Two side by side photos of Bad Papi and Pyx Elated. Bad Papi is a trans Cubane person with slicked back black hair & brown eyes. They’re wearing makeup in the colors of PTSD awareness. His eye makeup is a large dark purple outer line going from the top of his eyelids to the sides of his eyes, a light blue eyeshadow, & a dark blue line under his eyes. She has blue lipstick w/ purple lipstick liner. The PTSD ribbon symbol is on both of their cheeks, one in blue & one in purple. He’s wearing a purple patterned shirt & facing the camera with a serious facial expression. Her fingers are resting on the sides of her face. Pyx Elated is a white transmasculine non-binary person with auburn short coiffed hair & blue eyes. Their eye makeup is done in pink, white, & blue liner in the pattern of the trans flag. They have a dark brown goatee. They’re wearing a white button up shirt & a light pink feather boa around his neck. They’re facing the camera with a serious facial expression & holding up a white lace floral fan.

How Disabled Queer People Are Finding Community Through Digital Drag

Author note: At the time of writing, Pyx Elated (They/Them) was previously known as Peter Panic (He/Him). They’re comfortable with the article using the name Peter Panic and he/him pronouns as written, but the image description and link at the end have been changed to accurately reflect their drag now.

I’ve always loved drag, and I really enjoyed watching the annual drag show put on by my college’s queer students organization. However, I struggled to fully connect because I didn’t see disabled trans drag artists onstage.

I’ve since connected with disabled trans drag artists, many of whom are also struggling to find community. “I didn’t know of any other disabled drag artists,” says Peter Panic, a disabled non-binary drag king who lives in Alaska. “I knew about some of them, but actually performing with them, I never did. And talking about disability? I’ve never seen a performer do that [where I live].”

One reason for this is that drag venues are often inaccessible. Bad Papi, a disabled trans Cubane drag artist and founder of The Reflect Collective, found drag venues inaccessible for people with PTSD, “There wasn’t any space for me where I could just go and calm down when I was experiencing episodes,” they explain. “Because these places are inaccessible, I feel a lot of disabled artists aren’t there. So me being a disabled artist looking for other disabled artists in venues that aren’t accessible is like finding a needle in the haystack.”

But that completely shifted during the pandemic. To keep drag alive, drag artists like Biqtch Puddin’ and groups like The Serve Network and Media Meltdown created digital drag shows on Twitch. Earlier this year, I saw a flyer for King Pride and was curious. By the end I was close to crying because up until that point, I had never seen disabled trans drag artists in a show with access including captions and flashing light warnings. Following that show, I saw a drag and disability panel at Oaklash, a digital drag festival, where disabled trans drag artists did performances about disability. Experiencing that was transformative. Digital drag made me realize there’s a large disabled trans drag artist scene and now I can see disabled trans experiences reflected in art.

Bad Papi also finds it meaningful to be connected to an online disabled drag scene. “It’s so much easier for us to know that we’re there when we’re online,” he says. “Online I can be very vulnerable with my identity and what I’m going through.”

For Peter Panic, digital drag helped him realize he’s disabled. “It’s something I didn’t feel I deserved to say about myself because I didn’t feel I had the same amount of struggles,” he explains. “It wasn’t until one of my good drag friends looked at me and said, ‘Stuff that has happened to you in your life, things that you have gone through, things that you were born with makes you disabled. You don’t have to prove it to anyone else.’” Digital drag has created space for many disabled drag artists to discover disabled identity.

Drag artists are frequently discouraged from creating art outside of performances to upbeat pop music when performing in-person. Digital drag has made it possible for disabled drag artists to create more personalized performances about their experiences as disabled people. “There are a lot of topics that are no longer taboo to talk about in digital drag,” Peter Panic shares. “You can talk about mental health problems, you can talk about domestic violence. And I feel digital drag has given the audience as well as performers a chance to get more in-depth in who the artist is.”

Bad Papi feels similarly. “I mostly do my works in Spanish so when I perform live in Spanish, people are scratching their heads,” she says. “It’s a lot more difficult to reach audiences in-person because they’re mostly white, but online I’ve noticed a lot more BIPOC people attend.” In fact, many disabled BIPOC trans drag artists are founders of digital drag spaces, which means there’s less pressure to cater to white audiences.

All of these positive changes stemming from digital drag are beginning to recede now that the COVID-19 vaccine has come about and drag has shifted back to being mainly in-person. I recently moved to a city with a drag scene and started going to drag shows following safety measures. While it’s incredible, I miss seeing many openly disabled trans drag artists perform together and experiencing accessible shows. I don’t see captions and flashing light warnings at any in-person drag shows I go to and my friends who are wheelchair users usually can’t come with me.

Disabled drag artists doing digital drag are struggling with this shift, “I was being booked every month,” Bad Papi says. “But now we’re in the limbo of a pandemic, and the virtual drag shows just stopped, so I basically stopped being booked.” Disabled communities need to support disabled drag artists so they can continue to create both digital and in-person art.

Bad Papi envisions a future where disabled activist-led groups and disabled drag artists work together. “If [disability organizations] have the capacity to host drag shows that would be really awesome,” they share. “Because I feel when you’re helping other disabled drag artists, you’re not only helping us. You’re also helping the entire disabled community because when you’re giving back to us, you’re giving back to yourself.”

Experiencing disabled queer art by and for disabled queer people is life-affirming for me. Witnessing disabled queer drag artists create community through art helps me see what disabled queer liberation can look like. Their art makes me a better activist, and I hope the disabled spaces I’ve been part of will recognize how powerful we are when we center disabled art on the path to disabled liberation.

Disabled Drag Artists to Follow

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