Doing drag changed my life

Doing drag can be a fun way to play with gender, but for me it was so much more than that.

Even though I’ve played around with make-up since I was four years old, performing drag was never something I considered doing until I came to the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) in fall 2011. I’ve always loved to dance and I wanted to continue exploring my feminine side, so when I found out that UNI’s LGBT group UNI Proud hosts a drag show every year, I decided to give it a shot.

I wasn’t prepared for what I would gain from lip-synching to a Britney Spears song.

In elementary school, I was bullied for my “feminine” behavior and for carrying around a Britney Spears backpack. I began to hide the feminine, pop-diva-loving side of myself in hopes of fitting in. For years, I didn’t let myself like the things I wanted to like or do the things I wanted to do. So you can imagine how liberating it was when I performed a medley of Britney Spears songs at my first drag show in April 2012. I felt such a deep sense of joy and fulfillment because for the first time in a long time, I was being myself. The most exciting part was that people weren’t bullying me anymore—they were actually cheering me on!

From the moment I stepped off the stage that first year, I couldn’t wait to perform again. I didn’t think twice about signing up for the drag show the following year. Unfortunately, as UNI Proud’s 2013 Drag Show got closer, my excitement waned. My first few semesters at college hadn’t gone exactly as I had planned and I was dealing with a lot of personal issues. Depressed and convinced I was going to flop, I considered dropping out of the show altogether.

Instead, I chose to channel those emotions into my performance. I decided to perform a mash-up of Kesha songs that expressed how I was feeling at the time. “Warrior,” because of its empowering message of overcoming challenges—“We’ll never give up … We were born to break the doors down / Fight until the end”—and “Die Young,” because of its lyrics about living in the moment—“Let’s make the most of the night like we’re gonna die young.”

Because of my depression, I didn’t feel the same sense of joy and fulfillment I had previous year, but it was still empowering for me to be able make such a bold statement—especially considering I was still struggling. Like Kesha sang in “Warrior,” I wasn’t going to give up. I was going to fight until I overcame the obstacles I was facing.

A year later and I’m in the middle of my last semester at UNI. Though I’m still trying to get over some of the same obstacles, I’ve definitely grown a lot in the past three years. Doing drag was actually a huge part of that growth.

After performing for the first time in 2012, dressing in what most people would consider “drag” became a regular part of my life. Every weekend, no matter what I was doing—going to a party, going out to eat with friends or even just watching Netflix in my dorm—I would put on make-up, a wig and a cute outfit. It got to the point where I got more excited about planning each look than whatever my actual plans were. That was one of the key moments that sparked my exploration of my gender identity.

But it wasn’t just about gender. From performing drag to dressing up on weekends to running for Homecoming Queen, I was able to do those things because I finally had the confidence to stand up for my beliefs—and the confidence to be myself. I learned that I don’t have to hide who I am to be accepted and find success. And even though I’ve stopped considering my gender expression “drag,” I don’t think I would have experienced such growth if I hadn’t performed in the drag show.

When the drag show came around this year, I knew I wanted to perform one last time, and I knew I wanted my last performance to reflect the growth I’ve experienced the past three years and the new phase of my life that I’m entering. I chose two Kylie Minogue songs that I thought perfectly capture that spirit of growth, reflection and fearlessly moving on—her latest single “Into the Blue” and the classic “Get Outta My Way.”

Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like there’s such a difference between this performance and my first one. I mean, I think my first performance was pretty fierce, but behind the overzealous arm movements and frantic booty-shaking was an insecure wreck. I had something to prove, but I wasn’t sure what that was. I put my all into that performance because I was hoping it would help me figure it out.

And it did. Performing gave me an outlet for all the ups and downs I was feeling as I tried to navigate my way through college; performing gave me the confidence to succeed in college; most of all, expressing my gender identity through “drag” performances was one of the main things that made me realize I’m not a drag queen. Though I’m not sure I’ll ever perform on stage again, I will always remember the performances I gave at UNI. They were a lot of fun and they were honestly life-changing.

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