Students sashay their way through a drag performance course that delves into how we perceive gender
Was that a man, or a woman? Was that beautiful blonde hair real? Will all that glitter ever come out of the carpet of the Tisch Library?
To people who know that gender is just a social construct, that last question may be the only one worth asking. On Friday night, as the students in Kareem Khubchandani’s Critical Drag course presented their final projects to a standing-room only crowd at the library, gender was in the eye of the beholder.
There were drag queens, drag kings, and some that transformed from one to the other in the blink of a lip-synched song. Some went for verisimilitude, with perfect makeup and luxurious wigs and only a hirsute leg peeking out from a thigh-high slit to give the ruse away. A couple added sparkles to their beards, while others glued on facial hair. Gender flowed like liquid eyeliner.
“People will be dressing as all kinds of things and it’s up to the audience to interpret them as they would like,” Khubchandani said before the show.
As the disco lights swirled and the music thumped, “Anita Vahina” danced to Katy Perry in jean shorts and bubble-gum pink lipstick that matched her stilettos. “Mr. Frizzle,” a takeoff on the Magic School Bus character, turned a medley of Green Day and Bon Jovi into a commentary on gun violence. “Jen De Vexler” arrived in a coffin accompanied by two strapping attendants in leather collars and not much else. “Prince Tonya,” performing to Meghan Trainor, stripped down to a fishnet shirt that showed off her heart-shaped pasties.
In the second week of class, Khubchandani asked the students to come up with a drag name—vulgar puns a tradition—and the story behind it. “Some of the stories behind the names were about coping with mental health or drawn from racial or ethnic background. So their drag character becomes a way of staging things that are important to them.”
First-year student Juan Gasca Banda wanted his character, Frida Kalhoe, to be Mexican. “Frida is very sexual, very cultured. She usually has more class than this,” he said, looking down at the fishnet stockings and tight black sheath he would perform in. “She’s very theatrical, very social. A lot more social than Juan.”
A superfan of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the show that has introduced drag culture to its widest audience, Gasca Banda was excited to take the class. And as an openly gay cis man, he was fascinated to learn that “very minute things” can broadcast gender.
“How you put your hands on your hips can read as feminine, and if you just spread your legs a little bit and make your shoulders straight, you’re suddenly masculine,” he said. “Gender changes so fast.”
Megan Mooney, a senior, learned that drag isn’t just for the stage, and it isn’t always fun—wearing a suit can feel so artificial to someone that it can seem like a performance. “Some people feel as bizarre wearing regular office clothes as someone else does in a leotard and ten-inch heels,” she said, eyeing the impossibly high pumps on a nearby classmate.
Mooney, an English major, was nervous at first, never having performed before. “But everyone in the class is just so creative, so open to trying anything and seeing what works and what doesn’t, taking feedback and giving feedback. It’s just amazing.”
The audience was just as supportive. Hundreds of jazzed students squeezed in among the bookcases and armchairs in an open area of the library. They punctuated their nonstop cheering with crescendos of excitement for every cartwheel or twerk. And when Anita Vahina did a split, the audience’s screams of delight nearly shattered the windows. They tossed dollar bills in appreciation—all going to the nonprofit Youth on Fire.
“The gender binary needs to be critiqued, and drag is an opportunity to do that,” he said. “But it is also ‘critical’ in that it is urgent. It’s important that we talk about drag, it’s important that we stage gender and think about it in careful ways. Because if we don’t interrogate things, then we let the status quo just sustain itself.”
Khubchandani, as his alter ego LaWhore Vagistan, closed out the show, lip synching to a Donna Summer classic in a snake-green dress. As she batted her false eyelashes and her glittered lips broke into a coy smile, you got the feeling that she had taught the students a lot—but still, some things you’re just born with.
Julie Flaherty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.