Drag, Beyond Borders
by Soha Aftab, Staff Contributor
Drag is beauty; it makes heads turn, eyes widen and gasps released throughout the room. It’s performance; it’s when all eyes are on you, where all one has to do is to perform and captivate a room like never before. One grabs attention, holds onto to it and hopefully never lets go. Drag is comedy; it’s hilarious, makes you laugh and be immersed in it, letting go off your every-day stresses and instead focus on something that may not be entirely intellectual but heartwarming and fun instead.
I was introduced to drag at the age of 13. I was sitting down, trying to get some work done, hands numb from doing work that my French tutor had given me. It was a tiresome and menial task, looking through french verbs and tenses. This was when my sister decided to come in and put some TV on, “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” specifically.
I was intrigued instantly by the loud, shrill noises that were emitted from the queens and the mini challenge they were given; a test of their abilities under a time limit and with other added challenges. I found myself pushing myself away from my work and focusing on the big screen instead which was illuminated with fabulous queens walking down the runway and acting challenges, culminating in one final performance where two queens lip sync for their lives with one queen ultimately leaving the show.
As my sister put on the next episode, asking me if I was going to keep on doing my work, I decided against it, procrastinating doing the work and deciding to watch the next episode properly.
My love and adoration of drag has expanded since then, along with my knowledge of the art form known as drag. Drag was not the binary thing that I thought it was before; it wasn’t just men embodying a woman, it was art and performance. Anything that was radical, that was unexpected and anything that was different.
That was the key word when it came to drag. It was different, unique, something special that I held and still do hold very close to my heart. My passion about ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race,” has however faded a little dimmer. The exclusion of drag done by trans women, non-binary performers and bio-queens stings, the mistreatment of the queens of colour by the fandom and the judges of the show were appalling and not to mention the problematic and controversial practices of RuPaul themself.
I find myself supporting the queens individually now, especially those that I loved on the show. These include queens like Sasha Velour, Trinity K Bonet, Jujubee, Crystal Methyd, Jaida Essence Hall, Chi Chi Devayne, may she rest in peace, and so many more that deserve every bit of recognition that they deserve.
However, there is a scope of drag that I haven’t quite examined yet which is drag culture internationally-- with significance to the drag community in countries like India, Thailand and Japan. Although drag is a well-known topic in countries like the US and the UK, drag is still a developing and unknown concept in Asian countries like India.
There is an obviously stigma around the queer community in Asian countries with factors like societal expectations coming to play. Taiwan; which was the the first country in Asia to allow same-sex marriages between gay and lesbian couples; has taken a large step in making their queer-identifying citizens feel more welcome. Thailand is also a country which is ever welcoming to the LGBT+ community, especially in the aspects of drag.
In Thailand, a drag show called, “Drag Race Thailand” had come into existence in 2018; a more accepting version of Westernized alternative which welcomed all drag performers, including transgender women. The co-host is the half-Thai, half-Taiwanese drag queen Pangina Heals. Heals spoke about drag as an artform, saying "People are understanding that drag isn’t about sex or gender, but about performance and making other people happy."
Heals also addressed the idea that drag and ‘ladyboys’ are the same thing, saying "Thai people are really accepting of transexual girls, especially with the popularization of the Miss Tiffany’s pageant shows,” which is a Thai-based beauty competition for Thai transgender women, despite the fact or not that they’ve received sex reassignment surgery.
Miss Tiffany's Universe is a registered trademark of Tiffany's Show Pattaya Co, Ltd. The organization supports charity events for the less fortunate and supports The Royal-sponsored AIDS Foundation. The goal of this contest is to promote the rights and equality and improve the quality of life for transgender persons in Thailand. The pageant is also a source of significant income and opens up opportunities for pageant contestants.
Japan has always been a country where its culture seems intertwined with pure drag. This can be seen with Kabuki which is a traditional Japanese popular drama with singing and dancing performed in a highly stylized manner. A rich blend of music, dance, mime, and spectacular staging and costuming, it has been a major theatrical form in the country for four centuries.
This Kabuki dance originates from the 17th century; originally performed by biological women. However, after the sensuous nature of the dance was discovered, the female parts were now played by older men instead. This is the form of Kabuki that has endured to present-day and is said to have held major importance to the drag culture in Japan as well. The Noh Theater and Takarazuka Revue also have a huge part in forming Japan’s mainstream drag culture.
Japan is also home to a lot of unconventional drag performers, ones that are rare to be seen in the American mainstream perception of drag. A performer’s sex and gender don’t limit whether they perform as a king, queen, or mixture of both. Drag is only defined as a satire of gender through exaggerated costume.
Finally, we come to drag culture in India, my own country. Drag culture is still in a stage of infancy here; where people have their own perceptions of what drag is and means to them, confusing it with many other aspects of the queer community and more often than not making derogatory remarks and comments-- the stigma is intoxicating and never ending. Despite the decriminalization of homosexuality in India, we still have a long way to go when it comes to acceptance.
There are however drag performers in India that represent all different facets of drag and who come to show that progress is taking place in India, in those secret pockets that you can find if you know where to look. Drag artists can be comedic especially according to Maya, who is one of the first drag artists in India, who has dreams of opening her own drag club.
Other artists like Manghoe Lassi (who believes in the concept of femininity), Laila Gulabi (who uses drag to comprehend her own cultural identity), Veronique (who thinks drag is about pushing boundaries), Roveena Tampon (who used their unique drag name to spread awareness on menstruation which is a taboo topic in India) and Rani Kohenur (who uses drag as a platform to perform and communicate) are all different kinds of drag performers but still believe in one fundamental concept: that Drag in India isn’t here to mess around.
Many drag artists also believe the idea that India has become less accepting as the years went on. In ancient India, homosexuality was not looked upon as a blight on society but rather as a natural and whole part of society. In the book, “Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex”, there is extensive research of Sanskrit texts from ancient and medieval India, which proves hat homosexuals and the "third gender" were not only in existence in Indian society back then, but that these identities were also widely accepted.
By just a simple look into the lives of people living in ancient India, we can see that the queer community is not absent in Indian society as one might have thought. By learning more about the histories and cultures of countries when it comes to the LGBT+ community, we can better educate ourselves and learn how to experience drag in a more meaningful fashion.
This is truly, at the essence of it, what drag is.