Now on to part 2 of the Faces Behind the Fuku-ing Fabulous Drag Ball: The Sequel! This time I spoke with our second-time master of ceremonies(MC), my very own crazy talented and lovely co-editor, Mercedez! As the final preparations for tomorrow’s event begin, I was lucky enough to hear Mercedez’s insightful and personal insights and experiences regarding drag, queer culture, and tomorrow night’s event.
Note from Mercedez: I will use queer to refer to myself throughout this interview, especially when it comes to my personal identity and the community I participate in at large.
What was your introduction to drag?
I was introduced to Drag Culture in college, largely by my school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. In Missouri, this community was something that was really important to me, especially as a young queer person who was really starting to gain independence. It was the first time I could really connect with out queer folk who, like me, were just leaving the Bible Belt and were being encouraged to engage in queer spaces and even toy with gender.
I saw my first drag show when I was 18 and remember it being this really radical thing. I can’t remember the clubs name, only that it had really fantastic virgin daiquiris and dance cages which for a person from a very conservative place, were the Devil’s playground for me. But, the environment was quickly addictive: I really felt like I belonged somewhere for the first time, even if it was my actual first time to experience anything like this outside of the LOGO cable channel and RuPaul back when they was first starting their show on the network.
Gender has always played such a role in my life, but seeing drag made gender a joke, which is its exact purpose: gender becomes an arbitrary thing when we play with it, and it opens up a conversation to remind us that gender is 100% fluid and always changing. That really changed my entire world, and led me to befriend many a Queer, King, and Femme in the Central Missouri community.
After that, I went on to assist in multiple drag shows at my own university along with working in the queer community at large, though my role was always doing make-up, set up and tear down, or working behind the scenes. Honestly, I’ve always loved costuming and dressing outside of my identity, and combining two things that I was passionate about into a dazzling few minutes of playing with gender felt absolutely amazing. Eventually, I moved to being an MC on the regular, which I’ll be happily serving as in the second iteration of this event.
Have you ever tried drag yourself?
I haven’t tried drag myself because I’m honestly terrified of showing off, though I’ve been active with gender play and other forms of costuming outside of being “female”. I have done a good deal of cross-play -cosplay while presenting as a different gender- and absolutely love it. It’s a kind of breather from being identified as female most days.
Personally, I get more of a kick helping Queens and Kings into costume and heels, doing make-up, and serving as the Hype Person for events. I shine when I get to help. Plus, behind the scenes is just as fun as front stage: I think everyone will see that I shine much more when I’m behind a mic than bustin’ a move (or my hip!)
What was the most helpful thing you learned from last year’s event for this year’s?
I really came to understand how many allies there are in the world, and how many people genuinely want to understand queer culture. I don’t really associate as any part of a community: even back in the states, my queer community was my immediate friends and that was all.
But here in Japan, and amongst ALTs, I’ve really found a lot of allies, and that’s just as good as having solidly out and proud friends. Allies are critical, and without them, this event wouldn’t happen for a second time. It’s really great to know that people are willing to come to enjoy and learn as well as support a community abroad.
I also think I understand how to better encourage time management on my end. Last year, I was incredibly nervous to be showing a part of myself to so many people: being publicly queer has never been easy for me, but now that I’ve got such an awesome community to present new performers to, it feels like walking on air.
What does drag mean to you personally?
Drag is freedom from gender.
It’s making an absolute joke about gender, which for me, feels incredibly freeing. When you can dress and magnify gender to an astronomical scale, the entire meaning behind “man” and “woman” disappears, and all that’s left are people who fit somewhere on an incredibly long spectrum. And that 100% okay, you know?
Even from the start, drag has been about mocking gender to me, though there’s certainly some skeletons in the closet when it comes to drag and being used with blackface in the 19th century, something that is increasingly rare, but once in a while, rears its very ugly head. Certainly, when it comes to issues of fetishism of trans individuals and really horrible jokes about female identity and vaginal genitalia, I’m reminded that drag culture still has hiccups.
But I think that now, for so many people, drag has become something that isn’t hated like it used to be, or a joke against women: it’s becoming reclaimed and is much more a joke about gender at large, and a celebration of differences. When you can blow up specific aspects of gender and make them larger than life, I really think that you start to break down walls about how we exist in gender daily.
How do you feel about the Japanese approach to cross dressing as a joke, rather than expression of identity that it is in drag? How do you think it can become more understood within Japan rather than a joke at events?
I think that as a Westerner, my first instinct is to say it’s incredibly harmful, but a lot of the ways that Japanese drag culture, and homophobia, were shaped come from Western countries. This is something that’s happened in a lot of places, of course: I think we can see that world-round.
However, I think that that harmfulness combined with the socio-cultural stressors of being private in Japan make for a uniquely different situation. Drag doesn’t equal out and proud about any part of your identity: it equals late night comedy at the expense of actual individuals who fall in the margins in Japanese society. And that’s no good.
The feelings I have for the way that drag, and queer identity in Japan, are jokes are the same as Japan and Blackface: it’s time for a change. Both are things with long histories in Japan, but as more and more diversity enters the country through media and physical persons here, it’s time to change the conversation. Much of this is happening with female-identifying persons in Japan: there’s a lot of folks who are making change daily. It’s just not done in a Western way nor is it front page news, which can make it easy for Western foreigners to miss at times.
There’s a lot that has to change, starting with the normalization of queerness and the erasure of coming out as a necessary action. Queer folk live in their identity daily, but it shouldn’t be a radical thing to say “I love someone of the same gender identity as me” no matter where we call home. That critical change, along with sex and sexuality education in secondary schools, are so important.
I think that there will be a day when queerness and non-cis or non-straight identities are as normal as buying bananas at the market in Japan, but I think as foreigners, we also have to understand that time is a critical factor and that it, largely, isn’t our fight because we’re coming from different cultural situations. Even America is playing catch-up to laws and rules that should have been in place decades ago. It’s just a matter of continuously keeping the dialogue going, and never forgetting what needs to be changed.
Do you have a message for anyone in the LGBTQIA+ community in Japan?
Most definitely. If you’re young, old, or somewhere in between, know it’s okay to shift through different phases of who you are sexually. I, myself, may never know all the things I identify as, and while boxes can contain, they can also be opened and explored and changed. This goes especially to teens: know you’re loved for who you are, and that your queerness is something positive, not something bad at all.
What are you waiting for? Come see Mercedez shine and all the kings and queens strut their stuff and shake their groove-things tomorrow in Fukushima City! For more information or questions, please check out the Facebook event page.