Let’s revolutionize the drag monarchy!
By Soa Gourvest
Although there are now a few drag contests in London, such as Drag Idol UK and Lipsync 1000, it is still necessary to create a space for non-binary drag. Soa Gourvest, a contemporary artist working with transgender experience, offers you a sneak peek into this unique non-binary drag competition.
On Thursday 7th of June, I had the privilege of interviewing all of the contestants, the organisers and one of the judges. Bae Sharam won this round of Gender Fvcker, but if you have missed out on this experience, you can still catch the grand finale of the competition which takes place on 20th July at Redon. Located on the buzzing Kingsland road in Hackney, VFD regularly hosts and creates events for and by the queer community. On the occasion of Gender Fvcker, the artists took the performance of gender beyond expected representations of masculinity and femininity by emphasising non-binary and genderqueer approaches to drag performance.
This non-binary drag competition doesn’t only fuck gender, it tries to revolutionize our understanding of drag itself; exhibiting its diversity, unthought of possibilities and new talents. As a drag queen myself, I recognise the significance of diversifying drag practice, especially at a time where it is becoming more and more “Ru-Paul-ised”. Kat, the co-organiser of the event, advocates for “more experimental drag, more that doesn’t stick to binary convention, more that pushes beyond the confining boxes of mainstream ‘Ru Paul’s Drag Race’ drag. […] We are certainly hoping to change people’s perceptions of drag as a medium. However, this competition is not an act of aggression in my eyes, we are making our mark through celebration of performance, through taking up space, through pushing boundaries and having fun.”
I always saw drag as something rich, as a space of freedom and experimentation. Being in drag is about playing with society’s codes, emphasising them so we can see them properly, employing humour to talk about difficult subjects. Gender Fvcker is subversive drag culture at its best and a way to freely experiment without social restrictions. Katy Jalili, who was the master of the ceremony, judge and co-organiser of the competition, says that they wanted this to be “a space for experiments, and for people to show their work and get helpful feedback from other professionals […] we started this because we were angry at how the queer performance scene is suffering from too much mainstream exposure, and how exclusive it is to only certain performers. This competition is for everyone, especially those who feel left out.”
Here is a brief introduction to the competitors of this raucous event.
Tetley the squirrel Qing
This was the first time that Tetley would perform on stage and as a squirrel! They consider themself a drag Qing (a contraction of King and Queen). Their performance was about having fun, sending energy to the audience and the simple joy of performing. Tetley’s costume was a kinky, black, harness-like body suit accompanied by very sexy vinyl high heels. This was in contrast to their make up which made them look really cute and cartoony at the same time. Tetley’s dance routine was electric and intensified through the use of stage lighting. They were the first act and the perfect kick off: punk, impulsive, not necessarily explicitly political yet very empowering. Their body moved fiercely to the rhythm of the music and they definitely left us wanting more.
Tom the Trollope, the Drag Clown
Tom Bland aka Tom the Trollope is a writer and poet and his book The Death of a Clown, published by Bad Betty press, is out soon. That night he gave us a completely improvised, yet incredibly funny story. He was wearing a T-shirt that read ‘destroy the gender binary’ with fishnet tights underneath. Deliciously outrageous, his make-up resembled Lady Gaga’s ‘Applause look’ but after a twelve-hour rave party. While Tom is not exactly doing conventional drag such as long fake nails, or feminine dresses, he definitely owns his place in this contest as an androgynous clown. When I asked him to elaborate on this concept he said: “I am viewing that as an act of clowning rather than as a drag act in the traditional sense. In terms of clowning, in terms of performance, drag queens are at the top. So it’s one of the places where I take my inspiration.”
Bae Sharam, the lip-syncing Muslim
Bae Sharam borrows their drag name from an Arabic phrase which means ‘you should be ashamed (of yourself)’. And that is the phrase their mother used to reprimand them for doing something wrong. Their performance is about their experience as a female-bodied child in Pakistan and their desire to connect with the world while being isolated from it. Coming from a place of significant oppression, the one thing that connected them to the world was a pop song by the Backstreet Boys. For their performance, they took to the stage wearing a burka, asked us to close our eyes, spoke a few words about their isolation and when we opened our eyes they were holding a giant inflatable 90’s phone. Following this surprising element, they continued with a strip tease while lip-syncing to the Backstreet Boys as a drag king boyband member! Bae Sharam considers themself a drag performer, and when people ask them what gender they are performing they answer: “Muslim! I am not performing a gender identity: I am performing a religious identity, and gender can be a part of it or not a part of it.”
Bae Sharam wants to make white people as uncomfortable as possible as they are trying to have difficult conversations that don’t often happen due to the underrepresentation of Muslims in the drag community. They humorously consider their work tyrannical: “I don’t want to hear the other side of the story, I don’t want to hear someone justifying islamophobia. When I am on stage it’s not a two-way conversation, we’re not equal in this conversation, it’s me shouting. I come from a background where I wasn’t allowed to talk at all, now I have a microphone and a platform and I want to say stuffs.” Bae Sharam’s performance was strong and powerful, with a really tough message to digest that he nevertheless managed to convey with a lot of humour.
Queer Faith, the Radical Chimera
Queer Faith is a queer performer from France and part of the group Radical Faeries. Their performance at Gender Fvcker is part of their show Queer Faith, Radical Faerie where they sing songs that celebrate and ritualise love. Their work speaks about emotional vulnerability where the intention is to “create a space of allowance and visibility for that multiplicity of emotions, hopes, fears, faiths, and loves contained in every – single – body. We are trying to create space for connection to happen, for emotion to be a way of connection between people without having to tick boxes like male, female, young, old… creating something that would allow people to connect even without knowing what they are connecting with, through emotions.”
Queer Faith appeared as a magical blue creature with horns and electric blue eyes. Their posture and voice was Shakespearean in its address and was able to transport you to a mythical forest! Their songs were sung acapella, enhancing the beautiful and otherworldly nature of their voice. It truly touched my heart, reminding me a lot of the drag queen scene I loved so much in the movie Romeos. Regarding their relationship with drag practice, Queer Faith considers themselves simultaneously inside and outside of it stating, “We like the fact of using both of the codes or any code that feels right. We don’t believe anymore that one code leads to another; we love patching different things that are not supposed to go together and creating something from that, like a mash-up. We steal elements from drag kings and queens, but we love to see what can come out of an unexpected mix.”
All images © Soa Gourvest