How ‘Drag Race’ Helped Me See My Non-Binary Identity
When I look at my personal aesthetic (if I could call it that), I see something that gives me room to move through binaries.
like low-key drag
I wish I could look like this all the
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
RuPaul’s Drag RaceDrag
All these costumes, ways of presenting a part of yourself to the world, made the idea of wearing gowns or dresses feel like a look in search of an idea, a body in search of a soul. And it reminded me of when people said my donning wigs and makeup, going out for drinks with bright red lips, was a kind of drag. At this point, I was more secure in my gender, and in new attempts at presentation; watching people in drag made me realize just how wrong the comparison between what I was, and am doing—whatever that is, and whatever it might become—and drag.
I couldn’t take to pageant drag, the glorious gowns and the perfect make-up, the hyper-feminine performance of womanhood through the eyes of a gay man. After all, I’m none of those things. I’m drawn to the subversive, the explorations of queer history and how we wear it on ourselves, the mantra wear a crown, fuck with gender.
Whenever I watch a season of Drag Race, it’s these challenges to the ideas and limits of definitions that appear in the style of the queens I take a liking to. There’s usually one each season, and they tend to be the ones that I find to be the most subversive, engaging with drag as a way to challenge the limits of gender.
I watched season twelve on an old iPad, as spring turned to summer and I was locked down with family in my parents’ house. Watching it there, away from everyone else, made it feel like some kind of secret. I gravitated towards one of the eventual runners-up: Gigi Goode. I liked them for wearing things other than gowns; for dominating the annual musical challenge as a really sexy Madonna, and for talking about their relationship with the gender binary.
Before the Snatch Game—one of the marquee challenges of any given season in which contestants impersonate celebrities in a quick-fire Q&A style panel show (the basis is Match Game, which I’ve never seen)—I remember Gigi saying I don’t think I’ve ever said this out loud before, but I think I’m fluid. Sometimes I identify as more male, and sometimes I identify as more feminine. I think that I’m both . . . and I’m neither.
Listening to them allowed me to feel like I was heard in a way that I hadn’t been up to that point. It showed me that any limits that might be associated with gender presentation and drag were put there by other people; mainstream drag, at times, assumes that femininity means drag and vice versa, ignoring the existence of vast amounts of drag, including drag kings. It leaves me constantly looking for something that exists beyond the gender binary.
But many of Gigi’s looks are rooted in the kind of fashion that’s traditionally seen as masculine: They walk into the Werk Room dressed as a pirate, and when the category (the runway theme for any given week) is Stars and Stripes Forever, they’re dressed like a high-fashion redshirt. To me, this is revolutionary, taking the masculine and turning it into something else that isn’t the hyper-feminine end of a binary, finding ways to exist in-between. Like their Madonna, Gigi is Unapologetic.
It leaves me constantly looking for something that exists beyond the gender binary.
After finishing season twelve of Drag Race, I didn’t go back and watch from the start of the whole show, but instead watched season seven after being told I think you’d really like Violet Chachki’s drag. Violet’s drag is polished, and she’s known for her cinched waist (satirized masterfully in a Death Becomes Her runway, cinched to the nth degree and wearing an oxygen mask) and high fashion style. In Violet’s first main stage runway look, she gets told by one of the judges, Michelle Visage, I look at this, and I’m seeing boy. (The moments where the phrase “boy drag” comes out sounding like a dirty word are where I know I’ll never see eye-to-eye with Drag Race.) But Violet’s nude illusion was a reveal, beneath something classically feminine.
To me, Violet’s drag feels different from Gigi’s, which takes the masculine and makes it feminine, or pokes fun at classically feminine tropes. Violet is less about the space in-between, and she is more interested in refuting the limits of the popular definition of drag; she reveals herself to be more than “just a fashion queen.” Violet understands how coming down the runway in looks that take the feminine to the extreme or in next to nothing, are performances as much as they’re about sewing together an outfit; femininity is performed, informed not just by the clothes and makeup but by the walk, the look given to the judges at the end of the runway.
I still feel heavy-handed putting on makeup; my hand tends to shake a little as I apply purple eyeliner before going out to my first drag show. The lighting in my bedroom is bad; the light itself is basically useless, and only after stepping into the stark brightness of the bathroom do I see that I might have gone a little overboard.
It’s a process of trial and error, and probably always will be, even as the ideas of what I want to be become more clearly defined, the act of becoming them is something that I’ll be reaching towards forever. These ideas are rooted in the styles of femininity that I find the most resonate; I’ve jokingly described the shorthand as being femme slutty cyborg versus butch riot grrrl.
The appeal of the riot grrrl isn’t just that it can embody one part of a presentation that’s either masc or femme, butch or lipstick, but the fact that it can be multiple things at once, something I learned from watching Violet and Gigi on the Drag Race runway.
The punk aesthetic of riot grrrl is at once a reclamation of the feminine, and a refusal to be entirely defined by it; bringing together bright, high-femme makeup (those purples and pinks; pastels were the first colors I was told would look good on me) with clothes that read as classically queer and butch: a tartan long-sleeve tucked into blue jeans. The music video for Sleater-Kinney’s “Jumpers” has members of the band in different outfits that seem to go on a journey from masc to femme; a suit on one end, and a dress on the other.
I wore the denim jacket, my pink wig, and a wonderfully garish Pink Flamingos shirt to the launch of a poetry anthology that I’d been published in. Before I got there, I went to a £1 matinee screening of Bonnie and Clyde. It was raining, and I bought a tote bag to hold the book I was reading from—Pilot Press’ Modern Queer Poets—and some clothes to change into. When I left for the film, I wasn’t wearing the wig, and on top of the Pink Flamingos shirt was a pullover Pittsburgh Steelers hoodie.
When I got to the reading, I went downstairs to change. I took off the hoodie, replaced it with the denim jacket and pink wig, and fixed up my lips. Before Bonnie and Clyde, I’d sent some pictures on Snapchat with the caption butch realness in the Steelers hoodie. In the Tenderbooks basement, sent a kind of ‘after’ shot. I don’t think it was captioned.
The reading was filmed. I read the poem I had in the book, some stuff I’d written for postgrad classes, and the beginning of a sprawling prose poem/essay about history, autobiography, and the AIDS crisis. It was only when I had the wig on that the anthology’s editor—who I’d only interacted with on Instagram before, where every picture of me involves a wig or make-up—said that he recognized me.
A couple of weeks after the reading, I went out for lunch with some friends. One of them had seen the recording of the reading up on Instagram, me there with my red lips and neon pink hair. I can’t remember if the word brave or bold was used to describe my look, but it was one of them. I don’t really think it was either. At the end of the day, it’s just me. Or at least, a version of me.
Messing around with wigs, makeup, and Drag Race has helped me celebrate the fact that there are multiple versions of me, rather than avoiding them. These variations on a theme come through in a lot of simple ways; the color of my lips, how much black I wear.
The irony is that even a (non) label like non-binary is something that has expectations associated with it: androgyny, effeteness, the idea of it as womanhood-lite. But it’s its own thing, and that thing is vast, seemingly endless, with every color that I put around my eyes bringing out a different version of it, a different version of me.
I contain multitudes—and there’s something liberating about saying that without putting it in italics as a direct reference—and so does the small black bag in my wardrobe, the one that contains my eyeshadow, lipstick, mascara, and all the things they represent.
Sam is a writer, artist, and editor. Their poetry and experimental essays have been published in print and online, in the Pilot Press anthology Modern Queer Poets, the LA Review of Books, and other places. They are one of the founding editors of Powder, a queer zine of art and literature.