Being on the inaugural season of Canada’s Drag Race went far beyond just working the runways and striking the fiercest poses for one contestant: it meant giving others what this particular individual never had growing up.
That person – performer Ilona Verley, who hails from the Nlaka’pamux Nation – spoke by phone from Dallas, Texas, while on a U.S. tour. Verley identifies as a non-binary trans person who is also two-spirit, uses they/their and she/her pronouns, and was born in Nanaimo but grew up on the Skuppah reserve near Lytton, as well as in Vancouver.
When Lytton was razed by a wildfire on June 30, Verley said, they felt helpless being in the U.S. but assisted with fundraising efforts. Although Skuppah was spared, Verley is troubled by government responses to the crisis.
“It’s really, really disturbing seeing an entire community get wiped out and just kind of the lack of care that officials have given to the communities there,” Verley said.
Addressing ongoing inequities that Indigenous people constantly experience is something Verley is intent upon tackling and changing and has already done so, and though their appearance on TV may have been steeped in style, glamour and entertainment, the roots of their motivation run much deeper.
Verley said they feel very “lucky” that they have an accepting family and community, but they also have friends “who have pushed away their Indigeneity because they aren’t accepted in their queerness by their community,” which Verley called “heartbreaking”. (Echoing what many historians have pointed out, Verley notes how European colonialism introduced homophobia and rigid gender roles that didn’t previously exist in many Indigenous societies.)
Yet despite having a supportive circle, Verley went through struggles in their developing years: they felt alone, without anyone else similar in the entire world. In addition, Verley felt “ashamed” of their Indigenous heritage and thought they had to be “white-passing” to be successful.
“Growing up, I got so lost because I had no idea who I was and I knew something was missing,” they explain.
It was in Vancouver’s nightlife scene that Verley met Indigenous drag performer Jaylene Tyme, “a beacon of light” who taught Verley about what it means to be two-spirit.
“Instantly, that was something I connected with,” Verley said, explaining that this was the “missing thing” that they didn’t know how to identify.
In high school, Verley had been into 90s animé and cosplay, but rather than escaping into a character (including the one named Sailor Moon), Verley began wanting to express their inner self on the outside.
“Through my years of doing drag, I learned to come to terms with being someone on the trans spectrum and understanding that wasn’t a character I was creating – it was just myself growing into myself and understanding myself as a person,” Verley explained. “If I was able to turn on the TV and see someone who was proud of their queerness and their Indigeneity, that would’ve helped me find myself so much sooner and saved me from a lot of darkness.”
All of this informs what being chosen for Canada’s Drag Race meant for Verley.
“That was a big part of why getting on Drag Race was so important and meaningful, that I was then going to be able to go on TV and be super open about being queer and being Indigenous, to hopefully help out people who had been in a position similar to me where they’re trying to find themselves and don’t know where to look.”
Viewers also told Verley they were inspired to research and learn more about Indigenous people after hearing what they had to say on the show.
Post–Drag Race, Verley said that being chosen to be featured in Vogue in August 2020 was “such an incredible experience” that it served as an antidote for her self-doubts and impostor syndrome.
“For me, that was really validating. That, like, ‘Okay, yeah, I am using my voice. I am doing that important thing I wanted to do,’ ” she said. “All I’ve ever really wanted to do was make a difference in the world.”
Verley said the wave of Indigenous queer people rising to visibility and success across Canada is what they wished they had while growing up.
“Seeing all these proud Indigenous queer people in media showing kids that you can be successful and be yourself – however that looks – is just so powerful,” they said. “I thought I had to be a certain way to fit in society when the best way to make it is to just be yourself and to be loudly and passionately yourself.”
And that Verley undoubtedly is.
This story originally appeared in the Georgia Straight.