by Michael Abraham-Fiallos
I was sixteen years old the first time I went to a drag show. It was an all-ages show in the Capitol Hill neighborhood—the gayborhood—of Seattle. My two best friends, Nalani and Shreya, bought tickets for my birthday. The performer was Jinkx Monsoon, who would go on to fame as the winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race, season five. But she was only locally famous back then, which, I have come to learn in the years since, is a special kind of thing—there is a charm and a camaraderie and a deep mirth to a local show that you don’t find when you go see an internationally famous drag queen or when you watch drag on television.
If you never were one yourself, you must understand something about being a sixteen year old gay boy. To be gay at that age is to fumble. Everything feels like fumbling: sex, friendships, school, work, home. The very acts of identification and relation, of situating oneself in the matrix of the social world, are a brilliant, painful, altogether necessary fumbling. I remember that I wore a beanie over my messy, blond hair that night, and I had my chunky, black glasses to hide my face. I looked like a proper Seattle hipster. I was confident walking into the venue. It was my birthday after all. We took seats in the back, Nalani and Shreya one and two seats in, and me on the aisle. I have been thankful ever since that I was sat on the aisle.
When the lights came up and Jinkx walked out, my confidence poured from my head through my chest, past my stomach and into a puddle at my feet. Never before had I seen someone so camp, so ravishing, so perfectly and inimitably themselves. Never before had I seen someone so gay. Suddenly, I was fumbling. I did not—could not—belong in such a place, in the direct line of sight of such a performer. It was not that I did not want to be there; I very much did. I was enthralled. But that uneasy sense of self, that fumbly uncertainty about where I belonged in the world, came roaring up.
Jinkx was dressed, as she often is, in a kind of vaudeville getup, though it had undertones of showgirl and overtones of vamp. Her makeup was what entranced me most upon seeing her. Makeup is perhaps the perfect way to begin to explain what it is that I think drag is. It’s a strange art form to witness, drag makeup. It strikes one as an imagined idea of what a face is. Drag queens call putting on makeup “painting,” and it seems very much a form of painting, much more than it does a form of making oneself up. It is not exactly that a drag queen’s makeup is a distortion of the face (though some highly artistic queens do, indeed, distort their faces in wild and thrilling ways); rather, it is an interpretation of the idea of a face. When done exceptionally well, a drag queen’s makeup is the apotheosis of the notion of a face: dramatic and perfectly shaped, colorful and impossibly proportioned, beautiful and, in the unnaturalness of its beauty, just the tiniest bit eerie. Drag, as an art form, is like this. It incorporates camp, which is a mode of exaggeration, but it surpasses camp, for it is not merely exaggeration. Like any good art, it interprets, interrogates, and reconceptualizes. It begins with the reality of the human being, subverts and deconstructs that reality, and then begins to imagine new ways to put it back together again. The results are often comedic in the extreme. (Personally, I like “comedy queens” best.) It is not unlike clownery, but it has more heart than clownery does. This heart comes from the gendered nature of it. Drag queens do not exist to mock women as clowns exist to mock the serious, bourgeois citizen. In fact, every drag queen I know absolutely adores women, and some of the best drag queens are women. Drag and transness have been wrapped up with each other for as long as they both have existed, which is always, and the love of femininity is deeply enshrined at the heart of drag. This gives it a depth of feeling that clownery lacks.
(I realize one fault of this essay is its totally indeliberate obfuscation of a whole section of the world of drag, which is that of drag kings. I imagine that enshrined at the heart of that drag is a love of masculinity commensurate with the drag queen’s love of femininity. While I have seen some wonderful drag kings, and while there are drag kings here in New York whose careers I follow loyally, I have a hard time writing about their art because of who I am as a person: flamboyant, effeminate, a flamer. The search for femininity in myself is and has been a lifelong endeavor, and drag queens have been a major element of that search; they have modeled for me the freedom necessary to imagine oneself on one’s own terms in a manner that speaks directly to who I am as a person. So, I will continue to write here about drag queens with the caveat that this essay is not the final word on drag—I am not even a drag performer after all—and that there is much to be said for the subversive power of reinterpreting masculinity.)
The gendered nature of drag also gives it a social iconoclasm that is strangely liberating for an audience member. The moment a performer gender-fucks in a manner as dramatic as a drag queen does, everyone in the audience is suddenly freer, suddenly more at home in their skin. I feel aware of every part of my body in a special way, on the edge of my seat, gripping my drink tightly, waiting for the next lyric of the lip-sync, the next pump of the arms, the next dip to the floor. I am alive in a special way when I watch a drag show, and it is because the person before me has reimagined the idea of being a human, made being a human a grandiose and artful exercise in camp and high drama and empathy. Yes, there is a real empathy to drag. It is a strange empathy, for it does not look like empathy usually does. In fact, it often looks the opposite. Drag queens are infamous for their cutting wit—it is called “reading” when they direct that cutting wit at someone; as in, “Oh, girl, she just read you for filth”—but that cutting wit often has a good-natured tenderness running through it like a deep undercurrent. Drag has, at its core, a yearning for connection that is perhaps a feature of all art but especially powerful, candid, and vulnerable in an art so dramatically embodied, in which one is both canvas and performer.
Good-natured tenderness is what, I think, Jinkx displayed that night when I was sixteen and certainly did not feel freer and at home in my skin. As I said, I was sitting on the aisle in the last row. About halfway through her show, she scanned the audience. Her eyes landed on me, locked with mine, and my shoulders touched my ears. When she looked at me, I saw myself from the outside for the briefest moment. I saw my timidity and how hard I was trying to feel like I belonged and what nerve it was taking just to sit there, so enraptured by her and so afraid to be myself in her presence. The music pumping, never breaking her lip-sync, she danced to the back row, took my hand, and pulled me up onstage. I have a notoriously bad memory, but there are a few moments in my life that stand out in sharp relief. This is one of them. I was petrified. But the story is actually funny. She interlaced her fingers in front of me and tried to direct me to do the same, but the music was too loud for me to hear her. I asked what she wanted, and she gestured again at her hands. And then I put my leg into her interlaced fingers, believing this was the whole point of the shtick. Imagine me, confused, sixteen, in an old-timey chair on a vaudeville-type stage in front of at least seventy-five people, lifting my leg from the floor and resting it in a drag queen’s hands. I was nervous. I was fumbling. “Come on! You’re going to ruin my trick!” she yelled into my ear. “Interlace your fingers like this!”
Finally understanding, I interlaced my fingers and held my hands out in front of me. And then the most magical thing happened. She flipped herself over and did a head-stand—a head-stand!—in my interlocked hands. I held her head as she held herself perfectly straight, upside-down. I could feel her wig in my palms; I could see every sequin on her outfit; I felt the shudder of her body as she tightened every muscle to keep balance. The breathlessness of the crowd was palpable to me, as I sat there in the chair, while this magical thing happened in my own two hands. Suddenly, I was no longer fumbling. Suddenly, I was part of the trick, in on the joke, a member of the community of people there assembled to watch Jinkx Monsoon perform.
I returned to my seat awash with the impossibility of what had just happened to me. Never in sixteen years had an experience so affirming fallen into my lap. I like to think that Jinkx saw in me what I did not yet see in myself: the fierceness, the camp, the confidence, the femininity, the gayness. I like to think that she saw a little queer boy who did not yet feel himself to be a part of anything and decided, there and then, in the middle of her number, that she would induct him into the world of queers with a head-stand. To be queer is not merely to be of a sexual orientation or gender identity that deviates from the heteronormative. To be queer is to exist in a whole lifeworld of possibility, a world where the interpretation, interrogation, and reconceptualization of what a human is and can be is a daily practice. The art of drag is the aesthetic expression of this daily practice. It is a high art with no pretension; it captures and dramatizes some of the most exciting potentials that life has coiled and waiting within it. It imagines that gender is malleable and elastic, that comedy can heal the ruptures left in a self by a life of marginalization, that beauty is found in every body, that a room of strangers can become friends in the space of a single song. After Jinkx pulled me up onstage, I instantly understood all of this, though I had no words for any of it. I whooped and hollered and roared with laughter throughout the rest of the show, my fumbling forgotten. When I got home that night, I was buzzing from my head to my feet. Something within me had changed irrevocably.
Now, as a twenty-seven year old gay man, I am not fumbling. Or, at least, I am not fumbling in the same way. (Isn’t life really just a series of fumblings? You master one way of being and begin fumbling through the next.) I spend a lot of my time at drag shows. I sometimes joke that while my colleagues are in libraries doing their research, I am doing mine in the gay bar. And while this is not literally true, it is true in a sense. I am a humanist, and there are few places as human—as full of joy, pain, pettiness, lust, humor, envy, love, liberty, ferocity—as a gay bar. It is a debauch, and it is our debauch, a special space squirreled away in the middle of the world where the world cannot touch us. (This is why the Stonewall Riots started: because queer people—led by the drag queen, Marsha P. Johnson, and the drag king, Stormé DeLarverie—were finally fed up with the world, in the form of the police, breaking into a space that is meant to exist simultaneously inside and outside of the world.) And at the heart of every gay bar, there is a drag performer. They are the animating spirit of the place, that which gives it life and verve. “Giving life” is yet another drag queen saying, and it means a performer is doing exceptionally well; as in, “You are giving them life, Mama!” This is what drag does. It gives life. It reimagines the contours and the limits of what life can be, of how free we can be in this life that we have, and then it gives that to us, its audience, like a precious gift.