FEBRUARY 29, 2020
MY FIRST EXPERIENCES with drag didn’t feel very queer. I was in an undergraduate theater class, in the small studio space on the top floor of the department, wearing a frumpy dress and a long red wig that went down to my shoulders. It felt like a contradictory image; the inner and outer life of a Douglas Sirk heroine all at once: the dress as a kind of shorthand for unfulfilling domestic life, and the hair, by contrast, a kind of bright longing for something else, something more. But it was all done through the lens of theater, through The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs, and even when we talked about Judith Butler, it felt divorced from queer theory, and always seemed confined somewhere in-between the binaries of male and female. As if, no matter what Butler might be suggesting about how gender works, and how it’s performed, that there are only two choices.
Six years later, I buy myself another wig. A neon pink bob to wear out to a Charli XCX gig on Halloween, in my cheap-and-cheerful attempt to recreate the aesthetic on one of her album covers. The original plan was to go with “No Angel,” but I couldn’t find any boots in my price range.
I’m no angel.
But I can learn. (Charli XCX)
The wig feels natural. My brother’s girlfriend does my makeup, a bright purple that feels almost aggressively on-brand. I look at myself in the mirror and say to myself, “I wish I could look like this all the time.” But of course, that’s not really an option. The beauty of Halloween is that it’s an excuse to try on identities and costumes, to find out what works and what doesn’t, what’s worth keeping on in the future. I’ve never been a Halloween person, never been one for costumes, so the freedom of dressing up is something I’m learning later in life than I’d have liked. After the gig, we go to a midnight screening of Rocky Horror, and the majority of the audience is in costume; lots are in drag. The shorthand seems to be that if you want to look hot, you go as Frank, and if not, you go as somebody else. For all of the bacchanalia that runs through Rocky Horror, it still oscillates from one binary to another; Frank’s corruption of Brad feels like “turning” someone, and the rose-tinted floor show still seems to throw characters from male to female presentation without much consideration for the space in-between those two poles. Still, watching this film, shouting at the screen, I feel something close to safety, even though that’s punctured when I step out into public spaces; when I see people looking at me on the tube.
In his essay about drag in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Alexander Chee describes the element of performance inherent in the act of drag, even outside of the stages of drag balls and lip-synching for your life, and where these little tics of performance come from.
I tilt my head back and carefully toss my hair over my right shoulder in the way I have seen my younger sister do. (Alexander Chee)
I also engage in small acts of performance, inherited from TV shows and films, on the kind of woman that I try to embody, the ways in which I try to appear more daring, hiding behind a wig and makeup. I twirl stray stands of hair with an absent finger, a kind of beckoning, in spite of what might actually happen if someone comes closer. It’s impossible not to be scared, and Chee acknowledges the ways in which men responding to drag has the potential to be dangerous: “They will tell you they want their girls to be girls. If they pick you up and find out the truth, they will beat and maybe kill you.” Part of me is afraid of this, even though I have no desire to pick anyone up that night; it’s the kind of fear that’s primal, older than I am, something that’s been inherited, passed down with a warning by generations of other queers who flirt with, dismiss, or destroy, ideas of the gender binary. In spite of this fear, I go out in my neon pink wig and makeup, my leopard-print top and purple feather boa.
I dress this way again — but substituting the leopard print for a Guerrilla Girls The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist shirt — a month later, when I go to an Ezra Furman gig. I go on my own; I put the wig on when I leave my flat, but don’t put on the purple feather boa until I get into the gig. I cheer with the rest of the audience at the beginning of “Maraschino Red Dress $8.99 at Goodwill.” Ezra dedicates the song to closeted queer kids in the audience.
I’ve never considered myself in or out, never really felt the need to reaffirm myself over and over again in the eyes of others. But now, with a certain kind of knowledge in the back of my head, something about this dedication, and this song, hits me in a new way. Rocky Horror has a certain call for self-expression at its climax, a much quoted maxim: Don’t dream it, be it, but a song like “Maraschino Red Dress” allows space for the slower, more uncertain process of dreaming, of understanding what it means to be something.
Rocky Horror obviously isn’t new, and even Alexander Chee’s experience with drag is situated in the past (the Castro at Halloween in the ’90s); it might seem that these spaces for experimentation and play are disappearing, especially in an age of gentrification that’s often led to queer spaces closing down. But rather than disappearing altogether, those spaces have just moved; Rocky Horror screenings still take place, they just do so at small independent cinemas; while larger queer spaces might be closing down, there are still grassroots communities that try to offer sanctuary. And of course, some of this migration has happened between physical and digital spaces; for all of the talk of the internet being an “echo chamber,” one of the best things about it is the fact you can choose what you see; you can curate your own space that allows you to experiment with aesthetics, gender presentation, and a sense of self; now more than ever, it’s possible to create your own space for self-exploration, to dream it and be it simultaneously, taking all the time you need to get from one of those places to the other.
When I go home from the gig, I take off the boa and the neon pink wig. It’s the kind of moment that’s difficult to describe, the kind in which nothing changes, but everything changes. Echoes of the songs still playing in my head, the offhand suggestion of changing names and identities, a furious, electrifying roar at the world.
But me, I was considering ditching Ezra, and going by Esme
Baby, would you find that so odd? (Ezra Furman)
Changing names in pop music is no big deal. Prince went from Prince, to The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, and then back again. Christine and the Queens were flying a new flag with the 2018 album Chris, complete with a new, more butch aesthetic. Looking at the album covers for Chris and Chaleur Humaine side-by-side, and at first glance the two people on the two covers are as different as night and day. But that isn’t so different; one is a variation of the other, a reflection, a change in the way that the light gets seen.
These changes in persona, in presentation are linked to performance, just like my undergraduate drag experience was. Just like Chris looks different on two different album covers, Prince looks different on Dirty Mind compared to Purple Rain, and different on Parade compared to Come. These performances get their power and queerness not only from the performers themselves, but from a specific kind of refusal: the refusal to adhere to binaries, the understanding of the fluidity that defines so much of queer life.
Queer spaces like binaries more than they’d care to admit. For all of the declarations about everyone being welcome, about queer spaces being safe, it never quite works like that. Queer spaces like things to work in a language that they understand: gay or lesbian; butch or femme; top or bottom. These things make sense; they’re easy for people to understand, easy for them to desire, to have a preference for. Contemporary queer texts do a better job of acknowledging the strangeness of this obsession with binaries, even in ostensibly queer spaces. The shape-shifting, gender-bending protagonist of Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl is described as thinking that “men and women alike confounded Paul; they were so rule-bound.”
Paul drifts in and out of queer spaces, from college campuses to lesbian communes, often performing a different identity in each one, afraid that someone will discover that they’re a shape-shifter, and that if anyone were to discover one of Paul’s other identities, then everything else would disappear, as if there was no room for multiplicity. Later in the novel, this idea is explored through the way Paul looks at a counter-girl, who’s described as “one of the many femmes who’d moved to the city and cut off her hair in order to participate fully in the urban pleasures.”
When I was 19, a guy kept trying to ask me out. But as well as doing that, he’d keep complaining about a guy he was trying to hook up with a festival the summer before he met me. He told me “the problem with bi guys is that they’re gay until a girl comes along.” I didn’t tell him that I’d only keep that conversation going until a girl came along, but maybe I should have. It’s easy to forget that even if you keep yourself outside of a binary, the rest of the world will do whatever it can to push you back into one, asking questions like, “What are you? I mean, really…”
I am what I am.
I am my own special creation. (Jerry Herman)
“I Am What I Am” has been an anthem for queer self-love for decades, and has been covered by everyone from Gloria Gaynor to John Barrowman. But looking at those first lines, the thing that’s most striking about them is the idea of being a creation, of being able to set the parameters for your own identity. To allow yourself to change, be fluid, to treat every day as a kind of Queer Halloween, trying on new costumes and ideas, finding different versions of yourself, all of them equally valid. This idea has existed for centuries, and one of the queer progenitors, as always, put it best:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well, I contradict myself.
(I am large, I contain multitudes.) (Walt Whitman)
Slowly, I’m still learning that self-contradiction is not a failing. That it isn’t a sign of weakness to allow yourself to change; that stable foundation doesn’t mean staying same, rooted to one spot. That I can allow myself to exist outside of binaries, that any process of self-discovery, no matter how slow it might be, is still a journey worth taking.
It happens slowly, in small acts. I change the bio that I send along with submissions of my writing, changing lines like “his poetry and experimental essays” to “their poetry and experimental essays.” I do this before I tell anyone about the decision that I’ve slowly come to; that decision doesn’t seem entirely real to me. That or I don’t think people will take it seriously. The first time I change the pronouns in a submission of poems, I spend a long time looking at the few sentences that form my author bio, and the difference between what’s there now and what used to be there before seems jarring, like it was written by someone else. In a way, it was, and I’m still in the process of becoming that person.
On the night of the 2019 general election, looking at an exit poll that feels terrifying in a very real way, I tell my brother. I do this via text, which feels tacky, but the ability to redraft my thoughts becomes invaluable here. I say that one of the reasons I want to tell him tonight is because of how political everything is, and I’m not sure if there’s anything truth to that, or if it was just the excuse I used to push myself in the right direction. After I tell him, I apologize for doing so at a bad time, while he’s at Party HQ with colleagues who have worked hard and been rewarded for it with the loss of their jobs. He says something like, “Oh God, it’s no problem at all.” When I see him the next day, we don’t talk about it, but I don’t think we need to. I’m comfortable knowing that he knows, and that I don’t need to offer any kind of justification for the invisible change that I’ve made to myself.
Near the end of 2019, my first piece is published using new pronouns. A small, strange essay about Junk, Spring Awakening, and what it means to talk to your past self through the things that you do and the things you collect, the fingerprints you leave behind, only to rediscover them years later as a new person. Just like I did the first time I changed my bio for a submission, I look at the description of the new person, underneath the final lines of the essay. I look at their publications, at the name of the zine that they’re editing, and allow myself to feel safe and secure in a moment that feels rare, the moment of knowing myself.
Sam Moore is a writer, artist, and editor. Their poetry and experimental essays have been published both in print and online, including in the Oxonian Review, Aptly, and the Pilot Press anthology Modern Queer Poets.