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‘What I love to do’: Meet Ruby Chopstix, Manitoba’s first drag artist-in-residence

Ruby Chopstix is the Rainbow Resource Centre's first drag artist in residence. She poses for a portrait following her drag performance at The Forks in Winnipeg, Man., on Feb. 11, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS / David Lipnowski

Ruby Chopstix’s rise to Winnipeg stardom literally started from the bottom.

Deep in the bowels of a local theatre basement, Chopstix made her debut as a drag queen in front of a small crowd that had gathered to watch a local talent show.

Without so much as a smear of makeup, Chopstix’s face was hardly “beat for the gods” — how the drag community describes a flawless look — when she performed a five-minute lip-sync, something she doesn’t recommend for first-timers.

Nearly six years later, the self-proclaimed Asian pop princess of Winnipeg humbly reflects on that “awful” performance as she celebrates being crowned the first drag artist-in-residence at the Rainbow Resource Centre, an organization advocating for LGBTQ+ and two-spirit residents.

“People keep telling me I’m the first. It’s a little nerve-racking to think about,” Chopstix, who also goes by Alex Nguyen, said in a recent interview.

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“Whatever happens, I’m going to do what I love to do. I’ll still be proud of myself for whatever legacy I’m going to leave behind.”

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Chopstix, 27, won the inaugural title in January, beating out two other finalists during a special showcase that saw each drag artist take the stage. The centre relied on major figures in Winnipeg’s drag scene to make suggestions for applicants and judge the final performances.

Artist residencies have existed in some form for centuries. They encompass a wide range of programs that provide artists the opportunity to work with organizations to develop their craft and explore new ideas.

These opportunities have generally been afforded to musicians, writers and contemporary artists. Drag kings or queens have secured a handful of such residencies in Canada and the U.S., but the Rainbow Resource Centre believes its program specifically targeting drag performers is a Canadian first.

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Chopstix said the program validates the gender-bending, diverse and beautiful work she and her fellow queens and kings put forth on the stage day and night.

“We don’t have as much respect as dancers, singers and artists. We’re still kind of looked (at) as just a weird hobby,” she said.

“But, we are professionals. We conduct ourselves exactly like everybody else.”

As the drag artist-in-residence, Chopstix will spend the next year representing the centre at various events and workshops it hosts. Applicants were also asked to pitch a passion project. Chopstix remains mum about what she proposed but said it is something she hopes will represent people from marginalized communities.

“I want to give that platform back for (artists) who gave it to me,” she said.

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The centre created the program with the intention of giving drag artists the opportunity to “delve deeper” into their artistic journey, while also educating and engaging with the local community.

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Bryce Byron, a database manager at the centre who helped with the initiative, said drag artists are pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a queer person or someone who identifies anywhere along the gender spectrum.

Byron hopes creating more space for drag will also allow more opportunities for broader queer culture to grow.

“In order to care for our communities, we have to value the art that our communities create. Drag is art that has come out of our community, and we can’t cast it aside,” Byron said.

“We’ve got dark days ahead of us and I want this drag artist-in-residence position to help us be the light to lead us through these dark days. Whether they’re creating that healing energy in the background or blazing the trail in the front, we need all of it.”

Advocates say there’s an anti-LGBTQ2 movement sweeping across Canada targeting certain members of the queer community, pointing to demonstrations against drag events and recent government policies affecting transgender people.

Protesters have showed up outside public libraries throughout the country to oppose events where drag artists read stories to children and youth.

Meanwhile, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick have introduced rules preventing children under 16 from using different names or pronouns at school without parental consent. Alberta has announced similar plans that would require parents’ permission for students 15 and under to make such changes. In that province, students who are 16 and 17 would not need consent, but their parents would have to be notified.

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Alberta also plans to restrict gender affirmation treatments, instruction on gender and sexuality in school, and the participation of transgender women in sports.

Chopstix hasn’t experienced much backlash at her events, but said it’s been “disheartening” to see drag performers attacked.

“We’re just human and we want to live the way everybody lives, but better and more fabulous,” she said with a laugh.

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