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OKOTOKIAN: Authentically Performative

An Okotoks drag king’s view on growing up, acceptance, allies and the future

A person is more than the sum of their parts, and that’s a message Shannon MacPherson is passionate about spreading.

Her whole includes both Shannon and Shane OnYou.

As a lesbian and active member of the LGBTQ2S+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, two-spirit, plus) community and a drag king, there’s more to her than meets the eye.

Originally from Fort McMurray, MacPherson relocated to Okotoks in 1997 after university. Now in her 40s, she aims to help younger members of the community.

“I don’t care so much what people think about me now that I’m older, I don’t see it as much,” she said. “It doesn’t bother me at all anymore.

“I am who I am, and I’m proud to be authentically me, finally. Finally.”

Always having been a tomboy, MacPherson said she always knew she was a lesbian, but didn’t dare to come out in Fort McMurray. She came out to her family, which she described as phenomenal when she was 19 years old, and to her friends when she was 27.

“So there’s a big difference, right? And I lost quite a few friends and had some nasty things said to me, but then I’ve also had some really, really supportive things come up.”

She didn’t come out publicly until her 40s, when she discovered the world of drag two years ago at the first and only Pride in the Park event held in Okotoks.

She hasn’t looked back since.

The term drag originated as 19th century British theatre slang to describe women’s clothing worn by men, and is now a popular style of entertainment where people dress up and perform, in typically very stylized or exaggerated ways.

Contrary to popular belief, drag has nothing to do with sexuality.

“It’s a way to express how you feel on the inside,” said MacPherson. “It’s a combination of being authentic and being artistic, and putting them together saying this is me, here I am. And then presented on stage.”

The drag community consists of kings (women dressed as men), queens (men dressed as women), monarchs (gender non-binary performers), and more.

One of the drag groups she performs with, the Fake Moustache Drag King Troupe, has been around for 16 years and is the largest troupe in western Canada with over 92 members. About half of those members are straight, married women with children, said MacPherson.

“It’s not about sexuality. That’s a big misconception,” she said.

While drag shows can be hyper-sexualized, they often perform in clubs, said MacPherson, and that is what people in clubs want the drag community is much more varied, and there is room for all ages.

After leaving a long-term relationship and getting back involved in the LGBTQ2S+ community in her 40s, MacPherson has been highly involved in Calgary Pride she performed right at home in the Okotoks Public Library in May as part of the Reading with Royalty program.

The Reading with Royalty program encourages diversity and tolerance through drag kings, queens, and monarchs reading storybooks to young children.

For MacPherson, programs like that are vital to bridging communication gaps for children and their parents.

“These are conversations that we didn’t have when I was younger, there were no books that talked about this, and if there were, we didn’t know about them,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of parents come up to ask us questions of how can I be more receptive of my child? And the one key thing is just to be accepting and loving, and don’t try to change them.

“If you’re trying to stifle them, you’re going to create a very depressed and unhappy, anxious child.’

The program, and other Pride events, aren’t just for members of the LGBTQ2S+ community: understanding of each other has to go farther than that, said MacPherson.

“The straight community has a lot of power, we need them as allies,” she said. “We need voices on the other side, we cant break that gap on our own.”

The concept of allies is more complicated than having one gay friend, said MacPherson.

Ally-ship comes from truly supporting and amplifying the community, standing up when presented with injustices, even if they don’t affect you personally and pushing for more than the bare minimum.

“We need to do better than merely tolerating other people. 'Tolerant' is a very negative word for me,” she said. “I’ve never wanted to be tolerated, I’ve always wanted to be accepted. I think every human being wants to be accepted.”

Becoming involved with the LGBTQ2S+ community again two years ago was part of taking care of herself after she left a long-term relationship. She said she was missing something by not being involved in the community.

Originally working in social work after graduating university, MacPherson was quite active in the LGBTQ2S+ community in the 1990s, and started a lesbian women’s social group.

“I realized there was a lot of older women in the community that didn’t know a lot of older lesbians, and they weren’t doing things, they were just staying home and weren’t getting together,” she said. ‘I just decided we were going to start up a group.”

She clarified that it wasn’t a dating service: the group met once a week and got together to socialize.

“It was just friendly stuff for women to come out and meet, who hadn’t had those venues in a long time,” she said. “Because there’s not a lot of venues for us to go and be ourselves, especially as women.”

The historic lack of space for women in the LGBTQ2S+ community comes down to the patriarchy, said MacPherson, as white men do control a lot of the power, even in the drag community.

Looking back, she highlighted the popularity of gay bars and drag queens (men dressed as women) over the years, and the hard-earned space drag kings have managed to carve for themselves in the area.

“Still to this day, there is not one female-geared bar in the city (Calgary),” she said. “It just doesn’t seem that we get to have any kind of staying power compared to the male community.”

But progress is progress, she said, stressing that the surge in popularity the drag community has experienced over the last few years has opened the door for conversation.

“What I’m glad about is that we’re talking about it, and that we are trying to figure out gender, sexual orientation, and how we’re different,” she said.

“It’s important to have these words to put to these things that we couldn’t before.”

Having performed at Airdrie’s first ever Pride in the Park in June, which brought people of all ages, MacPherson questioned why the communities in the Foothills have not done the same.

“I don’t know how many of people like me there are out here, and maybe there are a few of us, we could get together and do something,” she said.

MacPherson said the lack of support for Pride events in the Foothills comes down to an unwillingness to ruffle feathers on the part of the decision-makers.

“And I’m sorry, but ruffle feathers, because this needs to be talked about,” she said. “We’re here and we’re not going anywhere, and there’s children in your community that need this stuff.”

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