The variations in the Baltic Drag scene

By Mētra Saberova


The variations in the Baltic Drag scene

By Mētra Saberova

Helgi Saldo at Baltic Drag Show during Riga Pride 2022. Photo by Krista Saberova and Edgars Tabaks

There certainly have historically been significant events that featured flashes of underground drag across all the Baltic states before the 21st century. Due to the criminalisation of homosexuality and the resulting charge records lending themselves to contemporary researchers, we know that, for example, there was a drag party in Riga back in 1943 with an astonishing number of 60 men attending.Lipša, I. 2018. LGBTI People in Latvia. A History of The Past 100 Years. Riga: Association of LGBT and their Friends Mozaika With that said, this article will turn its focus on the contemporary drag scene starting from the year 2020 in the three Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. While acknowledging the existence of drag performers before this chosen marker, this particular starting point is chosen because of the way networking and guest-performances between the three countries have started to increase.

I have been honoured to contribute to the development and interconnectivity of the Baltic drag scene via the Baltic Drag King Collective (BDKC) platform that I co-founded in Riga, Latvia at the end of 2019. We started with the very first week-long Latvian Drag King Festival in December 2019, featuring drag workshops, history lectures, discussions and the crowning of the titular Baltic Drag King that has since been an annual event. We continue to provide opportunities and resources for the performers to travel from one Baltic capital to another, including during the Pride season, utilising drag as a cultural tool to speak out about issues that are crucial to the queer community. While it should be noted that drag can play a role in continuing the spread of harmful sexist attitudes and behaviours, generally performers harness their stage tools to actively redefine gender norms and options. The close affiliation between drag and queer rights leads directly to the support of trans rights, as approximately 80 per cent or more of the drag performers that the BDKC works with are non-binary and trans. Therefore, we work to acquire targeted funding for local trans NGOs and activists to facilitate the exchange of know-how.

At the same time, sharing experiences has provided a deeper insight into the similarities and regional differences of the queer nightlife in Riga, Tallinn, Tartu, Vilnius, and Kaunas. In all of those cities it is still relevant to continue the fight in establishing kinging as a valid artform and not just as an appendix or a throwaway counterpart to drag queens. A quote that lingers in my mind because of its relevance to the Baltic drag scene is from another drag performer Basiliere: “When performers choose to combine drag and activism, it also strengthens their connection with their community”.Basiliere, J. 2019. “’It’s Always Better Performing with the Troupe’: Space, Place, and Collective Activism,” Drag in a Changing Scene, vol 1, Edited by Farrier, S. and Edward, M. London: Bloomsbury Press. Included in a recent anthology on drag articles that heavily scrutinises the impact of RuPaul’s Drag Race on the mainstream perception of what drag is, Basiliere’s article does not touch upon the implied need for spaces and funding that allows for inspiring drag experiences that create the community. A drag show can be hosted in all sorts of places and situations but what allows the performers to thrive is a venue that has drag cemented as part of its identity. Meaning that drag performers do not have to do the bulk of the production tasks themselves, everything from marketing to sourcing or renting the sound equipment. A regularly scheduled series of events provides growth and income for the performers, as well as creates the space for even more drag newbies to arise because it is disheartening to promote drag workshops without being able to provide a stage for them to continue on their road to self-discovery and enjoyment for the public. I would argue that these spaces are what allows and also distinguishes the drag scenes in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.

Emmanuele Lampa wins the first crown at the Latvian Drag King Festival 2019. Photo by Krista Saberova and Edgars Tabaks
Kaunas Pride 2021 afterparty stage with the slogan We Are Everywhere
Lithuanian queen Querelle at Baltic Drag King Festival 2022 in Riga. Photo by Krista Saberova and Edgars Tabaks

Some Estonian drag performers are active voices in the queer community overall, participating in discussions with both cultural focus and clear social policy agenda, and a good example of this is Helgi Saldo.See more: Helgi uses their education, experience, and access to write press releases in order to publicise the rich Estonian queer nightlife. This is one of the examples of the work that needs to be done to uphold the drag scene and this work is done by people. In Estonia, one of the key people is Rene Köster aka Chloé Lagucci, who produced the regular BÄM! drag showcases at the now closed Sveta bar. Those nights featured not only the House of Pedestrian, its core being the queens Helgi, Chloé and Nasty Nikita, but also drag kings. Their DIY energy for drag and community organising continues in the queer club Hungr that was opened in Tallinn in 2023. The same applies to the Vikerruum nights in Tartu, organised by Jaan Kroon. The grassroots drag community spirit is upheld in Tartu not only at Genklubi, but also at smaller events organised by the local queer NGOs. It is relatively easy to transition from the first bedroom drag to a ticketed audience thanks to the support of the performers’ peers. When it comes to venues, the burlesque bar Heldeke in Tallinn also provides consistency and supports its resident artists, such as drag kings Eeeben Früülep and Wicky/Wickler Wilde. Being in front of an audience that has paid for champagne and table service means there are expectations of a different level of costume and choreographic refinery and that difference is sometimes visible when these types of performers are paired with drag performers with rough edges (if not combusted seams). But that is part of the charm and power of the queer scene. As across all the Baltics, the newest generation of Estonian drag tends to sympathise with drag quing personas. Drag quings borrow from everywhere that their imagination and identity takes them, surpassing the already intentionally disrupted expectations of masculinity and femininity performed by kings and queens.

With its positive track record of inclusive drag line-ups, Estonia also heralds the most exciting queens, thanks to their trashy but good aesthetic, as I would describe it. Latvian and Lithuanian queens tend to stick to pop anthems and more glamourous looks – this is the type of drag most prevalent in Riga and Vilnius. While Riga has had Skapis, a successful queer club, for a year now, at the time of writing, they have not booked a drag king event for seven months, next to the consistency of drag queen performer line-ups. At the same time, Skapis has contributed to the rise of several baby drag queens and to the fact that outside its programme, Latvian society is slowly starting to appreciate the exciting world of drag and even sees the benefit of having drag included in art institution programmes, such as the theatre festival Homo Novus and the events of the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art, and even political party celebrations. Thanks to Latvia being the middle country of the three and the dedicated efforts of BDKC, Riga Pride has featured Baltic and not just Latvian drag performers in its drag shows since 2021. Nevertheless, it is important to recognise the prevalent notion of drag queens as the standard when thinking of drag performances, especially when weighing the option between inviting an international RuPaul alumni queen for a guest spot at one of the Prides or highlighting your local drag performers at the biggest national LGBTQ event of the year. An interesting fact to learn is that the fees for drag performers in the Baltics are pretty much equal to the European scale, even with the differences in the economic ratings between the Old and New West.

Timmy (LV), Liam Teasem (SWE) and Finnish comics artist H-P Lehkonen at the Baltic Drag King Festival 2022 in Riga. Photo by Krista Saberova and Edgars Tabaks
Drag king workshop by Adam All and Apple Derrieres (UK) during the first Latvian Drag King Festival 2019. Photo by Krista Saberova and Edgars Tabaks
Mētra Saberova, Timmy at the Baltic Drag King Festival 2022 in Riga. Photo by Krista Saberova and Edgars Tabaks

The need to support each other was the main mission of the Black Roses. Black Carnations project whose title was borrowed from the historical references to queers in Tallinn and Riga.See more: This week-long event was organised by Edvinas Grinkevičius and Rebeka Põldsam during Kaunas Pride 2021 and had a positive impact on networking for queer nightlife industry representatives from Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. This experience and every subsequent regional collaboration continues to build on the ever widening list of contacts, including not only pure drag shows, but also DJs that frequently work with drag performers, for example, the regular pop Robyn Parties in Riga and electronic rave events Klik Klak. At the same time, Riga has also seen guest drag performers from the UK and Sweden, as Tartu has had from Poland. These invites by BDKC are driven by the desire to develop local performers’ skills, as well as creating realistic opportunities for local performers to travel beyond the Baltics, leaving a positive impression of the scale of the regional events on the special guests. Similarly, a further merging of the drag scenes will happen as part of the European Capital of Culture Tartu 2024 drag workshop programme Siinpool Sood, which has invited, among others, the Kvirtet Collective from Ukraine to share their knowledge with the local performers. So, support your local drag and Glory to Ukraine!

Looking at the development of the Baltic drag scene, it is revitalising to see it growing in numbers, both in performers and audiences. However, it is an ongoing struggle to continue placing one’s foot in the door to maintain or call for access to the bigger platforms, such as established nightlife venues or Prides. Concurrently, I hope that networking between Baltic performers will continue as that benefits the diversity for all the regions. In addition, it is important to be proud of our national talent beyond the Baltic borders and be strategic with the guest performers invited to ensure there is a mutual benefit for all performers. My wish is that the feminist calls for drag inclusivity remain strong during the inevitable co-opting of drag culture in the art industry and mainstream. With drag having evolved into an industry like any other, it is a positive thing for the platforming and income of the performers. It is a joy for all of society to celebrate the inclusive values drag performers symbolise and actively voice from the stage and other events, not shying away from #lgbtrightsarehumanrights and #weareeverywhere messages.

Polish drag performer Vujo Delulu at the Baltic Drag King 2023 competition in Tartu. Photo by Krista Saberova and Edgars Tabaks

Mētra Saberova is a Latvian queer feminist performance and moving-image artist. Mētra received her BA from the Art Academy of Latvia and completed her postgraduate studies at Central Saint Martins in London. Next to exhibiting, her interests lie in forming sustainable networks between the queer culture and activism in the Baltic region. Mētra is the co-founder and manager of the Baltic Drag King Collective (est. 2019) and part of the core team at Riga Pride since 2022.