VANCOUVER—Thirteen-year-old Raine Schurman sits with a friend as local drag queen Tara Beladi (“Terrible Lady”) shows the group how she does her eye makeup.
Beladi tells her admirers she has thick, bushy eyebrows, and it takes her half an hour to stick them down with Elmer’s glue and paint over top of them.
Half an hour into the demonstration, Schurman — sporting short, pastel-blue hair, ripped jeans and a “They/Them” button displaying their pronouns — pulls out bulging Ziplock bags full of makeup and starts to apply it.
This sunny Sunday in May is the second day of Drag Camp for Kids, a pilot program that aims to introduce youth to the vibrant world of drag performance. Half a dozen kids and young teens have piled into a tiny theatre space on Commercial Dr. to learn about makeup.
Drag costuming and makeup has been an important outlet for Schurman.
“Last year before I came out, I did a drag king (performance), and it was for my friend … but I like put my hair up in a toque and I had just a little bit showing and I did a fake beard and everything and then I showed it to my parents,” they say.
Their parents were confused at first, Schurman says, because they weren’t familiar with the world of drag kings.
“But they’re obsessed with queens just as much as I am.”
This is the first iteration of Drag Camp for Kids, and the organizers are trying to get a feel for how to expand and formalize it. The camp aims to build support networks for youth, especially those who identify as queer, trans or non-binary. It’s an important mission: exploring gender through drag can be liberating but not all youth get the support they need from their families, school or peers.
Schurman was assigned a female gender at birth; when they first came out as trans, they identified as a boy. But around the time they started high school, Schurman came out as non-binary. This gave them the freedom to play around with feminine gender expressions, they say.
“I came out as non-binary and I started doing drag queen makeup. And then I was doing some crazy makeup and putting on wigs and performing, and my mom gave me these fish nets that were like my best friend. And just yesterday I actually got my first new fish nets, and I wear them with almost every one of my drag looks.”
They’ve performed for their family and friends at home but never in public or at school. Performing as a drag queen at school risks having their peers assume that they identify as female.
“I wouldn’t want to do it at school because I feel like people would judge me for doing that and mis-gender me,” they say.
Next to the makeup table, three younger kids, a parent and another drag performer work on crafts with glitter glue. As Schurman continues to apply eyeliner, eyeshadow, blush and lipstick, Drag Camp for Kids organizer Candie Tanaka comes over.
Tanaka, a librarian by day and drag show host by night, also heads up the Storytelling with Drag Queens Foundation, which organizes drag queens to read story books to kids at community venues across Metro Vancouver. Tanaka asks Schurman whether they would be interested in performing at a youth drag show in the late summer. Schurman is all in.
“I know when I was younger it would have been great if there was something like this,” Tanaka says.
Tanaka wants youth to have access to the sort of mentorship performers traditionally get at drag houses — alternative families in which older and more experienced performers offer guidance and support.
“Most drag performers, they have families, they’ll have like a brother and sister, and mother and father that will look after them, and they call them drag mom or drag dad or drag sibling … and if (the youth) don’t have that in their family unit at home, it’s nice to be able to have access to that.”
It’s not just openly trans youth who are there. Twelve-year-old Sophie Iannone is obsessed with dramatic makeup, so when her mom Dana saw the camp advertised on Facebook she signed them both up.
“It’s just so fun, and you can do whatever you want with it,” Sophie Iannone says, adding that she’s learned a lot through hours of experimentation as well as YouTube video tutorials.
Most drag shows are adult-only, save for the ever-popular storytime with drag queens. But even that is generally aimed at younger kids, with few events for the preteen and teenage set.
Iannone’s mom is excited that she could introduce her to the drag scene.
“We have a lot of friends in the gay and lesbian community, and I think it’s such a wonderful opportunity to see some diversity and inclusion … I love drag shows, so for me to bring her, it’s sort of her first exposure to it,” Dana says.
For Schurman, whose parents avidly support them, the day was still full of firsts.
“It was fun,” Schurman says.
“This is the first time I’ve done drag makeup in public, and I’m going to be wearing it outside and I’m probably just not going to take it off. And I am going to be seeing a friend and we are going to be going to a park to do homework today, so that’s going to be fun.”
Tessa Vikander is a Vancouver-based reporter covering identity and inequality. Follow her on Twitter: @tessavikander