Despite its experimental environment, Chicago’s drag world entered the pandemic with a lack of labor protections. COVID-19 exacerbated economic hardships, especially for queer performers of color who have dealt with the discriminatory practices of club culture. With Asian drag performers often left out of conversations about representation, forming a labor union may improve the city’s drag scene.
“I feel like Asian Americans aren’t really desired,” says Markiki Jones, a rising Filipino American queen from Skokie.
To establish a stable career in the city, Jones says she’s trying to book as many shows as she can. But she says she feels Asian performers “don’t fit the beauty standard within the gay community.”
Some performers are pointing to the lack of Asian American queer spaces. “I need people to blatantly know what they’re not doing,” says Laotian American queen Lo•ti•on (LOH ty-awn).
Lo•ti•on was born in Wisconsin, lived in Humboldt Park for seven years, and moved to Austin, Texas, two weeks ago. She started performing nearly ten years ago. But she says she still struggles to book consistent shows because “there’s no union.” She questions whether show producers are only booking their friends, rather than providing more opportunities for diverse faces.
Since the Asian drag community is growing, Lo•ti•on says, “I need something for us to network more and get to know each other and support each other.”
Abhijeet is a Chicago-based queen from Mumbai who hosts Dim Sum & Drag brunches at Uptown’s Furama Restaurant to elevate Asian performers. She started this monthly event after noticing a need to celebrate Asian diversity in the drag world.
Many issues manifest in microaggressions, Abhijeet says. Drag show hosts “would often be like, ‘You should rethink your song choices,’ if you’re performing music in a different language.”
Abhijeet sees merit in a union because “it’s much easier to advocate for workplace mistreatment or inequality if you are represented by a group.” But with drag shows expanding to hotels and restaurants, she says conversations about workers’ rights should be had with the venues. “How does having a drag union translate to places that aren’t even familiar with drag?” Abhijeet says.
Issues like pay inequity and marginalization impact all queens and kings of color. Because of the gig-to-gig work style, performers are left without health insurance or paid sick leave.
“What do you do when you hurt your foot and then you can’t perform? There goes your income, but then you also can’t go to the doctor,” says Luv Ami, a drag king from Lakeview who is Black and Vietnamese American.
According to a 2020 report by the Economic Policy Institute, 94 percent of union workers have access to job-related health coverage; only 68 percent of nonunion workers have access to similar health care benefits. Considering union contracts also prevent employers from dismissing workers for reasons unrelated to performance, they can help reduce racial disparities.
Union workers also earn $191 more per week than nonunion workers, according to the American Federation of Labor.
Some performers have noticed differences in tips. “Drag queens get tipped a lot more than kings,” Luv Ami says.
When performing at clubs, “a lot of people don’t know etiquette when it comes to being at a drag show, especially when it comes to consent and touching,” Luv Ami says. Before getting top surgery, they sometimes performed in a bra and a pair of pants. “People just felt like they could come up and touch my boobs without asking permission,” Luv Ami says.
Many bars and nightclubs also underpay their performers, says Chicago-born Filipino American drag king Mac K. Roni. For a two-number show, he says he gets paid between $100-$175, excluding tips, which aren’t always guaranteed.
“If you’re doing full-time drag, you should absolutely be able to access health insurance, you should have all these benefits,” Mac K. Roni says. “You should be able to have regular bookings instead of fighting for a spot.”
But despite unstable wages, Mac K. Roni says he’s noticing a positive progression towards diverse representation. He attributes the increase in opportunities for performers of color to the departure of T Rex, a former drag host who was dropped by Berlin Nightclub and Roscoe’s Tavern in 2020 after several Black performers accused her of discriminatory abuse, pay inequity, and unfair hiring, as reported by the Reader.
Her dismissal was prompted by a virtual town hall meeting organized by the Chicago Black Drag Council (CBDC), where performers recounted experiences that revealed a lingering, anti-Blackness culture in Northhalsted’s drag scene.
CBDC is a Black, LGBTQ+ community organization “motivated by fostering a sense of togetherness, as well as identifying and completing actionable steps towards restorative justice,” according to their mission statement.
Though CBDC supports all community members, its focus is on Black performers. Asian performers don’t have a drag council geared toward their specific needs.
The Black Drag Council is on hiatus while they determine what the drag scene now looks like after bars and nightclubs reopened last summer, says Luv Ami, who is a cofounder of CBDC.
Luv Ami says the council has talked about a possible labor union, but “it is a lot of work to do, especially a lot of unpaid labor.”