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Finding my fabulous self with the help of drag queens

Amahl S. Azwar

The Jakarta Post

Bali  /  Sat, January 23, 2021  /  01:30 pm
Finding my fabulous self with the help of drag queens

Ayubie uses social media to educate people about drag culture. (Jakarta Post/Subject's personal collection)

I donned the little black dress and wore heels for the first time in 2016 on the stage of a bar in Shanghai, China. It was a fundraiser for the victims of the Pulse shooting, which happened a few weeks previously, when a mass-murderer walked into the gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in the United States, and killed 49 people.

I wore a long wavy wig and padded my body to create the illusion of a voluptuous woman.

I spontaneously chose Ariana Grindr (combining the pop singer Ariana Grande and Grindr, a gay dating app) as my drag name. I felt something changed within me.

Perhaps it was the feeling of the silky stockings on my skin, the way my legs looked all-toned wearing heels, or seeing myself as a beautiful woman for the first time (that was how I felt, at least).

One thing became certain: Gone were the past fears of embracing my feminine side.

A hard and often-violent reality

For the first time, I felt confident singing in drag. I had surrounded myself with many out-and-proud lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) friends, and I was not in Indonesia, the home where I and those like me never felt safe to be loud and feminine.

Alena Perez, 29, a transwoman who won Bali-based drag pageant Miss Gaya Dewata 2018 suffered physical abuse as a child after trying on her sister’s dress.

“I rarely go home because that means I have to pretend to be somebody I’m not,’” said Alena, who has not come out to her family.

Being a professional drag queen allows Alena to express herself freely and to partake in causes.

“Since I won [the pageant], I represented the organization in raising HIV/AIDS awareness for the local LGBT community,” said Alena.

Alena was crowned in secret after the pageant received a backlash from several Muslim groups.  Since winning, she has also taken part in helping her fellow transwomen obtain national identity cards.

“It is still difficult to change our gender and name on the national identity cards. But at least we can help transwomen who are not accepted by their families and move to Bali to obtain identity cards,” she said.

Many Indonesian transwomen put their health at risk by over-consuming hormones or undergoing surgery carried out by nonprofessionals because of the lack of accessible health care for trans individuals.

However, not every transwoman in Indonesia wants to change their physical appearance.

"I have performed on any kinds of stage. From ... lavish building," said drag queen Kimora. (Jakarta Post/Subject's personal collection)

Meghan Kimoralez, or Kimora, 30, has no interest in surgery or hormone therapy even as she admits to feeling “alive” in a dress and performing.

“At the end of the day, I was born male. I don’t want to embarrass my parents. I have to protect them.”

Kimora is married and has a 3-year-old child. Kimora’s wife is aware of her situation.

Interviewing these queens made me reflect on my own personal privileges.

As a gay man, I never once had to worry about my gender being written on national identity cards. I never once had to worry about being jeered at as an adult because I could still “pass” as a cisgender man.

Putting myself in their shoes, both literally and figuratively, gave me a new perspective.

Drag queen Kimora has enjoyed putting on m ... p and entertain people since childhood.Drag queen Kimora has enjoyed putting on m ... p and entertain people since childhood. (Jakarta Post/Subject's personal collection)

Still some way to go

I was 11 when my father caught me wearing my mother’s lipstick and earrings. Usually kind and patient, he lost it seeing his youngest son wanting to look like a girl.

“There are no banci [sissies] in this family,” he growled.

I was known at school as “that sissy Amahl.” My English teacher called me “sissy” to my face. I tried hard to conceal my feminine side. I was in such denial that I started dating girls.

While Indonesia has progressed in understanding gender issues, many still have an archaic view of sexuality.

“The LGBT acronym has only recently been introduced [here] and the term is quite pejorative in Indonesia.” Dede Oetomo, a sociologist from the University of Airlangga told me.

Pageants are mostly held in secret to avoid a backlash from conservative groups. But many contestants take the chance. In 2018 alone, at least 50 transwomen and gay men took part in Mister and Miss Gaya Dewata.

Education, acceptance and Instagram fame

In my late teens, I began dating guys. I freaked out after seeing a date doing drag and “ghosted”, or avoided, him. I fell victim to the self-hate brought on by people’s views.

It remains one of my biggest regrets.

Drag queen Alena Alena said she does every drag performance Drag queen Alena Alena said she does every drag performance "from the heart". (Jakarta Post/Subject's personal collection)

When I told drag queen Ayubie Tsunamie, 32, about it, he empathized, sharing a similar experience.

“Gay men often find dating drag queens to be repulsive,” shared Ayubie, who identifies as a gay man.

Ayubie added that he would only date men who do not mind his profession.

A headliner at Bali Joe, a bar in Seminyak, Ayubie also experienced bullying at school but that it never really bothered him.

“My mother and my sister supported my decision to become an entertainer. That is what matters the most,” he said.

Ayubie partially regrets his decision a decade ago to join Be A Man, a reality TV show where transwomen and gay men with “feminine” traits partook in military training in the hope of being crowned “a real man”.

“I was so young and I only joined for the attention. Looking back, I am sad because those are my people and we were mocked like that.”

Eron Lebang, a former host for the show, said that he would not mind hosting the show again should there ever be a revival.

“Those who are against [the show] aren’t wrong and those who are okay with it are also not wrong. The issue remains subjective,” said Eron, adding that slowly more people would become open-minded about trans issues.

Famous for her splits and other acrobatic moves, Ayubie said that doing the now-defunct TV show did allow him to gain a lot of followers on Instagram. He also starred in a movie, as well as a TV series.

Ayubie credits RuPaul’s Drag Race, a popular reality show searching for America’s next drag superstar, for raising global interest in the art of drag, including in Indonesia.

Ayubie uses his Instagram to educate people about the art of drag.

“I tell them not to mock drag queens in the future. They must know that it is an art.”

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