I was fourteen when I took an eyeliner pencil and drew on a beard for the first time. It felt like an irony, really. I would wake up every morning and shave my facial hair, having been told by the girls at school and subsequently, by my own family, that I shouldn’t have facial hair if I wanted to look ‘normal’. I had even been told by doctors that my androgen and testosterone levels were ‘too high’ and, though it wasn’t harming me, I was medicated for it. Drawing on a beard for the first time was a promise to myself, to refuse to accept the ways in which other people wanted to change me.
The second time I drew on a beard a friend helped me. As they scratched into my cheek with the overused pencil I prepared myself for the night ahead. As I finished drawing that beard it felt like I was saying, ‘look! Hey! Look at this! You told me I had to change myself and this is me telling you that I refuse’. It was a refusal to accept the norms and ideals I was being bred into, and more than that, it was a bold and brash refusal. It was halloween 2010 and while pumpkins, cats and sailors surrounded me I adjusted my bowtie and clipped on my braces (aka suspenders, if you’re American and confused). It was a self-aware costume, an in-joke with myself: I understood that the scariest thing I could be was who I actually was. I also recognised that this costume put me in control and that, if I could make people laugh with me, perhaps they would come to accept me.
In sixth form college I began wearing ‘typically masculine’ outfits more and more; I wore braces, shirts and bowties almost daily. I started cutting my hair and it quickly moved from chest-length to chin-length in a matter of months. People boxed me into labels of their choosing, often before asking me how I identified or worse, after knowing how I identified. I learned that people liked humorous costumes but felt threatened by tangible, truthful masculinity.
Throughout university and during my hyper-feminine phases, I would regularly shut my bedroom door and do my best to transform myself into the same, confident person I remembered being aged fourteen. Eventually, I told a few friends about ‘doing drag’. I went to more parties with a better drawn beard each time. I gradually learned to contour my adam’s apple and my jawline. More and more often people would tell me, ‘I wouldn’t have known you were a girl!’. Every time it stung a little more, and every time I wanted to yell, ‘I’m not!’.
This all brings me to the past six months. In November, I signed up for a couple of drag events/shows. I was already contentedly identifying outside the binary and finally felt a little more confident with my gender identity and presentation. I felt that everything was coming together. Three weeks before one of the events, I cancelled. I was so panicked that I couldn’t even understand why I cancelled. Wasn’t this something I wanted? Wasn’t this what I had been fighting for?
After a long conversation with myself, I looked back at my moment of panic, finally realising something crucial which I’d been missing for the last eight years: it was never an act. My transmasculinity isn’t a performance, it’s a real and tangible part of me. For me, my drag act wasn’t simply an act, it was a defence mechanism against a world which might not accept me. I still love drag but I’ve realised that I have to live truthfully and honestly as myself every day, not only in costume.
Quick note: I’m fully aware that many trans and non-binary people do drag and my intention here isn’t to binarise drag culture! This is simply my own experience of drag as a performative art in contrast to my own desires to really live my gender and accept my transmasculinity. Let me know your experiences of drag &/ gender in comments.- AB