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Supermanwoman

It started when someone telling him that he had particularly feminine features. Then, at night, he started moonlighting as a drag queen, sparking a second life of multihour makeup and costume sessions, weekly trips to Beauty Mega World, and packed performance schedules. Amongst all this labor, what’s the appeal of drag? In this documentary essay, Andrew Tan-Delli Cicchi followed Naomi Dix – now Miss Hispanidad Gay 2017 – in her first year on the drag queen circuit.

CONTENT WARNING: This article contains information about sexual assault which may be triggering to survivors.

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In the beginning, it was only Carlos and I. Soon, it would be Carlos, a grey box and I, and then Naomi and her coochie, and after that, a circus of individuals almost too wide to cast. But it’s important to note that at the beginning there were only two characters, and we had only known each other for a small amount of time. We meet outside a McDonald’s as he is coming off from work – a supervisor at the Duke Stores – and we wait for another friend he has invited along.

Tonight, we are going to Carlos’ drag show at The Bar, a gay club near downtown Durham. This will be the second drag show I have ever been to. By night, Carlos is Naomi Dix, an up-and-coming figure in the Durham drag scene. She materialized six months ago, when someone suggested to Carlos that he try out drag. He refused a number of times. But after a few more people pushed for him to give it a go, a sidelined comment about his particularly feminine features, he changed his mind. And thus, Naomi Dix, surname a strategic homonym, was gestated in the fierce loop of Beyoncé’s five-minute track “Partition” and born into a second-place finish at Legends, the ultimate gay club of the Triangle. Technically, Naomi is a drag princess, someone who has only participated in drag for under a year. After the year, the princesses rise to the scepter of queen.

We are waiting for five minutes, but that’s already five minutes too long. Carlos is efficient, clipped and suave in a dark-grey knit sweater, wide-frame glasses. He has a very distinctive fragrance, which is what strikes me first. It smells what I imagine Don Corleone’s jacket to smell like, if indigo had a scent.

“Where is she?” Carlos checks his phone. “One of the things you’ll see about me is that I’m just so impatient. Oh. My. God. She’s late. She’ll just meet us there.”

He also has OCD, but it’s gotten better of late. When he was younger, he wouldn’t be able to function without his rituals – touching the doorframe while going through, leaving the TV at an even volume – small, irrational acts of maintaining control that were intended to ward off something large, nebulous and altogether ominous. Now he’s moved along the spectrum to perfectionist. Part of Naomi’s success is due, in large part, to Carlos’ meticulous approach to character. In the weeks leading up to the competition at Legends, he listened to nothing else. He has always been obsessed with Beyoncé, a “complete performer” with “multiple dimensions”, and raves about a concert he went to of hers – “Ridiculous energy. We lost ourselves.” Lady Gaga, on the other hand, is placed stagnant in the single category of weird.

On the way to the car, Carlos frets about his 48-year-old boyfriend, who has forgotten about Naomi’s show tonight. “I told him two weeks ago. He never remembers. He’s so immature.”

He opens the boot of the car, where there is one innocuously grey plastic box, about the size of a child’s coffin. An unidentified piece of satin clothing is folded and placed inside. When the lid is lifted, I get a glimpse of the box’s organized innards; blonde, brunette wigs, several clobber-worthy stiletto heels, plastic packets of hair patches, a cap with “Girl” written in gold studs on the face, and “Boy” under the rim. This box consists of everything Carlos needs to transform into his drag self. This box is Naomi Dix, and soon she will be summoned into existence. Carlos closes the boot, and it is like the womb is zipped up again. At least for now. We jump into the car. Ignition, and the night has begun.

… … …

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The first memory. The first time I saw him, he is her – or maybe I mean to say just simply her, because she is simply herself – Naomi Dix is gyrating fiercely a yard in front of my jawless face. It is a barrenly cold Saturday night, and we are cramped sweaty inside the Duke Coffeehouse. This is the first drag show I have ever been to. There’s a lot of sound, a lot of sourceless disco, a lot of sequined and fluid, hip-thrusting flamboyance. To my right, there are desserts shaped as cream-baked penises and vaginas. When this is announced in the show’s prelude, the room collectively cheers.

So Naomi’s dancing on me. It’s the last song of the night. She’s pointing her fingers alternately skyward and then to my chest, to the bubblegum beat of Katy Perry’s “Hot N Cold”. I’m motionless, virtually statuesque when juxtaposed next to her. It was one of those situations where you suddenly find yourself in the center of attention and don’t really know what to do. A series of questions begin to chop erratically into my mind. How does one respond to a drag queen as she dances on you? Can one touch? Does one dance back? I don’t really know. In the end, I just sway benignly.

The three seconds in which she is in front of me passes unremarkably. Other people work with her attention in better ways; another guy, hefty gut with three buttons undone, handles her like a real bro – he smiles and nods with golden smugness, puts his hand on her shoulder; next to me, another girl keeps repeating, “Oh my god. This is so cool,” almost in anguish, as if everything might stop being so cool if she stopped talking. Meanwhile, I’m having fun being back amongst the crowd, the brethren, and soon I can’t tell if it’s me who is bouncing or the room itself. We bounce together. We woo together. It’s just Naomi and us. She performs – she gives it to us – and we are her synaptic, ecstatic receivers. She commands the energy of the room into herself, so impressively responsive to the specific approvals of the crowd. One type of hip thrust seems to work particularly well; she does it again, and again, to our rising ecstasy.

Naomi seemed completely unaware of us, of what she was or what she was doing, so unwatched in spite of how watched she might be. There is no negotiation, compromise or bargaining in this freedom; in the moment, she just simply is.

The song wiggles out and Naomi is arced dramatically in the clearing, almost material silence. Cue panoramic applause. It’s only then I realize, in the settling light, how much everyone is glued to her. She’s a tiny thing, with heels, only about 5’4. “So fucking cool,” the girl goes, and several others concur. Naomi looks at us and licks her lips.

I remember that the curious thing about all of this was how she received our adoration. Maybe I mean to say – how it is not received. Our adoration, our attention, our noise, appeared to be suspended in the space around her, as if our collective watching were satellites bouncing off the surface of a compact atmosphere. You see in those sitcoms, when the actor gives the joke, everyone in the audience laughs, and they pause and continue as if nothing had happened. There is a complete lack of self-consciousness, or no indication at all that a performance was had; we are the add-ons to their world. Naomi seemed completely unaware of us, of what she was or what she was doing, so unwatched in spite of how watched she might be. There is no negotiation, compromise or bargaining in this freedom; in the moment, she just simply is.

… … …

Now, two weeks later, Carlos and I are on the highway between Durham and Raleigh. We’re chatting a lot about music, mostly about my lack of knowledge thereof of the right songs. Carlos listens to everything from Celine Dion to FKA Twigs. I haven’t listened to Die Antwoord before: “Appalling.” He plays me “I Fink U Freaky” with the bass all the way up so I can feel the lump of my tongue vibrating in my mouth. I look at the cover photo of the single, at this petite alienlike woman, eyes devoid of white, white skin and white hair that sprout every angle out of her head. It’s weird. I’m not sure I like it, though there’s something coarse and bouncy about it that stirs me in the right ways.

We’re headed toward a Holiday Inn in the hinterlands of suburbia, where he’ll transform into Naomi. Normally, Carlos would be at a friend’s house – he’s dyed their white sink clay brown with foundation – but his friend is away and he lives forty-five minutes from the venue. Also, his parents are unaware he does drag, so coming home as Naomi is an impossibility. They do know he’s bisexual; he came out a few years back, to his mother’s non-surprise and father’s stoic dismissal. “I’ve heard you. Doesn’t mean I have to identify with it. Keep it out of my house.” They raised him in a strict, conservative household, and it was around his teens that Carlos started to rebel. He started doing drugs – prescription and weed, mostly – smoking, shoplifting, running away from home, having wild rendezvouses, working underage in dubious jobs and loose, frequent sex.

Carlos was raped when he was fourteen. His rapist was in his late forties, someone he knew in the community and the neighborhood. He’d provide the kids with the best weed, invite them over to his place, get high with them, and get physical when they were so high they could barely see beyond the green. He didn’t realize what was happening to him until after the fact.

“When you’re telling someone to stop, and they don’t stop doing it. When you’re screaming and you’re not giving in. When they’re physically harming you and you leave that situation in excruciating pain. You know. The sad thing is, the person drove me home. And he was like, “Have a good night.” And I was like, “Oh, okay.” And I couldn’t figure it out. But when you’re at that age, thirteen or fourteen, you’re still really young. You don’t really know – I didn’t really know what sex was about. Even if I was a teenager, I didn’t really know what sex was about.”

Like most nights he was out, he wasn’t meant to be out on the night of his rape. So after the rape, he crawled back through the kitchen window he snuck out of, checked that his parents were still in bed and went to sleep. He woke up an hour later, passed out and woke up again in a hospital. He had a seizure, from all the mental stress. And when they asked him what it was all about, he blamed it on his blood sugar running low. He decided then and there that he wouldn’t tell anyone what had happened.

“I am a great pretender when something bad is happening in my life. That’s also the nature of men, isn’t it? We’re passive-aggressive creatures and even when something comes up, we’re just like – hey, whatever. I sweep all my things under the rug. I acted out more, more defiantly, then ran away. Because I was screaming inside for someone to know what had happened to me.”

He saw his rapist a couple of years ago at a grocery store, and left immediately without any of his things. He couldn’t breathe. And while Carlos knows that he’s been raped, he hasn’t identified with it. He knows that he has not looked at it as what it was. And he knows that a breakdown is long overdue, the storm clouds swollen and at the point of breaking monsoon. But for now, he is granted the mercy of averting his eyes, and it all goes under the rug.

… … …

I’ve heard a few horror stories of this transformation, and the painstaking process that it always is and can literally be. Some drag queens glue their eyelids back so that their eyes can have fuller, more feminine eyes, and train themselves not to tear up when their eyes are forced open.

We’ve checked in and I’ve carried the trunk of Naomi up to the hotel room, where Carlos announces that he is going to start changing. He turns on the shower and tells me that I’m going to see a lot of naked Carlos tonight, and a lot of naked Naomi. Since there’s not much I can do while he’s showering, I start laying out the wig, the clothes, the eyelashes, the bling, and it looks almost surgical at this point, all the instruments spread out and gleaming before they invade the body. Makeup and changing should take about three hours, if we’re lucky. I’ve heard a few horror stories of this transformation, and the painstaking process that it always is and can literally be. Some drag queens glue their eyelids back so that their eyes can have fuller, more feminine eyes, and train themselves not to tear up when their eyes are forced open.

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Naomi is what is commonly known as a fishy drag queen. The term “fishy” refers to her feminine appearance, a drag queen that could possibly pass as a woman in the light of day. Surprisingly, a drag queen’s main objective is not necessarily to be fishy. After looking through a few startling stills on the internet, I note that there are drag queens who are either staggeringly misguided in their rendering of a woman’s image or who are simply not aspiring to be beautiful women – at least in the way we understand it. The phenomenon of drag is not quite geared towards achieving the female form in its most realistic minutiae, though the woman might be their departure point. It’s more about the performance, the register of response as felt by the crowd, and this requires a harmony between your look and your stage presence. Often, it’s beyond the feminine, beyond any notion of the binary. There’s a brave sort of rawness about engaging a performance which is structured by nothing on either side and is fluid unto itself, generating its own hybrid codes of stimulation and excitement.

While he’s sorting the makeup on the countertop, Carlos describes his own intrinsic fascination with his drag alter ego. “I like the fact that a woman can use the simplicity of her shape, her stare, the way she looks and the way she walks – anything she does – and people get sucked into it. To have that mind control, almost fucking with their minds to a certain extent. It’s beautiful. As a man, I can’t do that.” He sighs. “There’s only so much I can do to draw a man in, to attract a man, but to be a woman, and to use that stare, a look, or mannerism, and to be able to attract someone in that way; that’s beautiful. And the only way I can play that out is in drag.”

The umbilicus of “real” images we are fed daily leave little room for slippage or creativity, and this binary is a constant failure of our imagination. A man can’t be beautiful without being less of a man, without having his person assigned a lesser priority, his worth a meaner value because his complexities don’t fit the immediate calculus. We like nature to be clean and discriminate. But are his desires not felt to the same degree, requiring the same magnitude of urgency to be sated? Is his wanting therefore less legitimate, more luridly alien, less about human love and more about cheap sex? Being fishy means trying to look exactly like a woman, but also constantly re-articulating that you are not. As Carlos thumbs through the various outfits, he murmurs, “If I were a woman, I would never wear this. But because it’s drag…” Fishiness means recognizing and subverting a mode of desire, and complicating it under different contexts, placed in unfamiliar hands, alchemized into intoxicating compounds that yield their own distinct, qualitative powers. Like the offspring of Greek gods; Deimos, for instance, the god of fear born in the communion of Ares, god of war, and Aphrodite, god of beauty.

Carlos says often that he does not want to be a woman, and this might be true, but it seems that he wants all the interior possibilities of possessing a woman’s image to realize the desire for love and allure that is uniquely Carlos’. In some ways, drag seems to be an extension of a world of superheroes.

These men who dress as women aren’t lusting after a physical identity that they simply, biologically, cannot have. Drag queen is not synonymous with transgendered, even if there are continuities. These are men who refuse to see their origins as their limits, who accept the beauty of the simultaneous. They ask the question of experimentation, of exploration, of what ricochets, counterbalances and spills out when you burn the directives and stuff a boar into the skin of a swan to see how many Technicolor rainbows it can shoot from its snarling, beaked mouth.

 

Carlos says often that he does not want to be a woman, and this might be true, but it seems that he wants all the interior possibilities of possessing a woman’s image to realize the desire for love and allure that is uniquely Carlos’. In some ways, drag seems to be an extension of a world of superheroes. Batman and Superman both need costumes, and it’s not a far stretch to imagine Naomi Dix in the same universe, though humorous to imagine Peter Parker spending three plus hours suiting up. Maybe not quite saving the world, but there is an actualization of the self that is not allowed on mortal earth. Each of these individuals are allowed to be more than themselves. Carlos describes himself as neurotic, reserved and passive; Naomi has the gumption and sheer fire to tell a catty, vitriolic competitor that she will beat her senseless down the street.

… … …

 

A few days ago, Carlos had taken me to go shopping for Naomi’s new outfits, and so we made the rounds of beauty stores and Targets in greater Raleigh-Durham. The first beauty store was called “Beauty Mega World”, in one of those mega-complexes of stores (hair salon, supermarket, pet store and etc.), each with the exact same red-brick exterior and their shop-function labelled in generic green text directly above. The first thing I noticed when I went inside was the back wall stuffed full of an infinity of identical mannequin heads, each parading a different wig. It’s deeply disturbing, in that every which way you turn the same face stares at you expressionless, but now brunette instead of blonde. But it’s also intriguing in that it actually works, so that I started to see myself as the mannequin with each of these wigs on. Carlos bought foundation, wide nails and spent half an hour perusing the mannequin heads, picking them up, viewing them from all angles then judging them slowly.

Throughout the store, he picked out more assorted items – earrings, a cap – and gently began to curate a very precise wardrobe so I could almost imagine what Naomi would look like, if she had a mannequin head. It’s an incredibly painstaking and deliberate process, a person being sketched into existence carefully, with a very distinct idea in mind. Wide nails are used instead of smaller nails, because the smaller nails would fit irregularly on his larger, masculine hands, and it would look like a man trying to wear a woman’s nails; wider nails make the fingers look longer and more like a woman’s. Carlos told me that he picked up these shortcuts by essentially studying how women looked, right down to the fingernails. He said he’d been trying to get Naomi to look more Barbie-like lately, so more neon pink jumpsuits. As we left, he pointed at a smudge-faced woman who was yelling into a phone and grinned, “And there’s someone who looks like a drag queen, but is actually a woman.”

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At 7:05 (two hours before the show), the sum total of what we have bought is being re-inspected fastidiously. Carlos is out of the shower and every corner of available space is taken up by either his clothes or Naomi’s. The room is chaos, but his process is, unsurprisingly, executed with a perfectionist composure. The process is also extremely slow and disorienting. Like watching leaves come onto trees at spring, the change is very dramatic but also hard to pinpoint and I can only describe it in a chronological series of startling vignettes:

  1. Carlos is shaving and listening to Britney Spears’ “Toxic”. It’s the first song Naomi will perform tonight. He tells me he doesn’t shave in between shows, only just before the show itself. His beard is razor-licked off his face. I think about how my face currently holds all the beard I have grown in twenty years of life.
  2. Carlos layering on a sediment of foundation. And then another layer. And another. And one more. Cheekbones starting to appear, from the cheeks.
  3. Carlos putting on his eyelashes. He is crying and swearing profusely. He dabs a small bottle of eyedrops into his eye. He has only done one eye. He does the other one. I see that he is also doing his nails at the same time, clipping the artificial onto his real ones with a small bottle of superglue. I might be mistaken, but it seems dangerous to me to have so many small bottles floating around, and maybe superglue in your eye. Or maybe it’s all part of the game.
  4. Carlos’ massive penis. Suddenly out. I think of my roommate’s self-help book, “How to Live with a Huge Penis”, perhaps relevant here as Carlos is trying to make his disappear. The trick to doing so is to let all hang down and stand up very quickly, so the testicles is sucked up into your inguinal canal and the appendage of the penis itself it tucked between your buttocks. Carlos poses duck-legged and pulls a few vigorous squats. “And it’s gone,” he says, in what I swear is a cracked voice.
  5. Carlos wearing a bra, and I don’t know where his breasts have come from. As I stare at them, he pushes the sides of beneath his armpit toward the center, so the curves are enhanced. Now I know where his breasts have come from.
  6. Carlos is talking effusively on the phone – “Where the fuck are you?” while clicking on her long nails. The wig being brushed carefully, with a mother’s touch, and then coming on too.

Suddenly, a woman is in front of me. She is short, about 5’4, with chestnut eyes and a fierce, edgy look about her. A tigress. “Andy, let’s go!” She is holding a phone in her other hand, and I can hear someone buzzing energetically. “And can you take the box?” Then to the phone, in a singsong, voluminous squeal: “Bitch! I’m cominggggg!”

The next thing I know, Naomi Dix and I are in the car and we’re driving. She flips her hair. “Feeling Myself” by Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé is put on. “Only Beyoncé before shows, Andy, only Beyoncé.” She jives and bobs and does a sassy neck/index finger combination to the carnivorous beat. The phrase “I’m feeling myself,” gets branded infinitely into my frontal lobe. We hightail it fast out of the Holiday Inn parking lot and accelerate on the highway back to civilization, the night.

… … …

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We are accelerating twice as fast away from the McDonalds I thought we were heading toward. A man is talking in the backseat about how he is dating a Dominican Republic guy but does not like to date Hispanic guys because they get jealous but then they are cute. I recognize him as Jonathan, who I last saw being whipped into preening submission whilst donning only a pair of obsidian latex diapers at Naomi’s last show. He is wearing a backwards baseball cap and is draped luxuriously over all three seats in the back. The tight interior space of the car suddenly accumulates another layer of atmospheric density, as we are all doused in a perfume that is aimed at Naomi’s crotch, by Naomi.

“I spray my ass. I spray my coochie. Ooh! People are going to want to motorboat me. But they can’t!” Naomi is pleased with this scent of perfume.

“Bitch, you’re nasty!”

I become aware of the fact that Naomi is many leagues worse of a driver than Carlos, possibly because she does not wear the glasses he requires to see. And it’s raining. We ricochet across the road in front of a sixteen wheeler, a red pick-up truck and back into our lane, all without any of us batting an eye. The windscreen wipers are rapidly beating. I smile weakly.

Naomi and Jonathan continue gabbing, everything is in punchy exclamatory clauses, and I kind of lose track of who is who:

“You know, I’m a little sketched out by you right now.”

“Girl! Why? Girlll! Shut the hell up!”

“You’re such a bitch, oh my God!”

“Oh my God! You know you love me! You love me! You know you do!”

“No I don’t you bitch!”

“You dooo! You do homie! You do! You know you do!”

“I do! You do! You do boo! You dooo!”

“Ooh, I smell so good!”

“Girl, you’re gonna get a bunch of guys tonight.”

“Yeah, I know, but I want Jimmy to be there though. He’s so easy to make out with.”

Cackling. “Well. I have a hotel rooom.”

“Does the hotel have two beds?

“What now?”

“Two beds?

“Two beds? No. It has one.”

“Fuck girlll! I don’t want to sleep next to you. I go on the couch!”

“It’s a king! We can sleep on the sides and he can sleep between ussss.”

“Fuck Jimmy!”

“Ha!”

“We could kidnap him though. We could!” A merciful wink.

We take a few more wrong turns into miscellaneous Durham side streets. Then, we arrive at the venue. Bridget and Stormy, Naomi’s drag sisters, are also in the parking lot. Bridget is astonishingly tall with a blonde bob, an imposing lighthouse of a woman with every body part enlarged. Stormy is all dramatic, ebony angles, skinny with every gesture poised gracefully. I notice that each of them has a small man carrying their things through the rain, while the drag queens themselves try to keep themselves and their makeup dry. As I carry the trunk into The Bar, I understand that I too am part of this breed of drag queen bitch boy, and I’m surprisingly okay with it, and sense a fleeting elation when we enter to a ripple, and I am recognized as part of this new entourage.

… … …

Inside, the drag family is preparing for their show so I’m at the bar. There’s not as many people there as they would have liked. In fact, there are only about twenty people there, which differs from how “packed” Naomi was thinking it’d be on the way over. To my left, a blonde girl with a nose stud keeps looking my way. I can feel her eyes clicking onto me and over me while she drinks. When I look over at the door, I can feel her glance against my neck. Elsewhere, there are guy and girl couples talking exclusively. Everyone looks a lot older than me, and I feel very conscious of the fact that I stand out. Naomi has gone, and now it’s just me and myself, alone.

It always surprises me the extent to which I miss out on the things I want, the people I desire, the lives I wish to lead – simply because of a lack of conviction, the internal rhyme with shame, the whiplash of what I see of myself and how this differs of what I conceive of myself am. I can’t think of a time when I have not been watching myself acutely, atomizing each aspect of my presentation to the public and insisting on theatre to cushion over the difference. I also can’t think of a time when I last felt myself. In the same word, I am both creation and denial.

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Melancholia is the subliminal grieving of a loss that is swallowed whole and unrecognized, a loss that cannot fully identified or comprehend. A man performing the hyperbolic image of woman onstage gestures towards this loss, of the absurdity of performing anything and being told that this is your essence.

Who am I when I am real? I wonder if this inward suppression was always written for me, or if it is written in me, or if we are all built this way. I’ve seen enough unwatched people look at themselves in the windows or reflections of anything they can find, in a certain furrowed, confused way that announces a wiring of the mind that is incredibly familiar to me. The man at the bar, mooning after another woman, who glances side-eyed into the glass refrigerator door; fixes his hair to the left, pauses, then shakes it out. Momentarily stunned and bewildered by what we are, who we have chosen to become. They are not convinced by themselves, and neither am I.  I cloak many aspects of myself, both to function and also to glide seamlessly past my disgrace. So I do not own myself. How often do I wish to shed mine and assume another container of being, one with less pressure, less of this overriding self-consciousness?

Judith Butler once wrote that drag is the performance which parodies the supposed natural truth of gender, that destabilizes, momentarily, the binary frame of “man” and “woman”. Butler’s theory holds that part of the subconscious appeal of drag is in the way it allegorizes melancholia, or the grieving of the manifold and multiple realities that must be foreclosed when an individual is produced into normative categories of gender and sexuality. Melancholia is the subliminal grieving of a loss that is swallowed whole and unrecognized, a loss that cannot fully identified or comprehend. A man performing the hyperbolic image of woman onstage gestures towards this loss, of the absurdity of performing anything and being told that this is your essence. A substantial proportion of the crowd tonight is, as it always seems to be, straight men, who seem to love drag as long as it is on stage. Someone outside, smoking: “But I wouldn’t want to be near one of those guys during the day.” I can’t help but wonder about the fragility of this relationship, the explicit anxiety of heterosexual men and the double-edged violence it alludes to. The everyday violence and the violence of the everyday; the violence of claiming an identity that the world has made for you and then performing it. What is your excess? What have you lost?

Naomi skitters by me, puts her arms on me and asks me if I’m having fun. Due in part to my migraine, I don’t recognize Naomi and Carlos as sharing an existence at all. I don’t realize Naomi as anyone other than herself, not at all as Carlos in drag, and when I do think about Carlos I imagine him doing something, somewhere else; docile, in a box in the back of Naomi’s trunk maybe. Naomi orders a basket of wings on her way to the women’s toilet. She introduces me to Joe, a guy who I recognize from one of Duke’s cafés. He is Naomi’s fairy dragmother, and we talk for a long time about how he brought Carlos into the drag world. “So,” he asks, “How many times have you been hit on tonight?” He seems surprised when I tell him none. “None of these guys have tried to hit on you? Are you sure?” I feel both pitiful and phony. At which point the show begins, and the drag queens start working the floor, lip-syncing a Supremes song. They each take different approaches to the thinning crowd; Naomi and Stormy are more invested in the one-on-ones, dancing against individuals; Bridget is entirely gawky, wild and a terrible dancer, but the one who seems the freest, and the most fun to watch. It’s during this performance that I seize my opportunity to ask for a Bud Light. They don’t card me, I start a tab, and I start drinking quickly.

The first thing I notice as I get gradually buzzed is how a pivoted glance can mean two things entirely different – disinterest or flirtation – and it hinges chiefly on how you want to take it. I want to say that I just become more confident in myself, but it feels like I exit the room and an alcohol-induced doppelganger enters, composed of the same internal makeup, but with a more assertive container of myself called into being. My antennae shifts, and I notice a guy who’s walked by and brushed past me a few times. He asks me if I want to dance, at which point I follow him to the dancefloor, in the interlude of the performances.

“I hope I didn’t scare you away before.” He smirks.

He’s a terrific dancer, and when he moves like he’s swimming with the river beat. I’m still a little self-conscious, and I ask him if I’m dancing okay.

“Dude. You just need to get out of your head.” And so I skull another, and let everything go.

In the corner of my eye, I spy Naomi wreathed around a handsome older guy with a fiercely chiseled jaw at the bar. He’s very coy and watchful, while she streams around him, whispering feverishly into his ear. Then he puts his arm around her waist. Bridget, Naomi’s drag sister, then turns me around and starts dancing with me. She grabs my hips and starts grinding up close to me, and I am finally starting to enjoy myself, blamelessly.

… … …

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Soon, it’s Naomi’s last performance of the night: Britney Spears’ “Toxic”. The song starts and it looks as if she’s missed her cue; the stage is empty, and she’s nowhere to be found. But then – she’s moving on all fours, prowling seductively. She rides air to the cadence of the music, then reaches into the audience to grab a guy. It’s a Hispanic dude, friendly, about thirty years old. A fold-out chair is popped open, he’s pushed into the seat and Naomi starts giving him a lap dance. He smiles shyly, stays completely still. She grabs the cuff of his shirt and starts grinding against his lap. Brings her face within an inch of his, breathes heavily – the song hangs for a second, and she keeps her body taut and pressed along the length of his – then drops again, and she loops her hands around his neck, starts moving the song into his body.

“Fucking sexy. You’re so fucking sexy!” Someone else squawks next to me. That seems true in one sense, but also something else. It’s to do with sex, but maybe more about what sex is about. We tend to think of drag queens to be tokens of available sex, harbingers of sweaty lusting, but when I look at Naomi, I see someone who is incredibly unashamed of their internal longings, who is unafraid in receiving desire, or love. And we are mistaken when we refuse to draw this distinction, because as much as we are talking about desire in sex, configure it solely in these terms of mercenary hedonistic exchange, we elide the complications of love, the desire to be wanted as we are. The triumph of owning that, and captured within that, the triumph of owning who we are. Believing that we are worthy of ourselves, even when everything else – including ourselves – is telling us that we are not. And if this is owned within another shape, from another perspective; does it make that triumph less real?

The song peters out, and again, Naomi remains fixated on her subject. His hand is against the small of her back, and she is wrapped around him. We are clapping, but we are participating only as voyeurs, inconsequential voyeurs at that; her eyes are only locked in on his. She breathes into his space. Again, that total, freeing unawareness. But then, in a split second, her poise fractures. She smiles, just a little bit, just a turn of the mouth. In that split second, her shape flickers, and she is him, or at least Carlos’ smile appears momentarily and I realize: she knows.

 

Writer: Andrew Tan-Delli Cicchi

Editors: Diana Joseph and Sofia Velasquez Soler

Photo Credits: Andrew Tan-Delli Cicchi

Web: Scott McConnell

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