Drag night with Patrick begins with cocktails and pop music, and the two of us dressing up to go nowhere. With Gaga blaring, we take out the makeup from our bags. Mine is a mess, but then again, so is Patrick’s. He has flown all the way from San Francisco to visit. We’ve been best friends since high school. Seven years later, we consider ourselves sisters.
Patrick is especially happy because the bathroom of my new apartment has two giant mirrors, good mirrors, whereas in previous bathrooms we’d catfight for space. Fact: one mirror is never big enough for two queens. I spend the first few minutes of our makeup routine looking for the right shade of foundation. I’ve been living in Columbus, Ohio for six months and it’s the dead of winter. I’m pale now. I can no longer use my favorite shade from when I lived in California.
“I miss my California glow,” I tell Patrick. He knows what I’m really missing: my life before Ohio, the four years I spent living in Orange County.
“Well, girl, you shouldn’t have left me,” he retorts. In early 2017, Patrick moved from our hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to live in the Bay Area after his partner received a job offer that was too good to refuse. For a small period of time, we were living in the same state again. Patrick would come down in a Greyhound bus to visit me some weekends. Distance could not tear the seams of our sisterhood.
Our banter is almost as fun as the makeup itself, and as Patrick and I prep and prime our skin for a night of drag, we like to tease each other about our imperfections. It’s almost as if we were never apart.
“Girl, that hairline just keeps on going back,” Patrick says to me. I keep my hair out of my face with an old wig cap, stained with layers of foundation from many past faces. With my hair pushed back like this, I notice that he’s right. I see an early sign of male pattern baldness: the M-shaped, receding hairline. All the men on my mother’s side of the family suffer from this family curse. I worry that my hair will disappear before I’m thirty.
Patrick’s comment was meant in jest, but tonight, like many nights, I feel a certain despair when looking in the mirror. Though I am often mistaken for looking much younger than my actual age, I notice the ways my face has changed over the years. The presence of smile lines remind me that I am aging. My face has thinned. When I look into my own eyes, there is a recognition of myself and my own mortality. I’ve had many moments like this while gazing into the mirror, transfixed on an image of myself that’s in-between the transition from Robert to Priscilla, my drag counterpart.
Growing up in the world as a gay boy meant that I was aware of my differences. I was closest to my older sister and obsessed with her obsessions, like Britney Spears and the Spice Girls. I was a complete ham, emulating the fierceness these women exuded. It’s hard to find an old home movie that doesn’t include me barging in on the camera’s frame, ostentatiously declaring, “I’m Madame Pomfrey, and I’m the star of the show!” (I was seven or eight with a real love for Harry Potter and fabulous names.)
My performance of femininity as a boy got me into a lot of trouble. I was often mocked, not only by the kids at school but even by my own family. For my eighth birthday, my parents thought it would be funny to buy me a neon pink leopard print skirt as a gag gift. To their dismay, I was delighted by it and put it on. But as everyone around me started to laugh, I felt a displaced shame. I didn’t know what I was supposed to be ashamed about, but that cruel laughter signaled that my pleasure was a crime against the social order. I ripped off the skirt and cried. I would carry this embarrassment for the rest of my adolescence—in the way I walked and talked, and in the silent way I judged myself against others. In high school, my friends would say I spoke in a boring monotone, not realizing that the level tone concealed my natural, more feminine inflection. I dressed like the straight guys in my school, too afraid to wear the clothes that really appealed to me—like shorts above the knee or cardigans, which were all seen as “gay.”
I finally settle for a shade of foundation that matches my skin tone, but not before making fun of the stray chin hairs poking through Patrick’s foundation. If he’s going to come for me and my hairline, I’m going to fire back. This is what drag queens call “reading.” It’s the art of insult, immortalized by the black and Latina queens in Jennie Livingston’s film Paris Is Burning. Patrick and I tease one another about our flaws because it’s a way we show love: we see each other, every eyelash.
In the initial stages of putting on my drag makeup, it’s hard not to laugh at myself. The first step involves coating my eyebrows with an Elmer’s glue stick. It’s any six-year-old’s dream. I apply layer after layer until the surface becomes flat. Next, I press in translucent powder to help set the eyebrows. Finally, a dab of full-coverage concealer hides the glued-down brows. After applying foundation to the rest of my face, I look in the mirror and see what most closely resembles a naked mole rat or some strange, alien baby.
I haven’t always been keen on not taking myself seriously. Actually, let me be frank—I am still working on not taking myself too seriously. After I came out to my parents in 2011, I felt liberated in the sense that I no longer had to hide a big part of my identity, but I also felt an immense pain. My father did not take my coming out easily. We didn’t speak for half a year. I felt abandoned, but something clicked inside me—an awareness of myself in this melodrama, our story taking place under a roof not unlike the one belonging to the pink dollhouse I had as a child. Although the characters in my family’s soap opera were made of flesh and bone, they were playing out their parts, just like my plastic dolls.
I took the pain I felt around my identity very seriously. I needed my father to understand me. I wanted him to accept his gay son. I was just learning to accept myself, to attend my first Gay Pride events, and to feel brave enough to hold my boyfriend’s hand in public. When I finally learned of legendary drag queen RuPaul in 2012, it was like I had stumbled upon the teachings of a master that promised salvation from all the conflicting emotions I felt. To my younger self, RuPaul embodied absolute freedom. Here was someone who came from a poor family and domestic violence, a person who chose to move to New York City and become the supermodel of the world. If Ru could do it, anyone could. In that way, RuPaul provided a blueprint, and as I grew in my relationship to drag, I learned to study its origins, fought for and defended by brave trans women and drag queens of color. My relationship to them is one of utmost respect.
One of RuPaul’s most famous quotes goes like this: “We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.” Later, I would learn that he got that line from the Hindus and Buddhists. Ram Dass, a Hindu teacher of the West, wrote, “Treat everyone you meet as if they are God in drag.” These were words that made sense to my queer ears. Growing up in a Catholic household—where churches felt like hollow spaces—didn’t teach me a lot about spirituality or God. When I first came across a beginner’s guide to Buddhist meditation, I began to walk the path of my own self-acceptance. As a queer person, I already felt outside of my own family and outside of my own culture—and when the self feels alone, it seeks, looking for a place where it might belong. In Eastern paths of liberation, especially Buddhism, it is taught that there is no essential self—the spark that ignites my search is also the one that extinguishes it. But just like my relationship with trans women and queens of color, it’s important to acknowledge the ways in which I borrow and adopt traditions and practices that are not mine—and for me, this is done through careful study and respect, by knowing when my voice is not required, and by uplifting and supporting marginalized voices from these traditions.
If the art of drag has taught me one thing, it’s that I am not unique. I believe that everyone does drag. From choosing the clothes we want to wear to parting our hair a certain way, we tend to our roles in a ritualistic fashion. We groom our personas, keep them neat and tidy. We give a lot of attention to ensuring that our ties are tied on straight and our bra straps aren’t showing. Yet when we come home from work after a long day, who doesn’t love to take it all off, throw their feet up on the coffee table, and untuck the last eight hours of their lives?
For tonight’s look, Patrick doesn’t cover his eyebrows and instead keeps his own pair of natural brows. The goal that I have in mind is to draw on a new pair of higher brows with better arches than the ones God gave me. Before I start, I must do the intricate work of highlighting and contouring, all of which help in creating a more feminine face shape. Contour is applied in a band across the forehead and beneath the cheekbones to craft the illusion of a rounder and younger face. Nose contour is done by drawing two lines on either side of the nose to make it slimmer. Some queens have to contour their jawbones, too, to make a softer jaw, all in effort to achieve what’s considered more feminine. Highlight—white powder—is applied on the high points of the face: the tops of the cheeks, the forehead, the point of the nose, and chin. This style of makeup was made popular by the Kardashians, after which every Instagram beauty guru followed suit. The face is infamous now, but drag queens mastered it first. I help Patrick blend out the contour of his nose. I could read him for having a big, manly nose, but I’m a good sister and choose to help him instead.
After I’ve carved my face with dark contour powder, I spend a long time applying eye makeup. This is the most exciting part because it creates a high-femme, dramatic effect. I’m a sucker for a dark, smoky eye. Patrick loves to use bright colors. Tonight, he chooses a baby blue eyeshadow that shimmers. It will match with the neon blue lipstick that I bought him for Christmas last year. I go with my usual black eyeliner and nude eyeshadows, a look that I’ve perfected from painting on the same face a hundred times.
I draw a pair of brows, a practice that involves a lot of patience and steady hands. In the end, the two brows wind up looking very similar to one another. I’m pleased. If I messed up a brow, I’d have to start all over, or more sensibly, wear bangs to cover the mistake. In drag, I can almost always cover up my flaws, but real life is less forgiving. After this, Patrick and I move on to the finishing touches: bright lipstick; long, dramatic faux eyelashes; and a glittering highlighter, which gives the angles of my cheeks a shine when I catch the light the right way.
With my face completed, I prepare for the infamous tuck. The tuck involves an intricate system of genitals and tape, all wrapped up to complete the illusion that there’s nothing between my legs. It’s uncomfortable and at times painful, but it’s part of the craft. I first learned to tuck after watching a tutorial online. With my bits all loaded up, the adage “beauty is pain” comes to mind—but truthfully, I like the way my groin looks without its usual parts. I soften into this feminine version of myself. My voice climbs an octave. My body relaxes and I express myself without restraint. And in drag, all of those expressions are inherently more dramatic given the long nails, doe eyes, big hair, and bright lips.
Next, I’ll put on a dress, preferably something skimpy to show off how skinny I am, and then I’ll put on a lace-front wig, which gives the illusion of real hair. But the look isn’t complete until I’ve put on a pair of heels. I don a pair of six-inch stiletto boots, and Patrick—now Luna—tells me that I’m stunning.
I feel stunning. In the process of this creation, I have taken myself from a pretty average Joe to the headliner at Madison Square Garden. When I look in the mirror, I hardly recognize myself. The whole process has taken nearly two hours to complete. Priscilla stares back at me with attitude and excitement in her eyes. It’s like she has just been born in the world and has taken her first breath. There’s possibility in this moment. It’s the raw thrill of being an artist and seeing what I’ve created. Priscilla feels beautiful in ways that Robert doesn’t. She feels confident in ways that Robert never feels. This is a high I chase—getting out of my head and seeing the world through a new pair of eyes.
Priscilla is the version of myself who doesn’t give a fuck. Priscilla is who I could be if I stopped caring about the opinions of others. It’s a side that I reserve for the rare situation in which I need to summon a strength that feels like more than I can give. Priscilla gives me permission to be myself without shame or fear of consequences. She is my most feminine self. When I’ve completely changed my outer appearance in this way, I am able to break myself open. It’s as if my usual self is the shell around a nut, and when in drag, that shell is cracked and I’m left with the raw meat inside. Priscilla is extroverted, daring, and even sexy. She gives me access to the qualities that I don’t often embody in my day-to-day life.
Even though playing the part of Priscilla makes me feel wonderful and alive, I find ways to hide her from the world. I don’t tell my father that I do drag. I rarely let Priscilla out of the house because I fear being the victim of a hate crime, especially in Columbus, a new city that I’m still learning to trust. In lieu of regular outings, I maintain a social media presence with Luna, including a YouTube channel where we upload videos and songs that we record together. The only time I am ever brave enough to go out as Priscilla is when I am with Luna, and that’s really only because she is a husky, six-foot man in real life.
Next to all the articles of clothing that Robert wears hang many dresses, waiting for their first night out. At the end of the day, I can always put Priscilla back in the closet, but I’m stuck with my own identity. I already spent the better half of my life in the closet, so I refuse to hide my queerness from new people that I meet. But what about my other identities? For the past year, I’ve identified as a graduate student and poet, a husband, and a friend. Drag showed me that I could hang up one role in exchange for another, but I’m tired of just acting a part. I have a need to identify with something deeper.
In my spiritual practice, I’ve learned that the self is a deceptive thing. Drag has acted as a tool for me to view my own identity. Drag has offered me an opportunity to understand a lot about the self, the ego, and God (or Universe, Supreme Being, Great Spirit, whatever you want to name it—even God likes to dress up.) When I am in drag, the illusion I create allows me to seem like a different person, if only temporarily. All of a sudden, I’m no longer the person I am in my daily life. I’m no longer that same old story, the “I,” the fiction that I tell myself. I’m somebody else. If we can transform ourselves that quickly, changing the way we perceive ourselves and the way others perceive us, doesn’t that mean this thing that we cling to so strongly, this thing that we believe ourselves to be, is an illusion too?
Drag, as an extension of myself, is a deceptively alluring glamour. At every turn, it is easy to get caught up in the melodrama and to mistake the part I am playing for the real “me.” In my practice and meditation, I have only recently come to realize that I’ve been playing the part of the introvert. I’ve been quiet and reserved even when I want to speak up. Like Priscilla hanging in the closet, I keep parts of myself from other people because of fear—fear of rejection, mostly. So I’ve chosen to play the part, to continue acting by this unwritten script that tells me to keep quiet. I’ve spent years mistaking myself for someone I’m not. Maybe this is something that I learned to do in my childhood, as a result of living in the closet. I’m not sure.
What I am sure of is that I only let the people I’m closest to see the real me, and even then, there are parts that I don’t show. How I would love to hang up the anxious, introverted self in the closet for the day—to show everyone who is used to shy, reserved Robert that I am only these things because I’ve grown attached to them, like a hermit crab unwilling to give up a shell too small.
Patrick sees Priscilla because I trust him all the way. We will end the night drunk and stupid, lip-synching to our favorite songs. We love to watch each other perform. In this private sphere, we show each other our most vulnerable selves. We’re protected here—protected from a world that so often seeks to harm us and people like us. I wish that everyone could see Patrick—Luna—in his very best drag. He is an amazing entertainer with a real spark. I know that he would say the same about me.
We go to bed around 4 a.m. after multiple “I love you’s.” In the absence of parental support, Patrick and I have learned to love one another like family. There’s a special bond that forms when two queer people recognize themselves in one another, especially after feeling like outsiders for their entire lives. It’s a rare jewel in life, one that I treasure. I go upstairs and take my makeup off. Under my smudged makeup, my face is tired. There’s a sorrow in my eyes, a recognition that I am wiping away some real part of me and going back to the usual script of daily life. I return to my role as Robert. I remember all of the things that make a Robert a Robert, all of the things that other people expect Robert to do, like cleaning off the bathroom counter before falling asleep.
Performance is a paradox: in putting all that makeup on, the bejeweled outfits and bedazzled shoes, it would make sense to say that dressing up hides me, but drag really reveals who I am. The art of drag has allowed me to go beyond my limited perception of myself, which is one of the biggest obstacles that I’ve faced in life. I suffer because I don’t allow myself to have new beginnings. In the past, I’ve chosen to stick to the role I was handed or the role that I’ve unwittingly assigned to myself. Drag is an antidote to the constant and nagging need to adhere to what I did yesterday. Drag is a method for breaking up the narrative I craft about myself.
Trauma lives in the body, wires itself into the brain until it becomes a part of who I am. I replay the small violences of my upbringing mocked for being feminine, being ashamed for being attracted to men, being rejected by my father for coming out. This perception of self comes with embodied feelings of guilt, sadness, and pain. It would be easy—natural, even—to continue to identify with that perception, with the feelings of being rejected. But one thing that drag has taught me is that I have created myself. Out of the pain, my beauty is born. Not because beauty is the natural result of pain, but because I choose it to be. In painting my face, in styling my wig, in putting on the warrior heels: this is who I choose to be. It’s me on my terms. That kind of freedom is rare.
Truthfully, I believe that drag can help anyone understand the many levels of what people are. I believe that drag can show us the outgrown parts of ourselves that we’ve been clinging to, and it can teach us the process of letting go. Drag can teach us how amazing it is to have been given a human body. In drag, we paint ourselves. We change our image. We sing. We dance. We exalt the body and its infinite expression.
When I think of the many faces that I have worn, I recognize pieces of myself in all of them. I’m still learning to meet the being behind the mask. I can only discover this through spiritual practice, meditation, and reflection. Some folks will say that people can’t change. I believe that we’re changing all the time, but we prefer to resist this force. Staying the same is an act of resistance against what the universe is trying to make us do—which is to transform, radically. We should open ourselves to that transformation. I don’t think we’re meant to conform to a single understanding of ourselves. It’s as if at every turn, life invites us to play a new role, and all we have to do is pick up the script and accept. We can move through these roles consciously without attachment: it is good to say yes. All these roles are fundamentally impermanent, bound to the earthly stage where it all takes place. In drag, by taking on a new identity every night and wiping it away before the sunrise, I learn that this change is good. That it invites deeper understanding of my life. I know that my most beloved roles, that of a brother, son, friend, lover, and, yes, drag queen, will have to be hung up in the great closet in the sky one day—and won’t it be a real trip to meet who or what has been in disguise all along.
While we’re alive, we get to play dress up. We get to choose who we want to be. I want to be a kind and compassionate person. I want to learn to be more vulnerable in situations and to drop old roles that are no longer serving me. I want to be a seeker, the kind of student who never abandons a quest for truth in all its forms and manifestations. I want to keep looking inside of myself for a spark of the eternal, that ultimate reality underlying all phenomena.
You could call it God. You could call it energy.
You could call it drag.
Photographs provided courtesy of author.