It’s Not an Act: how drag helped me realise my gender

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 

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