Meet the students shaping the future of UK drag
Drag is moving into the UK mainstream. I met the students shaping its future, and it’s sickening (sickeningly good, that is).
Julian isn’t a drag queen. Instead, they’re a “drag monarch”, neither a queen nor king, which better matches their non-binary identity in other areas of their life. Julian thinks that so many spaces would not offer them the space to perform non-binary drag, so to them, the SOAS Drag Collective is a “safe space”.
Julian’s right. As the performers prepare for their Extravaganza, it’s clear that the Collective is some distance from the often dog-eat-dog world of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Shade isn’t strewn across the dressing room. There’s a real sense of solidarity between each of the performers.
“Nobody here gets my pronouns wrong, which is amazing. The Collective moves away from the binary ‘king’ and ‘queen’, and it moves away from the queer obsession with pageants and perfectionism,” Julian explains.
And Mable Syrup, a female queen, says that “the Collective is a more a constructive space than a competition.”
Perfectionism. Construction. To many people in the LGBTQ+ community, these are familiar words – the sort you might hear in psychologists’ consulting rooms. Maybe there is something therapeutic about the Drag Collective. After all, the hump between perfectionism and actually producing something is one which many LGBTQ+ people struggle to overcome, often in the wake of ‘not fitting in’: into LGBTQ+ culture; into gender binaries; into society’s model of ‘you’. And the Collective overcomes this hump by creating characters, Julian believes, borne out of self-exploration rather than adherence to any one norm.
With that in mind, perhaps the Collective aims to embrace imperfection, breaking down the borderline between what mainstream drag has come to expect, and what drag actually is. Where reality television audiences might expect “fishy” queens and louche outfits, the Collective desires a messier performance of sexuality and gender which, when all’s said and donned, becomes empowering as well as entertaining. Mable expands on this when the conversation turns back to Drag Race: “Drag is an art form. It’s not just one ‘thing’, but it’s marketed like that. RuPaul is only about performing femininity, and no part of the show creates a space where you can do ‘genderfuck.’”
And Glangela Fever, a bearded queen affectionately known among the group as Aunt Glange, came back with a similar idea. Mainstream obsessions with pageants and femininity, she said, do away with certain aspects of gender or romantic ‘performance’. On a show like Drag Race, there’s little opportunity for queens to explore their sexualities and gender identities on stage outside of fixed criteria. In Glangela’s words: “[RuPaul brings] a washed-down version of voguing to a platform which is going to water it down even more.”
But for all their criticisms of him, members of the Collective admire RuPaul.
“I’m not trying to cancel RuPaul,” Julian says. The problem is that, to many outside queer circles, it’s only his performances of femininity which get a looking.
That is, until recently. The conversation in the dressing room turns towards the changing face of drag in the mainstream. Earlier this year, the BBC brought Pose to UK audiences, which gives more than just a nod to non-binary and female drag. And Amrou al-Kadhi recently released Unicorn, which delves into their world as a queer, Iraqi, non-binary, British performer: “I’ve … felt too gay for Iraqis and too Iraqi for gays. My non-binary gender identity has meant that I don’t feel comfortable in most gendered spaces, and I regularly feel out of place in my own male body, as though it doesn’t match up to who I am internally.”
At last, drag is being laid bare for all to see. So, what does the future hold for the UK scene?
With so much talk about politics and psychology, it feels like there’s some way to go in curating a London drag scene where everyone – queens, kings, monarchs, and all – feels equally welcomed. But Sarahmonial Sacrifice believes that drag and LGBTQ+ culture are now firmly embedded in London’s urban ‘fabric’. In other words, drag no longer needs to rely heavily on the politics of liberation and struggle. The bottom line is to entertain.
Sarah’s sense of achievement says it all: “That time is kind of over. Now, we’re doing something.”
Photo credit: Author. Featured image: Cookie.