When I walk into the cafe, Sean Parsons is already sitting in the corner, sipping a cappuccino and looking at his phone. He's wearing a comfy sweater, and his hair is tied up in a lazy bun. If it wasn't for his beard, I'm not sure I would have recognized him at all. He would have blended in with the customers, just another artistic type getting caffeinated. As I make my way over to the table, I try and match Parsons's casual clothes and unassuming demeanor with his alter ego, the gender-defying drag act Beardoncé.
I first encountered Beardoncé at Hey Girl Hey, a queer hip-hop party in Toronto's west end, where the performer was shaking ass in a barely there onesie and lip-synching to Rhianna's "Work" with perfect choreography. The hyper femme moves were offset by an onslaught of body and facial hair. No one in the room could look away.
"I love that I can perform both the Rhianna and the Drake parts," Parsons says about the performance. He then spends the next 45 minutes telling me how a nerdy theater kid in Canada's hardest oil town became Toronto's most fabulous drag queen.
Parsons was born to a single-parent household in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Growing up, he was one of a handful of non-white kids in his elementary school. "When I think back on Fort Mac, there are a lot of positives. People think the city is composed entirely of red necks and oil sands, but there is a lot of beauty there, too. I spent most of my childhood years adventuring in the boreal forests and playing in streams, but naturally things became more complicated as I got older."
Entering high school offered a new set of challenges for the performer: Gym class was a nightmare to be avoided at all costs, Parsons's all female peer group caught the ire of a handful of boys, and while other kids started pairing off romantically, the idea of coming out in Fort McMurray seemed insane.
"At that point, I don't think I had even admitted to myself that I was gay. I was single through all of high school, and I understood the implications involved if I was to come out, not only to my peers, but to myself. For instance: A few years ago, a group of people in Fort Mac decided to throw a small pride celebration. They found a local bar, made a Facebook event, and flew a rainbow flag outside. Within hours, the flag had been torn down and set on fire in the parking lot. That's not to say that the entire city shares that hatred, but the reality is that it exists. Then and now. Needless to say, Beardoncé will not be making her hometown debut anytime soon."
Parsons sought refuge in student council and his school's drama program. Playing characters allowed him to express feelings he otherwise had to hide. His natural talents and outgoing nature caught the attention of well-meaning teachers who fostered his abilities and praised his talents. Unfortunately, the success also garnered more unwanted attention.
"One night, in grade eleven, I was walking home with two of my girlfriends, and these guys from my school recognized me. They started following us, shouting names. We tried to ignore them and take a shortcut through the park. We walked faster, but they kept getting closer. By the point I tried to run, it was already too late. One of the guys grabbed me by the collar and headbutted me as hard as he could. There was blood running down my face, and he busted my front tooth. When I got home, I told my mom that I didn't know who the guys were, but it's not true. I knew who it was. I still know. That's the crazy part about being a victim, especially at a young age, you feel so much shame and fear that you almost believe the perpetrator. You want to protect yourself by protecting them. I still have never told my mom that I know who he is, and so does she."
It became clear to Parsons that he needed to leave Fort Mac, but he continued to work in community theater and study performing arts at Keyano College while dreaming of a life outside of Alberta. The push Parsons needed came at age 19 when a supportive teacher urged him to apply to Sheridan College's musical theater program in Ontario, where he studied briefly, before eventually completing the musical theater program at Capilano University in Vancouver. Parsons loved his life in the theater, but he felt limited in the type of work he was being offered.
"As a person of color and a gay man, there are only so many roles that feel right. I grew weary of playing straight or alternately playing super femme and being somewhat tokenized. Eventually, I decided it was no longer creatively fulfilling. I wasn't getting paid, and I wasn't sure there was a place in the theater world for me. I had almost walked away entirely when I found drag."
After playing a number of femme characters and mastering his high-heeled walk, Parsons was encouraged to perform in a huge drag competition at Vancouver's Colbalt bar. While he hesitated at first, the performer eventually put together a cheap ensemble with cutoff jean shorts and an informal routine to a Janet Jackson deep cut. While his moves were tight and his outfit was tiny, it was the decision to keep things au natural that won over the audience and started taking things to the next level.
"Drag allowed me to be as femme as I want. It allowed me to explore the femininity that was inside me that I had obviously never been able to do with theater, or at least not the way that I wanted to. There is something about drag as a performance art that is so immediate. That night I didn't want to be too pretty. I wanted to perform something a little dark and a little dirty, and I went out and just did my thing. People just went crazy. They just fucking loved it. Afterward, people were coming up and advocating the beard and the hairy chest. The judges that night said that if I wanted to take this seriously I should shave, but it was obvious that people wanted me hairy."
While Parsons didn't win the competition, he did started getting booked at constant gigs across the city. The performances led to more performances. When the entertainer made the move across country to Toronto, he was quickly embraced by the city's queer community, being shown the ropes by the informal anarchist drag group the House of Filth. Being able to finally express himself freely and be surrounded by a community that accepts him has given Parsons the ability to grow in a way he didn't think was possible.
"Beardoncé is this super feminine character, but I love that I can go to the masculine, and people can go there with me. I love blurring that gender line. I think that's what resonates with people. It's what is resonating now. This is a time where pronouns and gender are so relevant. That was the direction I was going in from day one, and now more than ever it's important to keep pushing in that direction. It's sexy, and it's powerful."
Follow Graham Isador on Twitter.
All photos by Matthew Burditt.