This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

May-June 2023

Birds of a feather

From stages to council meetings, this Vancouver drag queen advocates for Indigenous representation and gender-affirming care

Tova Gaster

Photo Courtesy Oliver McDonald

The Scarlette Ibis, wearing burgundy curls, a red leather corset, and matching heels, strode across the pub floor to the buoyant electro beat of Kim Petras’s “Slut Pop.” She briefly disappeared as she hit the floor in a confident roll. If she wobbled slightly on the rebound, the crowd only cheered harder. Shockingly, the February 2023 show, at Vancouver’s University of British Columbia (UBC) campus, was The Scarlette Ibis’s drag debut—it seemed like she’d been doing this forever.

Cheers from one table rose above the rest. They were from members of UBC’s Trans Coalition, a new group campaigning to add gender-affirming care to UBC’s student health-care plan. The Scarlette Ibis, also known as Oliver McDonald, is one of the coalition’s most outspoken organizers. McDonald is transmasc, two-spirit and Cree from Peguis First Nation in Treaty 1—all of which shape his drag and advocacy.

The coalition formed because UBC’s student health-care plan did not include trans health care. Paying out of pocket for hormones, surgery, and other treatments was a staggering burden for many trans students already struggling under the rising costs of living. “People’s lives are at risk, including my own,” McDonald said in an address to the UBC student council in February.

A month after the show, the coalition succeeded: UBC will now insure trans health care. Drag performers—both in and out of makeup—were a vital force for advocacy and queer joy during a tense campaign.

Gender-affirming care can be an issue of life and death. A 2020 U.S. study of 20,619 trans adults found that of those, 3,494 had wanted pubertal suppression at some point in their lives. Amongst that segment of the population, those who had received puberty blockers were 15 percent less likely to consider suicide than those who hadn’t.

But council members and student executives had reservations. UBC’s student insurance plan is financially strained, and adding gender-affirming care to the plan would require an $8 increase in student fees. Ultimately, the student body voted to raise their health fees to add gender-affirming care to the insurance plan. “I hope that with this win it lets other activist groups … see that it is possible,” McDonald says.

UBC’s gender-affirming care campaign represents just one facet of a bigger fight for trans rights occurring across the continent. Trans health care in Canada is notoriously underfunded and inaccessible, and transphobic discrimination is on the rise. Last year, protestors harassed over 15 drag queen story hours across Canada.

Although McDonald is new to drag, he has always been a performer, and he used to sing in choir. That changed when he medically transitioned. “Testosterone changed my voice, so I can’t sing like I could before,” he says. “It pushed me out of my comfort zone.” Lip syncing to femme-fronted anthems has been one workaround.

“[The Scarlette Ibis] is about expressing that fun, very feminine persona which, as a transmasc person, it’s not always easy to express,” McDonald says.

The Scarlette Ibis was born when McDonald was a volunteer at the Vancouver Aquarium. As a self-described biology nerd, he felt a special resonance with scarlet ibises—a vibrant red-orange bird related to flamingos. “That’s me in every way—the drama, the poofiness, the colour … they also love shrimp,” he says.

The Scarlette Ibis is not the only alter ego McDonald has up his sleeve. King Colin Izer is McDonald’s latest drag persona, intended to challenge settler Canadian masculinity by laughing at it.

King Colin Izer looks like moose-patterned boxer shorts, red flannel and miniature Canadian flag props waved with a sinister swagger. Before he struts onto the floor, he breaks character to tell audiences “not to be afraid to boo.”

McDonald described this new act, which he performed for the first time at the end of March, as a way to process and play with “mixed confusion” as a light-skinned person with Cree and settler ancestry.

“I want to have a look that’s iconically Canadian, that calls back to this very white working-class … thing,” McDonald says. “People who have a lot of misconceptions about Indigenous people—I really love playing with that.”

He also plans to do more performances that represent his Cree culture. McDonald emphasizes that his drag career builds off of the Indigenous and two-spirit drag performers who came before him and created a thriving scene in Vancouver. He hopes to pay it forward through organizing drag events to platform other Indigenous drag performers, with the principle of ensuring that all get paid equitably for their work.

“Performing is really fun and I love it, but the more important thing is [to make sure] that other Indigenous people can show their stuff,” he said.

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