06/18/2015 09:54 EDT | Updated 06/18/2016 05:59 EDT

Drag queen dad Hydrangea Bovine honoured by daughter in new CBC documentary

When Willow Yamauchi's mother gave her a bag full of her late father's sparkling gowns, she decided she needed to learn more about his life as a drag queen.

"Two years ago she gives me this black garbage bag," Yamauchi told The Early Edition host Rick Cluff.

"I open it up and it's full of all of these Bovine gowns. I started pulling them out and wondered, 'What is the story here? Why did he do this?'"

Yamauchi's father used to perform under the stage name Hydrangea Bovine, as part of a legendary Vancouver drag act called The Bovines in the 1980s.

She was too young to ever see them perform, but can remember her father and the rest of the group getting ready at her family's house a few times. They would give her advice on how to put on fishnet stockings without getting a run.

But before her father passed away 10 years ago, Yamauchi never really asked him why he performed in drag.

Her quest to find answers is the subject of a new CBC Radio Ideasdocumentary called "Miss Understanding and Miss Behaviour," which aired Thursday June 18.

Cow print gowns, beehive hairdos

Yamauchi's father was gay and her mother was his best friend. It was pretty rare to live with an openly gay dad in the 1970s, she says, but it was fabulous having a dad who sometimes dressed in drag as a performer.

"I was always the best dressed kid on the block. I learned to walk in heels long before anyone else did."

Her father, along with the other men who made up The Bovines, dressed in cow print gowns and had signature beehive hairdos.

To learn more about this side of her father's life, Yamauchi started calling people up from her father's little black book.

That led her to meet a number of current drag performers in Vancouver and to the B.C. Gay and Lesbian Archives, where she was pointed in the direction of photographer James Loewen.

Loewen, it turned out, had photographed The Bovines one night in the 1980s, but hadn't developed the photos. For 30 years the film had been sitting in a box — until Yamauchi came knocking.

When Loewen got the film developed and showed Yamauchi for the first time, she was in tears.

"I was laughing hysterically," she said, "and I was also kinda weeping because most of these folks are gone."

"He's so young and beautiful and kind of frightening with his moustache, and just so vibrant and full of all this wonderful energy and hope."

'Jesters in the court of gender'

Yamauchi's documentary explores her own personal story of discovering more about her father's history, but it also touches on what sparked such a vibrant drag queen scene in Vancouver.

"I just never understood. Why would he put on a dress and go on stage? That just seemed kind of strange to me," said Yamauchi.

"But the more people I spoke to, the more I understood really what was going on historically with gay people in Canada and some of the legal and social repercussions of being a gay person, and the history of repression... 

"Really what this was about was expression, the opposite of repression."

Yamauchi says that after so much repression, it made sense to her that the gay community would turn to drag queens as kinds of cheerleaders.

"That's who drag queens really are," she said. "I see them kind of as these jesters in the court of gender if you will."

She says her father's story needed to be told.

"It was a personal story for me, but a story that was really at risk of never ever seeing the light of day. I didn't want to just shine a little light on it, I wanted to shine a big old disco ball on it."

"Miss Understanding and Miss Behaviour" airs Thursday, June 18 on CBC Radio One's Ideas just after the 9 p.m. PT news.

To hear the full interview with Willow Yamauchi, listen to the audio labelled Dad in Drag