The room is like a depression-era ballroom: dingy and flashy all at once. Heavy curtains frame a low oval stage cut into the back wall. Behind it, one door leads to the change rooms, where glitter and perfume are infused into the paint, and one door leads to a damp alleyway where broken bottles and huddling shadows cling to the walls. These two realities, hovering parallel to each other, are so familiar that no one bats an eye. After all, isn't 'Hide' written on our bones, coursing through our blood as our legacy? We have always hid in the shadows, concealing ourselves in order to free ourselves. The legacy of homosexuality stretches back decades only, maybe glimpses crop up from further back, but it seems we've always preferred happiness to heroism for the most part. This lesbian won't claim to be any different.
The floor echoes the dive versus glamour dilemma: sparkles glitter in the multi-coloured lights dancing about the room, but the soles of my shoes stick to its surface from spilled booze. Maybe aesthetic is the only thing that matter, after all. The grunge doesn't seem to disturb anyone else; all the bodies clustered about the room are dressed in nice clothes. Clouds of cologne and perfume drift up into the mini-chandelier. The old aristocratic lady, whose mansion crumbles and whose clothing yellows, still holds her title in the end. You hear: aristocrat, mansion, jewellery, and you imagine affluence, no matter what's left of it, so she still wins.
Drag queens group around the bar and in the corner in spandex, sequins and heels that lift them, imposing, above the crowd to be crowned in halos of hair and makeup. It's the practised look of disdain that fixes me in its gaze, then just as quickly moves on. Femininity on display. I wonder when it became fashionable for femininity to be translated into haughtiness. One queen passes across my vision in black and fishnet, spikes and leather. Her hair drapes down her back like a funeral veil, and she smiles shyly at me. I suppose I shouldn't be so sensitive about the nature of the performance. If their character wears a divas clothes, then she may as well act like one. Besides, my character isn't much better.
Masculinity on display. Cocky and arrogant, I have to get into character soon. But first, I grab a drink from the young bartender who eyes me up and down suspiciously. He is right to be wary. After all, how many women come down here with a heavy bag wrapped around them heading for the change rooms which have only ever seen dicks and dresses? My act won't feature either, unless you count a sock. I smile as disarmingly as I can, though my nerves are starting to get the better of me now that the stage is in full view. I down the short, sweaty glass of gin and tonic, feeling the warmth cascade down, then settle.
The crowd is gathering around me, bodies beginning to press in and group so that they seem to be appearing out of nowhere. The crowd is exhilarating and terrifying at the same time, and my heart flops back and forth. These drag shows have become pretty popular since the first time I attended, when the lighting was dimmer, the decorations mute, and most of the seats were filled with regulars: older men who slouched inward, as if shielding their identities had become second nature to them; so that even being surrounded by their community wasn't safe. Now, clusters of straight people, touching hands and gossiping with the excitement of novelty litter the room, interspersed with younger, more reckless groups of gays.
One such group, four women with short, spiky hair, and baggy clothes calls to me. The faux-vintage lighting above them is still bright, and they're tucked into a leather booth, so at first I flounder about for the source of the call.
"Hey, dyke!" Her voice is gruff with bravado, and small chuckles emanate around the exclamation.
I try a mock serious look to my face, holding down the smile threatening to break loose, though in reality my nerves are vibrating so badly through my body that I can't quite put true feeling behind the expression. But I know myself, and if I weren't so jarred, this is the face I would make. Probably. Either way, it doesn't faze them, and I'm welcomed into their circle with more exclamations and stiff armed hugs.
I know this particular group of women from an old ex, who has long stopped talking to any of us, and I regularly see them at the bar. Is bar friends a term? If not, it should be. Their movements and words are worn-in with practice, but I recognize them for what they are: self-identified butches all carry the same defensive tones to their body-language, as if daring you to say something about it. I guess life has given them all the practice they need in that respect. By now, it has become something of a style. Because style isn't just in the clothing you wear and the haircut, it comes laced with movements and language, like the drag queens in their gowns acting out a Broadway diva.
I excuse myself and disentangle from their limbs, heading towards the unobtrusive door painted the same deep colour as the wall, like shadow blending into night. I suspect it's the darkness that gives the room such glamour, the dusky corners and shadows give the lights that much more brilliance, and the air of mystery infects everyone's blood. There's a reason stages light up, dripping with the beams of spotlights, while the rest of the room is dimmed into shadow. It's amazing to think that such flamboyant performances start with the opening of this small, seemly door. Of course, I'm just stalling with my musings, but the crowd is gathering and though I don't have nearly as much to put on as the queens, I still have a costume to get into.
I yank open the door, igniting squeals of alarm and cussing. Queens in half-drag, and half-dress throw fabrics and hands across themselves in defence of the cool breeze that sweeps past me into the scorching room.
"Girl, close that door," one of them, an imposing man in tights and padding near the door commands calmly. The peach-coloured padding stands out against his dark skin, and it's almost ridiculous how confident he stands in such an ensemble. If all of the padding, squeezing, plucking, shaving, rubbing isn't a sacrifice for art, then I don't know what is.
"Sorry," I mumble, shyly slipping into the opposite corner free of other bodies, but packed with a costume rack and piles of boxes.
The room is surprisingly modest, with painted walls and stand-up mirrors, the whole side wall behind the stage taken up by two old occupied vanities covered in bottles and palettes of makeup. A hole on either side, topping small stair blocks, leads into the velvet folds just offstage where the chatter from the bar filters through. I'd always assumed that the change room was a noisy, gossipy place, probably in the same way that boys imagine the girl's locker room to be. From the other side of the stage it seems likely that the exuberance and energy appearing onstage must sprout behind the curtain, but the room is quiet and concentrated. The performers save all their energy for the blinding lights awaiting them.
I get a few sidelong glances, but don't feel too singled-out in the hot, cramped space, and I begin to relax and focus on getting into character. Besides, I assume they got the run-down of the set from the club's owner just the same as I did, and had had time to prepare for me. A drag king, in a drag queen's world. Most people might assume that they were the same world, but drag queens are much more mainstream and, I can admit, more popular than kings, at least in this city.
I wonder if it's still misogyny when people would rather see women onstage then men. Women played by men. Why would people rather see men onstage in everyday circumstances, but the portrait of femininity on display here? Maybe because it is just that: a portrait. I wonder at the fact that this club, the hub of our small gay community, hates women; especially lesbians. Perhaps straight people think we're united, but all the places I've looked, we've always been severely divided. The club is run by two older men with an open relationship, who are clinging to the idea of some old gay bathhouse, except they want young gay men to attend too. Well, there isn't many instances in which a young gay man won't have any straight or lesbian female friends.
Imagine my surprise when the owner found our drag troop on social media and asked me to perform. Why me specifically, I didn't ask. I feel much more at ease with my troop surrounding me, the five, sometimes six, of us goofing around in low-pressure venues, and bolstering each other from the sidelines, even in our solo acts. This atmosphere feels cold and detached, as if it's every drag performer for herself.
The people in the audience are expecting an exclusively over-the-top performance of women belting out popular songs and instead they'll get a shy boy dancing to a little-known R&B song. I hope I can pull this off. There is a lot riding on this performance. After all, it's not like this town is the big leagues of drag or anything, but so many women have told me how much it means to them to have me perform at the only gay club in the city; to finally feel like lesbians desires and influence are important, instead of some unfortunate happenstance. I'm putting too much pressure on myself. They wouldn't have called to me to perform unless they had already committed to re-branding themselves. Still, I can't help but psyche myself out. Maybe it's some kind of hidden sadism.
"Ladies and Gentlemen. Welcome, welcome." I hear a familiar voice boom over the loudspeaker, but I can't remember the name of the announcer. All I know is that her Cher-inspired look passed by me and commenced the show while I was taking my time adjusting my clothing. The audience claps and cheers with moderate enthusiasm.
I don't have much to put on, but all the other performers seem to be near ready, and I feel tiny next to their towering forms in nothing but a muscle shirt and my tight underwear, in which I adjust a balled-up sock. I never bothered to get proper costume props for my act, but if the night goes well I might have to invest in some. I feel like Connie & Carla, all of sudden: too womanly, despite being surrounded by huge boobs and butts and coiffures. Hurrying to button up my crisp, white dress shirt, and peel on black dress pants, I hear "Believe" rip across the speakers, Cher's voice belting out the lyrics. One thing to help my nerves is that I'll never know how the performers before me did, and how I did in comparison.
Her set ends, and she turns on the mic, cajoling the audience with cheeky, dirty comments. "I hear we have a bachelorette party here tonight!" Some whooping erupts. "I'm glad you didn't bring your man here, 'cause you know this sugar would turn him," the women laugh. "i need to get myself a man...but I wouldn't bring him here... these women are hot! And I think our next performer is the biggest slut of them all, give it up for Harlotte Monroe!"
The spitting image of Marilyn Monroe, besides a slightly more pronounced jaw and her darker skin, the queen who first spoke to me as I entered is lavishly draped in glittering diamonds and a bright pink dress, with a heavily hair-sprayed blonde wig. She is hovering near the steps and breathing deeply, but with the mention of her name, it's like a switch has flipped and her character blossoms before my eyes. With a decorated, graceful tread, she navigates the steps in heels like royalty, and enters to the intro of 'Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend'.
I adjust the tensor bandage wrapped around my chest hiding my breasts and move to the free seat at the vanity to lather my short hair in strong-smelling gel. I coat the sides, then move onto puffing up the top and spraying a thick layer of hairspray. The fumes make me cough, but the others in the room seem used to the toxic cloud. It's no wonder that the more feminine men seem so much more at ease in character, whereas the time-worn practice of appearing manly lingers on the slightly awkward faces of the more masculine drag queens.
Others seem to have set gender expressions they follow in the narrow footsteps placed before them, whereas I've always felt so malleable one way or the other. Drag is said to feel natural and liberating to many, but it feels very much like a performance to me, and very contrary to my natural state; that's why it's fun.
My palms are clammy and I feel like I'm going to puke. There are a few more acts to go before mine and the waiting is the worst part. I wish I could just get it over with. The announcer has retreated backstage and is adjusting her padding, squishing the boobs together and dabbing the sweat from her chest and face and puffing loudly. She looks over at me and pauses in mid-dab, her face softening from its concentrated frown to something like sympathy.
"Oh, honey, you look white as a sheet," she says in her regular, deep voice. Throwing a thick arm around my shoulder, the scent of perfume and sweat overwhelm my senses. Her skin has that damp, warm quality of working out that isn't unpleasant. I manage an embarrassed smile, and duck my head a little so my hair doesn't get messed up. "Just don't think about it too much. Go over your routine and don't think about the audience. it's just like you're practising."
I laugh, a little more reedy and nervously than I would have liked. "Thanks."
She bobs her head once and perks her ears up, listening to the song outside coming to an end. Ducking down to look in the mirror, and primping with a last ditch effort, she composes her persona and exits through the little opening to applause and cheers, passing the exiting performer on her way.
"What a whore, am I right?" I hear her say to the audience, before I drown out the noise around me and try to take her advice. Focus. Focus on the moves, the song, not the audience out there or the bodies whirling in practice, stripping, or primping. The clamor around me has risen to a crescendo now that the show is in full swing, but I manage to drown it out with the tune and beat of my own set playing in my head. I image my inspirations, a little Justin Timberlake, a little Usher. How do men move their heads?
I picture them, tilting upward, exposing the clean line of their jaw, in defiance and confidence. Now the tender parts, bowing the head, furrowing the brows. They move their eyebrows, their hands, drawing attention away from their lips in an opposite fashion of women. I am like a little boy sitting in front of the television, practicing the curl of a lip or a glare like my favourite male action star.
How have I picked up and developed female movements? What movements have I learned from other women, my mother, my sister? I have to erase all those now. I have to analyze, compartmentalize them into distinctly gendered things and put them aside. I remember being a teenager and hating feeling so womanly, my budding sexuality telling me that I was different from most other people but the habits I'd normalized into myself, so natural they were like breathing, were hard to shake.
I would sit with my legs far apart on the bus like the boys. I would run my fingers through short hair in a controlled letting down of my guard. All that may have helped, the seedlings to drag, but this is completely different. Because I'd never felt wrong being a girl, I just felt like a girl in the wrong place. I felt like I had to set myself apart from the other girls, like a beacon sending its light into a vast, endless night hoping for someone to come and stay and say they feel the same.
But to erase all the little things, all the minor details programmed into me and to download another program entirely, that is the challenge. I run through my steps, holding back from the lack of space. Place my leg out. No, there was too much hip in that. I try again, stiffening my leg. Kids have their whole childhood to learn their places, their movements, and mannerisms. I've been doing drag for three years, so I'm like a toddler, and everyone knows that toddlers are notoriously bad at understanding their gender roles.
My saving grace is that I've had all the years of watching male-dominated tv programming and movies as a reference. I don't know how the drag queens do it, but they must be better versed in on-screen female protagonists than even me: the big feminist.
There are six acts before me. When the fifth goes up, I sit down at the vanity again and get out my makeup kit. Some of the women in my troop need facial hair to offset their softer faces. Mine is fairly androgynous, but I brush on a little charcoal-colour for a hint of a five-o'clock shadow. I use some shade to define my cheekbones and jawline, and white underneath to bring out the colour.
The most well-know queen, Sandra Bullcock, in a long, brown wig and a pop princess outfit comments as she walks by, "ooh, very nice, honey. You look handsome." I nod my head in thanks, but keep the smiling for onstage. Her drag personality is pure snob, so I take her compliment to heart, bolstering my confidence.
The time is closing in and it is all I can do to keep my dizzy head on my neck straight and the content of my stomach in their place. The audience's enthusiasm seems to be quieting down, maybe the response to a bad set is that obvious, or maybe they're getting restless. Either way, it deflates my own enthusiasm a little, but maybe it's better this way. After all, if they have lower expectations, I'll look better? Or at the very least, any messing up won't be the centre focus, it will just be background to their chatter.
It's just like playing low-key venues with my troop. Usually we're hired to play gigs at little bars and dives around the city that want to bring something "exotic" to their customers. I love the word 'troop'. It speaks of a time when performers travelled from town to town, scratching a living and sacrificing for their art. We're a novelty to them, but it doesn't bother me as much as it used to. There's nothing for them to compare us to, and I don't worry so much about impressing them.
But this is my community and a good performance could open up the doors to more drag kings on stage and more equal opportunities for the contradicting tastes in this bar. I groan internally to myself. I wish Sarah was here, my duet partner and life partner. Life partner? Nobody uses that term anymore. She's my girlfriend, and as much as it killed her, she couldn't get the night off of work. She applied for a bartender job here, once but they have a pretty steady streak of only hiring men.
I'm sure the other women from my troop are out in the audience by now, so at least I'll have somewhere to go after the act. Some soft cushion of familiar arms and voices to envelope me after all this is over. They promised to film this for her, but just her presence always makes me feel invincible. I shoot her a quick text: "Going onstage soon. I'll text you after. I love you baby." She probably won't get it until after I'm done my four minute song, but it makes me feel more connected to her anyways.
Harlotte Monroe passes me a bright blue shot with a flirty wink. Most of the queens get ready, then mingle and drink, flirt and watch the show before they have to go up. They softly open and fasten the door to the change room with experience and a courtesy that I had lacked.
But I'm stuck, confined to the dressing room and frozen in the place for most the time that I wait, fearing getting myself out of zone or maybe fearing feeling inadequate next to the other acts. I don't want to lose my grip and my focus. And I'll have the element of surprise on my side this way. If there's one thing no one is expecting, save perhaps the bachelorette party who probably walked in not knowing what to expect, it is a drag king appearing onstage in the midst of all the feminine acts.
"Boy, you're up." The announcer pats me on the back as she heads out to introduce me. Boy. I can go from "girl" to "boy" in the span of a costume change. Drag queens know the significance of staying true to character. For the next four minutes, I am a boy. I let the feeling infect me, let the new program's instruction wash over me. I down the sickly, sweet shot and get to my feet.
"Our next performer comes from the Lover Boi Drag Troop, please welcome Joystick!" There is a smattering of applause and as I pass her, "good luck kid," she says away from the microphone as she hands it to me. It's switched off, and I clutch it for dear life in my sweaty palms.
My music starts up, bouncing around the room, and I take a leap of faith, hurling myself off the cliff into the unknown void below. My song starts playing and I swagger out onstage. The crowd is chatting at first, but they reluctantly quiet down. In my mind, I have to forget the crowd is there, so I picture myself in front of the mirror, at home in its relaxed atmosphere.
I feel stiff and rigid at first, but soon my movements are flowing more freely in the bright spotlights that smear out the faces below into dark smudges. The music plays out on the loud speaker, and it helps that I love this song. Though I'm sure people would much rather hear popular music, the soothing beats help put wind beneath my feet and I couldn't help dancing to it even if I wanted to. Except this isn't my dancing, the movements are comfortable with practice, but foreign to my natural body.
Joystick needs to have confidence bordering on arrogance; confidence in amounts that I'm not sure I really possess myself. At times, I wonder if I'm playing him or if he's playing himself through me.
Everything is going well until I tune into the crowd for just a second, which is a mistake. The noise and chatter have increased, and I'm hit with a sudden wave of doubt which catches the edge of my tightly choreographed routine and flings it wide open. I repeat the same movement I just did over again, and I realize it too late, so I just try to roll with it while simultaneously worrying that I'm boring the crowd.
I gather my energy up and perform until the song dies out and a rise of applause takes its place, but I suspect the end of my performance was a little lacklustre. Either way, it's over now, and none of the horrible things my twisted mind came up with happened.
I'm sweating and I can feel the heat in my cheeks. Exhilarated, and a little light headed, I let the pride that crouches in my heart to rear up and overwhelm the self-doubt. I head backstage, which all of a sudden has changed from the expectant waiting room, to a dull, quiet room that I want to be out of as quick as possible. It's the difference between waking up to your own house in the morning, with fresh sunlight pouring in and endless possibility before you, to coming home at the end of the day and just wanting to crawl into bed.
I quickly change my clothes and wipe the makeup off my face with a damp cotton pad from my bag. The gelled hair looks a little off against my casual, baggy clothing, but I decide it will do for the ride home. Sarah won't be home for another hour, so I'll have a drink with my drag troop and meet her at the apartment right on time.
"Great job out there," the queen with the heavy metal look calls as she passes by me to start her set. "Thanks. Good luck!" I call back. She winks in response and adopts a serious intensity in her face and posture before sweeping out of view. I leave my heavy bag in the corner of the room to come back for when I'm ready to leave, and open the small door with more care than I entered with.
I can almost hear a collective sigh of relief from the few remaining performers in the room at my caution. Evanescence is playing on the loud speaker, and as I round the corner, I smile at the emotion she pours into her dance. Her chest heaves with the singer's own pain, and the songs lyrics play out on every part of her body.
I'm disappointed with the crowd, who twiddle their thumbs and murmur in low voices like children at church. They don't really appreciate the art, they just want to be entertained. I'm about to press send on a text to Sarah telling her of my plans, when I hear my name called.
My drag troop stand near the back wall of the small room, clustered and welcoming like the beacon my soul has always called out for. They are my family, and with them is Sarah, her face glowing in the revolving lights. I'm accosted with whispered greetings and compliments which I return full of enthusiasm.
Sarah takes me by the hand and kisses me. She whispers in my ear, "you were amazing," and her warmth breath tickles the fine hairs on my neck. She's also revelling in how well her surprise played out, the mischievous smile lingering on her lips. "You got the night off?" I ask.
"I bribed Josh to stay on until close for me," she explains, her attention torn between me and the performance out of courtesy to the both of us.
We watch the last two acts and the announcer come on and close the show. I don't compare myself to the other acts at all, instead I quietly admire all the little things that go into the show that work so seamlessly that I'm positive anyone who hasn't done drag would never even notice. The club has taken on a kind of different meaning for me. It's a subtle difference but there, nonetheless. I feel a little like it belongs to me and I belong to it, at least, a small piece of myself has been passed onto it in this time and place, forever rooted in its history, no matter how small a moment it was in the grand scheme of things.
I manage to catch the owner as the bulk of the crowd moves upstairs as steadily as they had trickled down earlier, like chunks of ice breaking off of a central piece and drifting away into the current, so when I look up next, the room is suddenly very subdued. "Hey, thanks for letting me do that. It was lots of fun."
"Uh, yeah no problem." He is distracted and impatient, scanning the room around me for something. "You were great." "Do you want me to come back next week?" "Um, we'll talk about it." He hones in on whatever his target is, his eyes snapping into focus off to the left, "listen, I gotta of but I'll message you."
He scurries off and catches up with one of the drag queens, his demeanour shifting from anxious to gooey and flattering. The conversation doesn't leave me very hopeful, but just by my act tonight, the seed has been planted. I have no doubt that drag kings are what this place needs, and maybe the wheels have been set in motion. It's the small victories, I console myself, and turn back to my troop.