When I was little I used to call high heels “cluck-cluck shoes” because of that sound – that authoritative smack – they make on the floor with every step. One of my earliest memories was cluck-clucking my way down the passage of our house in Botswana, aged four, wearing high heels and a spearmint dress I had stolen from my mother’s cupboard. When discussing these memories with her recently, she was flabbergasted – “But I’ve never owned high heels in my life!” she proclaimed – and now that I think about it, yes, perhaps they weren’t exactly what I would classify as “high” heels today, but they were AT LEAST a kitten wedge pump (in sensible black leather, knowing my mother’s taste) and anyway, the style of the shoe isn’t important. Or at least, not very important. What is important is the feeling of unbridled power, badassery, and downright correctness that those cluck-cluck shoes injected into my two-year-old homosexual soul.
(Yes, even at a young age it was very obvious that I was gay.)
And yes, my coming out was difficult, but if I’m honest, my coming-out story is pretty run of the mill. I came out to my whole family on my last day of Matric, with everyone seated at the dinner table. I was on the cusp of moving to Cape Town to study drama at UCT, so it seemed pretty urgent to come out before I got there so that I could start kissing boys without being consumed by the guilt of feeling I was hiding who I was from my family. So that’s what I did – I came out! – and I was exceptionally lucky because they were all pretty much fine with it.
So, for the sake of this article, rather than bore you with the details of my variation on the Small Town Boy Who Comes Out And Moves To The Big Gay City narrative (if that’s the story you want, just watch Glee) I thought I would rather examine the intricacies of the Coming Out As A Drag Queen narrative, because that’s waaaay more unique, and fewer people have experienced it.
(Wait, maybe that means this article will be less relatable, and that’ll turn people off. The power of Adele’s music is its relatability, and I want to be the Adele of drag, goddammit! Look at my beehive! Maybe I should just write something generic.)
(No, Aria, you’ve committed to this. Stick to your guns.)
Coming out as a drag queen is similar to coming out as gay, in some ways, yet also quite different. It’s the same in that it’s also a declaration of the fact that you don’t conform to society’s standards of “normality”. You experience the same sense of unease at first, that nervous vulnerability that comes with standing up and saying “I’m different to most people, and I’m not what most people want and expect me to be”. And it’s the same in that it takes a huge, HUGE amount of bravery to do it. But what makes it different is that it’s usually a second coming out, because most drag kings and queens are already situated somewhere on the LGBTIQA spectrum, and most have already gone through some sort of coming out process. And that makes it easier, in a way. Or it did for me.
Just before I came out as gay, I made a list of the different stages of the process, as I had experienced it. It went like this:
Confusion (when you start having naughty thoughts about boys)
Awareness (when you realize what that means)
Denial (because you can’t be gay, you just can’t be)
Panic (when you realise denial doesn’t work)
Rationalisation (when you have to prove to yourself that you’re not the problem)
Acceptance (when you reach the right conclusion)
Pride (when you’re ready to share it with the world)
That was my Gay Coming Out Process. The whole thing happened over the course of about two years for me. The Confusion began when I was in grade nine, and I think I reached the Pride phase about halfway through grade eleven. I still kept it a secret until the end of Matric, though, because I went to a very Christian high school and I didn’t want to deal with the bullying and the unsolicited prayers for my soul. I went through the process myself, in my own quiet way, rationalising my little brain boat across The Stormy Sea Of Gay Anxiety to The Sunny Shore Of Gay Pride (I like metaphors, okay).
But my Drag Coming Out Process was slightly different. Well, I went through the same stages, but they were in a different order. With drag, the Denial stage came first, a long time before any of the others. It started when I became old enough to realise that it wasn’t “socially acceptable” to wear cluck-cluck shoes in the presence of anyone but myself. Then the Drag Panic started in 2011, and this is a funny story so I’ll allow myself to go on a tangent and tell it:
It was the end of my first year of university, and my Mom and little brother were visiting Cape Town. I was tasked with taking them around the city to do pleasant, summery things, like go up Table Mountain, and meet my new friends from varsity. One of my bright ideas was to take them to Mr Pickwicks for milkshakes, since my older (straight) brother had raved about the milkshakes there, and it is a known fact that my family do love a good milkshake. I had never been there, but my brother’s recommendation was praise enough, so along we went. I remember walking into a dimly lit downstairs area, quite cramped, with dirty menus and a waiter who didn’t seem particularly eager to take our order. We requested our milkshakes and waited patiently… awkwardly… eventually… BOOM – the milkshakes finally made their appearance at the exact same time as the first and ugliest drag queen I had ever seen burst into the bar. It was half-past two in the afternoon. She blazed in wearing a hideous orange dress and a yellow afro wig, spewing profanities from every orifice, being far louder than is generally acceptable, and let’s just say that this isn’t the first drag queen you would want to introduce to your mother and your very heterosexual younger brother. Well, I write that with full acknowledgement of the fact that the reason I thought that at the time was because I had no experience of drag queens and was probably harbouring a lot of deeply ingrained prejudice towards them because of the environment in which I was brought up. The person that I am today would probably cackle in delight, compliment her shoes, and initiate a kiki of flaming flamboyance with that brave-ass queen, but the person that I was in 2011 was horrified. I felt my mom and brother tense up in discomfort, and my stomach dropped into my butt. This place had been recommended by my heterosexual brother! And now I feared my Mom and little bro would suspect some malicious gay trickery on my part. I was already imagining them flinging their milkshakes directly at my forehead, screaming “How could you take us to this filthy pit of weirdness, you secretive drag queen whore? Milkshakes my foot!”
(Let’s be clear, this was all in my mind. They never did that, nor are they the kind of people who would.)
That was a strange day for me. I remember feeling many conflicting layers of emotion. On the one hand, I felt embarrassed. Even though I was out to my family, at that point in time we still hadn’t really talked about my gayness all that much, and I didn’t want my family to think I was that kind of gay. I was a perfectly regular, normal little gay, thank you very much. On another level, though, I felt defensive, because it wasn’t exactly my idea to go to Mr Pickwicks in the first place – it wasn’t even a gay bar, as far as I knew! And my brother – my other straight brother – had told us about it! But more than anything else I felt angry, angry at myself for feeling embarrassed and defensive in the first place, angry at the fact I was being judgmental. You see, on some level, I knew that there was nothing wrong with the drag queen who walked into the bar that afternoon, so why, why, why did I resent her so dang much?
(The answer: it was because I so desperately wanted to be more like her, but had been conditioned to strangle the drag queen inside me since I was four years old. Thanks, society.)
Right, so that accounts for the Drag Denial and Drag Panic phases of my Drag Coming Out. Let’s go back to the list:
I only progressed to the next phases three years later, in 2014, when I started watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. Any drag artist living today is aware of the power and importance of this extraordinary show. For me, it was the first time I had seen drag depicted in a positive light, and it is precisely that fact that made the rest of my Drag Coming Out process fundamentally different to my Gay Coming Out. You see, when you’re going through one of these Coming Out processes, the environment you’re in shapes the whole process. For example, if a young LGBTIQA person is lucky enough to grow up in a very progressive household and attended liberal schools, they might not even need to come out. At the very least, their Coming Out process would look extremely different to my list, because it would be shaped by an environment of support and love, not shaped and defined in relation to an environment that threatens your safety. There would be no Panic, no Denial, no need for Rationalisation. And that is precisely the kind of environment that Rupaul’s Drag Race provided for me. Before this show, my perception of drag (which was mirrored by society at large) was that it was the “lowest form of gay”. But seeing the queens of Drag Race – talented, confident, and comfortable in their own skin – suddenly lifted that stigma. It was the first time I had seen it presented as a legitimate art form.
For me, this was an absolute godsend. At the time, I was in my final year of university and was feeling a certain pressure to be “serious” about drama. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my years at UCT, but studying theatre at an academic institution brings with it a certain sense of pompous gravitas. I often felt that certain types of drama – Shakespeare, Ibsen, high tragedy, anything that grappled with intense emotions – were glorified and given an unfair amount of attention and value. I felt self-conscious about the fact that I wanted to be silly and funny and fabulous and feminine, and I didn’t realise it was possible to be all of these things while still making work that was intelligent and critical, and more than just frivolous. RuPaul’s Drag Race taught me that drag doesn’t have to be frivolous, and as soon as I realised that I was able to embrace the drag queen inside of me, and finally begin to sculpt her. I flew through stages 3 to 7 of the Coming Out process, and within a few months, I was ready to make my debut.
I was sneaky about it, and I did my homework. I spent a few months teaching myself makeup in secret, via YouTube tutorials, and planning my persona. I was on the committee that planned the annual Drama Formal, and I volunteered myself to host it that year. The students in the Drama Department thought I would be hosting it as plain old Callum. Ha ha ha! Poor mortals. They were so wrong. On the night, I persuaded a friend to open the evening by telling the crowd of students that I had fallen and injured my leg earlier in the day and that he would be hosting instead, and then he began a silly little dance to an old-fashioned honky tonk song. But little did the unsuspecting crowd know that the song that was playing was actually a super funky remix (oh yeah) and after about 30 seconds the beat dropped, and the song morphed into a cacophony of dubstep insanity (the song is called Jelly Belly, look it up). I had edited the sound of three gunshots into the song just as the beat drops, and as it happened I stepped onto the stage with a plastic gun, shot my friend, and proceeded to drop it like it was hot.
I know. Classy.
That was my “official” coming out, but it’s not like you only have to do it once. We never stop coming out, really. We have to do it constantly, as we bring new people into our lives, don’t we? Telling new people I’m a drag queen is actually something I relish, because it usually elicits some sort of surprise. I have really boring taste out of drag (because if everything in my wardrobe is grey then I never have to worry about colour clashes! DO YOU SEE MY GENIUS?) so most people would never guess. It’s not that I hide it, though. I’ve actually found that by being upfront about it on my Tinder profile, it acts as a kind of filter – I get far fewer matches than I used to, but now I match with far fewer assholes, so it’s a win-win!
But the best part of it is that now I have my own wardrobe filled with cluck-cluck shoes. I no longer have to steal them. I feel that I’ve gone so far forward by coming out as Lady Aria, but by doing so I also went back in time twenty years, back to the real Callum.
Callum Tilbury is a professional actor and contributing writer for Anova Health Institute. Callum’s drag alter-ego, Lady Aria Gray and her pearls of wisdom can be enjoyed on YouTube.