Gender & Identity Life

Portland’s drag scene taught me how to see myself

“Can I get an amen?”

The crowd whooped and cheered. They got even louder when the MC called out, “Can I get an a-women?” And then, “Can I get an a-them?” More raucous cheering. The rational part of my brain knew that the “men” in “amen” wasn’t a gendered term. The two words don’t share an etymological root. But something warm and hopeful fluttered in my chest when the MC said “a-them.” Something that felt like recognition.

It was the summer of 2017, and I was on a packed dance floor at a club with H.P. Lovecraft-themed gothic decor, complete with a tentacled papier-mache Cthulhu erupting from one wall, waiting to watch a drag show. (Welcome to Portland nightlife. It’s amazing.) The MC was wearing a dress and heels, their cheekbones glistening with glitter above a full beard.

When the show started, it was like no other drag performance I’ve ever seen before. Performers in flawless makeup wore leotards without tucking or padding their chests or hips. They danced with an athletic grace that frankly boggled my mind. Most drag I had seen before in the cities I’ve lived in on the East Coast fell into one of two categories. Either queens went for full emulation of women, trying to appear as authentically female as possible, or they played up the masculine elements of their appearance for laughs.

These performers were different. Their clothes, makeup, and hair were feminine, yes, but an edgy, fierce femininity. And their flat chests and scruff and other more masculine attributes were presented as equally beautiful, compatible with femininity.

Drag always rebels against gender essentialism. That’s the very nature of the art. But these drag performers were playing with gender in a way that I had never seen. And in a way that made me feel seen. I recognized something I had been longing for in some inarticulate way when I watched their joyous, defiant blend of gender performances and presentations.

I had always felt a vague sense of unease describing myself as cisgender, a term that refers to someone who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth. I downplayed my own discomfort though, because I assumed that it was rooted in an ingrained transphobia that I should be working to eradicate from my mind. I thought that I didn’t like calling myself cisgender because, as some cisgender people do, a part of me thought I was just “normal” and didn’t need the descriptor.

Yet there were signs that this was not the case. As I had grown more comfortable with my queer sexuality, I had started cutting my hair shorter and dressing in more conventionally masculine ways, both common among some queer women who do nonetheless still identify as women. I knew I didn’t think of myself as a man. But I loved the times when I encountered people who seemed to struggle to identify my gender, the times when the barista or the restaurant host or the person on the bus oscillated uncertainly between “sir” and “ma’am.” It filled me with a strange elation to be seen as existing somewhere between the two most commonly recognized genders. My experience as a person who was socialized as female felt important, and the identity of woman still does resonate with me. But it feels incomplete, and generating confusion in the people who tried to gender me felt like some sort of triumph.

I knew in the abstract that nonbinary identities existed before I witnessed Portland’s drag scene. But until I was immersed in the queer community in this very queer city, I somehow always felt that my gender identity somehow wasn’t queer enough to count. I had to see the riotous celebration of existence beyond the binary that is present here to start learning to truly see myself.

By Laura Muth

Laura Muth is a writer and researcher with a BA in political science from Johns Hopkins and an MA in international affairs from Boston University. They write at the intersection of security and human rights issues, with a special interest in gender, nationalism, racism, and religious identity. Laura loves connecting specific current events with larger trends in global politics.