Meet Miss Toto, the drag queen serving up shark science in South Florida

Recently a group of citizen scientists set out into the waters of Biscayne Bay off the coast of Miami and cast their lines in the hopes of catching some of the dozen shark species that live in the area. As they waited for a bite, they also got to live their own Shark Tale fantasy when Miss Toto, the Queen of Shark Research, put on a themed drag show.

As part of the third annual “Drag ‘n Tag” event hosted by Miss Toto and the Field School Foundation in Florida, the group spent the day tagging sharks to help map their habitat in the region. Their goal was twofold: to promote shark research and conservation, and to expand spaces for queer people and people of color in marine science, raising donations in a fundraiser that will go to Pridelines, a nonprofit created to empower the local LGBTQ community. 

“Drag ‘n Tag is a really cool experience because you get to partner and marry the drag community and the queer community with marine science,” Miss Toto told Salon in a phone interview.

“You get to partner and marry the drag community and the queer community with marine science,”

Sharks love Biscayne Bay, with hammerhead, bull and tiger sharks among the many species found in the region. Because it’s located less than a mile from downtown Miami, it’s a prime case study to examine how human-made changes to the climate like pollution impact shark habitats, said Jake Jerome, the assistant director of Program Development at the Field School.

Drag 'n Tag, 2023Drag ‘n Tag, 2023 (Photo courtesy of University of Miami)

“We’re checking for parasites that they might have, we’re taking blood samples to see what their stress levels are, and just trying to see how they’re utilizing this type of habitat,” Jerome told Salon in a phone interview. “All of that kind of stuff can help us learn more about how to protect them and how to conserve the species that we have.”

If the event seems like an unexpected marriage of two things, that’s exactly why it’s being hosted. With a graduate degree in marine science from the University of Miami, Miss Toto has worked closely with the folks at the Field School in research prior. It was during her master’s program that Miss Toto also started doing drag, but she often found herself having two different lives: her science career and her drag career. 

“I have a life outside of drag and then I have my drag life and queer community who knows what I do in that aspect, but they usually don’t cross over and blend,” Miss Toto said. “But I don’t see why not.”

The purpose of Drag ‘n Tag and the Field School in general is to ensure that everyone feels safe in this environment.

Today, marine science is a field dominated by white men. Fewer than 15% of doctorate degrees in geoscience are awarded to people of color and fewer than 2% are awarded to Black scientists. In 2021, the Society for Conservation Biology-Marine Section hosted a focus group to identify barriers to onboarding and retaining underrepresented groups in marine science and found the financial costs of educational programs, inequitable representation in scientific journals and harassment during fieldwork were all factors restricting access.​​ 

Drag 'n Tag, 2023Drag ‘n Tag, 2023 (Photo courtesy of University of Miami)

Unfortunately in many programs, fieldwork can be an unwelcoming space for underrepresented communities, said the director of the Field School Catherine Macdonald, Ph.D. The purpose of Drag ‘n Tag and the Field School in general is to ensure that everyone feels safe in this environment, she added.

“Seeing how meaningful it is to our students to know that we’re in it with them, I believe every scientist should be figuring out how to support the communities that their students are part of and how to give back to them,” Macdonald told Salon in a phone interview.

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In addition to the work at the Field School, there are other efforts being made to increase diversity in the field. In 2020, marine ecologist Tiara Moore, Ph.D., created Black in Marine Science, which now has over 300 members in 27 countries, to amplify the voices of Black marine scientists and improve ocean literacy for everyone.

“At the end of the day, we are marine scientists,” Moore wrote in a 2022 article in PLoS Biology. “We want our voices to be heard, we want our work to be published and cited, we want to be invited to give scientific talks, elected to leadership boards and to have our research funded at the highest levels, and we will.”

The SCB focus group found mentorship and creating a code of conduct that makes fieldwork a safer space were essential to increasing diversity. According to the focus group’s report, “discrimination, bullying, and harassment all lead to a higher likelihood of LGBTQ+ scientists leaving academia.” 

Florida, in particular, has been a battleground for LGBTQ equality in recent years, with legislation restricting access to gender-affirming healthcare and banning the use of university funds for diversity programs. In March 2022, Gov. Ron DeSantis passed the “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” prohibiting lesson plans from including instruction regarding sexual orientation or gender identity. Meanwhile drag shows have become a target for far-right extremism.

Drag 'n Tag, 2023Drag ‘n Tag, 2023 (Photo courtesy of University of Miami)

As one of just a handful of queer people and one of even fewer Black students on campus during her time in grad school, Miss Toto knows firsthand about the barriers that exist for certain communities to get involved in science. But that didn’t stop her from completing her degree.

These days she is pursuing drag full-time but continues to participate in events with the Field School. In showing up for both communities as her full self, she is creating the space for the next generation of scientists to be welcomed as they are.

“A lot of queer people don’t feel like they have space or room to even explore marine science or explore STEM in general,” Miss Toto said. “I also had those moments growing up of being like, ‘This isn’t really a field for me and I should just try something else.’ But I was like, ‘You know what, screw it. This is what I want to do, and if I’m the only one, I’m the only one.'”

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