“Drag is a statement of my queer imagination. It allows me to express myself in such a fearless and fierce way,” says Belinda Qaqamba Fassie, 2016 winner of the Miss Gay Western Cape drag queen pageant.
An art form that is renowned for being subversive, drag’s therapeutic and healing aspects are relatively less well-known.
“When you are doing drag, you can channel your feelings through fashion, song and performance. When you are performing, you get to tell a story and create an escape from the persecution that you often face because of your queer gender or sexuality,” says Fassie.
In an age where self-care has been largely commodified, focussing more on how one might purchase their way to fulfilment, drag offers a holistic approach to emotional, mental and spiritual wellbeing.
“Drag provides access,” says queer musician Angel-Ho, who uses performance to disrupt gender. For Angel-Ho, drag is a craft on which they have drawn to heal from traumatic situations. They attribute its ease of use to the fact that “as a queer person, it can be difficult to access a lot of spaces. The only thing we have access to is our bodies, and through that, the art. Performing lets me rise above any negativity I am going through.”
Using her body as an instrument, Fassie says the most important aspect of her drag is reconciling African identity with queerness. “One of the reasons I have had anxiety and been through tough periods in my life with my mental health was because queerness was not seen as African or specifically as Xhosa. So, I always want to pioneer African drag, to celebrate everyday African women, so we have queer African role models,” she shares.
For Tarryn Naude, who has been diagnosed with anxiety disorder and bipolar II, developing a drag king persona has been a valuable way to practice self-care, in addition to medicinal recovery. “With my mental health situation, I get stuck in my head a lot of the time and over-think my opinions and processes about everyday things. My journey, when it comes to drag, is creating a character that makes me feel comfortable. A character that makes me feel confident enough to be able to speak and share my ideas in public,” she says.
Lindy Lee shares a similar experience of using drag to explore masculinity and to “perform all the parts of me that I wish I had. The persona I create can do things I would never dare to.”
For drag king and comedian Chantal Jax Venter, this is down to drag’s ability to “create spaces for people who feel like they are not accepted because of what society determines as fit and acceptable”.
“Drag has been a great way for me to share safe spaces with like-minded people,” she says. “I have always been an individual who goes against the grain of ‘normality’. Drag has been a way to show my love for all things ‘different’.”
Gender performance has also been an enriching experience for Zandile Sithole, one of the top five drag queens in this year’s Miss Gay Western Cape. “Drag has opened up so many doors; it helped me accept myself. Performing taught me that I was stronger than what I thought I was.
“Drag is also beneficial because it creates economic opportunity,” Sithole adds.
I ask whether there’s a danger that the art form can become over-commercialised. Sithole replies that by always striving to keep the art form open to any newcomers, barriers to access can be avoided.
Although drag has the power to effect positive transformation, both physically and mentally, “the art has remained male-dominated” Naude notes. “There is not as much support for drag kings. It would be great to create a space for all types of gendered performance in the community.”
For an art that prides itself on disrupting social norms, it is necessary that the doors of drag are open equally to people of all sexes and genders. Given these concerns, Fassie’s hope is that people remember that drag as self-care is not selfish, but about “practicing love through extending a hand out to the community, whether that is through sharing a dress to a friend, or doing someone’s matric makeup”.
Drag goes beyond the standard notions of self-care, offering “ways in which we can survive and help others do the same in the face of oppression, mental illness and trauma”.