When you think of a drag queen, this is probably what you imagine: a man, dressed from head to toe in a luxurious ball gown, eight-inch heels and covered in glitter — all in the name of creating the illusion they’re actually a woman. And when the show ends, that facade falls away. You know, someone like RuPaul, who is comfortable presenting himself both as a woman and as a man, who dresses in glamorous gowns as a form of entertainment.
That’s certainly the most Merriam-Webster, mainstream understanding of drag, but it’s far from the universal experience. These days, drag is a much more nuanced term that encapsulates a type of dramatic, musical performance — typically with a gendered element — in which anyone of any gender can participate.
The drag performer Hungry, who created the cover artwork for Björk’s latest album, doesn’t simply want to make herself look glamorous — she paints fantastical, horrific, surreal illusions with her makeup. Sasha Velour, winner of season nine of RuPaul’s Drag Race, has been performing as “Lady Gollum,” a queered version of a character from The Lord of the Rings.
Drag isn’t just about entertaining an audience, either. For the performers themselves, drag can offer so much more. That’s especially true for people who don’t identify as cisgender, because drag can give performers a space in which exploring their gender identity is safer and legitimized in a way it wouldn’t be otherwise — and sometimes drag can open the door for different gender expressions in their day-to-day lives, too.
In short, the world of drag — especially for trans or genderqueer people — is an ever-shifting, complicated landscape that means something unique and distinct to each person. For some trans people, drag was the catalyst by which they realized they were trans in the first place. For others, it simply offers an outlet for performing they don’t have anywhere else. To better understand the experiences of trans drag performers, Mic spoke with three based in New York City: Daphne Always, K.James and Peppermint.
The following interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
Mic: How would you describe the relationship between your drag performance and your identity as a trans woman?
Daphne Always: There was just a recent switchover that is relevant and encapsulates it well. For about six years, I was performing as Daphne Sumtimez, and that was a very draggy persona. I would try out all these different sorts of aesthetics — lip sync drag, hosting, high visuals, lots of color, big hair, all that.
And then recently, just a few months ago, I switched over to Daphne Always because last January is when I started [hormone replacement therapy]. And the name “Sumtimez,” the joke of it was that I’m only Daphne sometimes. And it just invited itself for people to be like, “So what are you the rest of the time?” and I would say, “Daphne” and people would say, “Oh.” So I realized it was no longer accurate.
I think that drag, for a while, was a way for me to try on different identities and seeing what felt right and what felt good. And as I came into my own identity, it has melded into less of a drag character as much as it is an amped up, take-off-the-brakes version of myself.
How long did you perform as Daphne Sumtimez while identifying as trans?
DA: For about nine or 10 months, but before that I identified as genderqueer or genderfluid. I knew that “man” didn’t feel right. But I don’t think I allowed myself “woman” yet.
I think that drag was a way for me to test out all of the different possibilities and realizing how much control I have — and I think that we all have — being and actualizing whatever identity we want to. There’s no criteria or anything. If you believe you’re something and you act that way and you put on those signifiers and you interact with people in that way, that becomes the truth for as long as you’re doing it.
So how did drag play into that journey?
DA: Drag was the beginning of me learning how to navigate public spaces as someone who isn’t read as “boy.” It was just the first step out of the cis box. It was my first entry point into, “Wow, I can choose.”
Then, I think it was this moment of really just seeing myself look closer to what I’ve always looked like in my head. There was a long period of time where I would really, really delay the process of ever getting out of drag. And I think that, eventually, I switched over from covering my eyebrows to shaping my eyebrows into a shape that I could draw on top of. It was a process of pushing the line further and further, of how close can I get my drag to what I actually look like while it still remains drag and still remains performance — and I think that’s where I’m still at now.
My walking-around-during-the-day face is about the same as my performance face, but I curl up my hair a lot and wear lashes. I’m still just figuring out where people are going to see something and recognize it on another plane of performance or theatre. At this point, it’s drag if you want it to be, or it’s just a woman performing if you want it to be. I don’t think these lines are so harsh, like, “This is my drag self and this is my trans self.” It’s much more jumbled than that.
“Through several different gender identities, [that] remains the most important thing about drag to me: how it is both crucially serious and completely unserious.” — Daphne Always
So it doesn’t bother you if someone comes to a show of yours and just reads it as musical comedy or whatever rather than drag?
DA: There are some days where [being identified as a comedian instead of a drag queen] delights me and it makes me feel really affirmed, and there are other days where I’m feeling more draggy and would like the recognition of being a drag queen. But I think most of all I just enjoy how different it can be.
What was your first entry point into the drag world?
DA: I think my first intro to drag was Miss Coco Peru or Kelly — that shoes video on YouTube. It was just this kind of irreverent making fun of our ideas of how women act and how those are stupid, untrue ideas that people inflict. I really enjoyed the way that it was both really stupid and really clever. And I think that — through all of it, through several different gender identities, remains the most important thing about drag to me: how it is both crucially serious and completely unserious.
How has your relationship to the drag community changed — if at all — since coming out as trans?
DA: Since my countenance has become much more visibly trans and much less about giant wigs and glitter lips, and much more like, this is a young lady performing right now, I kind of notice a de-barbing. Drag queens can be very competitive with each other and prone to comparing each other, but I think that for cis or non-trans drag queens, they no longer see me as doing quite the same thing that they are. So it’s honestly been a reaction of refreshment and welcome, that people seem unthreatened maybe.
And I don’t know if this is just the cultural moment we’re in, but people in queer and ally communities are just so eager to gush to me. Before, with drag, it would be much more about what I’m doing. Now it’s about who I am. Instead of reacting like, “Oh, bitch, that number was everything,” it’s “Honey, god, you’re so gorgeous and I can’t wait to see you blossom.”
Does it ever feel like that overeager praise is performative, like it’s more for their own egos than it is for you?
DA: [Nods emphatically.]
But at the same time, I go back and forth with it a lot. One, I’m on hormones so I’m super emotional all the time. But some days, I realize that anywhere else I could literally be arrested and brutally tortured in jail for walking down the street, so the fact that people really want to show their support means the world to me. I’m so lucky. It’s amazing.
But then there are some days where it feels like, you don’t even actually care to engage with me on a personal level... right now. You’re just sound-boarding your “I’m a good ally” talking points, and these are the things I read on the internet that you’re supposed to say to trans people.
I just like to check myself because I realize how ungrateful and bratty that can sound depending on the context. And I always like to bring myself back to a place of, “It’s amazing that people want to show their support.” And maybe in 50 years or in 100 years, we can start pushing as a community for specific engagement or whatever it is that I’m looking for here, but I think having a general climate of enthusiastic support for trans people is a magical thing.
What do you hope drag looks like in the future, in a few decades or in 100 years or so?
DA: I would love to see drag evolve into something eventually that’s not a gender illusion, but just a reality illusion. In the sense that, in the distant future, hopefully the categories of man and woman will be so deconstructed and carry so much less social importance that it won’t be something worth going to a stage — to see someone with a Y chromosome dressing up as though they were someone with an X chromosome. Because by that point, people will just be dressing in a way that those gender markers don’t carry as much meaning. And it’ll be much more about a visual feast or an emotional performance.
Basically, I would like to see a drag where the importance is not about breaking down gender binary, because that has already happened. But I think right now, it’s really important for drag to stay in a place of pointing out the illusion of gender binary until everybody gets that it’s an illusion.
How and why did you start doing drag?
K.James: I started doing drag after I moved in with one of the members of Switch n’ Play. I moved to Brooklyn in 2006 and I moved in with one of the founding members and we started having rehearsals in our space because it was a drag king collective at the time.
I used to help them out at their open drag nights where it was a night for people of all experience levels, and they were usually raising money for various queer organizations that were local. Eventually, I saw that there was an opportunity to perform at an open drag night and I was like, “Well, might as well just do it. It seems very fun and I’ve been lip syncing in my room since I was a child, so why not do it in front of some people?”
What was it about drag that appealed to you?
KJ: I emphatically cannot sing. I’m a very shy person in real life, and creating a separate persona allows me to be more out there and kind of a hyper-expression of myself that I can’t really access in my real life. And with lip syncing, I’m not speaking so it helps. I’m always weirded out by my voice in that kind of thing, so not having to express myself through words helps me.
K.James is definitely an outlet for me. Kind of for my gender expression, but that’s more of a hyper-expression of my gender. In my everyday life, I am out to most people — I have the same sort of gender expression [in and out of drag], so that much is not so different. The K.James character is definitely a more confident version of myself, I would say.
The major point of performing as a trans person for me is taking control of how people see me. Because trans people are objectified: We face violence and street harassment, or just being generally stared at, being objectified and pathologized by doctors in the medical community as a whole.
But when you’re a trans person and you get to put yourself onstage, you’re basically inviting people to objectify you in a way, but you are taking back the control of that objectification. It’s like, “I’m consenting to this, but I’m steering the story and taking control of the narrative of what you get to see.” It’s basically feeling empowered in that space with people staring at you. You have their gaze and it’s in your control, versus it being put on you.
“Drag, to me, is a deconstruction and a hyper-expression of gender. It’s performing gender, but in a way that you can control.” — K.James
Do you feel accepted by the modern drag community?
KJ: I’ve been accepted pretty openly, especially within the Brooklyn community. There are so many various gender identities, and anyone can do drag. Anyone can do any form of drag, so there’s no one really looking down on anyone, especially for their gender identity, especially in this day and age and in Brooklyn.
Drag is open to interpretation in so many forms and so many genders, that being accepted as a performer here is not an issue.
How would you define drag?
KJ: Drag, to me, is a deconstruction and a hyper-expression of gender. It’s performing gender, but in a way that you can control. For me, it’s a fun hyper-expression of myself, but also deconstructing what it means to be masculine. And queering it in any way possible.
When you first started doing drag, were you labeling yourself as trans?
Peppermint: It was definitely not something I was talking about and saying, “Hey, I’m trans.” I didn’t even necessarily have the vocabulary. Just like in the future, there may be some words we’ll use to describe certain queer identities or identities in general that we don’t know yet. I didn’t have the way to articulate how I felt. But I knew I was more female than anything else. I felt more female than anything else and I was very excited at every opportunity, no matter how big or small or brief, to express myself as female. As my idea of womanhood.
I did not have a circle of friends or a support group that would have supported me coming out as trans in the moment and I certainly didn’t have any other examples of friends that were transitioning before me as a teenager. I grappled with those feelings for most of my young adult life, through my late teens up until my 20s. The only examples that I saw of transgender people — what we were calling “transsexuals” back then — were just people that I saw on Jerry Springer. There certainly weren’t any positive examples of transgender people.
How did that lead you to drag?
P: I knew that I was kind of excited about and drawn to the art form of drag, dressing up as a woman whenever I could — for Halloween, for plays, for theatrical things. Drag was the only real outlet that I had that was acceptable to express myself as a woman. Talking about being trans or wanting to have plastic surgery or wanting to live my life as a woman were not acceptable in society, in my close-knit circles, in my family — nowhere.
But saying, “Hey I’m doing a drag show, wanna go?” everyone was like, “Yeah!” That was the most comfortable and the easiest way for me to express myself as a woman. And the added bonus was that I got applause for it. That was enough for me for about 10 years.
What changed? Why was it no longer enough?
P: As time progressed, people would say to me, “You know what, we love you as a drag queen, but we’ve never seen you as a boy or out of drag,” and that’s the way I liked it because deep down inside, the trans person in me was kind of manipulating that and systematically erasing my male identity through drag.
So, I’ve said this before, but drag is really the catalyst that helped me start my transition.
You mentioned that your friends and family would be excited about going to your drag shows but that they wouldn’t be accepting about you transitioning. Where do you think that divide came from?
P: Trans people have been around since the beginning of time, but someone expressing the desire to transition — friends and family certainly didn’t have the tools in my day to really help facilitate that and know how to be a good ally. It wasn’t even called a transition. It was called, “I’m a transsexual. I’m a man and now I want to be a woman and so I’m having plastic surgery.” That was the language that people were using. Even now we can see that language was a bit crude. There was no smooth way for people to respond to that other than, ”Oh, you must have something going on. You must be bothered — crazy.”
At the time, the only examples I had of trans people were people on TV. When I was younger, there wasn’t a very functioning internet. We really just had what they were going to show us on Geraldo or Jerry Springer. Honestly, it was two things: Number one, they would parade a bunch of ladies out on-stage and then the audience would have to guess who was a man by shouting, “Man! Man! Man!” — which to them was funny, but to me seemed very traumatic.
And the other thing was, also on Jerry Springer, you’d see a relationship and someone would come out as trans, and the first thing that would happen is they’d get bashed in the head with a chair, because the person they were coming out to was upset and angry. And the response — the expected response, the response that was applauded — was violence. Beat them up. Destroy them. Hurt them. Take a chair and bash them over the head. No one had any examples of how to treat a trans person when they came out. I didn’t want to transition because I didn’t want to get my head bashed in and I didn’t want people to call me “Man! Man! Man!”
“At the time, the only examples I had of trans people were people on TV. When I was younger, there wasn’t a very functioning internet. We really just had what they were going to show us on ‘Geraldo’ or ‘Jerry Springer.’” — Peppermint
The third reason is that the only people I really saw who were able to actually have plastic surgery were people who could afford it. No insurance was covering it and people who could afford it typically in that time — the only examples that I saw were people who were described as, “A man in his 40s or 50s who has worked and now has retired, has a wife and kids, and now has decided to transition because they’re rich.”
Those were the only examples that I had. I wasn’t a man who was rich, and I didn’t want to get my head bashed in by a chair. But doing drag? People were clapping for me, so let’s go that route.
After you came out to the other girls on season nine of RuPaul’s Drag Race, you mentioned that a queen in New York had once told you that coming out as trans would end your career as a drag queen.
P: Yeah — bitch. She said that in the 2000s. It was after I started my transition, probably in 2012 or 2013. That was definitely the most explicit — nobody had ever spelled it out for me — but I had heard what we would call “microagressions.” People would say things like, “I’ve never seen you out of drag. You’re not one of those transsexuals, are you? You don’t want to be a woman, do you?”
People would say stuff like that, and it was always with a negative connotation, so I would always say no because I didn’t want to be rejected or judged or mistreated.
Is that a message you think the drag community is still spreading, or have things changed?
P: I think it is changing but I think there is still much more work that needs to be done. I think there are definitely people who see trans women as men when it comes to gaining certain rights, like equal access to women’s spaces. But then by the same token, those folks are not necessarily qualified to enter something like Drag Race or be in the realm of drag or perform among other queens who express themselves as men during the day. It’s complex.
I definitely think there’s still work that needs to be done. One of my callings in life is to make sure that it is better, and to make sure that there are people who feel like me [who] have similar opportunities to express themselves the way that they want, whether it’s through drag or whatever. I get messages every day from people who say that they’re trans and are inspired by my story. So if they’re reaching out to me and looking for a connection then there must not be that many people who are sharing in the experience openly.
How would you describe the difference between your daytime persona and your drag looks?
P: The short answer is my day look doesn’t involve sequins. Obviously a lot of the things we associate with drag, I don’t necessarily do during the day: sequins, the highest heels possible, corsets, dresses with 10-foot trains and extra makeup and lip-syncing. Those are things I would reserve for the stage.
But I think my everyday approach to drag versus trans is probably similar to the approach of a cis woman who is a showgirl. Many women who are showgirls are attracted to the glitz and glam — so she may do something cute with her hair to go to the laundromat, she’s probably not going to put on her Rockettes album to go grocery shopping, but at night she gets in drag, so to speak. So, my day look still involves wigs and makeup and hopefully flattering clothing but that’s pretty much where it stops for me.
What do you think needs to change for the drag community to improve?
P: I think we can’t ignore trans men and drag kings in this conversation — but I think that the message I would want people to understand when it comes to our community, the queer community, is there is a level of discrimination within our community still.
I know that we’re fighting against discrimination from outside our community, but the only way that we’re really going to have true equality by definition is if we’re fighting for them to recognize us, see us as equal and for them to allow us into their spaces — sharing their marriage equality, sharing their equal access to bathrooms — then we need to allow them, whoever they are, into our spaces too. Women, people assigned female at birth, trans women, should have the right to enter spaces that have been historically just for gay men. That’s the only way that we’re going to have equality. That’s the definition of it.