Let me say this first and get it out-of-the-way – I am not attacking you, I promise. So calm down, pick your cup of chai and hear me out.
I was you, until a few months ago. I didn’t so much as look down as look away. It made me uncomfortable. Men dressed as women, performing on stage in a provocative manner, and being dishonest. I didn’t want to see it.
I am not a conservative or prude (even if I say so myself). I am pro-choice and fully support the LGBTQIA+ community. You do you, is what I believe in. In fact, it has been my life-long dream to set up a platform/organisation/business to uplift the transgender community in Pakistan. However, despite seemingly liberal views, drag just seemed like a lie to me. A deceit. And coming to terms with my view back then made me realise that I am, unsurprisingly, a hypocrite. I can’t be pro-choice if I judge a person for the way he has chosen to live or earn his living, that goes for drag performers on stage.
My hesitation stemmed from lack of knowledge. Until a year ago, I only knew what drag meant. I had dictionary-limited understanding. Then, Netflix and Rupaul’s Drag Race happened, and it allowed me to learn and understand what being a drag queen is like. It was an eye-opener. Shocking. Humbling. Sympathetic.
To begin with, I learned that most of drag queens have to endure unfair hardships that unfold as soon as they step out of the closet. It is so hard that many choose to hide their identities and sexual orientation for most part of their lives. Let me share a story with you. At 16, I used to go to this salon in Garden East (Karachi) for haircut and threading. It was run by two sisters. Like most salons, there was ample conversation, most of which was personal . I knew that the younger sister was getting married. A few weeks later, I found out that she had to get a divorce, as the man decided to come clean to her about his sexual orientation – after they had tied the knot and she began to probe when there was no intimacy for three weeks. He was gay, petrified of coming out to his mother who persuaded him to get married. He believed that marriage would ‘cure’ him. Moral of the story – coming out is not easy. Understanding and accepting that what you want is different from what the society wants you to want, is hard.
Now, not only are you challenging the sexual status quo but also taking a step further into opposite gender’s domain. You want to dress like them, speak like them, walk like them, be treated like them. This is where all hell breaks loose. You are disowned by your family, your community, and your friends. But if someone decides to pursue it even after that sort of a backlash, the person must obviously truly believe in it. He only wants a chance at an honest living. It may not be honest or aligned with your views, but it is honest and authentic to him.
What I also learned from watching 100 episodes of Rupaul’s Drag Race and relentless Google research is that after coming clean about who they are, many are subjected to abuse. Their employment options are limited. They have to fight tooth and nail for every opportunity to hone their craft and learn the ropes. Arriving at the drag stage is a long, hard battle, that many of us white collar offsprings can just not relate to. Heterosexuality is a shield that protects you, without any effort or even knowledge, from being marginalised at almost every crossroad in life.
A drag queen, at the end of a day, is an artist. He takes on a role, and performs. It is a lot more immersive than some other performing art forms, but that does not make it any less or more real. Their ability to transform, their hand at makeup, finesse at sewing their own clothes, styling their hair and strutting in 7-inch heels – it is art, and it needs respect.
Yes, I know that it is a fetish for some, but to say that all drag queens are born out of it is a gross misjudgement. Some are dedicated to their art, have thriving careers, sprawling empires, and over three million followers on Instagram.
So, to summarise the disjointed points above, drag is an art form. People have chosen to express themselves in a certain way, and if you are pro-choice in the real sense of the word, you would accept that. And appreciate it. What they do is not easy; most of us can’t even do half of it. Including me. I would LOVE to be able to put on makeup the Kim Chi does, dance in heels like Asia O’Hara, and have the business sense to encash my unique nerve and talent like Rupaul. But I can’t, because it is a talent that they have worked years to polish and ace.
Let me leave you here with your thoughts, and an interview of Rupaul from 1993.