Heath V. Salazar, who performs as drag persona Gay Jesus, is a Latinx writer and performer living in Toronto. They’re currently working as an artist-in-residence at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, an organization dedicated to the creation of original Queer performance works.
Emily Latimer caught up with them over the phone to talk about how the intersection of drag and politics can engage audiences in discussions about race, gender and religion, as well as the unique challenges of being a performer during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Read the full profile in the November/December 2020 issue.
Emily Latimer So Heath, can you tell me a bit about your drag persona?
Heath V. Salazar It depends on the day when it comes to drag, but I do really gender-bendy drag and drag that really engages in social conversation. It’s not something that I set out intending to do when I started, but politics is a very big part of my life and it takes up a lot of my thought process. So naturally, it manifested itself into my drag.
EL And what kind of drag is that?
HVS It started out as something that I found so exciting and fun and interesting. And then once I began, it really made me look at what is drag for me, personally? It started in terms of gender because as a non-binary person, there’s not really an opposite. You know what I mean? And then it’s really evolved into what is the thing that I have full license over and what is the legacy that I want to put into the world?
So I create what I refer to as protest pieces for most of my work within drag, which are social commentaries or performance art pieces on different social dynamics. Engaging people in politics through performance, over time I realized has been really wonderful in terms of engaging people across class. That form of artistic engagement can help people to find language that maybe they may not otherwise have.
EL What do you mean by finding that language?
HVS As someone who comes from a performing arts background, I went to a conservatory school and attended Randolph Academy for my training. I didn’t have, for example, a gender studies class. So I didn’t have the technical terms to explain to someone why the laws that were being passed were transphobic. I couldn’t get the technical background on that, but I understood that it was wrong.
It started for me from the point of not necessarily having the language to speak on certain things, even though I understood them. I think, in a lot of contexts, certain discussions around politics can become very elitist. Or when we talk about social injustice, sometimes it can become very academic very fast.
So I hit a point where I was like, I don’t have the language or the know-how on how to petition for a bill, or how to change a law. But I knew that to perform it, it’s a completely different form of language. It’s something that I began using as an outlet to express those frustrations, like feelings of helplessness, but finding action within them. I knew that I could force the whole room to listen to what I thought for five minutes. And hopefully there might be someone in that room that did have that language, or was a lawyer, or worked in politics.
EL Wow, having that platform to connect with audiences is really important. Who do you tend to perform for?
HVS I make sure to always perform for charity and for very community-focused events. It’s something that’s really important to me. The reason why I talk about politics in my art is because it’s something that’s very deeply within me, and something that I feel very passionate about. So the actual practice has to be implemented within my life, and has to be implemented in terms of my art. I also work with GSA [Gay Straight Alliance], which makes me so happy to work with youth.
EL I guess you can’t really go into schools right now. But did you used to go into schools and talk to youth?
HVS Yeah, I’ve been really fortunate to be invited onto panels for a couple of GSAs and gender studies classes in high schools. It’s been really amazing to be able to meet Queer kids who live a bunch of different circumstances. A big thing that’s important to me is when I look toward my elders and I look toward the people that I’ve been able to meet through my drag and my community work. It’s really mind-boggling to meet people and understand that someone’s fought for you, not knowing that you’re going to exist.
And when I look at the way that I’m able to live and literally exist as I am, it’s because someone else fought for me. And so I very much look towards what are the ways that I can honour that legacy by doing the same for someone else. I think that a big part of that is listening and understanding where they’re at. Also the kids are just brilliant. Every time I sat with them, I swear I learned more from them than they do from me.
EL That’s so awesome. Since coronavirus has largely shut down venues, how has your drag changed?
HVS It’s changed a lot. I was just watching the industry shut down, bars shut down. And then all these online live shows started popping up, and I had never done a [livestream] in my life. I was like, what on earth am I gonna do? And then it got to the point where I had absolutely no source of income. Then I had a company reach out that was like, will you do a live? And I was like, ABSOLUTELY! [laughs]
EL So you’ve had to move online, like a lot of performers. How have you adjusted your performances to that platform?
HVS I thought in the beginning that I’d be converting a lot of my old pieces, but it turned into something completely different. I just had to figure it out. You know, like we all really had to humble ourselves into what’s going on. But I also think that Queer people are so innovative, and so creative, that we just figure something out. I watched a couple of drag lives and they were all so different. And so I was like, great! There are no rules. Let’s go.
EL Amazing. How have you been able to maintain that connection with audiences, now that most performances are online?
HVS Actually, one of the high schools that I work with, they did an online Pride Week for their students. So I was able to do an interview, chat and answer some questions from the students. It’s nice because it’s actually brought in this whole other form of engagement.
As drag artists, you usually talk with people at shows and sometimes run into them, like running from the stage to the washroom while you’re half-dressed, you know. [laughs] But this [online platform] allows for a form of community engagement that’s been really life-changing for a lot of people.
EL Because everything’s online, do you find that your audience has grown at all?
HVS Yeah, so a lot of people that I know came to drag through the internet or learned drag makeup through the internet. So when I first was looking at drag, either it wasn’t in my algorithm or it just wasn’t as accessible. When I would look for drag makeup and stuff, it wouldn’t necessarily pop up. Maybe a couple videos, but that was kind of it. And so it just never occurred to me to engage with drag online.
But what it’s done is that it’s actually allowed me to meet people and engage with communities across the world. I had that in a way through Instagram. Like, one of my good friends is a drag king in Sweden, and we met through Instagram, but that was like a one in a million situation. Whereas now, I’ve been able to meet so many Latinx drag kings that I didn’t even know existed. And this sounds so silly, but I’m like, their names are in Spanish, and I didn’t know that there were drag kings whose names were in Spanish. I was like, this is amazing! [laughs] Like, now I have friends who I’ve never met in person, and we’ve been able to do shows together and do collaborations together. They’re people who I now adore, and it only happened because we met online and have been able to engage with people in a whole different way and on a completely different platform.