Drag is an art form that has been creating stirs in the heteronormative world for a long time, starting from the earlier drag queens, an increased interest in the art, to shows like RuPaul’s drag race that make the art form available for public view across geographical borders. No job comes without its challenges, and drag is not an exception. On the occasion of the International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia celebrated this month, Gaysi asked 6 drag queens to narrate their experiences with Transphobia while they performed. Transphobia can be described as an attitude of discrimination and prejudice against people who do not conform to the gender norms that exist as the status quo, affecting anyone and everyone who dares to transcend the binary.
Disclaimer: While preparing for this piece, my first concern was whether ‘transphobia’ is the right term to describe what I’ve been experiencing. ‘Trans-phobia’ might imply that the subject is transgender.
Personally, I identify as gender-fluid and experience a glamorous gender only in certain settings. I therefore certainly wouldn’t want to appropriate the experiences of people who navigate everyday life with transgender identity.
However, I found that the term ‘transphobia’ is broadly used to denote an attitude towards people who do not conform to mainstream society’s gender expectations. And it turns out I certainly do not conform to these expectations – as pointed out explicitly by two opinionated muscle-men at one of my gigs.
It was a regular club night and the mood was easy. My drag-sister and I had just finished our performances and were looking for the bar. Exhausted, we were snaking our way through the crowd but would now and then pause for a selfie, or to return thanks for a compliment.
When we were almost at the bar, a tall guy blocked my way. He looked like he lived at the gym, and my first instinct was to smile for another compliment.
Of course, another look at his face and my heart dropped. He had the expression of someone who’d smelt something foul and was not pleased about it.
Uncomfortable, I tried to edge past him, but he grabbed my hand, leaned in and said “yeh kya kar rakha hai?”. Incredulously, I said “excuse me?” and he responded with “this isn’t acceptable in our society”.
Pulling my hands away forcefully, I retorted with “yeh ‘kala’ hai, kabhi suna hai?” and tried to walk past towards the bar. Gym-boy’s friend was waiting behind him. He looked even more threatening if possible, and his words were even more ominous. He simply said “come to Chandigarh, I’ll show you”.
It took me a little time to register what he was implying, and by that time I had lost the two of them in the crowd. I decided not to get upset.
An hour or so later, when I was dancing with my friends, the first guy reappeared in front of me, considerably drunker. I refused to show any fear and just stood my ground, whipping my hair about in sudden movements to unsettle him from getting too cocky.
Eventually, he worked up the courage to approach me. I fixed him with my most venomous stare, but his glazed eyes just reflected it back. He leaned in closer, and I braced myself. “This time”, I told myself, teeth grinding, “I would show him”.
Almost lovingly, he whispers …..”So how much do you charge for a night?”
I don’t experience much Transphobia while preforming because it is usually at a gay bar where people are there to see drag performances. However I do experience it on the streets on my way back and forth from shows or events. It is mostly in angry stares, laughter and whispers. Sometimes people will take pictures of me while I am not looking and I can only imagine what that is for. I am lucky because I have never had someone say something to my face or have never been physically assaulted which I am grateful for.
I live in Chicago which is a very large metropolitan area. People are more open- minded here. I live near the gay neighborhood which is also helpful. We have Lyft in the city, a taxi app so I can have a taxi come to my house and drop me off at the event. That makes it easy to travel to events in drag. I do still take public transportation sometimes and usually things go well. There was one time when a baseball game had just let out and some of the people from the event were not happy to be sharing a train cart with me. There was lots of staring and laughing but if that is the worst I endure to do my art, I am ok with that.
I’ve had all sorts of experiences. In the digital age, people see me from all over the world. According to Instagram data analytics, my audience is mostly people from the US, India, UK, Canada, Pakistan and Italy. I get a lot of cis-men, usually straight, who message me and harass me. They often fetishise me as some sexual object: a woman with a penis, what they perceive me as and consider a lesser form of a woman. As far as I’m concerned, it’s extremely disrespectful to my art form and trans women. I also get a lot of queer people who try to pressure me into getting gender affirmation surgeries. Firstly, it’s none of your business. For me, my drag form has nothing to do with my gender identity. Out of drag, I am non-binary and feel comfortable with my body—it’s true that not all non-binary folk do. My being non-binary is overlooked and rejected, regardless of how many times I say it. People only think what they see. You can be any gender and be a drag artist but people only see Laila Gulabi and assume her to be either a transwoman, a cis-woman, or a cis-man dressed up as a woman because of their understanding of drag and gender or lack thereof. I have also received death threats which are quite scary being so young. My fears are also exacerbated by the violent threats other South Asian and/or Muslim drag artists and trans/gender-non-conforming people have received. It’s incredible to think that I can still receive them in New York City in 2018. Consequently, I take many precautions to keep my non-drag life extremely private. For example, I rarely share my non-drag name and, in some settings, I use different drag names for my safety.
Just wanted to let you know that I have received mostly hatred or transphobia from the gay community. Though, there are gay men who love and adore me. They can’t stand the fact a gay man chose to perform as a drag queen where I dress up in sari, makeup, wig and heels. I get various forms of verbal abuses through dating apps. I learnt to give it back by being a sassy drag queen.
It reached a point where a gay man posted a picture of drag queen with a caption inside the picture saying “Would you ever date a drag queen?”. While his caption said “I wouldn’t mind if she doesn’t hurt me”. I was furious. How could a harmless drag queen hurt a gay man? This made me convert the song “Cheap Thrills” by Sia to “Drag Queens”.
There are times that I feel drag queens are subjected to various kinds of abuses and insecurities given by the gay community. Yet, you see us in all our splendor and fierceness on stage. We are strong people and we deserve better from the community.
I usually have 2 drag performances in a year. I always get a lot of love but I do get some hate as well. I have been told things like “Oh, he just wants attention which is why he is doing all this. He doesn’t even look pretty. He has a belly and I don’t know why he doesn’t have his chest and beard when he is in drag. Doesn’t anyone tell him that he looks terrible?”.
Every time at every venue, some eyes are curious while some eyes are admiring but some are vicious. Transphobia and more of drag phobia. There are people within the community that look at drag and cross dressing in a bad way. For example, after finishing a performance after the claps and cheers dimmed down I could hear a voice which said “Madam apne santre uthalo” (madam pick up your oranges).
Performing is a tough task. And performing as someone who you aren’t ‘supposed’ to perform as is even tougher. Kudos to these queens for time and again dealing with those who intend to hurt them, with kindness, love and their killer sass.
This piece is a part of the ongoing series on the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia for the month of May, 2018. The series is an attempt to create discourse on topics that often do not appear in mainstream conversation.