Queer festivals, drag performances and LGBTQ meetups turn digital

From a virtual drag queen festival to a queer artist roundtable, entertainers and advocates are finding innovative ways to lessen the sting of isolation.
Image: Alaska performs at the Copenhagen Pride Drag Night in 2016.
Drag queen Alaska, seen here performing at the Copenhagen Pride Drag Night in 2016, will be one of dozens of drag artists to participate in Digital Dragfest 2020. Ole Jensen / Corbis via Getty Images file
By Julian Shen-Berro

"The space between you and me is longer than forever," reads Pickle, a drag queen sporting a bedazzled denim jacket and blue and pink streaks in her hair. Pickle is reading from "Firebird," the first of several children's books she will read over the next half-hour to dozens of kids in the audience. Periodically, she invites them to engage by clapping or shouting out their names.

But in front of Pickle, the director of Drag Queen Story Hour's Los Angeles chapter, the room is vacant. Instead of the usual crowded library, she faces three cameras in her otherwise empty apartment.

Pickle has been participating in Drag Queen Story Hour events for three years. But as the coronavirus spreads, the reading program — typically held in libraries and bookstores across the U.S. and beyond — has largely made the transition to digital livestreams.

"Everything is a little bit crazy right now," Pickle told NBC News. "To be able to distract them from that with some fun literacy moments is really crucial to keeping their spirits high and some magic alive."

Drag Queen Story Hour is just one of a long list of drag performances, queer meetups and LGBTQ resources to turn to digital platforms as state and local governments ramp up social distancing mandates and stay-at-home orders to curb the COVID-19 crisis. From a virtual drag queen festival to a weekly online chat for queer Southern artists, those behind the events are finding new ways to maintain a sense of community and lessen the sting of isolation.

Social distancing can be a 'drag'

Drag performers like Pickle have been among the early and eager adopters of virtual events amid the pandemic. Jonathan Hamilt, the global programming director of Drag Queen Story Hour, said the organization has been averaging about four or five livestreams a week.

Hamilt, who performs in the organization's New York City chapter as "Ona Louise," said drag without a live crowd is not without its obstacles.

"You don't really have that physical audience connection," he said. "So keeping the energy high and imagining a full room full of people can be challenging."

That having been said, "we're definitely not slowing down," he added.

Perhaps one of the most ambitious online drag events is the Digital Drag Fest 2020, which debuted Friday. The month-long online festival includes over 100 live performances and will feature well-known drag queens like "RuPaul's Drag Race" alumni Alaska and Ginger Minj.

"Drag is about resilience, and this festival is meant to share that message during a challenging time in our world," Producer Entertainment Group President David Charpentier, one of the event's organizers, said in a statement.

'Needing to connect'

Not all queer and gender-bending virtual events involve colorful wigs and theater makeup. Across the U.S., myriad other groups have started experimenting with online platforms.

Last week, the Campaign for Southern Equality launched a series of weekly virtual gatherings featuring discussions around a variety of issues in the Southern LGBTQ community. In a virtual chat last week, the organization brought together queer artists in the South to discuss art and identity as they relate to the coronavirus.

At Florida International University in Miami, an LGBTQ campus group launched That's So Queer Virtual Programs, an initiative to engage students in casual discussions daily. The lineup includes an Instagram livestream about "toxic masculinity" and a virtual discussion about legally transitioning.

Last Wednesday, Condé Nast's LGBTQ brand, "them," debuted its ongoing virtual music and arts festival called "themfest," with an aim "to support, amplify, and uplift the LGBTQ+ community." The festival features daily events from cooking shows to live comedy to virtual musical and drag performances. The coming week's schedule features a performance and Q&A by the singer and songwriter Isaac Dunbar, a cooking demonstration with Bon Appétit Senior Food Editor Andy Baraghani and a queer Shabbat.

The Human Rights Campaign, the country's largest LGBTQ advocacy group, last week held its first virtual interfaith prayer service, which is part of a national project to bridge the perceived gap between faith communities and LGBTQ people.

"The LGBTQ community in particular has an experience of needing to connect using the internet, when there oftentimes aren't other options," said Michael Vazquez, HRC's religion and faith program director. "We are also uniquely positioned in a way to engage in digital work, because the LGBTQ community has such a long experience having to mobilize this way."

HRC President Alphonso David said the pandemic has heightened the importance of the organization's digital efforts.

"This sense of isolation is something that everyone is feeling," he said, adding that the organization's faith-based events and political advocacy work will continue on virtual platforms and apps.

"Just because people are stuck at their home does not mean that our activism stops," he said.

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A digital 'crash course' for community centers

Important players in the efforts to bring virtual events and services to LGBTQ people have been local community centers, although the transition online hasn't been smooth for a number of them.

Stacie Walls, CEO of the LGBT Life Center in Norfolk, Virginia, said it's been difficult to shift her staff of around 75 employees to work from home while still providing important services to members of the community. Many of the staffers — three-quarters, she estimates — were not equipped to work from home when the pandemic struck.

"We didn't even have our own agency Zoom account last week," she said. "Now we're creating all of our programs under these virtual models. ... It's exciting to be able to offer services in a new way, but it's also a crash course in how to do it."

The LGBT Life Center, like many other LGBTQ community centers, provides services from HIV testing and support groups to social events. Over the past several weeks, it has been able to move a number of resources online, including case management visits conducted over Zoom or FaceTime and support groups held virtually. Last week, the center hosted a viewing of the movie "Moonlight" on the Netflix Party app.

Glennda Testone, executive director of New York's LGBT Community Center, commonly known as The Center, said she and her staff knew "we would have to do everything we could to make sure our community felt connected and supported" in the heart of the U.S. pandemic. That was especially important, she said, because the queer community has historically experienced higher rates of social isolation.

"We've had to find and build our own community," she said. "That's actually one of the reasons the center was founded: to make sure that no gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer person felt alone. That there was a place they could go and be with other people like them."

Testone said the center has moved entirely to remote operations, maintaining a phone help line for questions about the virus and moving mental health resources and support groups onto digital platforms.

While Walls and Testone said their centers have found some success moving services online, they worry about the most vulnerable people they serve — especially those who rely on drop-in services — and their organizations' finances (both had to cancel large April fundraisers).

But while the digital transition has presented obstacles for the centers and many others across the U.S., Walls and Testone indicated that some of the online programs and services are operating so well that they will likely continue even after their physical spaces are fully operational again.

"That's a great thing," Walls said. "I just hope that we're still open when this is over."

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

Likewise, Hamilt said Drag Queen Story Hour has been pleased to see high levels of community engagement for its livestreams, which have garnered as many as 500 viewers at a time. While he said the project is eager to return to in-person readings, the format might be one that sticks around.

"It's been a really cool thing that we were kind of forced to experiment with, but definitely a positive and something to move forward with," Pickle said. She's looking forward to continuing to connect with the community virtually in the days still to come.

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