Shark-tagging Florida drag queen on what queer lives and ocean wildlife have in common

Shark tagging drag queen

What do drag queens and sharks have in common? According to Miss Toto, a drag queen in Florida, the answer is simple.

“They are both beautiful and demonised,” she tells PinkNews.

Miss Toto is a drag queen with qualifications in ocean wildlife conservation, and when she’s not working the clubs, she takes paying groups of fans and tourists out on the Florida seas to tag sharks – some up to seven feet long – and raise funds for queer youth in Florida.

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, Toto says this makes her one of a kind.

“I’m the only drag queen and shark tagger that I know,” she tells PinkNews, with a wide smile on her face. 

Toto says she got involved in the project because she knew she could raise more awareness of the importance of sharks to our oceans in drag.

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“Drag doesn’t have to stay strictly in nightlife and you can have an impact by bringing in fundraising … people pay a lot more attention to what I have to say when I have a wig on,” she explains.

“We’re being visible and vigilant, how can you say something negative about raising money, especially something that brings people so much joy?”

Sharks play a key part in the ecosystems of our oceans. As the apex predator, they maintain balance in the species below them on the food chain, and can help remove the sick and the weak from fish population groups.

However, since the 1970s shark numbers have plummeted due to the catastrophic combination of over-fishing and the impact of the climate crisis on the world’s oceans.

Miss Toto performs at the Field School’s Drag N Tag event last month. (Cliff Hawkins/Field School)

Miss Toto was finishing her aqua-culture master’s degree at the University of Miami when she became engrossed in its shark research programme at the same time as starting out in drag.

“It was a way for me to meet people who had a similar interest as me and queer people in general,” she says.

While on a drag trip to Germany with a non-profit she was working for in 2020, she had an “epiphany” and decided to do drag full-time.

Now, she’s back on the seas – but this time, she’s doing it in full drag.

Miss Toto became interested in the shark research programme while at the University of Miami. (Cliff Hawkins/Field School)

The idea for a Drag N Tag event was brought to life three years ago by the educational marine group Field School, which offers marine science research experience and hosts educational programmes for students in Florida, where queer lives are increasingly under attack by Republican politicians.

The state is governed by 2024 presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis, who has enacted some of the most extreme anti-LGBTQ+ laws in the US in recent years, including the reviled Don’t Say Gay bill, which prohibits any reference in schools to LGBTQ+ identities.

Florida has also seen legislation aimed at banning drag performances introduced, along with laws limiting access to life-saving gender-affirming care for trans people.

In May, the Human Rights Campaign issued a warning to LGBTQ+ tourists, advising them to take “extreme care” while visiting Florida or avoid going to the state altogether.

In the face of this hostile environment for LGBTQ+ people, Miss Toto’s 2023 Drag N Tag event featured three live drag performances and raised around £4,000 ($4,800), with all money going to Pridelines – a charity that supports queer youth and straight allies in the south of Florida through a variety of services, including mental health support and a LGBTQ-focused library. 

The team tag a shark aboard the RV Garvin off the coast of Miami. (Cliff Hawkins/Field School)

Supporting queer youth in Florida is close to Miss to Miss Toto, who – although from Chicago – spent a lot of her time in education there.

The wellbeing of queer youth in Florida is an issue close to Miss Toto’s heart. Although she’s originally from Chicago, the Sunshine State is where she fully “came into” her own LGBTQ+ identity.

“It means a lot to me,” she tells PinkNews. “That’s where I got my start as far as being a drag queen, then also coming into my own queerness, so I want other people to be able to live their lives as truly as possible.”

Miss Toto’s also keen to push back against harmful rhetoric around drag performers, which is increasingly espoused by right-wing politicians and media.

“What we’re doing has nothing to do with all the negative things people are saying,” she says. “It’s the antithesis of what people expect. We’re doing a drag show onboard, but we’re also out here tagging sharks for science.”

Both sharks and drag queens need to be protected

Sharks and drag queens, both of which have suffered populist demonisation, need to be protected, Miss Toto says, dubbing sharks “beautiful”, “misunderstood” creatures that do everything “instinctually”. 

She speaks of the drag community in much the same light.

“Once you understand and get into why people are trying to protect sharks or why people are trying to protect drag queens, it allows you to think a lot more broad-mindedly,” she explains.

Miss Toto hopes her role in shark conservation will inspire others to follow their dreams. (Cliff Hawkins/Field School)

After 10 years in the world marine science, Miss Toto is now noticing more diversity than ever. 

“For me, having other Black people see me, and having other queer people or people of colour see me doing this type of work, especially as a drag artist, you never really know who you’re going to inspire.”

You can still donate to Drag N Tag’s fundraiser for Pridelines here.