How I Finally Got Over My Fear of Drag Queens
Drag queen culture has reached a new high—but that doesn't mean all men understand it
In elementary school I played a Spice Girls CD on a boombox in my parents’ basement and practiced the kick I had seen one of them do in a music video. In front of a blank TV screen, I danced to see myself move—to watch my joyful reflection, to toss my invisible hair.
Fifteen years later, I sat in a strip mall gay bar in Indiana, having just arrived in the state for graduate school. It was the sort of place that had opaque glass blocks for windows, confetti from a bygone celebration hung with a shrug as permanent bar decor. The strobe lights dimmed as someone yelled “Hey, girl!”, words that fired past me like a bullet. I had never seen a drag queen in person before, and my body tensed with fear. I had the unshakeable sense I was supposed to love drag queens. Why did I fear them?
What is drag, and who decides? In a March 2018 interview with Time, drag historian and Tisch School of the Arts professor Joe E. Jeffreys provides a definition of drag that goes beyond a stereotype of gay men flaunting big hair and tulle gowns. “Drag,” says Jeffreys, “is anytime that someone is putting on clothing that is considered to be not appropriate to them, and then wearing it with some type of ironic distance.” RuPaul famously quips that drag mocks identity. “We are shapeshifters,” RuPaul has said. “We are God in drag.” But even RuPaul himself, a drag paragon, came under fire for his controversial comments during an interview with The Guardian about “probably not” letting fully transitioned transgender performers on Drag Race. Drag’s purpose, its power, and even it seems its definition, seems to change as we assume it as both performer and observer.
Though I have been out as a gay man for years, early on, I struggled with my gayness in a way I refused to acknowledge. Sitting at that small round table in that small Indiana gay bar, only feet away from the queens, drag made me feel seen. In the presence of a fierce performer, I felt the gap between who I wanted to be—the idea of a man—press up against who I feared I might be: a man who possessed (what I viewed as) feminine traits. The broken wrist I would catch in photos others had taken of me, the slenderness of my frame. How I discovered tinted moisturizer and in the quiet of my bathroom dabbed under my eyes, thinking as I blended the tan into my complexion like makeup.
My unwillingness to accept my femininity was more damaging than I thought it could have been at the time.
My Indiana town had only two gay bars, and it was sometimes hard to know exactly when the queens would perform. I often found myself sulking in the back of either bar drinking with a friend when a drag show would begin. Quietly, I felt that anxiety rise in me again, time after time.
My unwillingness to accept my femininity was more damaging than I thought it could have been at the time. I attributed all interest in femininity (and engagement of femininity with me) to, if not my ability to perform masculinity, the regular attempt of it. I began to try to camouflage, which is another way of saying I projected, always wondering what was being thought of me, and how I could change that. My toxic masculinity was not toxic; it was what kept me in all ways viable, tricked me into thinking—as I suspect it does so many—that it was what I needed.
It seems obvious to me now that this toxic masculinity was something I had put in place to deny myself joy, which in its smile I had called a feminine thing.
Befriending the best drag queen in Bloomington, Indiana was magic, destiny or maybe even God. It was something bigger guiding me and to which I will always be indebted. Sometimes, on a packed Saturday night, Mocha Debeaute would come dancing around the back, parting the ocean of bodies, strong perfume in her wake. And she would recognize me and give me a kiss on the cheek. Without thinking, like that. Seeing me.
My last year in town, I lived across the street from one another. We started talking. We drank a lot of vodka and ate a lot of pizza. We watched horror movies and I recall him once holding my eyes open with his hands during a particularly grotesque scene, the nails on his fingers somehow adding to the terror of the moment. After, I would try to sleep and text him from across the street: I’m scared as shit! He was a generous and loving friend, and my attitude toward drag shifted, quite quickly, to pure admiration. I felt a rush of pride whenever he performed, and more than once annoyed a stranger by telling them mid-number, "That’s my amazing friend." I could not imagine a drag queen with more elegance, poise, and self-respect that overflowed—a love that spilled over onto me.
Months later, I asked him if he would put my face in drag, and a few weeks after that he did. It took a long time. I sat on a stool in his living room while he appraised my features as canvas. There were many more considerations than expected. At one point my face had to “bake” for what felt like an hour. He applied glue to my brows as if he were trying to pull them off by repeatedly stamping them with the stick. Foundation was applied, removed and reapplied. I was told things about my face I had not noticed, like that I have a nice nose. Never before had it occurred to me that this careful attention to one’s features, the act of deliberate transformation in slow motion, is inherently one of self-love. Napkins blotted in shades of pink and tan lay crumpled around me on the floor when I finally got up to go to the bathroom mirror.
He had definitely done his best, but I deflated with the recognition my face is not especially pretty in drag. One eye was sort of wonky, and my brows stuck out in an alien way despite the globs of glue attempting to weigh them down.
Still, I felt changed in more ways than one. I made a lipstick kiss on the mirror. I spent half an hour scrubbing the makeup off my face. The next morning I found foundation smeared on my pillowcase.
I realized then that it might have been him I was so afraid of in that dark strip mall gay bar, holding so desperately onto the things that I was taught made sense—like the assured way I had seen men walk.
When I said goodbye to him before I left town for New York, I cried next to packed-up boxes for 10 minutes in my bedroom. I realized then that it might have been him I was so afraid of, three years before, in that dark strip mall gay bar, holding so desperately onto the things that I was taught made sense—like the assured way I had seen men walk, the glorified absence of feeling a virtue. Growing up I saw men express their machismo subtly but with learned flex. And Jeffreys might disagree, because there is nothing ironic about the way they wore it—but you tell me that isn’t drag at its finest.
Leaving town was a spiritual experience. On one of my last nights before the move, some friends came over to my apartment to pregame a last hurrah at the gay bar. I had just given my MFA thesis reading, and where others had family fly in, I had those friends. The night was calm and cool. As we walked down the street, I saw the five of them from behind, awash in the glow of streetlights in the spring dark. One friend jumped on another, piggyback-style, and I couldn’t help but think of that opening chaotic tremble, that music video from behind. The Spice Girls throwing sheet music in the air, dancing joyfully with snobs, and running.
I used to tell people that I learned my Spice Girls kick in dance class, but I didn’t. In the story, which I often told, a dance teacher had forced me into a split when I was young, snapping my hamstring, which had made this move possible. But of course that isn’t true. Sometimes at night I remember stretching my leg by the glow of a nightlight, preparing for that one-two kick, that big pow—a hitch kick—anticipating the way it would announce me, on the beat, alone in the dark.
I always tried to hit that kick at the right time, on those words that then felt empty but now seem almost prophetically like advice, calling to that future me in the back of a bar in Indiana, waiting for a kiss on the cheek: Hi-ci-ya! Hold tight!