“We’re not going back in the closet”: Drag performer Scarlett BoBo on the NDP’s bill to protect LGBTQ spaces
Matthew Cameron talks about the rise of violence directed at queer and trans people, the push for a $25,000 fine for hate crimes, and why Canada doesn’t feel any safer than the US
Matthew Cameron—better known by their drag name Scarlett BoBo—capped off their speech to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario earlier this month with the same sass they bring to any stage: “Bet you didn’t think it would take a drag queen to sashay down to Queen’s Park to stomp out this very important issue, did you?” Flanked by members of their family, Ontario NDP MPPs and fellow drag performers, Cameron was there to help announce a new private member’s bill that would prohibit acts of intimidation near drag venues. According to Statistics Canada, there was a 64 per cent increase in the number of reported hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation and gender identity between 2020 and 2021, and family-friendly drag story-time events have been drawing far-right protesters across the country. “This bill is just a Band-Aid, but we need some kind of protection,” says Cameron, who was a top-three finalist on season one of Canada’s Drag Race. “Right now, it feels like we’re being forced back in the closet.” We spoke to them about how they’re fighting the surge of hate.
In your speech at Queen’s Park, you referenced the anti-trans and anti-drag legislation being passed in the US and the transphobia and homophobia being directed at trans and queer communities here in Canada. When did you first notice that something was shifting?
About a year and a half ago. I’d be in places like Baltimore and Oakland to do shows, and I’d notice more people staring at me or shouting at me randomly on the streets. As a survival mechanism, I try to forget about slurs, but this was concerning. And then people started getting really mad about drag queens reading stories to children, calling us pedophiles and groomers, shouting “faggot” in kids’ faces as they leave drag story-time events with their families. It isn’t just an American problem—it’s happening here too, and I wanted to do something about it.
What brought you to the office of Kristyn Wong-Tam, the NDP MPP for Toronto Centre?
My fellow drag artist Crystal Quartz and I didn’t even really know what we were asking for, but we had compiled a list of the many incidents that had happened around Ontario in recent months. We wanted to know what we could do. It turned out that Kristyn Wong-Tam and NDP leader Marit Stiles had already been working on this private member’s bill. They’d been bringing up the topic of trans and queer safety during question period but always getting the same unsatisfactory response from the current government: “Everyone deserves to feel safe in Ontario.” Sure—but our community specifically is under attack right now.
How will the safety-zone bill help?
Right now, drag protesters have been screaming directly in the faces of artists, queer families and their allies as we try to get into venues. This bill would temporarily designate venue addresses as community safety zones, and any anti-LGBTQ harassment, intimidation and hate speech within 100 metres of them would be subject to a $25,000 fine.
How has this surge in hate crimes and hate speech affected you?
I’ve been looking over my shoulder a lot more. I was just in Victoria, walking with a friend in the middle of the day, and someone came at her just because she’s trans. Then, later that same day, my boyfriend and I were walking home from a bar and suddenly we were surrounded by five guys. I thought something really bad was going to happen. I screamed because I saw a police car, and the officers held them off while we got home. That was terrifying.
It’s costing me gigs too. Even though I mostly do shows for adults, some of the venues that I perform at, like restaurants, are just too afraid that, if they promote the show, people are going to protest outside the venue. At Queen’s Park, when we were announcing the bill, we wanted to have a ton of drag artists there. But we were scared that we were going to be met with hate outside the building. It’s like our network is being cut off and we’re being forced to hide away and do things secretly.
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You started doing drag in Ottawa, where you’re from, in 2007. How does the current atmosphere compare with back then?
It’s shockingly similar, to be honest. Drag was underground—in literal basements—and hidden away. There were times when we had to run, holding our suitcases over our heads, because beer bottles were getting thrown at us. Cabs wouldn’t pick us up, so we’d be stranded on the side of the road getting pushed around. Then, it seemed like things were actually getting better. But now it feels like we’re back where we were 15 years ago.
This isn’t the first time you’ve used drag as a form of activism. You host AIDS walks; you work with the Rainbow Railroad, an organization that helps LGBTQ people escape state-sponsored violence; and you’re the founder of Absolut Empire’s Ball, the country’s first all-gender-inclusive drag ball.
The second you throw on a lash and a heel and a wig, you’re being political. You need to show up for your community—you can’t just take money from it. If you’ve got a big platform and a big audience and you’re not using it properly, that’s wrong in so many ways. If you’re in the middle, saying, “I don’t really like to be involved in politics,” well, too bad, girl. Because our whole existence is being threatened right now. And it feels good to do good. Our Queen’s Park event really lit a fire under my ass, and I’m back into my activist headspace.
You’re moving from Toronto to LA at the end of the month. How do you feel about living down south in the current political climate?
I’m excited because it’s Hollywood and it’s my dream, but it’s scary too—even though it’s a very blue state, I’m going to have to be cautious with everything I do. That said, I’m having to be more and more cautious here in Ontario. I’d actually say things are worse here. When I go to LA, I’m not getting the same level of hate that I’m getting here in my own backyard.
We need people here at home to sign our petition. Share it. Talk about it. A reporter—who assumed that bill wouldn’t pass, because private member’s bills rarely do, and who clearly thought we were fools—asked what we would do when the government chose not to move forward with this. I was pissed. You think we’re going to lie down and give up? We’ve been fighting for our entire lives. I think conservatives have forgotten that trans activist Marsha P. Johnson threw a brick back during the Stonewall riots in the ’60s. We fought back, and we won. And we’ve got more queers and more allies now. We’re not going back in the closet. We’re just going to get more queer. We’re going to throw more glitter. We’re going to be more ourselves.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.