Drag culture: an exploration of gender and identity

I’ve always been fascinated with drag culture, with drag queens and drag kings. Many drag artists are members of the LGBTQ community and love the freedom they gain from exploring non-binary gender or sexuality through drag performance. I recently sat down with a number of local drag artists–who use the stage names Hors D’oeuvres (Randy Barrios), Damela Cuca (Victor De Jesus) and Loo D’Flyest Priestley (Liz Mazzei).

Randy Barrios used to sneak into the clubs when he was younger and  was enamored with the drag shows. It was this whole world he didn’t really know existed, where people could do whatever they wanted on stage and tell stories in clubs to a room full people who were in awe of them.

“The performers were so full of life and making no apologies for anything they were doing; I immediately knew this was something that I wanted to do someday,” he said.

De Jesus decided to get into drag culture because of a guy he was seeing at the time. Before then, he was never really involved in much. “I kept to myself,” he said. “But seeing [my boyfriend] and all the time and effort he out put into [drag], plus how fun it looked to do [got me into it].”

Mazzei grew up loving drag-positive films like Rocky Horror Picture Show, Too Wong Fu and The Birdcage. She was surrounded with queer culture without even realizing it. Many many years later, she worked in a gay club that hosted drag shows every week. She would just watch and say “I can do that, lemme try.” Eventually, they gave her a shot.

Barrios got a job at the same club he used to frequent and performed on “switch night,” where the employees do drag and the drag performers come in everyday clothes.

“It was terrifying and exhilarating; from that point on, I was hooked,” he said. “Being in drag made me feel invincible, like I could express myself and take on anything.”

A lot of people have drag families that teach them the tricks of the trade, but Barrios learned everything on YouTube and other social media. He said he finds that fewer and fewer people have person-to-person mentorship. “However, people [still] share tricks in the dressing rooms of shows while getting ready,” Barrios said.

Back in the day, if you were a queen you were a man dressing to impersonate a woman; if you were a king, you were a woman dressing to impersonate a man. Today, those boundaries aren’t as clear. Kings largely do more masculine characters and queens more feminine characters, but the lines of gender are much more blurred.

“You also have people like me who are ‘gender-[bending] performers,’ and pull from both masculine and feminine ideals in their overall presentation,” said Barrios.

De Jesus gets his ideas from music and women he sees. “Music has been a big part of my life, my escape from having to deal with the real world.”

Barrios uses his influence training as a sociologist as well as pop culture to help him host shows.  As an emcee, he cracks  jokes and tries to keep people engaged and also “brings in social justice lessons.”

“That beginning moment is still exhilarating, though. There’s something rebellious about doing drag and running with a character,” he said. “It’s unlikely I’ll quit anytime soon.”