Straight culture may have got its head round drag queens but it is yet to allow a space for masculine appropriation. A classically trained ballet dancer, their drag is ‘sensual, not sexy’ and exudes a magnetic, feminine energy reminiscent of the traditional Arcadian fop. ‘Its a radical act to perform a straight masculinity in a scene geared toward the feminine’ says Zayn, who is aware just how unradical this could sound. Butler called this citationality.
Orlando I ask Orlando what it means to perform quite a rarefied idea of male homosexuality in 2018 and why figures like Oscar Wilde remain so important to them. Forster’s Maurice and never fully identifying with it, but it was important to me. This wild combination gives audience and performers alike the chance to participate in the formation of radical new genders and the opportunity to walk steely and Torr-like into the night. I dyed my shaved head recently and someone told me I had a ‘don’t fuck with me’ air. Zayn would like to see a more everyday, democratic type of masculinity celebrated. The thirst for drag, aided by Instagram and the spike in identity politics, means that these kings are often Instagram-famous before they perform for the first time. ‘Drag should be a space where queer-identifying non-binary people feel represented and lifted,’ says Velour, who calls themselves ‘a butch and a professor and a monster and a starlet’. three years ago, no one predicted the queues round the block, the thirsty screaming femmes, nor the talent that would be spawned beneath its rafters. Deplored, yes, fetishised, yes, but consistently fashionable. No one owns masculinity – it’s ours for the taking – a masculinity distilled in the kerosene mouths of stone butches, what a pleasing prospect. Masculinity is made other by the queer body, then thrown back on itself. Sissons calls this a ‘creation of a self, through practical movement and habit and practice during performance’. ‘I can literally do anything I want,’ says Orlando, who it seems has found a way to sling a bag of selves around them like a Morrissey bouquet, foppish, referential and brilliantly gay. In the past, a drag king has been understood to mean a cis-woman playing a cis-man. The historic universal against which all else is other. Katy Jalili is responsible for that performance, I ask them about the story behind their character ‘Cool Dad’.
Images © Boi Box, Lyla Johnston for The Glory, and Kaleido Shoots They sounded like animals on stage and it made me feel like an animal too. But Velour and others are giving everyone who feels masc permission to be masc and leasing masculinity from its temple in the process. He’s always upset that he’s not included in things, such as men’s toilets, or men-only dark rooms at sex clubs. Torr hoped the women who took part might go on to embody the characteristics that society bestows onto men, without an IOU. Orlando is named for Virginia Woolf’s time-hopping, gender-swapping Tiresias.
Zayn Phallic in performance
For trans and non-binary people, drag king culture is an arena where gender-queerness can be expressed safely. How then might one express masculinity ethically? The teenager on the Overground, with his hands fumbling in his tracksuit rehearsing nonchalance into his phone or the taut-shirted banker guzzling Malbec slurring somethings to the sprung men around him. ‘Whatever book it is I’m reading, I always think what it would be like to live then? RuPaul’s adage, ‘You’re born naked and the rest is drag’ was updated by one meme to ‘You’re born naked and the rest is male-dominated culture’. That’s how femmephobia works, it makes us praise mascs for showing emotions. He’s a leather daddy and he’s very faggy, confident but also very soft and emotional.’ They bring up the concept of hysterical masculinity, an offshoot of toxic masculinity: ‘He’s very fragile. The workshops that ran in New York in the 90s were created for women to experience the city as men. The performers are double-tappable affirmations, hanging out in the smoking area or by the bar after shows. When you spirit masculinity away from the male body, what happens? I think back to introducing myself to Zayn (daytime, coffee shop) and asking whether he would like to be called by another name? Non-binary drag threatens this cycle of citation. Appropriating a term for masculinity created by female-bodied people feels like a very radical act. ‘Yeah enemy number one is the cis-het guy so it’s only natural there’s an aversion to people performing them,’ he goes on. And should it be performed at all, some wonder, when the world is already one big patriarchal love-in? ‘It’s Zayn 24/7 now’ was his answer. Something inside me leaps when I hear Velour dub themselves butch. The drag king scene is not only a forum for gender-reckoning, but an energetic, white-hot stage for emerging artists. Masculinity is so wrote, so pat, that for many people it is hard to fathom the ways in which it might be performed. Political content is more prevalent on the king scene for lots of reasons. Being trans and doing drag are not the same,’ they continue, ‘but they do inform each other. For Dianne Torr and her New York cronies in the nineties, kinging was a way of embodying the cis-straight-man, a way of flipping the gaze and becoming invisible. I was part of the transaction in a way I never had been before – not on TV, not in films, not in books. ‘I’m not camp. ‘Remember to imagine and craft the worlds you cannot live without, just as you dismantle the ones you cannot live within.’
– Ruha Benjamin
Masculinity is the default, and so invisible. The kings are similar in age to audience members, and have dealt with comparable issues relating to gender dysphoria, loneliness and homophobic bullying. According to social anthropologist Franky Sissons ‘Trans and non-binary artists tend to make acts about their identity and how that relates to the wider world, often in quite explicit ways.’ I recall a performance where twinky king Benjamin Butch climaxes an act by unfurling a flag that reads ‘Man enough, trans enough!’ ‘Gender identity and drag are inherently linked,’ says Franky, ‘something that people are reluctant to talk about because it runs the risk of suggesting that gender identity is just a matter of putting on make-up or wearing certain clothes. .’
‘BRUNO MARS IS A DRAG KING!’ we scream in chorus. ‘If women had the possibility to go out as men and publicly interact as men they would find out a lot about themselves in the process and might learn new behaviors and other responses as opposed to constantly smiling all the time and apologizing.’
– Dianne Torr
Passing as male comes with instant, unconditional clout. And their influences are mash-ups too. ‘I relate to things in fragments,’ they tell me, ‘I’m not a cis gay man, so that’s what I’ve had to do’. The difference being that as trans or gender variant Holly/Orlando would never have slotted into the category of the ‘blasé gay’ as they put it. If we’re gonna imagine this beautiful queer paradise what form does a man take?’
This is exciting, the idea that there is room for straight masculinity in paradise. Still there is a whiff of the emperor’s new clothes about hetero-masculinity. There’s real opportunity for drag kings to lead the way in showing what a man could be.
Orlando with fellow performerI can relate to this, at school in the aftermath of Section 28 I fell on a particular poem by Carol Ann Duffy called ‘Warming Her Pearls’, all about auto-eroticism and queer desire. The onus was on women to become more ‘male’. These have been derided, mud-slung and pushed out – even in gay communities. In fact Cool Dad is hysterical, and he is / I am making a point about these societal double standards.’
Katayoun Jalili aka Cool DadOrlando is also interested in hysterical masculinity. Kinging has always been bound up with radical identity politics, more so than other drag cultures. When The Glory, a queer bar in East London, launched their inaugural drag king competition Man Up! For Judith Butler, the performance of gender is the exercise of reiterating past performative acts (make-up, broey language) to the point where they become absorbed into society and read as natural when actually they require large amounts of labour to maintain. It’s this very queer version of reality where 1D are all queer and there is this phenomenally popular queer-positive thing going on and young people are drinking it in and worshipping it.’ In this version of reality – the reality of London in 2018 – Phallic is part of a community of trans and non-binary artists who are using drag to build an alternate queer universe within this one, through subterranean club spaces and internet portals. The drag king scene in London offers positive, demystified images of queer sex and a baying crowd of queers who sorely lacked that representation growing up. ‘Cool Dad, is me exploring my gender identity, I would love to live as him, or with some aspects of his identity, at all times. Neither my classmates nor my teacher voiced this taboo but the poem quivered with the promise of pleasure, mystery and future solace. Its looking for yourself, I’m always looking for myself.’ Orlando is making the future possible for themselves by envisaging a possible past, full of bawdy cross-dressers and rakish femmes. Essentially it’s misogyny we just haven’t found a way to call it out yet as a community’. As the opposite gender no longer exists. Butch female bodies, not so much. I’m wondering what is different about the way I present compared to a cis man, who shaves his hair when it gets too long and isn’t called an aggravator for it? And what are the ways in which a non-toxic version might be made suitable for consumption? For many this was a sorry revision of the radical tenets of drag as gender play, and represented the policing of gender inside the LGBT community. Sasha Velour, Drag Race winner, and sole contestant in a decade of RuPaul to mention the words ‘drag’ and ‘king’ in the same breath, uses the pronoun ‘them’ and is at the forefront of non-binary drag. ‘I have had people come up to me after a show and go “WOAH, I’m trans”,’ Zayn says, who is finding it hard to go to bars without being recognized. If I lived in renaissance England for example I would cross-dress, you know. They were designed to lend women the ownership, power and entitlement a male identity is gifted. You see enough drag and all the men around you start to resemble drag kings. My own queerness can’t easily be located in the canon so I’ve had to amalgamate influences to form my own thing’. The late Dianne Torr, performance artist and founder of cult drag workshop ‘Man for a Day’ is renowned for sculpting the modern drag king. Channelling masculinity through historically othered bodies – female ones, faggy ones and black and brown ones – means masculinity can at last be seen. Earlier this year RuPaul stated that trans queens and cis-women were to be excluded from his competition. Torr’s dream, nutshelled, is that drag may make the world more possible for people who aren’t born men. Not being a man ideally places one in the position to be a man as most of us have studied men in power our entire lives. Rather than women dressing up as men or vice versa, non-binary acts are revealing gender to be plural. As a rule, fags don’t call themselves dykes. With the advent of ‘they’ pronouns, and a burgeoning acceptance of non-binary genders queer London presently allows for an expression of self that doesn’t just mean performing an opposite gender. Kinging is a way of rehoming masculinity, of radically imagining it. In this new era of non-binary drag, where drag thing is a more apt term than drag king – masculinity has been freed from the male body. Although they are against mash-ups (the practice of splicing different songs and samples together in one performance) preferring to see a single song through to the end, they do practice a mash-up of selves: never performing as Orlando, but doing Orlando doing Narcissus, Havisham or a mincing dandy. Because there isn’t just the one, direction that is, to be a man. Growing up, Holly/Orlando, a drag thing in their early twenties, latched on to fragments in culture that affirmed their gender in some way. That’s a shame. ‘I mean everyone in a boyband is a drag king!’ posits Zayn, ‘Bruno Mars is a drag king.. Trans people have always been involved in drag, but now doing drag is also about being trans’. He’s emotional and wants to let everyone know about his feelings, because of his masc presentation his feelings are taken more seriously and he’s not called whiney. Similarly, with lesbian fiction, I remember reading a poem called “a poem for my butch girlfriend” or something and I thought mmm, I don’t have a girlfriend, I have a partner, and they wouldn’t define themselves as butch, but I really related to the content of the poetry. Female masculinity is seen as positive, and more than that – hot! They are also drawn to the ‘campy queeniness’ of Wildean decadence and plan to do a performance inspired by Aubrey Beardsley. ‘Orlando gave me an entrance into drag,’ they tell me. I don’t have to do it with catcalling, I don’t have to do it with misogyny. ‘At the moment anyone who wants to be read as masculine absorbs cultures that say you need to be a prick. Drag kings seem to occupy a free zone where the ground remains untilled. There’ll be queens that riff off being incontinent cos they’ve had so many kids etc. Drag king nights are noted for their warmth and camaraderie and zero tolerance for hate. For these communities kinging is a way of taking up the space reserved for straight, white, able-bodied cis-men. I sometimes catch the way my dad looks at my brother, with adoration, attention and respect and the way my brother expects and demands people to listen to him, to do things for him. ‘When I tell people I’m a drag king they go, “a what?” They can’t understand how it would work’ says Zayn Phallic, who is behind the koc initiative, a performance platform for drag kings of colour. The gay boys have been glamourized and lionized for a while. As non-male bodied but masculine I am perceived as angry or aggressive a lot. That even straight masculinity can be rethought. I can perform a masculinity that any person of any gender and body can look at and be like if I wanna be a man I can do that. One is that the practice of macho-posturing attracts lots of dykes and gender non-conforming people – these are people who experience the urgency of feminism and who might not otherwise have spaces to exhibit their gender. There are of course women who perform as drag kings, often on the same bill, but it is the non-binary and trans kings on the London circuit who appear to be changing the landscape of drag and what it means to king. In London’s present circles, gender is more soluble. If we can change that narrative, and find a way to be a man that doesn’t hurt anybody – that would be nice, I’d like to see that.’ Yes Zayn, so would my boy-self, who has to grow in wilder, queerer, less harmful ways to survive. ‘Toxic masculinity is literally destroying us,’ as Phallic says with a laugh. The performance ended with three minutes of simulated orgasm. ‘I remember reading E.M. This year I saw the kind of sex I have represented on stage for the first time and it was during a drag king performance. This political awareness reduces the risk of recreating misogyny. For them, it’s an ‘obsession with one’s own manhood that manifests itself as a continued assertion of masculinity’. After a period of gestation, Zayn Phallic migrated from stage to street, and in the process became the world Zayn couldn’t live without. And whether that’s where this knuckle-blanching energy on the drag king scene in London comes from? Kinging is transformative for audience and performer alike. A femme daddy and a trans masc-boi fucked as I watched, beaming. When the performer is non-binary the delineation between character and king is able to become fragile to the extent that the character begins to constitute the performer.
Zayn Phallic‘There’s this alternate universe, existing parallel to the one we know,’ says Phallic, ‘Imagine it, One Direction are One Erection and Zayn Malik is Zayn Phallic. Drag queens still bash women, says Phallic, ‘It’s just another type of blackface; where female experience is the joke. Just as Zayn invents an alternate bo(i)band present, Orlando pulls from an alternate past of writers, who they then revivify in pirouettes.