When Lizzie Renaud launched her Twitch channel in 2018, she just wanted to step away from the toxicity that followed her as a veteran tattoo artist.
The world of tattooing, she explained, suffered from a “cult-like need for approval from a group of toxic men” that culminated into a career rife with trauma.
Renaud could have never predicted the metamorphosis her channel—on popular live-streaming website Twitch—would experience during the COVID-19 pandemic and how it became home to the changing face of Toronto’s drag community.
Her channel’s transformation came after she saw her friends and community members suffer without a space to feel welcomed.
Countless bars and performance spaces that served as essential safe havens for Toronto’s LGBTQ2S community shuttered temporarily or permanently due to the pandemic.
Included in these losses is the fiercely loved dive bar in Toronto’s West End, the Beaver, which announced its permanent closure on June 11, 2020. The unique venue took the city’s LGBTQ2S+ scene beyond the Church and Wellesley Streets and the Gay Village by providing an alternative cast of eclectic drag artists a spotlight.
Toronto’s drag scene is split into two camps. The Village has been the heart of Toronto’s LGBTQ2S+ culture for decades, providing safe, welcoming spaces since the 1960s. Meanwhile, artists emerging from the West End are veering away from glamorous tropes of mainstream drag as they push existing boundaries.
Rising from the ashes of these beloved sanctuaries is Speakeasy-TV. The tattoo shop turned Twitch content creation studio has connected drag artists with their audiences despite the closure of physical venues.
The rise of the drag scene on Twitch, a live video streaming platform, is the culmination of years of work. In 2016, drag queen Deere, a Twitch partner and TwitchCon ambassador, began breaking down barriers for drag performers on Twitch, despite the platform traditionally being thought of as a male-dominated space for video game content.
A virtual home for Toronto’s West End drag scene, Speakeasy-TV, which was voted “Best Twitch Channel of 2020” in Now Magazine’s Peoples Choice Awards, stands out because it’s created a safe space for LGBTQ2S+ performers and viewers alike.
When COVID-19 put the city’s nightlife on pause, Allysin Chaynes, a pillar of the Toronto drag scene known for her sharp wit, big heart and hairy chest, turned to Renaud.
Renaud had been running an art channel where she showcased her illustration skills, and Chaynes hoped her Twitch expertise would be useful. The collaboration marked the beginning of Toronto’s newest online drag scene.
“When the pandemic hit, my friend Allysin Chaynes messaged me and said that she needed a show moved immediately because it’s her income, so we had the first [livestream],” Renaud explained.
“After that, we had to keep doing it because the pandemic kept going, and the content just started building from there.”
Renaud quickly recognized there was a demand for the content Speakeasy-TV was producing. It brought the chaotic charm of live drag performances into viewers’ homes, complete with elements that make up the DNA of drag—lavish costumes, bawdy exchanges, and gut-busting humour.
Renaud credits the channel’s success to the resilience of the LGBTQ2S+ community.
“A lot of queer folks that are close to me are real dodgers and weavers—they’re very resourceful people who have had to figure things out the hard way,” Renaud said.
“With queer performers, I feel like they adapted to the tools I had and what I could offer. They learned very fast and developed all these new working relationships, and I think that’s something that’s in line with the queer experience.”
Alternative performers from the West End have been the most successful online, according to professional drag queen and Speakeasy-TV guest Selena Vyle.
West End performers, Vyle explained, were more equipped for the digital drag world than their counterparts from the Church-Wellesley Village because even before the pandemic, they had limited opportunities to work and had to get creative.
Vyle admits her performance style didn’t belong in the Village, so pre-COVID, she was carving her own place on stages including at The Beaver. Speakeasy-TV is filling the void left by the unique dive bar, Vyle said.
“Allysin Chaynes is such a fixture in the West End. She’s kind of like the queen of The Beaver, so everybody flocked to Twitch to watch those first shows,” Vyle said. “Most of the people who tuned in were people who would have been going to The Beaver.”
“In fact, on The Beaver’s closing day, we had a big Twitch party, where everybody who performs there regularly submitted performances, and Allysin hosted it live from the bar. The entire thing happened on Speakeasy-TV.”
Renaud wanted to form the channel into a diverse space while she expanded the team and increased their weekly programming.
“We are always mindful and doing our best to make sure everybody feels like they’re seeing themselves as a performer on screen,” Renaud said.
“I want this to be a safe queer space where there is positivity and acceptance about people’s identities in all ways. A place where people can learn, grow and teach.”
In August 2020, Renaud recruited Toronto’s reigning “Satanic Supreme,” drag queen Bom Bae, who performed in both the Village and the West End before COVID-19, to produce her own show on the channel.
In an interview with The Pigeon, Bae said her trivia show Are You Smarter Than? captures the messiness she misses about live performances, shows charged with electric energy she credits to the symbiotic relationship she had with the audience.
Working with Speakeasy-TV is Bae’s first experience as a producer. She explained she feels a responsibility to create opportunities for BIPOC artists and spotlight the vast spectrum of drag performers in Toronto.
Speakeasy-TV has been an exercise of solidarity-building during times of struggle. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the pre-existing issues of racism, homonormativity, and other marginalities within Toronto’s LGBTQ2S+ spaces.
While physical venues are greatly missed, Bae said the number of BIPOC performers on drag stages throughout the city was lacking even in alternative spaces like The Beaver, which were admittedly doing the work to be a diverse space.
“I always want to have people of colour on the channel, we all do. We want to use the platform to uplift people of colour in some way, so we try our best to make sure our casts are diverse,” Bae said.
“The challenge for us becomes, ‘How do you not tokenize a community, but still give them the opportunity?’ and that’s something we’re learning as we go. I don’t mind being uncomfortable thinking about it because that means that I’m doing my work.”
Bae’s philosophy about producing racially diverse shows is shared by Vyle, who has previously dropped out of shows due to a lack of diversity.
“The world is digital. We can cast from all over the country, all over the world, so there’s no excuse not to have people of colour in your show,” Vyle said.
Bae said her online audiences are excited by the inclusion of different styles of drag. In contrast, she noted mainstream bar owners often ask performers to give lip-synch performances to Top 40 tracks.
“When you get feedback from an audience, they’re saying they actually love [eccentric performers] because they’re f—cking weird. I love that,” Bae said. “[That] proves it’s not the audience limiting what is on stage, it’s a bar owner who’s deciding what the audience wants.”
Bae hopes post-pandemic drag producers and artists will maintain new principles about accessibility and diversity they’re learning to standardize at Speakeasy-TV.
“I’ve learned so much about how to produce and what kind of artists to get and how to make artists feel comfortable. To lose that because people don’t think it isn’t relevant anymore because we’ve moved on would be a shame,” she said.
Indeed, the accessibility of Speakeasy-TV’s free programming has changed the make-up of the traditional drag audience. According to Bae, hosts and performers have created a space that encourages camaraderie and acceptance among everyday people.
“The audience I have now wouldn’t feel comfortable going to these bars because there are a few bars that are notorious for being very hostile towards people of colour, specifically queer women of colour,” Bae said. “Because of Twitch, you can have access to drag from your living room where you feel safe.”
For his birthday in May 2020, Joe Kilmartin, a 53-year-old Toronto resident, was online searching for a way to celebrate during quarantine. When he discovered a show called WWW.EST END on Speakeasy-TV, he never expected to find a community.
“I didn’t go into the show expecting to meet the [LGBTQ2S+] community, but once you’re there, it’s kind of inevitable that you’ll meet the community. There’s a wonderful kind of synergy between audience and performance,” Kilmartin said.
Tuning into Speakeasy-TV’s weekly programming has been a pivotal experience for Kilmartin as it’s helped him safely explore his identity.
“I only recently became aware of my own queerness, and having other people around as I quietly put my foot in the pool and allow myself to acclimatize to the community has felt important,” Kilmartin said.
“The queer community is notoriously image-conscious, and I was always too shy to go to these places. Being able to participate from home and to be welcomed by the community made it a lot easier for me to accept aspects of my own personality.”
Speakeasy-TV is the product of a community under pressure during the COVID-19 crisis. The witty and poignant programming encapsulates LGBTQ2S+ excellence as digital drag artists take the reins.
Vyle added that while COVID-19 has robbed Toronto drag performers of their regular venues, it’s opened doors for brand-new kinds of shows.
“Speakeasy has taken drag to a new level,” Vyle said.
Wafa El-Rayes is a multimedia journalist from Canada’s capital. She’s a freelance reporter and a dedicated contributor to The Charlatan with a special interest in covering the arts, pop culture, and human interest stories.