02ACC: When I Fell In Love With Drag

Drag Queens at Bed, White Party 2008

Metro Manila Community Quarantine - Day 692

Last week, I mentioned I was open to questions or requests from friend-readers as subjects for this blog. One friend did write in a blog idea, and it felt appropriate to try to tackle this on the even of O Bar's latest re-opening since Metro Manila is back under Alert Level 2.

The Question:
When did you first start appreciating or become a fan of the art of drag?

There are multiple levels to my response to this question.

I first encountered drag during my early Malate years. Our circle of friends never particularly went to a drag-centric venue, but drag queens would typically guest during bring Pride events, White Parties, or at random nights at Bed. This never felt like a main part of the entertainment there - it was just something that also happened to happen in the middle of the night. I could barely catch the show given the volume of people and the unusual 2-floor setup of the bar, but I'd try to watch when I could and I was politely amused but not necessarily "into it".

It wasn't until I started hanging out with Tobie that I got to properly watch a drag show. Of course, this was at O Bar Malate and my first reaction was...somewhat confusing. I only knew drag queens were "female impersonators", as was the (now-inappropriate) language of the time. I had enjoyed Connie & Carla and The Birdcage but wasn't necessarily a big fan of drag culture because of those movies. So I wasn't sure if I was supposed to expect just 100% authentic impersonations of celebrities or something else. And when I first saw the O Divas at the time performing very unusual performances of Broadway numbers that were sort of sacred to me, I was kinda appalled. 

I didn't get it. I just didn't get it. Why did we need this stuffed penis toy while singing a classic Broadway anthem? Why did one queen look almost exactly like the celebrity they were impersonating and why was another just dressed as whatever? So many questions!

In time, I loosened up and learned to go with the flow. I started to embrace the fact that every drag performance was unique and brought a different interpretation of the song every time. I learned impersonation is just one aspect of drag, and at times just a small part of the larger culture. I started watching RuPaul's Drag Race and learned more about other facets of drag culture, but also came to better appreciate just how different local drag queens do things. RPDR is not the be-all, end-all definition of what drag "should be". It's just a representation of the sort of drag that is present in that country filtered by the sort of drag that RuPaul (or whoever else is judging it) likes. And that's not the full representation of drag as a whole.

Over the years of watching the drag queens of O Bar perform, I also got to know the queens themselves and that really opened my eyes to just how difficult it is to embrace this art form. There are so many expenses ranging from make-up to outfits and yet the returns can be pretty narrow at times. It takes a lot of passion to become a drag queen anywhere, what more in a "traditionally" conservative country like the Philippines. 

But to really answer the question, the best probable indicator of when I actually fell in love with drag is around the time that I started taking a LOT more photos of the O Divas performing. The first time one of the queens had thanked me for taking photos because it allowed them to see what they actually looked like on stage really floored me. They put so much time and effort into rehearsing and then getting into their outfits and their make-ups just to perform a particular song on stage and yet may not know how good they look or how amazingly they performed it? That's heartbreaking to think about.

And so I started documenting as much drag as possible so that they'd have a proper look at themselves in full gear and have something to use for self-promotion. And this opened up more reasons to talk to them, to get to know them better, and to understand why they do what they do and what they hope and aspire to do.

I really fell in love with drag when I fell in love with our O Bar Family - especially the O Divas. It's this same love that made me so concerned for their well-being over the course of this pandemic when they weren't able to make a proper living since live performance spaces were closed. It's why we do our best to support their online shows, support their competitions, and support the bar whenever they're allowed to operate. It means that going to O Bar in the middle of a pandemic is something that we define as an acceptable risk because we know that no online live show will ever replace the validation and sense of fulfillment the queens get when they perform on stage and we want to support them in their element.

The pandemic is far from over, but our love for our local drag queen friends is stronger than ever. We don't have the financial means to "fully" support all of them, but we do what we can in other ways including re-sharing their social media promotional posts or just being there when they need someone to talk to.  And the shared experience of getting through this pandemic has really brought us closer to many of the queens because they have been through so much over the past two years. And given their dedication and amazing talent, they deserve all the love they can get and then some.