When I saw Kyra Fey and Edyn Panache perform together at Partners Café for the first time one Friday night this past October, I felt as if I were watching two complete strangers. It wasn’t the exterior appearance of my two friends that obscured my ability to recognize them — no amount of make-up could completely cover the features I associated with their male counterparts, Timmy Pham ’13 and McJay Field ’14. (McJay asked that his surname be changed to protect his identity.) But something about their transformation into their drag personas brought out a side of them I had never encountered before.
During her lip-synced rendition of Beyonce’s “Countdown,” Kyra’s body moved to the song in a way that Timmy could never match. Edyn’s performance of “Ten Little Indians” from “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” was delivered with passion and anger quite unlike McJay’s usual cheerfulness. Drag performance gave Timmy and McJay permission to say what they wanted, to move in the way they felt most comfortable and to express themselves without the limitations usually imposed on them by society. And the audience loved it.
Drag culture at Yale is the product of sacrifice, defiance towards conventional attitudes and a fiercely supportive community. A new development, it offers students a chance to use performance as a weapon against restrictive gender definitions. It’s a form of protest within the parameters of one’s external presentation. And according to student performers, the growing visibility of drag on campus means that more and more Yalies are learning to recognize the need for that protest.
Timmy and McJay are currently the only student drag queens performing at established venues. They have invested an immense amount of time and money towards their artform; today, drag is critical to their identities and will remain, they said, a part of their lives long past graduation. Developing the confidence to perform was difficult for each of them, but they made it there together. In Yale’s drag culture, that’s how it’s done.
BAD ROMANTICS, SUPPORTIVE PEERS
When it comes to giving the finger to gender norms on campus, the Bad Romantics, Yale’s drag cabaret troupe, leads the way. In doing so, the Romantics embody a form of queer activism defined by artful revelry. They recognize, according to the group’s current co-director, Hannah Mogul-Adlin ’13, that drag is a broad experience with significant connotations and effects — “It’s not just about being a drag queen or king.”
Rachel Schiff ’10, founder of the group, explained that establishing the Romantics in her senior year was akin to placing the icing on the cake of the work she and others had done in creating conversation about LGBTQ issues on campus.
“I had spent the past four years invested in the queer community and I wanted to throw a celebration of our accomplishments in the form of an event that people could either participate in, if that was their cup of tea, or just show up at and relish in,” Schiff said, pointing to the accomplishment of gender-neutral housing and increasing awareness around the queer female and trans communities as big developments.
“Sometimes,” she added, “we worked so hard we forgot to have a good time.”
Today, the Bad Romantics rarely forget to live it up. Their shows — defined by loud music and lots of glitter — never fail to fill Yale venues, their reputation helps replenish their ranks and their performances center around relevant but always slightly off-kilter themes.
“I feel like it’s a place where even people who are not involved in the queer community, who don’t identify as queer … can go and watch and be part of the glitter for a few hours,” Mogul-Adlin said.
The Bad Romantics place drag performance in the spotlight, exposing it to people of all backgrounds in a manner that makes the artform not as shocking or alternative anymore. And in the process, the co-directors said, they reveal just how much gender is a performance and nothing more.
In broader society and traditional social settings, “male” and “female” are clearly defined. Individuals, then, act on the basis of how they, as “male” or “female,” are socially conditioned. In a drag group, however, the norms are turned on their heads — and different forms of gendered behavior establish a new code.
“We’re all always in drag, always doing a gender performance,” said Maria Trumpler GRD ’92, a senior lecturer in the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Department and the director of Yale’s Office of LGBTQ Resources. “But when you’re doing a gender performance that’s socially accepted by the people around you, you don’t think of it that way because it seems normal.”
The Bad Romantics’ group dynamic is especially critical as they deal with all types of individual insecurities. With revealing dance forms like burlesque as a central feature of many of their shows, being comfortable with one’s body is very important. And though not everyone within the troupe may be as confident in his or her body image as others, the act of doing burlesque as part of a group, being collectively vulnerable, is meant to be empowering. The Bad Romantics provide a space where members can learn to embrace their self-perceived “flaws” and never leave their confidence on the stage.
“The only way to do drag and burlesque and that sort of outward performance and expression of yourself is to love yourself entirely,” Cody Hooks ’13 said. “So for me, drag was definitely this process of really learning to love my body.”
INSPIRATION FOR A NEW GENERATION
For some Yale drag performers, a more intimate form of support has proved equally beneficial.
“I think it’s really important to have a figure to point to humanize drag and give you permission and safety to ask the stupid questions and explore,” Field told me.
For many of those on Yale’s campus who weren’t familiar with drag as a form of performance, that figure was Alejandro Bustillos ’11.
I vividly remember my first encounter with Bustillos, or rather Azure Ice. How could I not? She was at least 7 feet tall — 8, if you counted her hair. Her black wig was covered in glitter, her lips were frosty blue, her clothing was skintight, with an even tighter waist-belt creating the illusion of voluptuousness. I saw her at the Drag Ball my freshman spring. Her presence amongst the other queens in the crammed basement space at 216 Dwight was so commanding it was as if she owned the place.
Both Pham and Field speak of Bustillos as an influential force behind their embrace of drag. When Pham was a freshman, he explained, Bustillos was “the drag queen on campus.”
Bustillos used Yale as a platform to not only build on his drag persona(s) but also to create an attitude of normalcy towards gender-bending performance on campus, exposing it to an audience that may have never encountered it before — at least not willingly. He became infamous for his outrageous costumes during the annual Yale Symphony Orchestra Halloween Show, appearing his freshman year as a “scag drag”— rough and ungroomed — version of C. J. Parker, Pamela Anderson’s character from “Baywatch.”
“It was an instance where I remember very vividly [thinking], ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to dress up ‘as a woman’ and I’m going to be in front of literally thousands of people,’” Bustillos said. “It was an interesting time in my development.”
Pham began to explore drag as an artform in his junior year, months after Bustillos graduated. Yet this past summer, as the two studied together at Yale, he got a chance to exchange ideas with the more experienced queen. Pham brought his ideas and fresh perspective to their experimentation with the form; Bustillos brought his expertise. Eventually, it was with Karma Lilola, Bustillos’ latest incarnation, at her side that Pham’s persona, Kyra Fey, made her debut performance this past August at Partners Café.
Even though he was still in the process of developing his own understanding of drag, Pham similarly provided integral support to Field as he constructed his persona, Edyn Panache.
“I owe the world to Kyra Fey,” Field said. “I would not be doing drag now, Edyn would not have been born, if it were not for Kyra.”
It was Kyra who taught Edyn how to do her make-up and pad her bra. Kyra showed her how to fully embrace her persona and take advantage of the slew of possibilities that playing with gender opens up, the freedom of voice and actions without any repercussions.
These personal relationships gave Pham and Field the courage they needed to defy judgment, tradition and their families’ expectations. Using Yale as a safe space, they said, they became comfortable with their identities, accepting aspects of themselves they had been struggling with since their childhoods.
KYRA FEY IS HERE TO STAY — AND PANACHE HAS FOLLOWED SUIT
“Timmy, are you good right now? Are you sitting down?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. What’s wrong?” Pham asked his cousin over the phone.
“So … your aunt and uncle found your blog.”
Pham’s tone turned serious as he recalled the fear that overcame him after he heard those words. The call came two days after Kyra Fey’s debut. On a complete high from its success, Pham posted a video of the show on Kyra’s blog. His aunt and uncle, who were unaware that their nephew was gay, let alone performing in drag, coincidentally stumbled upon his blog through Facebook and found the video.
“When I jumped into [drag performance], I never stopped to think that [my family was] going to find out, without me telling them,” Pham said. “I thought I was covering my tracks well enough.”
As the oldest son in a Vietnamese-American family that is devoutly Roman Catholic, Pham was expected to carry on the family line — dressing as a woman and being paid to perform in bars was not an option for him. Though his siblings were largely supportive, his parents were apprehensive about his new hobby, fearing it would put him in harm’s way. Pham was forced to put his artform into perspective: “This is something that I loved,” he said, “but [was] this hurting the people that I care about too?”
He was torn between keeping his loved ones at ease and continuing to do something that was essential to his personal growth, that made him feel more comfortable in his own skin than he had ever felt before.
As someone who first came to Yale identifying as a straight male and worried about appearing effeminate, Pham has found that his confidence in his self-presentation has evolved drastically. Drag performance represents the ultimate control over who he is and how he is defined. He can bring Kyra to life whenever he wants and imbue her with qualities that do not fit any script.
“[She’s] a character that I’m creating myself. [She’s] not something that’s handed to me,” Pham said. “I was given no guidelines. You can be as crazy as you want. You can be as feminine as you want, or masculine, or crass, or crude, or elegant, or polite. It’s up to me.”
It’s only been a couple of months since Kyra Fey made her debut, but the impact she has had on Pham’s personal growth is immeasurable. Despite the hurdles he encountered with his family and his identity, Kyra provided a means of refuge, to dress his wounds and face the world more confidently than ever. It’s a relationship that will last a lifetime.
“I’m really proud of the work that I’ve done and the growth that I’ve had through it,” Pham said. “I spent a lot of time working on it. As with anything, that’s something that you want to have your parents be proud of.”
Field’s conservative Mormon background attempted to define his identity before he even had a chance to understand who he was — he knew what kind of life would make his family proud. Field recalled walking out of his friend’s room the first time he was shown an episode of the reality television show “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” It was freshman year and he was in the process of completing his application for a Mormon missionary trip to Argentina. He could not like the show. Drag represented everything he feared becoming.
Although Field was not allowed to listen to pop music growing up, he remembers being obsessed with Gwen Stefani, going to his best friend’s house and sneakily listening to her older sister’s “No Doubt” CDs. At 8 years old, he felt a personal bond to the singer; he connected with the story she conveyed through her edgy persona. Field embraced early on the idea that pop stars could rewrite their stories yet remain genuine to their true selves.
“Powerful women in particular, when I was little, just gave me some sort of way through which to experience being different,” Field said. “They made being different really cool and really awesome.”
Responding to his intuitions about how he wanted to live his life, Field decided to break with tradition in his own way: He left Argentina after completing only one of two years of his mission, coming home to the disapproval of his family. The year after he left was particularly difficult, he said, as he was still coming to terms with his religion and his identity. While in Mauritius the summer before his junior year, Field found himself unmotivated and lost.
Then Jessie J started to play on the radio.
Field started dancing and singing along — and then he began to reflect on drag performance again, recalling Bustillos’ example.
“I was terrified,” he told me. “I could never do drag, I could neeeeeever. I could never do drag. But then I started looking at my face [and thought] ‘I think my face could pull off drag.’”
Last fall, Field performed in drag for the first time, donning a costume and make-up with Pham for a Mixed Company promo video. He started moving in ways that he never had, because dressed as a woman, he could. As he walked down Elm Street after the shoot, still in full make-up, he realized he did not care who turned to stare.
“I felt invincible,” Field said. “You grow up being called gay, you grow up being called a girl, ‘Why are you so girly? Why are you so effeminate?’ … [And now] I’m literally dressed as a woman. You have no power here. No insult that you throw at me can touch me. Call me a woman. Call me a girl. Call me gay. I’m clearly OK with my sexuality. Getting into drag is like putting on this impenetrable body suit.”
Today, he has channeled that defiant spirit in his formation of Edyn Panache. The names Edyn — an allusion to the Garden of Eden, where God’s rules were broken — and Panache — a nod to flamboyance and outrageousness — give Field permission to tap into a part of his identity that he once suppressed.
“Edyn Panache, for me, is flamboyantly, unapologetically, biting into the apple.” he said. “You know, breaking the rules.”
DRAG IS NOT IMITATION
As a female, seeing a man who can walk better in heels than I can or who is more skilled at applying make-up than I am can be a little unsettling, if not intriguing. When I was first introduced to drag culture, via “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and the 1990 documentary “Paris is Burning” by Jenny Livingston ’83, my initial response to drag performers was that these males were “imitating” femininity — that their personas were exaggerated representations of what they thought it was like to be a woman. However, after exploring modern feminist theory and speaking with various drag artists, I began to consider gender in terms beyond the black-and-white way we are taught to understand it; society’s polarity of masculine and feminine is not natural — it is an “act” itself.
In an essay entitled “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution,” feminist philosopher Judith Butler states, “If the ground of gender identity is the stylized repetition of acts through time … then the possibilities of gender transformation are to be found in the arbitrary relation between such acts, in the possibility of a different sort of repeating, in the breaking or subversive repetition of that style.”
Basically, the acts that usually define our gender — the way we talk, the way we sway our hips when we walk, even the way we make gestures — were constructed at some point in human history and are passed down to us by the leading performers of these acts in our lives: our mothers, fathers and peers.
I’ll be honest. I am not completely convinced by Butler’s argument. But I do believe drag artists successfully embrace the incongruous relationship between the acts that supposedly define masculine and feminine. By simply putting on a dress — an object that is unanimously tied to female identity — they are spitting in the face of behavioral gender norms.
“When athletes get on a football field, they perform manly or they perform alpha male,” Field said. “And when a drag queen gets on the stage, she is performing pure strong femininity and it’s no different. They are both performances. They’re performances that speak to or give access to something else inside of those people.”
Kyra Fey, although she is separate from Pham’s true self, has found a way to permeate his life off the stage. Now and then, Pham wears make-up to class and paints his nails because he feels that “guys can wear make-up too.” While his presentation of “Timmy Pham” was once driven by a conscious reaffirming of his masculinity, he has since given in to intuition.
If gender is a performance, as these students believe, and performance allows one to act as someone or something other than one’s everyday self, then we should all be able to turn on or off our gender-specific behaviors. Yet we choose not to because of societal pressures to conform to the norm. Drag queens and kings, in essence, represent the extreme, openly rebelling against a sex-defined identity. They are not imitating femininity but are simply exposing their own inherent feminine or masculine qualities, shifting the weight on the scale of gender extremities.
Or, as the Bad Romantics call it: “genderfuck.”
DRAG IN THE PUBLIC SPHERE
For Yale’s drag performers, the practice has been a valuable means of self-discovery — looking within and beyond campus, they want others to have a similar experience.
Pham, for one, has become a poster child for the artform. Through his work at Partners Café, he has served as a liaison between New Haven drag queens and students. In October, he did an intimate performance and talk with members of the Afro-American Cultural Center, where he shared personal experiences and obstacles he encountered while establishing his persona.
Meanwhile, he is hard at work on a Creative and Performing Arts Award project that will focus on making drag more accessible through make-up workshops, photo exhibitions and performance pieces.
The Bad Romantics have also made outreach a central part of their group’s mission. Whether at Yale or around New Haven, the troupe utilizes the power of drag performance to promote positive attitudes toward gender and sexuality.
“I think that being comfortable in your own skin, both with your body and also intellectually, is so crucial and so important to function,” said Mogul-Adlin, the troupe’s co-director.
Acting on that imperative, the group has conducted make-up workshops with New Haven high school students. For 70 minutes, students are given a chance to express their gender differently through walk-offs, lip-sync performances and vogue competitions.
The activism doesn’t stop for Yalies once they’ve graduated.
While Yale provided a foundation for his development as a drag artist, Bustillos has continued to pursue his art post-graduation in his home city of Omaha, Neb. Karma Lilola has become an active member of the drag scene there. Additionally, he plans on opening an art complex in the city called SPASM, or the Society for Performing Arts and Social Movement. It will serve as a breeding ground for activities related to drag. Members will be able to take how-to classes on drag make-up, walking in heels, lip-syncing, making costumes and much more. He wants to provide a safe place for people to learn all they can about drag performance.
Eventually, Bustillos said, he wants to become a “drag mother” of sorts to members of the Omaha drag community, taking up a role similar to the one he played at Yale.
One of the most striking elements of Kyra Fey and Edyn Panache’s performance at Partners was the reaction from the audience. They danced and sang along with the queens; they willingly got on stage and participated in stage antics; they fully embraced all that the performers threw at them.
Yale, for most of these students, has proven to be an ideal venue for drag performance. For Rachel Schiff in 2010, it was not difficult to find students that shared a similar enthusiasm toward challenging gender through performance. Today, Pham, Field and the Bad Romantics draw an exceptionally diverse group of Yalies and New Haven residents, both queer and straight, to their shows. While performers may face their own struggles at home, Yale has always had its arms and its heart open to them.
“Everyone is accepting here,” Field said. “Where [else] will I go in the world in which I just have a bubble of people that are willing to open their minds and entertain drag for five seconds?”