflowers.
Cathie and Ray Camley delivered bundles of tulips to Cowichan Valley businesses who are sponsoring a local drag show. Cathie says the intention was to show support, especially in the face of rising anti-2SLGBTQIA+ sentiment. Photo courtesy of Cathie and Ray Camley

Several local businesses have recently received threatening calls and emails because of their support for a community drag show fundraiser. But they’ve also received flowers. 

When Cowichan Valley resident Cathie Camley saw online posts about the backlash, she bundled tulips from her garden with tissue paper and thank-you notes and sent her husband, Ray, to deliver them to the targeted business owners.

“Everybody’s first impression was — their mouth dropped open,” Ray says. “They said, ‘I can’t believe all of the negativity.’ And I was able to get their hearts going with a couple more pumps.”

The Sparkle Tour will visit the Cowichan region for the third time on Friday, May 19 at the Duncan Eagles Hall. Proceeds will support Assisting Refugees in Cowichan and the Duncan-Cowichan Festival Society. There will be an all-ages show at 7:30 p.m. and a show for people over the age of 19 at 9:30 p.m.

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bouquets of tulips wrapped in paper
Photo courtesy of Cathie and Ray Camley

Criticism of the event centres on the fact that children are welcome to attend, and appears to be driven by an online chat group on a mission to have the event cancelled.

Cathie has been paying attention to a rise in anti-2SLGBTQIA+ sentiment, locally and abroad. “It sort of follows the lead of what’s going on down in the United States, with book bans and that kind of thing,” she says.

She started to really notice it in the Cowichan Valley when people pushed back against universal washrooms and change rooms in the Cowichan Valley School District. She also noticed it during the general local election in October, when SOGI 123 became a controversial topic amongst school trustee candidates.

Read also: How does SOGI 123 show up in Cowichan Valley schools?

Cathie says she wanted the business owners to know that she appreciates them supporting this event. She also wanted to demonstrate support for friends and family members who are queer or trans. 

Ray will attend Friday’s event, and says he appreciates that children are being considered and included. “It’ll be funny. It’ll leave everybody with a good impression.”

Event supports refugee resettlement and Duncan parade

Event organizer Jeff Leggat moved to Duncan in 2018 to take care of his elderly mother. Through Duncan United Church, he helps lead Assisting Refugees in Cowichan, a group that sponsors refugees who are fleeing persecution in African countries due to increasing levels of intolerance against people who identify as 2SLGBTQIA+. That effort is part of the church’s commitment to be inclusive of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

The first two Sparkle Tours were a success, Leggat says, raising thousands for Assisting Refugees in Cowichan. This year, the performances are also supporting the Duncan-Cowichan Festival Society’s annual Duncan Days parade.

Four people stand facing the camera.
From left to right: Duncan United Church member and event organizer Jeff Leggat, Duncan Cowichan Festival Society president Jeff Downie, Downtown Duncan Business Improvement Association executive director Katherine Devine and Longevity John Falkner of the Duncan Cowichan Festival Society and Duncan Showroom. Photo courtesy of Jeff Leggat

While Leggat has noticed an increase in anti-drag and anti-2SLGBTQIA+ sentiment in Canada and the U.S., he didn’t expect the hate that the Sparkle Tour has received over the past few weeks. He says Facebook posts about the event have been met with angry and homophobic comments, particularly in response to the all-ages show. 

People are saying drag is inappropriate for children, referencing homophobic tropes of “grooming” and saying the shows are hyper-sexualized and degrading to women, Leggat says. He also received emails that seem to follow a copy-and-paste form letter that Leggat says was shared in a social media group on the Telegram platform. The “Vancouver Island Freedom Group” has over 900 members.

While the adult-only show is described to be “saucier,” Leggat says neither of the performances are sexually explicit or inappropriate and that the all-ages show is specifically geared towards everyone.

“I respectfully reply to them and say you might have some misinformation,” Leggat says. “This is the third time this show has been in the Cowichan Valley. If you had seen either one of the previous two, you’d have known that it’s nothing sexual. There’s nothing inappropriate. And to tell you the truth, I asked for the shows to be geared toward all ages because my mom wanted to go and she doesn’t like swear words.”

Community support fosters hope

Event sponsors include Red Arrow Brewing Company, Gibby’s Cafe and Catering, Cowitan, Alderlea Vineyards and Industry Salon & Spa. “They’re just wonderful community businesses that want us to have an inclusive Cowichan Valley,” Leggat says.

The businesses report receiving between one and about a dozen calls or emails from people threatening to boycott the businesses for sponsoring the drag show. 

Chris St-Cyr, co-owner of Cowitan, says he initially received six emails close to one week ago and another one or two per day since then.

“The first day was really tough because it was out of the blue. And then we kind of found out where these emails were coming from,” St-Cyr says. “I guess [they] sent an email out to everybody on their list, encouraging them to kind of shut these businesses down and make them stop. So once we were able to look at the email, we saw that they provided the templates to write the letters. So it made it a little bit less personal.”

Receiving flowers from the Camleys instilled some hope in him after feeling down about the emails and phone calls, he says. 

St-Cyr is gay and co-owns Cowitan with his partner. They have an eight-year-old child that will be going to the all-ages Sparkle Tour show. This will be their child’s first drag show and St-Cyr and his partner plan to have a talk with him about what drag is and why there’s so much hate circulating about drag right now. They also plan to use this as an opportunity to teach their son about love.

“Our opinion on our city was changing a little bit and a lot more hate was evident than we thought,” St-Cyr says. “But Ray came in with flowers and it warmed our hearts. It just reminded us that there’s more love than hate in the world, in Duncan and in Cowichan.”

A drag performer in a pink wig in front of a candy backdrop.
Mina Mercury is one of three drag performers on the Sparkle Tour. Photo courtesy of Jeff Leggat

At Gibby’s Cafe and Catering, manager Cheryl White says the emails and particularly a phone call they received was upsetting and unexpected. But the flowers delivered by Ray made a difference.

“When you have such negative feedback, it’s nice to have someone appreciate the other side of this,” White says.

Others have also shared their support for Gibby’s and the Sparkle Tour when purchasing tickets for the event from the cafe, White says.

Leggat says one individual who wrote an email with concerns about the event replied with an apology after learning more about the drag show.

“She sent another email saying ‘I’m so sorry. I was misinformed. Please continue to have a wonderful evening.’” Leggat says. “So there’s hope when people get information correct.”

Security measures being taken

Leggat says he has already notified RCMP about some online harassment he has seen and received and that they are aware of the discourse circulating in the community about the event.

For safety purposes, Leggat says there will also be security inside and outside of the show to ensure it is an enjoyable evening and that no one is harmed.

While he’s concerned that some people may show up to disrupt the event, he says he’s taking some comfort in the fact that out of a Telegram group with more than 900 people in it, it seems to be the same handful of people who are actually targeting the show and businesses sponsoring it. The focus, he says, will still be on having a fun-filled, age-appropriate evening.

“It’s a fundraiser. It’s fun!” Leggat says. “Kids and grandmas and grandpas can all enjoy a fun show.”

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