Emily Kueppers / Essay / March 2017

Why Drag Means So Much To Me

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I first discovered drag when I was thirteen, and I thought it was just men dressing in women’s clothing. I had a friend on Facebook—he was an older brother of a girl who I had been in a play with (I used to add everyone) and he use to post these pictures of him and his best friend dressing up in full faces of makeup, dresses, and wigs. He was a boy and I thought he was beautiful—I use to fantasize about modeling like that, being friends with him and having him doll me up, posing me in front of fancy staircases or ivy-covered walls.

At thirteen I was a mess of a person, the feeling of wanting to fit in and be liked consumed me and I suppressed parts of who I actually was. I straightened my hair, put contacts in, and painted gold eyeshadow on my eyelids every single morning. It was my mask. I learned the term drag queen when someone was whispering about Mr. Jensen, a history teacher.

“My mom says the reason he doesn’t have any eyebrows is because he a drag queen, they paint them on.”

“What’s a drag queen?”

“Men who dress up as women,” said through a stifled giggle, “They are so gay.”

I giggled too, because this was back when I thought gay meant stupid and before I realized I was HELLA not straight. I first came out to myself around then. I couldn’t ignore the fact that I had feelings for girls and boys and people. It felt weird and scary, like everything I had ever been told about love and loving others was a lie.

The last push of that was coming to terms with my gender identity. Something that I had struggled with and hated about myself growing up. My dubbed title for myself was “a sad excuse for a girl.” I didn’t understand how being a girl worked, and no matter how hard I tried, it never felt right. I felt excluded from my peers in a way I couldn’t word. My boy peers didn’t look at me as one of them, and 100% of the time I was excluded because it was “boys only” or “bro night” but I didn’t understand. My girl peers seemed to have a language all their own—hugging, connecting, and talking with such ease to one another. I felt anytime I tried to connect on the same level I had to unstack brick walls surrounding me.

kipp2-01.pngI remember sitting in Starbucks during lunch senior year with a couple of friends and we were eating and chatting about going off to college. A friend had pulled up a statistic from a school they were considering. “This school says they’re 48% boys, 50% girls, and two percent other? What the hell, do they have like dogs or mops as students?” We all laughed at the idea that there could be this “other”. What could that possibly even mean? It made me laugh for a while after—until I realized that I was the other.

I was nineteen when I went to a gay bar for the first time. Not old enough to drink—my friends and I just bopped soberly around the dance floor. They took to the stripper poles and cages in the middle of the dance floor as only straight girls and one gay boy from a cookie cutter town can. I turned a corner and was met by a six foot tall man in heels, lip syncing to an Ariana Grande song. He had rhinestones under his eyes, hair teased to the gods, and was doing splits. I was mesmerized. This was the first time I had seen a real drag show. I watched a least five queens come on and lip sync, kick, dance and twirl, moving so elegantly in gowns that brushed the ground. Every time they came off stage they talked with each other—smiling, congratulating, hugging; a beautiful sense of community was here. Even though I was just watching I felt something new I had never felt before—a deep understanding of sense of place.

Last semester I studied abroad in Florence, Italy. And even though my days were filled with adventures and new people, places, and foods, some of my favorite memories were watching Netflix before I went to bed. You see, in Europe Netflix has all seven seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race—a show that had been in the back of my mind for the longest time, because the same Facebook friend, that I aspired to be in middle school, was a contestant on the seventh season.

It was a swift love affair for me and RuPaul’s Drag Race. Not only were the contestants fun and lively characters, they were people who poured out their hearts for what they do. The show had me hooked and rooting for every single contestant, even when I didn’t particularly like them. The show painted these people in such a way that I felt like I knew them.They had faced such adversity in the world, being told they were wrong for being who they are and doing what they love.

I’m not ashamed to say that I have openly wept at this show—the fifth season being the worst. I remember watching the second episode, and during the judge’s critiques having them ask queen Monica Beverly Hillz is she was okay. “You don’t seem like you’re here, is there something in your mind that’s distracting you?” Tears started flowing from her face. “I’m not like the other queens,” she confessed, trying to compose herself, “I’m not just a drag queen, I’m a transgender woman.” Being able to watch Monica accept herself in front of a group of people (and soon to be worldwide audience) struck me so hard. It was so wonderful to see her come to terms with her identity. It was just as amazing watch the whole team rally behind her. “If you need to wear girl clothes in the work room do it, we just want you to be yourself,” cast members told her after the judging.

This show is filled with moments like that—moments where contestants are truly living as their authentic selves. Moments wear the gender line starts to disappear, and all is left is talent, acceptance, and love. Love for who you are, all you are, and all you’re not. It will continue to have these moments, I hope, since the ninth season is just around the corner and has the first openly trans woman competing in the race.

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To me, drag is a way to express every bit of you that is inside of you, to live outside of society’s gender norms. That is a battle that I fight every day, and probably will for a very long time. But with drag in this world it gives me hope that I will find places where I can be myself—no matter who that is.

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