LGBTQ+

How drag helped me come to terms with my gender

In an extract from their new book, Unicorn, Amrou Al-Kadhi talks about the first time they got into drag and how it helped appease their gender dysphoria

My first ever drag performance was at a drag night I started at university. And I did what any misguided drag queen does at the start of their career: I sang a song from a famous musical. My chosen number was “When You’re Good To Mama” from Chicago. Cringe. The day itself was utterly chaotic. At one point I had to schlep all the decorations from one side of Cambridge to the other in a wheelie bin. Every single performer was a bundle of nerves, not one of us having ever done this before. But it fell on me to provide the words of comfort – I was mother after all – and while everyone got ready, I watched as each of them had a partner or a friend to help them with their make-up and costume. They all probably thought I didn’t need any help, but in truth I needed the most out of all of them.

As I retreated to the corner, trying to figure out a way to stop my wig obeying the laws of gravity, I went over the lyrics to “When You’re Good To Mama” and started thinking about my own. “If she found out about tonight, she’d be so ashamed of me... whatever I do, there’s no way she or dad can know about this.” I started to take in the crumbling brown walls of the mouldy crypt, the condensation coating its ceiling, and the general mess and chaos around me. I felt an intense pang of anguish, as if a capsule of sorrow had suddenly dissolved in my gut and was spreading rapidly around my bloodstream. I couldn’t help but equate the filth of the room with the image my mother had of me – a skinny, broke Arab son in a dress, wheezing because of the disgusting room they now found themselves in. It was as though the dirt of the surroundings was a mirror to the person I really was and I sat immobilised, unable to do anything, locked in a limbo of heartache.

Soon, though, one of the other queens saw me sitting in stasis with the doors about to open at any moment. In a silent act of solidarity, they made up my face. This was the first instance of the powerful sisterhood I have come to find in the drag community. On later getting to know this person, I discovered that they had lost their father as a baby and also struggled with feelings of familial dislocation. In that moment, both of us were grieving and being restored.

Before I could fully tumble down this well of sadness, the first guests arrived and I ran to the bathroom to firmly place a lid on it. Seeing my reflection in drag for the very first time was an uncanny kind of reunion, an introduction to a person I had always had inside me, yet had somehow always missed. I recognised the person in the mirror more than I had ever recognised my own image, experiencing the same fuzzy harmony as when I first gazed into a formless marine aquarium. Again, my gender dysphoria was suddenly appeased and here in front of me was a true manifestation of my internal self. It was time for everyone to meet her.

As soon as there was an audience, I interacted with them as my drag character Glamrou, an overly confident and acerbic queen who says the things that nobody else dares to. As people took their seats – the floor of a low-ceilinged cave – I lap-danced those who were willing, with the sexual litheness of a lemur and the confidence of a peacock.

One of the things that I’ve come to find interesting about being in drag is that once you’re dressed and made up, you so rarely see yourself in drag (unless your outfit involves some kind of reflective device). As a result, your image belongs more to the people who are viewing you and you start to perceive yourself in how you are being perceived in the eyes gazing at you. That night, the eyes of everyone I spoke to seemed bewitched by the confidence of the queen in their presence, with no knowledge of the sorrowing mess she had been just moments before the doors opened.

Unicorn: The Memoir Of A Drag Queen by Amrou Al-Kadhi (Fourth Estate, £16.99) is out now.

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