talking race and intersectionality in drag with victoria sin
A genderfucked mix between Jessica Rabbit meets Marlene Dietrich, we talk to Victoria Sin about her journey of drag discovery.
Photography Ronan McKenzie
It's easy to forget that, behind the glitter, false lashes and shimmering sequins, drag is an act of rebellion against the gender binary. It's also easy to forget that drag - despite what you may see or hear in your local gay bar - is not a practice originated by or belonging to men. Seeking to remind us all of this fact is Victoria Sin, a Toronto-born queen attracting attention and admiration for her brilliantly unique drag - think genderfucked Jessica Rabbit meets Marlene Dietrich - performance art and powerful statements of activism. Not only is Sin well-versed in race studies and queer theory, she's actively communicating these messages through her drag. Self-described as a 'performative girl in a normative world', we spoke to Sin to discuss her journey of drag discovery as well as her experiences of racism and misogyny in queer spaces.
When and why did you first begin to experiment with drag?
My first few times in drag were about three and a half years ago alone in my room on PhotoBooth, then eventually at a few club nights I threw at Vogue Fabrics in Dalston (now VFD). Even before that, drag had been a guilty pleasure - when I was 17 I would use a fake ID to get into drag shows with my ex-girlfriend and some guys we worked with in Toronto where I'm from. At that point, as a femme-presenting cis girl, I was very much classified as a 'fag hag' - even as a gay woman in a gay space - and I think 'fag hags' are always made to know their place in gay culture which is not on stage as the main event. From then it was a slow process of moving to London at 18, encountering its 'genderfuck' drag scene and meeting female queens like Holestar who were doing their own thing and being vocal about their place in drag. That made me realise that there was nothing less valid about my own desire to take up drag.
What does 'dragging up' mean to you?
It means many things to me, among them temporarily and purposefully putting on an exaggerated embodiment of femininity with the intention of using that embodiment to command attention and take up space. It's exercising entitlement, which is something that, as a woman of colour in predominantly white male spaces, can be difficult.
How would describe your drag character?
She's evolved over the years. She's like an amalgamation parody of various iconographies of western femininity - Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Jessica Rabbit - but she's also developing on her own. She feels like a very deliberately constructed and sculpted character that I transform into which is strange for me, but it's something I'm using in my work to think generally about identification with gendered and raced imagery and the ways it is inscribed and performed on bodies.
Do you find yourself discriminated against often as a woman in a gay bar?
I do remember going into gay clubs when I'd only just come out, and having men I didn't come with grind on me or grab me inappropriately. It wasn't malicious on their part, they just thought we were having fun and it 'didn't count' because they were gay. I didn't know how to articulate my discomfort at that time but now I know that, even though they weren't trying to sleep with me, I was still a person with boundaries that didn't appreciate being groped without consent. That almost made it worse actually - they were just doing it because they could. More recently I've had gay men mutter "fucking lesbians" at me, or I've been told my conversations contained too much estrogen, that periods are gross - just really basic, really fucking boring shit.
Are racism and misogyny still prevalent throughout queer spaces?
It was a harsh realisation but, even though gay bars may accept me for being gay, they could still hold the same racist and misogynist attitudes of the wider world. Having your voice easily dismissed or belittled, being infantilised and not taken seriously - these are all things I've experience as an Asian woman in and out of gay spaces. The racism is obvious in the Grindr bylines we've all heard ('No Fats / No Femmes / No Asians') but it also becomes obvious when you look around most established gay bars. How many queer, trans or intersex POC do you see? People don't like to come where they don't feel welcome, and violence is often experienced subtly.
Do you think this discrimination within queer spaces is addressed often enough?
It's hardly addressed at all, and the enormous weight of addressing this intersecting misogyny, femmephobia and racism often falls on the shoulders of these who experience it directly. Imagine how it would feel to go into a popular gay bar as a black woman and encounter a white drag queen on stage in blackface making jokes at the expense of working class black women while the largely white, male audience laughs along. This happened recently. It took a petition by Chardine Taylor-Stone with thousands of signatures on it to have the act removed! This act shouldn't have made it on stage, let alone have required a petition for its removal. I refuse to believe that nobody in that audience knew that blackface is unacceptable in 2016. It should have been up to those in positions of privilege - promoters, bookers, bar staff, the drag queen - or someone in the audience to say "Hold on - isn't this act at the expense of some of the most underrepresented people in the queer community? Isn't this act just a reproduction of the systemic violence they experience already in the wider world? Why is this funny? Who am I laughing at?"
Do you still hear the ridiculous opinion that female queens are 'culturally appropriating' drag?
I do see this a lot in online comments about my work, and this point of view is revealing of a number of things. Firstly, these people believe that women aren't part of gay culture, an infuriating notion in itself because the erasure of women from gay culture and histories is grossly unacknowledged. Secondly, it assumes the purposeful and exaggerated performance of femininity was originated by gay men (it wasn't) and therefore belongs to them (it doesn't). On a related note, drag - as it exists in mainstream culture now - is largely appropriated from Black and Latino drag queens and trans women, whereas most people I see claiming appropriation tend to be white cis men.
Would you encourage skeptics to experiment with drag?
In my mind, drag is a tool anyone should be able to use to disseminate everyday gendered experiences, process related trauma and experiment with gender presentation and identification, but if someone doesn't want to do it it's up to them. I'm not here to convince everyone to do drag, but I do get a lot of emails from young women and non-binary individuals who want to get into drag but don't know how. In most cases, it's because the drag venues close to them are male-dominated and have traditional, binary views on what drag is and who should be allowed to do it.
What advice would you give to these people?
If you want to do it, don't wait for permission from some drag gatekeeper because you'll be waiting forever. Do it in whatever way you can; look for queer spaces that are more open, take up space in whatever capacity you can and feel safe doing so, even if it's just by posting your looks online. Find like-minded people, approach them, be bold, go out together, start a night. If there's one thing I've learned while becoming more visible in the last year or so is that there's a huge hunger for spaces and drag that centers underrepresented queer experiences - we're starving. The most important thing we can do now is organise and work collectively to create the communities we want to be a part of and be the drag we want to see - drag that challenges, rather than reproduces, the power structures we're part of.