BY DANIEL TIRABASSI
The drag world and transgender community are often seen as two completely different worlds. Sometimes, this is an accurate assumption. Other times, this could not be farther from the truth.
For the first time in this column, I will talk about my own personal experiences as it relates to this topic. At 20, I created a drag persona that was nothing like me. Dontae Night was outgoing, flamboyant, charismatic and the epitome of male sexuality. He wore costumes with partially open shirts, tight pants and rhinestones that glittered in the stage light. At the same time, I was shy, reserved and did all I could to blend in, including wearing baggy black clothes at all times.
Like many transgender people who aren’t sure who they are, I had labeled myself as a lesbian and idolized drag kings because they weren’t afraid of showing their masculine side through performance. In the summer of 2007, I decided that I wanted to try my hand at drag. I booked my first show at Ladies’ Night in an Akron gay bar called The Interbelt. When I got to the dressing room, the host, Danyel Vasquez, did something I was not prepared for. After thanking me for making the almost hour drive, she looked me up and down — and then asked me if I was transgender. Though my answer was no, the following six months would end up proving me a liar.
The more I performed, the more time I wanted to spend as my persona. One day I bound my chest while I was hanging out around my house. For the first time off the stage, I felt comfortable in who I was. This is a story that I hear from so many transgender people now — drag helped them discover the person that they truly are.
This is when the worlds start to battle. This mostly happens due to hormones being seen as an unfair advantage during pageantry. Though pageants are not judged on a performer’s appearance in their illusion, some performers feel that being transsexual should be disqualified because their art is no longer an illusion. However, performance and costuming has nothing to do with a person’s gender identity.
About a year after I came out as trans, a group of my transgender friends started a YouTube channel called TransOhioKingz. On this channel, transgender drag kings from all over the state talked about various parts of life being a transgender drag king. We discussed our decisions to still be referred to as drag kings versus male entertainers, what it is like in a dressing room as a transgender king, and how the lines between drag life and real life blur as one transitions.
Many on the group were still competing in the pageant circuit and winning titles. I also competed in a few pageants and did well. It showed a slight shift in the drag community toward accepting transgender artists. Though preparing for shows became easier due to no longer needing to paste on a beard or bind our chests, transgender kings were showing that the art behind the performance doesn’t change as one transitions.
This shift in acceptance of trans kings is mirroring the acceptance trans queens. Some of the idols I had when I started drag were in the process of transitioning and winning statewide titles. These idols included Danyel Vasquez and Brionna Brooks. As I watched them almost effortlessly break the boundary between doing drag and being trans in Ohio, I found hope for the future of the art.
That hope is now national. Thanks to the popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the world of drag has become a mainstream phenomenon. Even though RuPaul has stated that she is not a fan of transgender drag queens, a number of past and present contestants have come out as transgender and are doing amazing things with the art. The reboot of Queer Eye also showcased a transgender drag king as he returned to his home bar after completing top surgery (the removal of breast tissue from a male presenting transgender person).
Though Dontae Night has only been making special appearances over the past few years, he still plays a huge role in my identity. He is the one who taught me who I truly am and gave me an outlet to experiment with who I could be. He gave me a creative way to work through my emotions while I transition. He gave me a platform through which I made friends who are going through the same things that I am.
There are many times when I miss performing on a regular basis. It’s almost like I am missing a huge part of myself. To this day, when I walk into a local bar, most people still address me by Dontae. This is both a good and bad thing. On one hand, it means that people paid attention when I was performing and knew exactly who I was. On the other hand, it means that people only saw me for my performance and not the person behind it. It almost feels like my transition is a part of the performance and not who I truly am. At times, it has made me think that my transition is a call for all the attention I got when I was on stage. Though I know this to not be true, it is hard to separate the two sometimes. This is a major reason for Dontae taking a back seat in my life. It was a way for me to separate my art from my real life.
This became incredibly clear as I was nearing the end of my regular performance career, which had lasted almost ten years. I started to realize that my body was taking a very masculine form. Because of this, I started to integrate stripping into many of my performances. In the local bars, make entertainers would ask me for tips on stripping in their performance. Dontae became known as the “stripping king” because I would get down to my binder and boxers at every show I did. Though this became a crowd pleaser, I lost the creative aspects that drew me into the art. It would sadden me to do an artistic piece and see the audience pay little attention to the performance then turn to do a stripper piece and watch the crowd erupt in excitement.
As I decided to semi-retire from drag, I worried that I would lose my sense of self. As it turns out, I found more of myself than I would have if I continued performing regularly. For me, drag has turned into a mark of celebration instead of a way of life. It signifies something important to me rather than a regular night. This showed me, more than anything, that the two worlds need to be separate. By treating drag as a special part of my life, I learned that the worlds need to meet, but do not have to define one another.
The drag world and transgender community are indeed two separate worlds, but they intersect at many points. Whether it is learning one’s true identity through art or pushing the lines of performance, transgender people play a huge part in the drag world and vice versa. It’s being proven that when the two worlds collide, both communities benefit. It’s just another way for the express one’s self through art.
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