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The Opening of a Queer Universe

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

By Max Pasakorn


“I know

that when you look at me,

there’s so much that you just don’t see.”


The opening chords of Whitney Houston’s Run to You reverberates through the small theatre, accompanied by a gentle but distinct piano arrangement. It reminds me of the pirated CDs of American music my mother constantly played in my childhood home. I don’t think my Thai mother ever knew the words to this song, but she could feel them. Whitney Houston makes any tune sound like refined treasure. The song must imbue a drag artist with so much power.


A shadowy figure in a flowing white gown drifts onstage. Drag queen Sapphire Blast, with tiger-like eyebrows, perches herself in the center, tilting her head up to catch the spotlight. She looks forward, pleading us to step into a world created by illusion. There is so much that we just don’t see. What lays behind the glittering costume, the dramatic makeup, and a feminine silhouette moving to the soul of music? Like a siren, Sapphire lures us into a momentary world.


“But if

you would only take the time,

I know in my heart you’d find…”


The next line is courteous, considerate. We are convinced by her respect for our time, so we make the journey. We believe that she is genuine about her intentions. It no longer matters that the performance is obviously an illusion. There is something authentic about her longing gaze, so vulnerable it feels like there is an expressway to her heart. Physical reality suspends as Sapphire Blast’s imaginative reality radiates. The meek lyrics come alive from inside her, enchanting us like a melodious spell. I am suspended in disbelief. Her glossy lips move as if she is singing at a small concert. The enjambment of this lyric leaves us wondering: what would we find should we venture inside?

“…a girl who’s scared sometimes.”


*


“How’s your relationship with your closet?”


Winter D’va was taken aback when I asked her this question at a gay bar in Singapore. As poets, we spoke the language of metaphor. The word “closet” contained multitudes of meaning. It referred to the literal closet, which drag queens find filled to the brim with dresses, accessories, and wigs, but also the metaphorical closet from “coming out of the closet,” the visceral act of sharing one’s queer identity to the world. A closet is at once a physical storage of one’s clothes, an extension of the queer body, and a metaphorical trap that keeps expressions of queerness subdued. In conservative Singapore, the closet is a stark reminder to conform to a gendered manner of dressing, one that clearly reads to passersby as masculine or feminine. For individuals who have not reflected on their gender, the closet is simply a reflection of the norms they’ve been brought up with. A cisgender man would wear a shirt and pants. His closet would have no dresses. But for trans and queer people, whose dressing blurs the boundaries of gender, the closet makes one stick out like a sore thumb. To them, interacting with the closet is like a tug-of-war between being a free queer body and one pushed to conformity.


That day, Winter was out of drag, dressed in a basic T-shirt and jeans, but she somehow bore an elegance that could only come from being acutely aware of her wardrobe. Her reply was triumphant: “The closet cannot contain me.” She joked that it is partly because she has run out of space in her three wardrobes. Her closets were overflowing. But she noted that drag presented an opportunity to transcend beyond expectations any metaphorical closet might constrict upon her. Her self-expression was an unfixable leakage, bound to spill out into a beautiful mess.


Like all art forms, drag is the embodiment of creativity. But it eludes definition. Drag was propelled to the mainstream by reality TV competition show RuPaul’s Drag Race. But to consider top-performing Drag Race contestants a paragon of drag is misguided; Drag Race contestants go above and beyond what most drag queens do. A hint that points to the definition of drag is a quote from the show: “We’re all born naked, and the rest is drag.” Drag is the embodiment of what makes each individual unique. When asked to define drag, Winter asked me to imagine the queer body – its flesh, its movements, its appearance – as an artist’s canvas. Like a mannequin, a body is naked until drag gives it shape and form. The body is not just an instrument; it is artwork. When the canvas is the self, drag is literally the art of self-expression. Practicing drag is like opening a portal to a universe, a space free from the body’s earthly concerns. In drag, the queer body becomes something else – something defined, ultimately, by the artist.


The drag name, a label the artist conjures, kickstarts the transitory journey from the dragless body into the persona that inhibits it. Winter’s name was borne from contradiction. In tropical Singapore, it will never be winter, so the name is an embodiment of impossibility. To be Winter is to openly defy an unquestioned status quo by creating an otherwise invisible body. Winter intended to call herself Winter Diamandis, referencing singer-songwriter Marina Diamandis. But her club’s promoter voiced some hesitations. The name was too complex, and drunk partygoers had terrible memory. Winter instead opted for a last name with a double entendre. It sounds like “diva,” the descriptor of pop stars. But D’va comes from Winter’s favourite avatar in the video game Overwatch. Thinking about the name, Winter imagined logging into Overwatch and inhibiting D’va’s body. This name is a passport that allowed Winter to shed off reality and step into a fantastical universe in which Winter D’va – her new embodiment – formed the center. Together, the drag name is the shell of a corporeal body that the drag artist steps into whenever they perform.

*


Prior to Sapphire Blast’s Run to You number, the show’s hostess Becca D’Bus shared how Sapphire conceived her drag name. Becca started with a word of caution: “Drag queens are not very smart.” A joke has been set up. “Sapphire Blast named herself after her favorite color.” I immediately thought Becca meant blue, a color featured throughout Sapphire’s drag aesthetic. How could one be named “Sapphire Blast” and not shine like the blue gemstone? When I first saw Sapphire perform, I envied how light reflected off her blue gown onto her rich brown skin. Then, the punchline hit. “Her favorite color is green.”


Evidently, Sapphire’s humor plays with misdirection. She creates surprising juxtapositions between the expected and what appears. It bordered on “stupid,” as Becca said. But that’s the way she communicates her drag art. It is what she envisions when thinking about performing the bodily canvas. “Stupid” might be the best way to connect with the audience. At least we all understood what the joke could mean.


“I wanna

run to you.

Oo-ooh oo-ooh.”


The chorus starts. I imagine a young Whitney Houston running, in slow-motion with her white dress flowing behind her, to meet her lover. Sapphire does exactly that. The song lends her movement nuance. Her heels become dainty. Her arms, reaching into empty air, are impassioned with desire. The lipsync comes alive. As a Vulture article says, “A truly masterful lip-sync artist will remix the emotions of a song, filter them through their own character and life experiences, punctuate them with exaggerated flourishes that almost act like a conductor’s movements, and play with the audience’s emotions and expectations like a virtuoso.” The lip-sync, the staple of drag performances, is a brush stroke that blends Sapphire’s illusory drag with the reality of an audience in plush theatre seats. What I saw in front of me feels real.


“I wanna

run to you.

Oo-ooh oo-oo-oo-ooh.”


Sapphire had a surprise planned for the song’s second half. The bottom of her gown splits, down the center, to reveal a pair of black shorts. The illusion comes apart, like threads unravelling from a garment. But “reveals” are always an intentional act of transformation. Removing an outfit to reveal another can catch the audience off-guard, eliciting cheers at its genius. Like the magician’s sleight of hand, the reveal must be without hiccup – seamless – to create a fulfilling payoff. When Sapphire removes her blouse to reveal a loose singlet underneath, everything clicks. From the illusion of a demure maiden, Sapphire has transformed into an athlete, ready for a run. The performance toys with gender. Underneath the glamour was a body formed with personal history, a body created from years of social pressure to “be a man.” Drag challenged this body to translate its history into a parody of gendered norms.


Sapphire bends into the starting position for a sprint and traverses the stage in a runner’s slight forward lean. I yelp, now understanding her slapstick humor. She is embodying the word “run.” Sapphire had taken a slice of popular culture – Whitney Houston’s music – and translated it with her unique insight. When I listen to Run to You again, I will not forget the sight of this drag queen fake-panting onstage.


*


Winter tells me drag challenges irony. The art is both armor and authenticity, vest and vulnerability. Drag is the armor that protects the queer person from a world they cannot conform to, a costume that is a deflection. “You cannot reach me,” says the drag artist. “Whatever your thoughts are, they no longer exist with this drag persona that I have created.” At the same time, drag is an expression of vulnerability, a process of living a redefined truth. Winter likens this to astro-projection. When the best bits converge into this constructed body, they express something that was once unseeable. RuPaul says that drag brings something out of you; it reveals who you are. Like forming friendships, drag allows for an intimate connection with the multitudes of selves that one carries. For the Singaporean queer person subdued by society’s erasure of nonconformists, drag could be the ticket to discovering a joy so powerful and fulfilling, they might never want to take it off.


To understand the subjugation of the queer body, we must look to our past. In the 1990s, gay men were charged in Singapore’s courts for “soliciting with other men in public,” “outrage of modesty,” and “acts of gross indecency.” While gay sex was outlawed, gender-bending drag performers remained in small venues, displaced in realms, dancing to popular music. In escaping surveillance, drag was a reaction to the distress placed unto policed queer bodies. Much like Singapore’s process of land reclamation, the gathering of queer folks – drag artists and their audiences – becomes a space reclaimed by an energy that informed and supported each other. Any drag performer connected to this gender-bending underground “ecosystem,” as Winter calls it, is fueled by other queer bodies. The drag art form fuels its own history.


Drag is also the art of parodic translation, subverting common meaning through the language developed and shared underground. Once, a friend asked me why “the gays” loved to use “BDSM-associated” words like “gagged” and “sickening” to describe moments of awe and celebration. I don’t know the answer. But I know queer elders of previous generations have passed their vernacular unto us. To continue using this secret vocabulary is homage and remembrance to them. Drag artists are the holders of these secrets, beings that infuse creativity into a lifelong translation effort of ingenuity and wit. Drag leaves its imprint, but only those immersed will know the secret words of access. The drag art forms a nexus for the creation of queer culture.

*

Sapphire Blast exits the stage with a grin on her face. She is unfazed by Becca D’Bus calling her “stupid.” That is the kind of language they shared; insults came from kinship. And the descriptor is apt. Her “stupid” humor paid off.


But the headliner of the show is another drag queen. Vyla Virus made local news in January 2022 when she was featured in a video ad for Samsung. In the video, Vyla’s mother listens to a voice memo in which Vyla recounts her mother’s support for her drag art.


“And even though some people may have this [negative] mindset of [seeing] a hijab [wearing] lady in a club, you were just unbothered because you were there to see me perform,” it recounted. Vyla voiced a proclamation of love for her mother in their native tongue: “Boy sayakan Ma.”


I teared up watching this video, imagining the conflicts the pair endured to arrive at a relationship brimming with love and respect. When masculine-presenting folks first get in feminine drag, someone would probably comment: “You look just like your mother.” In the video, Vyla and her mother looked like they were the same person in parallel universes: a wise, kind lady wearing a headscarf; and a tall, confident lady in a sparkly jumpsuit, the twinkle in their eyes the same luminosity.


Soon after, the video was removed. Samsung’s Facebook page read, “We are aware of the feedback that one of our recent campaign films for our wearable products may be perceived as insensitive and offensive to some members of our local community.”


As Vyla twirls onstage, I cannot help but imagine Vyla and her mother as two bodies, one queer and one accepting, in a fated embrace. But the public insists that they remain invisible, bodies hidden underground, suppressed by a vocal majority that villainizes drag, failing to see beyond the nonconformity and into the free, expressive soul of the performer. Vyla continues performing in drag despite everything the country throws at her. Why?


For some, drag has turned into a mode of survival. When art is connected to identity, it is up to the bodies to work and sustain the self-representation the country tries to suppress. Only in drag, where these ghostly bodies are materialized with messages, can they be seen, like stars on a clear night sky.

*


When asked about drag’s future in Singapore, Winter said: “We cannot rely on Singapore to get a future for us.” This was compounded by the oppressive realities for queer artists in Singapore, including regulations that restrict the consumption and production of queer content. Winter does drag as an escape, “to create a fantasy that would override this reality.” Drag allowed her to envision a life filled with gender euphoria, a deep-down happiness that comes from dressing as the gender that she embodied. To Winter, drag was not just performance. It was also a mode of survival, a way to experience an otherwise hidden joy, a celebration of an expression always subdued. However bleak the future was in Singapore, drag provided Winter with a small hope. “It’s up to us to build a future for ourselves.” Drag was a permit to self-love.

*

At fifteen, I put on a wig for the first time. My mother left behind two wigs we bought on a shopping trip to Bugis Street. The wigs hid her balding scalp as the chemotherapy slowly destroyed her body. In her final month, she was so worn out. But she refused to leave the house without her hair. Later in life, I realized why. There is something inextricably feminine about long, flowy hair. When a head with long hair moves, the strands of hair follow, suspended, taking its time to be pristine. Long hair is a statement of proudly and confidently being a woman. My mother was afraid of losing her womanhood to cancer.


I posted pictures of myself wearing those wigs online. As I look back on those photos now, I see a younger me that looked fulfilled, glowing with a joy that I don’t remember feeling. Was I feeling highly connected to my recently deceased mother? Or did I look like her and missed her dearly? Or did I just look more feminine? My cheeks were so plump from my grin they brushed against the ends of the brown bob. My stepsisters would find these photos and tease me about them. It would be over ten years before I would have the courage to put wigs on again.

*


I got into drag for the first time ever in college. I knew how to do the exaggerated makeup; I had a cheap dress and heels bought from AliExpress; I had a cheap, frizzy pink wig from a flea market. In the mirror, I saw multitudes. I looked at my body, in a dress too short for my stature, and wondered why I felt comfort instead of discomfort. I felt the soft fabric hug my torso. I realized then my body felt at home in this dress. I felt confident. Because I was so close to femininity, I was no longer afraid to express it. At once, I saw the face of my beautiful, hardworking mother, whose remnants coursed through my veins, and the history of the queer people, whose culture I inherited. I was a queer body ready to feel seen, heard, and newly identified.


I stepped into the spotlight and performed.

*

Ending every Drag Race episode, RuPaul announces, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you going to love somebody else?” Self-love must come first, because it is the base we must build to become human and whole. The journey to self-love is fraught when belonging is constantly negotiated in this heteronormative world. When a queer person gets in drag, they become a version of themselves that can convince them that there is a self worth loving. How much excavation must be done to reach the core that shines and sparkles, proud and unafraid of its own light? Drag is an ongoing process of outward transformation, but its true nature is the change on the inside. Each time someone does drag, they are one step closer to achieving a reality where they can be truly happy existing as they are. And they are bringing us along with them.


____________________________________________________________________________________________

Max Pasakorn (he/she/they) is a queer, Thai-born, Singapore-based writer, poet, and spoken word artist pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Arts & Humanities (Creative Writing) at Yale-NUS College. Max’s writing, predominantly about their Thai and queer identities, has been published in or is forthcoming in Chestnut Review, Freeze Ray Poetry, Middleground Magazine, Strange Horizons, EXHALE: an anthology of queer Singaporean voices, and more. Max’s debut nonfiction chapbook, A Study in Our Selves, is the winner of the OutWrite 2022 Chapbook Competition (Nonfiction) and is forthcoming from Neon Hemlock Press.


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