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Hayfaa Chalabi

Against the binary: A resurging pride in my gender as drag nights reopen

I’ve always relied on the open arms of drag shows - whoever you sit next to becomes your sibling for the night.

28 Jul

Welcome to gal-dem’s brand new monthly gender column ‘Against the binary’, bringing you Yas Necati’s latest reflections on finding gentleness, home and joy as a trans person.

As the sky got darker through the windows, our bodies blurred and our feet became heavy and automatic. The acts were introduced as first time performers. Within minutes they were both naked and dancing and the older dykes I was with cheered, clapped and celebrated. I was petrified but also in awe – I thought “Wow, this is what we do here – we celebrate our bodies. We don’t hide ourselves.” 

This was my first ever live drag night, seven years ago. I can’t believe my favourite venues have been closed for over 12 months and now they’ll be finally opening back up. I’ve missed drag nights so much; not just the funny and core-shaking performances, but the overwhelming sense of community, joy and gender euphoria that comes with being part of the scene. 

If you’ve been to drag king cabaret before, it’s hard to forget your first time. I was 18, socially anxious and nerdy, with many political and pet-themed badges. Outwardly, I sported a flannel shirt and a haphazardly home-cut mullet. In a scene plucked from the pages of a gay comic book, a bunch of older dykes had adopted me and whisked me along. The event, ‘Bar Wotever’ is one of the most celebrated community occasions in London, happening every Tuesday at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. At the time, I was terrified because I didn’t know how not to hide.

“I’ve missed drag nights so much; not just the funny and core-shaking performances, but the overwhelming sense of community”

I can’t remember if this was before or after I ‘came out’ as non-binary. Either way, I was a trans body in a cis world – ingredients ever-changing so that I could try to taste my sweetest self. I felt a lot of shame as a young person, even around other queer and trans people. Growing up in a straight, cis society pushes embarrassment and discomfort into your bones, daring you to exist. However, seeing people so proud on stage during drag events made me want to be proud offstage. That night, I stayed on the sofa of Sarah, an older dyke. In the morning she made me vegan chocolate pancakes. I had tasted others being at ease, and I wanted that too. 

From then on, I was determined to get more comfortable with my own gender expression, both in performing and in my day-to-day life. I taught myself drag by watching back-to-back videos of kings applying their makeup on YouTube. I Googled what contouring was and went to the toy shop in Wood Green mall to get some face paints. The first look I tried was terrible but it hooked me. My contouring was all off and my eyebrows looked like caterpillars, but I could see the potential to make it better.

At that time in 2014, a new drag king competition was starting at The Glory in London (the competition, MAN UP!, is now Europe’s biggest drag king competition, and they’re calling for performers as I write this). I went every week, without fail, with friends from college or by myself if no one else could make it. I got into drag every time but stayed shyly in the audience. 

“We may be putting something on – a beard, a cock, a character – but ultimately, drag is the act of taking off”

It was a few years until I got on stage myself, for a night called ‘Turkish Delight’ at The Glory. My drag act was a cocky Turkish popstar called Tarkan – and in that moment I was him. When I got off stage, I was more at ease in myself than I had ever been. That first act was pretty basic and my dancing was shockingly bad, but I could feel the cheers from the room under my skin. The whole time I was up there, I felt ethereal. This is one of the things I love most about drag – people don’t give a shit whether you’re ‘good’ or ‘bad’, they just want to celebrate that you’re doing it. 

For the longest time, it seemed like the easiest way to describe what I did was to say I was the ‘opposite’ of a drag queen. But gender doesn’t contain opposites, so how can we perform it in halves? For me, drag is not about adopting gender stereotypes – it’s about transcending them. It’s about possibility. It’s about toying with lies other people told us about gender, and undoing lies that we’ve told ourselves. We may be putting something on – a beard, a cock, a character – but ultimately, drag is the act of taking off. We remove any preconceptions that might be placed on our bodies and our minds. 

There’s a poem by lisa luxx titled: for a subculture to resist capitalist co-opting it must remain impossible to define. While luxx is writing about what being a dyke means to her, I also feel this when I think about what being a king means to me. Drag is pretty impossible to define – if anything, it’s the absence of definition around gender. 

“For me, drag is not about adopting gender stereotypes – it’s about transcending them”

Our venues defy expectations too. I miss sticky pub floors, ceilings overcrowded with disco balls and crowds cheering the name of a Turkish popstar they only just met. I have always relied on the open arms of drag cabaret – you step into that space and whoever you’re sitting next to is your sibling for the night. As queer venues are opening back up, I’m feeling nostalgic for the drag experiences that are formative for so many of us.

I was already adapting my act to be a drag/poetry hybrid when lockdown hit. Over the past year, it’s been a real challenge to morph and change content for the laptop screen. I’ve seen some great shows though; last month a pal and I binge watched BoiBox online, one of London’s oldest classic drag king nights. We then spent hours on Oedipussi’s drag Choose Your Own Adventure, filmed at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, a series of Youtube videos that you had to follow along with the aim of escaping the venue. But there’s still nothing quite like live drag for me. It’s that proximity of bodies, that shamelessness and pride that we pass between each other on the dance floor. 

As venues open up again, I’m booking ahead for this month’s return of nights that celebrate kings: Cocoa Butter Club, Kings of Clubs, The Enby Show, Non Binary Cabaret, Them Fatale London and, of course, Bar Wotever. MAN UP! is also back later this year and whether performing or watching, I’ll be there in drag as always. I feel deep gratitude to all the kings who have unknowingly been my drag dads and changed me. I hope one day someone comes along to one of my shows and thinks “Wow, this is what we do here – we celebrate bodies. We don’t hide ourselves.” And they leave feeling a little more at ease.