Kill The Lights And Look Right At Me
Discombobulated Thoughts Of An AFAB Drag Queen
Lately, I’m seeing a lot of debate around cis women performing femme-drag, and as an AFAB (assigned female at birth) drag queen, I figure I’d better throw my few cents in. I'm a queer, gender confused/fascinated AFAB queen who's been performing for just under two years. I came to drag rather naturally, as it’s an art form I’ve followed since birth. My first film was Victor, Victoria starring Julie Andrews, a glamorous art deco film about a desperate and literally starving artist who uses her classically trained soprano voice to become the toast of 1920’s Paris as a drag queen, and in order to do that she lives nearly full-time as a man. The role of both Victor and Victoria still reads to me as drag whether the protagonist appears in a tuxedo or a gown; the whole film is about gender performance. The basis of the film is that she’s a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. Maybe she’s a person conditioned into womanhood who learns to be a man who performs theatrical femininity. I wonder if a lot of us aren’t pretending or performing a lot more than we’re admitting. It’s not so scary - simply admitting that I’m performing gender doesn’t make its expression less valid, it just makes it less compulsory. I've been feeling similarly about myself lately: simultaneously real and performative.
I began regularly hopping onstage after returning to my hometown at 25 and rediscovering the community at my local drag bar which, luckily for me and many other queer artists, is a space that embraces unconventional drag. I didn’t really want to paint on sideburns or wear some sugar-ray-lookin-ass wig; I was detoxing from a lot of oppressive shit attached to my femme presentation and the answer was not to hide behind performing butch/masc presentations like I had in the past. Instead, I wanted to feel free in my femme, to feel powerful and loved and welcomed just as I am. Drag did that. My drag community gave that to me.
Performing femininity from a place of power has been incredibly healing for me, just as it’s been for many queers who have been shamed in different ways for their femininity. I’ve always considered myself a feminist, but I’d never considered how afraid of femininity I might be. I was a dysphoric “tomboy” from birth; I chopped all my hair off the day before my first day of kindergarten. I hung out in the middle throughout high school, I performed some kind of punk soft butch in college, and I always had a hard-femme streak in me that I didn’t start exploring until my mid-20s. I just learned I could embrace the color pink in the past 6 months. I’m in my last days of year 27. I just thought it wasn’t for me, and didn’t realize “my way” of doing pink existed. Blossoming into a stripper and a drag queen has forced me to unpack more internalized femmephobia than I ever thought could be inside me. There is no question that Queen is a title I’m proud to include in my identity (even while unpacking the colonial roots of the word).
What’s in a name, though? Wouldn’t a queen by any other name lip sync? But AFAB femme gender performers are categorized differently by most and so we have to talk language. I’ve had to insist repeatedly that I don’t accept the term bio-queen because it is blatantly transphobic. I know AMAB (assigned male at birth) queens who are almost certainly higher in estrogen than I am; I’m an AFAB person with higher T levels than my cis brother. It’s just always been that way. I realize the inaccuracies of a binary idea of sex or gender, so besides being exclusionary, bio-queen just doesn’t make any logical sense to me. Personally I dislike the term "faux queen" because my drag is not less valid than that of performers who identify as men or were AMAB (assigned male at birth). And what does fake vs real even mean in a world of drag anyway? What the fuck does it matter?
In my mind, drag means gender performance art, and that's exactly what i'm doing. I perform high femme drag, and have also performed butch/masc drag, but never conventional boy drag. I am not a drag king, and I am not a conventional queen. I think there should be space in the community for extra-binary gender performance artists. I mean extra-binary to mean beyond binary, like extraterrestrial means beyond this earth. I’ve made up this term just now in an effort to not take space or appropriate from non-binary queer people who do not experience their gender as being part of a performance persona. Anyway - usually, I just call myself a drag queen, and if someone insists on narrowing me into a subcategory, I like hype-queen, because regardless of my genitals or gender identity, I’m definitely hype as fuck.
There is no common word for me. I am often the only AFAB person to hit the stage all night. I delight in the confusion it brings to the gender anxious in the audience, the ones that have to ask...and will never get the answer they expected. The answer being that I don’t know either, and it doesn’t matter - it’s none of any of our business what I am, only that I am. I feel the most seen when I sense everyone in the room perceiving me differently.
There’s something special about the space I get to play in. I get to collaborate with queer performers from all different identities and backgrounds, who all do their art differently, and we support each other in a way that I find extremely important and potentially transformative to our larger community. From Corporate America to queer subculture, people mostly mentor and support people who remind them of themselves. I want to challenge queers to try to push beyond that. Look beyond the gay bar. A gay bar is a safe space for mostly white, masc, cisgender, monosexual men to build their own good ol' boys' country club; a homogenized cul de sac away from the others. It is an archetypical failure straight out of Animal Farm to use the same social format that kicked them out of their privileged families, only to redraw the lines just enough to loop themselves in. A queer bar is something else - It is a space that's femme normative (calm down - I said normative, not dominant) and a space that allows queer men, queer women, and non-binary folks of all cultural, ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds to build families together, to make art together. These spaces are rare and imperfect and they need nurturing and protecting, particularly in 2018.
Next up: as a queer stripper with a lot of non-binary genderblent™ emotions, drag helps me put on a character when I’m in stripdrag; I’m both performing and mocking heterosexual ideals and actively using it to snatch money from cishet mens! That feels really dope to me. I also want to acknowledge that not every woman has access to that, which is why I aim to actively create spaces for women with intersectional identities that are barred from or undervalued by both traditional strip clubs and by conventional gay bars to be able to make money dancing and celebrating their bodies. This can look like hiring trans women and women of color as performers, like creating events that prioritize QTPOC, and most importantly listening and boosting up QTPOC voices in leadership positions.
I respect that many trans people don't enjoy drag. I also have a deep respect for how important drag art is to many trans, non-binary, gender variant, and gender fluid people, myself included. For many of us, it's how we explore gender, and then turn it into a conversation with the audience: our community, our family. Great drag will crack open the mind of the beholder and the performer simultaneously. For me it's also a practice in innocence, it’s a form of play many of us never had access to as children. This has real Evidence Based (banned phrase bonus points!) value for our physical and mental wellbeing: here’s an imperfectly worded but best I could find in one article resource on adult playfulness. For my academics: scope out readings on “Regression In Service of the Ego”.
What I want to see more often discussed is the responsibility of performers to our audiences and our communities at large. I see a lot of blatantly offensive fuckery at drag shows. Yes, I know, it’s drag - like is that supposed to imply that it’s meant to be offensive? To whom, though? Offend straight people all day. Offend sex-shaming, uptight, racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, assholes who hold power. Punch up, not down. Drag is supposed to be creative and edgy and transgressive. There’s nothing transgressive about upholding old systems of power, nothing creative about playing on stereotypes without any commentary, and there’s nothing edgy about a performance that doesn’t make the dominant culture uncomfortable. But I want to pose the question to my fellow performers: what is the value in making the most marginalized queers in the room uncomfortable?
I have seen drag kings act exactly like the predatory men they’re dressed as. I have seen drag queens making fun of Kaitlyn Jenner, not for her terrible politics, but for her transness. Sometimes it doesn’t even feel like I’m in a gay bar. I have seen white queens paint in blackface (in 2017!) to emulate Beyonce and Scary Spice, perhaps honestly thinking they’re celebrating these women. But I am constantly bracing myself at drag shows waiting for white queens to lip sync the N word. Most white gay men still put on affectations of black femininity to express how funny and “sassy” they are. I see a lot of drag debates and general drag family drama on social media and in the dressing room, but racism and transmisogyny aren’t frequent topics. I don’t see these issues being discussed by my drag community (in the open). I’ve had a lot of intimate discussions with my specific drag family about art and justice and representation, but there’s a much greater conversation to be had. It feels a bit funny to be the one to bring it up as much as I watch the drag community debating my own place in it. But here I am, unable to shut up.
What are we going to do about this? How do we hold each other accountable? Pittsburgh is not a big city and most performers are eager for bookings and not trying to ruffle feathers with the queens booking these shows. We got 8 new kids coming up every other month anyway! It’s increasingly dramatic and competitive out here. I understand not wanting to pass up a show but I can’t imagine promoting myself as a performer with a picture of myself next to someone in fucking blackface, let alone being in blackface. There are plenty of talented black performers that can do justice to black icons. If you want to celebrate black artists, why not hire black artists to portray them? Bar managers and owners also have some responsibility for the shows put on in their spaces. Although they generally are not a part of the creative process, they do have power to set boundaries and standards; some bars have codes of conduct for their performers, something I’m very much in favor of. I don’t aim to censor the creativity of the drag community or to say that we can’t talk about uncomfortable topics, but if we’re going to, we have a responsibility to be intentional about it, accountable for it, and we are absolutely opening ourselves to criticism from our audience and community. If you can’t handle the conversation or pushback that your performance provokes, don’t do the number.
Performers need to talk to each other about audience interactions. Drag mamas can show leadership around honor and respect just as well as they can clock you for that harsh nose contour and teach you how to blend it next time. Kings can hold each other accountable to not emulate chauvinism while they’re playing with masculinity. If you see something, say something, even if it costs you a little.
I have definitely turned down bookings due to the theme or content of the show. I’ve turned down collaborations because the king asking me to work with them completely ignored what it is that I actually do to pitch me some over-sexed vision they had that amounts to them getting a free lap dance on-stage while they lip sync and collect tips. I’ve turned down shows when I knew it was a white line up that would surely be performing a bunch of black culture. In the future, I’d like to feel comfortable discussing these things openly in queer spaces, with hosts and promoters. At this point I’m committing to discussing it even if I’m uncomfortable, because having the option to hide from the conversation is a privilege I’m no longer comfortable cashing in on.