Our Campus: Liam Hart is Queering up UBC's nightlife

Sitting in a diner on Davie Street, Liam Hart sipped a cup of coffee. He’d been up into the early hours of the morning. Despite his exhaustion, Hart is still excited to discuss Queer nightlife and the future of UBC Drag.

Hart founded UBC Drag in 2021, a group that brings drag to campus with biweekly performances at Koerner’s Pub. He plans and organizes the shows and performs as his drag persona, Exter. The June 8 show is what kept him up so late the night before.

“It’s surreal that [UBC Drag is] becoming a staple at UBC and that in people’s minds it’s something that they actively want to go to or performers want to be a part of,” said Hart, smiling. “[The show is] consistently selling out, there’s demand. I make jokes that it’s one of the most successful drag shows in the city.”

But UBC is not where Hart got his start in drag. His drag career started mostly as a joke.

Six years ago, a poofy pink dress at a Value Village drew Hart’s attention. He bought the dress for $20.

“I thought it would be a joke to go to prom in drag in this big, gaudy wig and dress,” he said.

Plus, he thought he might save money with his thrifty gown. Attending prom in drag, though, turned out to be anything but cheap. Hart estimated he spent over $1,000 on makeup, wigs, shoes and everything else a blossoming drag queen needed to prepare their look.

Hart certainly isn’t alone in his shock at the hefty price tag that haunts early-career drag performers. Wigs, makeup and costumes are expensive — and “that’s just the visuals of drag.” According to Hart, many performers also take dance and theatre classes to hone their craft, on top of needing spaces to practice and other costs that can rack up for young performers.

That’s why it is so important to Hart that UBC Drag both provides opportunities for new performers and pays all of its performers within 48 hours of each show. The group is only able to pay all performers thanks to the support of the Pride Collective, although the quick turnaround on payment is due to Hart’s willingness to bet his own money on the success of the shows.

“The Pride Collective isn’t in charge of actually distributing [its] funds, the AMS is. And quite often the AMS takes months to actually get the funds distributed to us,” said Hart. “So for most of the time with the show, I’m spotting the show thousands of dollars of my own personal money, because it’s really important for me that the performers are paid that day or the next day.”

The potential inability to assume liabilities for the show is a major factor in Hart’s decision to not constitute UBC Drag as an AMS club, and his willingness to take on risk speaks to Hart’s confidence in the group and its necessity. Creating a space not only for the Queer community but for Queer celebration and expression is central to Hart’s ambitions for UBC Drag. While groups like the Pride Collective provided necessary advocacy and support for students, Hart was frustrated by the dearth of options for Queer nightlife on campus.

“UBC has so much night life, and in my mind none of it, or very little of it, ever caters towards the Queer community. With a campus of [about 60,000 students and] with nightlife nearly every day of the week, some of it should be going toward Queer students.”

Hart’s belief in the importance of Queer celebration shines through in conversation, and he speaks with equal enthusiasm about his talent for event planning. Hart laughed when describing his early experiences in organizing events — namely, planning frat parties on campus while living in a dismal frat basement suite for $300 a month.

The gravity with which Hart discussed frat parties would not be out of place in a job interview, detailing how the experience taught him to “think about damage control and getting into that mindset.” Hart is equally earnest about the importance of nightlife.

“Opportunities to experience Queer joy and party with fellow Queer people [are] super important to the Queer experience.”

Though Hart also performs drag at his events, he said that he “was never a notable name in the Queer nightlife scene in Vancouver.” This, too, has informed Hart’s goals for UBC Drag.

“While it’s phenomenal that there [are] polished performers ... who are making careers out of it, I think that if you’re going to say that drag’s for everyone, that also means that if you’re not a phenomenal performer, the scene still needs to include you.”

Hart’s future plans for UBC Drag include an all-amateur show, which would provide further opportunities for those interested in trying drag for the first time. While Hart hopes to host weekly UBC Drag shows in the future, he also welcomes competition in the Queer nightlife sphere.

“I want there to be as much [Queer nightlife] as there’s demand for and that people want to do. In my time at UBC there was never really anything, and it’s something that I wanted to start and do because having the chance to celebrate with your peers is crucial.”

Though Hart recently graduated with a bachelor of arts in human geography, he plans to stay with UBC Drag until it becomes financially and organizationally viable to continue without him. When he does move on, he plans to continue in his goal of creating safe spaces for Queer community and expression by pursuing an education degree and ultimately providing mentorship to Queer youth as a teacher.

For now, though, Hart said he plans to continue fostering opportunities for Queer celebration at UBC.