Toronto’s ‘Gay Jesus’ Can Protest and Get Naked at the Same Time
The non-binary performer wants to unpack your reaction to the name.
For the past two years drag artist Heath V. Salazar has been performing as Gay Jesus. During performances the Latinx, trans non-binary creator dawns a thick beard and puts together a signature blend of theatre, drag, and getting naked. While the content of the performances varies show to show—short form gigs are primarily dance-based while Salazar’s longest piece VIRGEN was a 45-minute exploration of queer virginity—the performer utilizes Gay Jesus to explore concepts of politics, identity, and religion.
For Salazar the character comes from a place of love, it’s a reclamation of the Jesus from their religious upbringing. A Jesus that embraced misfits and preached equal treatment. While the performer views Gay Jesus as a wholly positive experience, other people have been less forgiving. As media coverage of the performer has picked up, they’ve received blowback from those who view the work as blasphemous. It’s something the performer takes in stride.
“In terms of the name Gay Jesus being controversial, if the name itself from the get-go gets you, then there are other things that are actually present,” explains Salazar. “The word gay is just an idea of loving someone. And Jesus is also a word that expresses love. Why would those two words being together mean anything but love? What I think is controversial is the way people choose to demonize my sexuality or how they choose to sexualize bodies.”
Since they began performing Gay Jesus has become a mainstay in the Toronto burlesque and drag scenes. Salazar’s bold live show and undeniable style has been winning over as many—or more—people than it’s been angering. The performer has developed a cult following, devoted to their next moves, and grateful to see a different type of performer succeeding on stage. Recently we had a chance to catch up with Salazar to talk about their goals for Gay Jesus and the varying reactions they’ve received for their performances.
VICE: Gay Jesus was birthed out of your relationship to Catholicism. Can you tell us a bit about your upbringing?
Heath V. Salazar: Religion has been a foundational part of my upbringing from the get go. Being raised in a Colombian family, Roman Catholicism wasn’t just something that I was taught to believe in, it was a part of my culture. As a kid the constant message was always that God and Jesus acted from a place of love. At the age of nine I began attending Catholic school and can vividly recall a day in religion class where everyone was upset. We were trying to wrap our heads around why no one had believed Jesus when he said he was the son of God. Why they treated him so cruelly when he was only doing good? Our teacher then asked us how we would react if one of the boys in our class walked in the next day and claimed that he himself was the son of God. That moment was pivotal for me. It humanized a figure while also introducing me to nuance within the Jesus dynamic.
When did your feelings about religion start to change?
My initial frustrations stemmed from arguments I’d have with family members. They’d use religion to rationalize their condemnation of queer people or, alternatively, to validate misogynistic power dynamics within their marriages. I found their flippant use of scripture self-servingly oppressive. This spoke to larger societal patterns in the religion. Jesus in particular was being used for violence while framed as a teaching of love. I remember sitting as a part of the choir as the priest praised Jesus’ healings during a Christmas mass and then proceeded to instruct the student body to pray for him to heal homosexuals of their illness. I’d spend night after night watching the news to see administrations use a figure I saw as an entity of love to justify wars based in monetary gain. As I learned the history of our country and the outside world, I learned just how often religion was used as a weapon. These discoveries brought me my first true heartbreak.
Is that heartbreak where Gay Jesus came from? What do you want people to get from the character?
My relationship with religion as an adult is complicated but when it comes to Jesus, I’m cool with not knowing whether or not he actually existed. What interests me is that if this person did exist and did all of this good, then as fellow human beings, we are all made of that same matter and therefore are each capable of that same level of goodness, of that kind of love. I’ve been performing as Gay Jesus for just about two and a half years. As a persona, Gay Jesus is a reclamation of a love that’s been weaponized. As Gay Jesus, I work to bring awareness to social and political dynamics through performance in an effort to open a dialogue and to create connection with and between folx who may otherwise feel erased. I want my audiences to learn the value of keeping themselves informed and the power they have to make change within their communities. When people are empowered and understand that their lives have value, they stand up for themselves. And beyond that, they stand up for each other.
For people who haven’t had the pleasure what does a Gay Jesus performance look like?
A Gay Jesus show consists of multidisciplinary performances best known as protest pieces. The pieces take on very different forms. Stylized dance. Spoken word. Burlesque. Each explores politics and gender in a new way. Costuming is androgynous and highly flamboyant with costumes ranging from a three-piece suit, to a wedding dresses, to a red velour onesie paired with a tasteful eyeball mask.
Performing as Gay Jesus has allowed me to connect with people in ways I never would’ve thought possible. Over time, it has placed me in a position of leadership within my community and I now work on making space for marginalized voices and bodies within varying styles of performance. I know that though I live within multiple intersections as a trans and Latinx person, that I also hold a lot of privilege. And so, I ensure that my practice involves actively learning and listening to ensure that my work continues to be empowering and of service to my communities and those around me.
You explore themes of drag, gender, and sexuality in your work. What does that do for you?
My drag has always been genderbent, because as a non-binary person, drag doesn’t live in a place of opposition for me so much as a place of reclamation. The burlesque element really became a factor when I started to speak on political issues through my performances. The idea came from a Lady Gaga interview I’d watched years ago wherein she speaks to a night when she was playing a gig at a bar and no one was paying attention, so she took off her clothes and everyone began to listen to her music.
The first time I took off my clothes for a performance in a major way was for a piece that spoke to the importance of protecting trans youth. It was the winter after the American election and I’d spent months attending protest after protest only to watch the body count climb as a consequence of right wing politicians spewing white supremacist propaganda. Leading up to the gig, the American government announced that it was looking to pass laws that forced kids in school to use the washrooms that corresponded with their assigned sex at birth. I knew that I had access to a stage and an audience but there were kids whose lives were at stake, so I needed a guarantee that my audience, who was just expecting to have a fun time, was going to listen. So I took off my clothes, and it worked.
As your work has gained traction it’s pissed a lot of people off. Do you understand why people might get upset with what you’re doing?
Religion itself isn’t something I take any issue with. I actually hold a lot of reverence for the good it aims to bring into the world, but I’m not naive to the fact that what I’m doing is controversial. I also know that I'm reclaiming something that’s been used as a means of oppression and using it to empower people, and that's something I stand by.
CBC Arts recently featured me in their new docu-series Canada’s A Drag and that was my first interaction with backlash on a larger scale. The comment section got really extreme and ever since the doc went out I’ve received friend requests on social media from a lot of white men holding big guns in their profile pictures. It’s highly disturbing. But their actions only reinforce the need for my work. In addition to that, if you’re taking the time to watch a documentary about a genderbent drag king, you’re there for a reason. My hope is that they get what they need from what I have to say whether or not they’re ready to work through it.
Graham Isador is a writer in Toronto @presgang
Gay Jesus is on Instagram @theirholiness
With files: Peter Knegt