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Q & A with Brian Cope

June 2024

Interviewed by Dr. Brittany Jakubiec

Dr. Brittany Jakubiec is the Director of Research at Egale Canada, where their work focuses on 2SLGBTQI health and employment issues. Learn more about research at Egale here Research – Egale.  

Brian Cope’s career spans over 30 years. Brian has a rich background in marketing and is currently the Chair for the Senior’s Pride Network in Toronto. Brian’s artistic contributions to the 2SLGBTQI+ community are diverse. As a storytelling gender artist, Brian has performed at renowned venues like Buddies in Bad Times and has been a part of significant projects such as “Drag Heals” (season 2). Brian’s upcoming engagements include private space concerts and public appearances to perform his current presentation piece, “On Becoming…Miss DeWitt,” a piece that encapsulates the reflective and expressive nature of the journey to self-discovery and authenticity, which further highlights his continued relevance, impact, and contribution to the 2SLGBTQTI+ community.

Q: Summer is the beginning of pride season with celebrations happening all across Canada. What does pride mean to you?

A: Pride has two aspects to me. It is a look back, thinking of my life when I was married and when I masked who I really was. All those years, I saw Pride as a fun time where people could be themselves and I wasn’t myself. There is some anguish there. In the last 25 years or so since I’ve been out, what Pride means to me has changed. Initially, it was “oh my god, I can go and be part of it and be included.” But in fact, Pride evolved to be a very lonely experience for me. I stopped going to Pride because I didn’t have a coterie of buddies and I was newly out. I also didn’t want to go and drink all night, so it became lonely. I stopped going to Pride. Then as I became more of an activist, I saw Pride as necessary. Some of my gigs require me to think about Pride and tell other people what it’s about, which has made me more reflective about it and more committed. So, today, Pride is an opportunity for me to explain to people why it is necessary, as I see it, and it allows me to engage with people.

Q: You were recently featured by CBC Arts in an episode of Canada’s A Drag, profiling your work as Miss Juwanna deWitt. What does it mean for you to be featured in this way? What has the public reception been like?

A: I’m honoured that I was selected. There were only six artists selected for the series this year. I was watching Canada’s A Drag a couple of years ago and noticed there were no artists over 35 or so. I tracked down a producer at Canada’s A Drag, and I wrote asking why there was not drag representation among older adults. They wrote back a nice, placating letter, but didn’t say that they were going to do anything about it. Years later, I was approached by a senior producer at CBC about participating in a season. I got really excited about doing it! I thought, “I am going to have at least one professional story about me!” Few people ever get that opportunity.

My participation in the show means that, on a bigger level, there is representation of older queer people in Canada in drag or as gender artists (phrasing I use for myself, rather than drag artist), because I see the kind of work I do to be so much different. I actually call myself a “storytelling gender artist.” Many drag queens dance and lip-sync to songs, and that’s okay, but it’s not me. My whole genesis into this came through theatre. I’m registered with the Canada Council for the Arts as a theatre artist. So, for Canada’s A Drag, I saw it as an opportunity to represent older queer people. It was an opportunity to get a view of my art. I didn’t realize how vulnerable I would be in it. In part, because it’s the only way for me to live now is to be honest and vulnerable. But when I actually saw the show, I took a big breath of air. I wouldn’t change a thing. They portrayed me as a real, honest, engaged, and vulnerable person. I was delighted that my kids were in it. My daughter is my fashionista, and my son was shooting still photographs.

What has the public reception been? My Instagram followers doubled, and I’ve had comments on my social media platforms from hundreds of people from all over the world! I’ve also been using the CBC video as a calling card. I am very committed to long-term care homes, and I want to continue performing in these facilities. After the video came out, a drag king in the Yukon said, “we need you here!” and now I will be one of the featured artists in the 2024 Yukon Pride! I also spoke with Yukon Pride and I said “I want you to find me a long-term care home” because I want to perform there too, a two-for-one offer. I’m likely going to perform in one of Whitehorse’s largest long-term care homes! The CBC video has given me so many opportunities.

Q: What inspired you to become a storytelling gender artist, and how has your drag evolved over time? What does drag mean to you?

A: I first appeared in the alternative gender when I was 10 years old. I lived in northern Ontario and there was a Winter Carnival. I had part of a costume but what I didn’t have was boobs. My mother directed me to a certain drawer, and in the drawer was what they called rubber falsies. My mother lent me her falsies! I just felt like a million dollars. And so that’s my first recollection of dressing in a female persona. Then, I was dormant. I didn’t do anything.

To say what inspired me seems odd, but people often ask me what it is like to be Miss Juwanna DeWitt. I feel like we are one. It was a slow evolution. In the early years of pride, the first time I dressed up and went on the streets, I was dating a guy who was open, authentic, and embraced what I was doing. In the early years, I dressed up but only at Pride and Halloween. Those were safe times. I later got involved in a theatre project at Buddies in Bad Times called the Youth/Elders Project eight years ago. The next year, I collaborated with a friend (Charles Hayter) and wrote a play called MotherLoad. It was a giant hit at the 39th Rhubarb Theatre Festival. In this play, we imagined what our mothers thought about having sons who came out later in life. The twist was, we played our mothers.

This is around the time I took a burlesque class. This is all building up, I am liking performing, costuming, and makeup. I’m seeing other people as themselves. I was invited to be a part of season 2 of Drag Heals. The journey of creating Miss Juwanna DeWitt was sort of half-baked by the time I did Drag Heals. So, what drag became for me was permission to explore all kinds of art and theatre and leap forward. My drag has matured, and I became more confident. I really know who she is, and I know her character. I don’t think of myself as a comedian, but as a connector. To me, drag means connection. Drag means life.

Q: Through shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, drag is often seen as a young person’s game. What is the importance of having older adults like yourself doing drag?

A: It is important because it draws attention. I am one of the oldest performers. I have been on the search for a couple of years to find older drag artists, and they don’t exist. They have closed their tents, as it were. It is important for me, because I am 78, a man doing gender performance, and I get attention, and if I get attention, then I can talk about important issues for queer seniors like long-term care, isolation, loneliness, and addiction. I get to deliver presentations and perform for various organizations, long-term care homes, and at seniors’ fairs. I am here to speak for queer seniors.

Q: In our current political climate, it is more important than ever to support drag. What do you think is the significance of drag in terms of activism and social change?

A: At this difficult time, we need all sorts of actions to change people’s minds, we need consistent and persistent action. So, how important is it to do drag at this time? Bloody important. It is important, not only for drag queens, but for anyone, to have the courage and strength to be who they are.

I think drag is very obvious—if a person, like me, is dressed in drag, somebody gets to see me made up, and at least one person has probably not seen anybody made up like this. The visibility of drag is very critical. When I am going to a gig, I often encounter people in my building so there’s someone who sees me painted or fully dressed up, and in those moments I’m always friendly because it helps build bridges. I often sign off on my emails as “Building Bridges” or “Breaking Down Walls,” so I am just going to keep building bridges and breaking down walls. I tell you I am living my best life. I have done lots of good things. I love my kids. But, this seems like a very Brian, spiritually-focused life. So, aren’t I lucky? I know the way I live and what I do impacts everybody because drag breaks down walls.