Bigger than Gay Jesus: How prolific trans artist Heath V. Salazar is resurrecting empowerment
The Latinx actor, singer, dancer, writer and drag king is about as impressive a 25 year old as they come
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
Last Easter, I met Toronto drag king Gay Jesus just as many other folks familiar with CBC Arts may have: through their episode in the first season of Canada's a Drag. I soon found myself enamoured with both Gay Jesus and the person behind the drag, Heath V. Salazar. Salazar — as Gay Jesus or as themselves — just seemed to be doing so much work. And it all appeared to be part of an artistic mission statement to better the lives of others — no small feat in today's social climate.
A trans Latinx actor, singer, dancer, writer and drag king (who performs as male, female and gender variant), Salazar is about as impressive a 25-year-old as they come. In the year since their episode of Canada's a Drag was released, they've started a residency at Buddies in Bad Times (where they're working on a play that's "basically about the idea of the Antichrist not being a demon but a refusal of a standard of how you're supposed to die for other people"); appeared in a multilingual film adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear; performed in multiple stage productions (including NASTY, We Are Not The Others, The Wolves and Shove It Down My Throat); started a boy band (Boiband The Boyband, through yet another persona, Papi); and starred in numerous short films, all while continuing to perform as Gay Jesus on a regular basis and coming out publicly about being on hormone therapy. I'm not even sure Jesus could have pulled that off.
So as the holy weekend comes around yet again, I thought it was an apt opportunity to check in with Salazar about their continued rise to become one of this country's most prolific young artists. And, of course, the first thing I asked was whether they ever sleep.
"I took a day off the other day for the first time [in] literally my entire career, and it was because I was so, so tired but, like, a happy kind of tired, you know?" Salazar responds. "I was just at brunch, and I was like, 'I'm going to go home and watch a movie,' and then my partner was like, 'Oh, like you want to go home and watch a movie while you work?' Because he knows how I am, and I was like, 'We're gonna just watch a movie' — and he asked me if I was OK."
Salazar says candidly that the intensity of their work schedule all feels very natural, and has gotten easier in the last year.
"I think that I'm very fortunate in that last May I had certain contracts lined up that allowed me to freelance," they say. "And I found that that's giving me a lot more space to be able to do more work but also have the space and capacity to do that work at the quality level that I want it to be at. For four years, I was working, like, three shows, plus two day jobs, plus every other side gig at the same time. And I did it … but I was very tired, and now this new situation is giving me a threshold to be able to create that I didn't really have before, which is really nice."
Among the things Salazar is creating is a short film starring Gay Jesus that will premiere at the Fierce! Queer Performing Arts Festival in Columbus, Ohio. Salazar performed burlesque for the first time at last year's edition of the geographically rotating festival, which just so happened to take place in Toronto. It went over well, and the festival invited them to perform this year as the "editor's pick." But as flattered as Salazar was, a trip south of the border didn't seem like a good idea.
"I can't go to the U.S.," Salazar says. "I'm Hispanic and also trans ... we're not doing that. I mean, I thought about it. At first I was like, 'Yeah, of course I'll do it.' It was a huge honour. And then the more that I watched how quickly laws were just being flipped one day to the next, without giving anyone proper information, I was like, 'I cannot travel there.' I don't trust that I'd be able to get in and out unscathed. Being trans, and right now my paperwork still says I'm female but I have a beard … there are just so many complications depending on so many factors. And then with a last name like Salazar? You know what I mean? I can't risk it."
So Salazar asked the festival if, instead of coming physically, they could make a short film that matches the length of the performance they would have given.
"I didn't think they were going to say yes," Salazar says with a laugh. "Then I was like, 'I guess have to make a film.' I've been in films, but I've never made them. And so I teamed up with Tricia Hagoriles, who is this amazing director here in Toronto. We know each other through, like, our circle. We're filming it this weekend, and I'm so excited."
Another reason for Salazar to be excited is their recent nomination for LGBTQ Person of the Year at the 2019 Inspire Awards, which will be handed out on May 24th.
"It made me cry really hard," Salazar says of the nomination. "The people that I'm nominated with are mind-blowing human beings. You know when people are like, 'It's an honour just to be nominated'? I'm like, 'Part of me doesn't know why I'm here, but thank you so much!'" To anyone watching Salazar's trajectory, it seems pretty clear why they were nominated. And it's also clear when I ask them what drives their work.
"A lot of the foundation of my work is to empower people so that they feel empowered within themselves and then help empower the people around them," they say. "Even within the theatre, it's working on pieces that give people space to feel like their voices are important. Because that way, if they feel that they themselves are important, they're going to stand up for themselves, stand up for people around them and stand up for their communities. Because if they know that their existence is valid and they're not being torn down, and they feel empowered by it, then they're not going to allow for someone to come in and do that to them or to the people around them."
So what's the endgame?
"I think the goal of my work is to [ultimately] not have to do it," Salazar says. "I want to one day not do protest pieces — because I want to not have to protest. And that's a huge ideal, and I know that probably won't happen within my lifetime. But that would be the biggest goal."
In the meantime, Salazar is trying to give themselves more permission "to be angry."
"Because my name is Gay Jesus, I work a lot to make sure that my work is not, like, actively offensive," they say. "I'm not gonna burn the cross or whatever, you know? But I've recently realized that, [while] telling people not to censor themselves, I've also been censoring myself hugely because I've been so worried about causing harm. Even within my theatre work, when I was writing, I'd be like, "Why am I being nice when I know that something's wrong?" Right now, I'm just playing a lot with permission for anger. Outrage is important because otherwise we're just going to keep being passive about things. And I think, right now, a big focus with my work is looking at confronting things for exactly what they are so I can start to dismantle them from there and demand better."
If only more folks would walk on that same water.