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Sunday, November 28, 2021

Manila is burning: Drag queens get political and they have some things to say

By: Renzo Acosta, INQUIRER.net / June 21, 2020

MANILA, Philippines — Manila is burning. Hell, the world is burning!

Conflicts, violence, and COVID-19 pandemic continue to alter everyday life across the world. Yet, in spite of it all, drag queens remain a constant source of respite and a sense of belonging.

From the iconic films of drag legend Divine to the campy classics The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar; the essential documentary Paris Is Burning to the groundbreaking TV series Pose; and, of course, the popular herstory-making franchise of RuPaul’s Drag Race. There’s a plethora of content from drag culture that can comfort the weary during these confusing times.

Drag, in its basic sense, is about transformation. It’s a reaction to society’s standards and expectations. However, albeit entertaining at first glance, drag, like any other art form, has always been political. From half a century ago’s queens of Stonewall riots to today’s digital queens, drag has always fought for the downtrodden – all the while wearing seven-inch rhinestone-studded heels.

In celebration of Pride Month, INQUIRER.net talked to six of the country’s fiercest queens about the importance of drag in this period of turmoil.

The art of drag

I always knew I like creating things, whether it’s dressing up our Christmas tree or dressing up for Halloween. When I first transformed in drag, it was like an epiphany. I knew this is something I would do for a long time. It was love at first drag…

As much as the pandemic has taken away the physical interaction that we used to enjoy during our parties, it also opened up more opportunities for the art of drag to be seen and appreciated. In the past, local drag queens and performers can only be seen inside nightclubs and LGBTQ establishments, and a lot of enthusiasts and artists don’t have access to such places, especially minors and those living in the provinces.

Nowadays, I still get to do drag, but more on hosting and co-producing online shows and parties. In doing so, I’m able to gather people and provide platforms for other drag artists to be seen and perform. So far, the reception has been good, especially since online e-numan is slowly becoming the new normal for our patrons in the clubs…

Drag is dynamic, evolving, and very diverse. Here in the Philippines, most people are familiar with drag through impersonators and our trans sisters donned in impeccable gowns. But there are also drag artists with occult or alternative aesthetics, or unpolished makeup skills, or garbage as part of their brand, and those who tell stories onstage that some may not like.

I, for one, am a storyteller. What I do is I incorporate current events or matters of public interest in the songs I perform. By carefully listening to the lyrics of a song, I weave its meaning to my stand on social issues. People may say it’s a political agenda, or that I’m biased or off-putting, but that’s what art does. It’s meant to provoke and challenge ideologies…

Human rights should never be a collateral damage. It is not the law itself that puts the people at risk. It’s the integrity and morality of those enforcing it that predisposes people to danger and makes them fear for their lives. Why would we trust such absolute power to this government?

— Eva Le Queen

Mascots of the LGBT community

I started doing drag as an escape from reality. Just like any other art form, it’s a vehicle for the expression of my alter ego. My drag persona is an extension of who I am as a person.

I see it more as a hobby than work. I tell myself that I will stop doing drag once it starts to feel like work. During this pandemic, it’s so heartwarming to see all these queens, young and old, come together during these hard times…

There’s a Chicago drag queen named TRex who said, “As drag queens, we are the mascots of the LGBT community.” That resonated with me because we have a responsibility to amplify the voices of our community. Just because we’re entertainers doesn’t mean we don’t have a say on political issues.

In this country, those who criticize the government get silenced. That’s why as part of a community of outcasts in a society that conforms deeply to tradition, we make it a point to speak out without fear or reservations. Because at the end of the day, we have to be echoes that will remind our countrymen that we are the generation that never forgets…

It’s crazy. “I am the law.” That’s what’s happening in our country right now. It’s no longer about the law of the state. That’s why the Terror Bill is wrong. If the government can abuse the law against journalists who are only doing their job, they can surely do it to anyone.

The problem is, supporters of politicians act like fandoms. It shouldn’t be that way. They hold their positions because the people put them there. But, really, what can we expect from this government? You elect a clown, expect a circus.


Disturbing the comfortable

Drag is a matter of creating your own reality, and in creating your identity, you get to choose the traits that you want to embody. I believe that it’s a melting pot of everything I’ve learned in life, especially from theater and the arts.

As drag queens, we get to break the social norms, and we do it with more power and confidence than we ever thought we had.

Drag is art, and art in general is meant to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. It’s a fun way of looking at what’s happening in our society and of doing checks and balances. Drag queens have always been integral in the LGBT movement, and removing politics from a drag queen is the same as removing that person’s identity…

Ever since the lockdown, more newbies have joined the scene, and they even get to perform with the more veteran queens. People aren’t that busy so we get to interact with each other. Queens from different clubs and cities finally get the chance to collaborate. Everyone gets a level playing field.

At the same time, it’s also challenging because it’s still a live show, so you still have to put in the effort. There’s no assurance of a talent fee, and the attention span of netizens is so short, especially with so many things competing for their attention online. It’s a different stage, too. We’re constricted to the screens of other people’s devices…

I always try to make my drag fun, but it depends on the mood, the sound, and the message. Same with crafting any other performance, there has to be a story. You should get the audience hooked and there has to be an escalation and climax. Whether you make it subtle or literal, the message always has to come across.

For me, the message is often about coming together as so-called deviants and telling people who we are and demanding what is ours, or telling people that we are not a sin and that being ourselves is good enough.

—Mrs. Tan

Drag is unbreakable

I did drag for the first time by joining Drag Cartel back in November 2017. It’s a competition for aspiring drag queens. Category for the night was “Disney On Ice,” so I came as Prince Charming in drag. That night, I won, and from there, my love for drag just bloomed.

I do it because it makes me do things that I’d normally just fantasize about. It’s a realization of the things that give me inspiration. The look, the makeup, the attitude. Even though it takes a lot of time, effort, and money, and even though my face breaks out and I get physically hurt while performing, living that fantasy is still the best feeling…

“Keep drag alive” is what we always say, and that goes for togetherness. For drag queens, drag enthusiasts, and drag lovers to maximize the power of social media and uplift queer artists to keep pushing, and to show that this pandemic is not a reason to stop doing what you love…

Drag is a middle finger to all forms of hatred, homophobia, discrimination, social injustice, and stigma…

What’s going on in our country is so overwhelming that I’m often left speechless. Every day I scroll through my feed and I see one issue after another, and it makes me feel sick. I’m disgusted by the people responsible for all this mess.

I just hope people will take note of those in power who haven’t done anything good for this country. I hope that come election season, the people will remember what’s going on now and who’s responsible. I hope they vote for the right people. That’s all we can do as Filipinos.


An image of hope

I started doing drag April of 2019 when I met a few drag queens (now my drag sisters and best friends) who helped me build my drag persona. I have always been very flamboyant and effeminate growing up, and drag opened up the possibilities for me to express those traits even further. Before, I was just doing it for self-discovery, but now, it’s for the community as well.

Drag is about finding the courage to create an image of hope and fulfilment for yourself that could later on affect other people’s lives…

The local scene has been very resilient when it comes to this pandemic. This is a living proof that drag is possible even without clubs and big venues. Just like wild grass, it’s bound to find a way to grow on its own no matter what…

Drag has always been political, and expressing my thoughts on socio-political issues through performances, public posts, online protests, and family and peer conversations is a way for me to maximize my drag as a political medium.

With everything that we’re facing right now, I think a lot of people are scared for their own safety more than ever. Aside from the unresolved coronavirus crisis, it’s really frightening to witness the recent displays of abuse of power and the questionable decisions of this government.

As a member of a community that has long been experiencing inequality, discrimination, and unlawful acts, I am deeply saddened with how all of this misconduct diminishes my hopes for a country free from oppression.

—Marina Summers

On the right side of history

Drag is my art, my craft, and my passion. Without it, I’m incomplete. It’s an alternative persona but it’s also part of my identity. It is the Juliet to my Romeo.

My interest in drag started after I saw the film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. The glitz and glamour was so fascinating, and I immediately wanted to be part of that world.

People may see us as glamorous toads with a million rhinestones in 7-inch heels but, girl, it’s not as easy as it looks. Drag is not just crossdressing. It’s a transformation.

Drag queens are probably the most resilient and most creative people I know. Drag is thriving even on lockdown. There are a lot of online shows for all to see. We figured out a new way of showcasing our chops. We will survive this…

Drag is political. It was, it is, and it always will be. Periodt. I am a full-grown adult man dressed up to the nines, looking like Joan Crawford after losing the Oscars. It’s a big middle-finger to toxic masculinity and misogyny.

I like to think I have a considerable amount of following, which means I have a platform. I always have a choice, just like everybody else. One can choose to stay quiet, which effectively means choosing the side of the oppressors. Or I, a drag queen, can choose to be part of a positive change and help inspire a new generation of people who are not afraid to express themselves, political or otherwise.

I want to end on the right side of history. As a drag queen, I believe I can do that.

—Dee Dee Holliday

(Editor’s note: Sources’ statements in this article have been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, as some remarks were conveyed in mixed Filipino and English, but remain truthful to the context of their respective ideas or points of view.)


GOD SAVE THE QUEENS Support your local drag queens by checking them out on social media. DragPlayhouse PH, a Filipino drag-related content and events group, hosts virtual balls, podcasts, and parties for all. Don’t forget to tip!

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