Arts·Pandemic Diaries

Quarantining at my parents' house, I left my drag gowns in the closet — but I got stuck there too

Toronto drag queen Selena Vyle wasn't prepared for the hard truths she would have to face staying with her parents in Ottawa.

Drag queen Selena Vyle wasn't prepared for the hard truths she would have to face staying with her parents

Selena Vyle. (Kristy Boyce Photography)

Pandemic Diaries is a series of personal essays by Canadian writers and artists reflecting on their experiences during COVID-19.

"Thank you for coming."

Those are the words the father always sends me off with as I leave my parents' home in Ottawa. I live in Toronto where I work as drag queen, a career they still don't know about. He repeated those words on cue the afternoon I left their house last month — only this time, for the first time, there were tears in his eyes.

When I woke up on the morning of March 15th, I was all set to compete in the Miss El Convento Rico pageant at Toronto's popular Latin club of the same name. I had my hair and makeup designer on deck, had spent the week picking up my custom outfits from various designers, and had rehearsed my talent number with my dancers the day before. I was ready to win.

By noon, El Convento Rico had announced the postponement of the competition. It didn't even take 24 hours before all drag venues followed suit and closed their doors.

With grocery store shelves looking like the setting of a post-apocalyptic zombie film, my family and I decided it was best I isolate with my parents — both seniors, one with debilitating health issues. I rented a car, packed up my cat and drove to the nation's capital for what I thought would be two weeks, maybe a month.

I had left my pageant gowns in my closet in Parkdale, expecting to be back in them within two months. I didn't consider that I would be stuck in that closet with them for as long.

Selena Vyle. (Selena Vyle)

The first two weeks felt great. I have a horrible habit of working round the clock, getting as little as four hours of sleep a night. My regular schedule involves waking up at 7am to teach a children's music program, and going to sleep at 3am after spending two to three hours lipsyncing in heels for tips and a booking fee. In between, I'm running around the city going to work meetings or costume fittings or picking up a wig. Sometimes I find time to nap. The last time I saw my doctor, he advised me to slow down with the words, "I'm scared for you."

Needless to say, my body was very happy that I was finally out of work. Until it wasn't.

Around the time we realized there was no clear end to this bizarre situation was when my mental health began to deteriorate. Maybe it was because I had spent weeks sleeping on a two-inch mattress pad on a futon in the computer room of a tiny apartment where every breath is heard no matter what room you are in. Maybe it was watching all my friends finding ways to perform online, or having to refuse when being asked to guest on shows because I didn't bring my drag with me. Or maybe it's because for my entire adult life, I have had to censor myself and shut down my personality around my not-so-gay-friendly family.

I know there is nothing wrong with being gay. There is nothing wrong with being a drag queen. But when I come home, my light completely dims.- Selena Vyle

My mother knows I'm gay. She is also a Catholic Latina who believes being my sexuality is a shame on the family and must be kept secret. My father doesn't (?) know I'm gay, or at least I've never told him. He is a stern Arab man whose personality is way too close to mine, causing a clash between us ever since the first day I found the power to stand up to him.

I know there is nothing wrong with being gay. There is nothing wrong with being a drag queen. Outside of my family's house, I am 100% authentically myself. I have all the confidence in the world and have zero issues expressing who I am to the world. But when I come home, my light completely dims. I shut down and turn off.

Every Thursday, I watch my fellow queen Baby Bel Bel put her mother in drag. Baby and Mama Bel Bel serve up an online show filled with laughter, joy and love. I see them together and know I'll never be able to share that with my mom.

On Friday nights, I tune in to RuPaul's Drag Race as my mom watches one of her Turkish telenovelas on her iPad in the same room. Iranian Canadian contestant Jackie Cox often talks about the pain of hiding her career from her immigrant mother. Watching the story I'm living playing out before me on television, within earshot of my mom, is the closest I've come to revealing my true self to her. I know she can hear Jackie's words but is choosing to ignore them.

Selena Vyle. (Selena Vyle)

Living without my art, without my personality, having to refuse opportunities, not being able to move my body other than to roll over on the couch...all of it contributes to the very dark place my mental health is resting in. In the darkest corner of my mind, though, is the guilt.

The guilt of telling my parents that after two months, I'm returning to Toronto for what they think is a career opportunity — and it is, but it's also to take care of myself as I've recognized the signs of depression in myself that need to be addressed. The guilt of leaving my mother alone to care for my father. The guilt of leaving her with no one to talk to as my dad sleeps all day. The guilt of leaving her to have to go to the store for essentials in the middle of a pandemic.

When I made the resolution to leave, I immediately felt my spark ignite again. I could feel my brain working and my body wanting to move again. I knew it was the right decision for me. But as I packed up my rental car, I could feel my mother's fear of being left alone. The pain of seeing her like that hurt more than hiding myself from her ever could.

"Thank you for coming," my father said on cue, this time teary-eyed and weak, a reaction I wasn't expecting. "You're a good son."

I think I've made a mistake.

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at cbcarts@cbc.ca. See more of our COVID-related coverage here.

About the Author

Selena Vyle is a Canadian Comedy Award-winning storyteller, comedian, singer and dancer who is known for her political performances and social commentary. She is a regular co-host of Squirrel Talk podcast. Follow her at @selenavyle.

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