Meet some of the fiercest drag queens working in Manila

Meet some of the fiercest drag queens working in Manila

Drag is art, an extension of identity — and one of the most powerful forms of protest.

Photos by Patricia Laudencia and JV Rabano

 

The call to arms for this year’s Metro Manila Pride, as you may have heard, is #ResistTogether. It’s a sharp departure from previous, more benign slogans like #HereTogether and #RiseupTogether. In 2019, the stakes are simply too high for us to look the other way. Earlier this month, Duterte mused that homosexuality was a disease that could be cured. A few days before commencing these interviews, the SOGIE Equality Bill failed to win over the Senate, making this the third time our politicians have failed to place legal protections on LGBTQ+ citizens. 

At the front lines of the ongoing fight for equality, you’ll find a number of fierce, flawless drag queens. 50 years ago this month, a police raid at the Stonewall Inn, a prominent gay bar in New York City, provoked its queer customers to resist with force. Many of the key players in what would eventually be mythologized as the beginning of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement were drag queens, and their legacy as outspoken members of the community continues to live on.

 

Drag queens are queer artists making explicitly queer art, and their brazen celebration of identity seems to grant us the permission to express ourselves with similar abandon.

 

In present-day Manila, these gender-bending performers make a living at queer-friendly bars, doing anything from high-energy lip syncs to stand-up comedy. It is tempting, in this climate, to cast drag, the winking performance of exaggerated femininity, as the radical antithesis of our president’s reckless charade of masculinity. This, too, is what makes watching these queens so liberating. Drag queens are queer artists making explicitly queer art, and their brazen celebration of identity seems to grant us the permission to express ourselves with similar abandon.

In celebration of this historic Pride month, we spoke to three queens working in Manila, getting their thoughts on Stonewall, #ResistTogether, and of course, the wonderful art of drag.

Vinzon Booc a.k.a. Lady Gagita

In the gospel according to Lady Gagita, drag is a divinely-ordained vocation. “May pangarap ako dati maging pari,” she tells me, and I can’t help but cackle. “Oo, pramis,” she insists. “Noong bata ako sobrang relihiyoso. But this, too, is a calling. Binigay s’akin ‘to ni Lord.” 

This queer epiphany came in 2010, when she released her recreation of Lady Gaga’s Telephone video, simultaneously christening herself after the iconic LGBTQ+ ally. The video, which got millions of views, opened doors for the then-college age queen, allowing her to support her family through tough times. Nine years later, her Instagram continues to be updated with splashy sponsored posts, testifying to her staying power as both a social media mogul and a queer artist.

In the dressing room of Club LEVEL, a lovely little gay bar along Timog Avenue in Quezon City, she evinces the benevolent authority of a skilled talk show host, even though she’s the one being interviewed. She’s also out of drag, so actually, calling her Lady Gagita would be a misnomer. The person I am in fact speaking to is Vinzon Booc, and he is dressed casually in dark jeans and a YouTube T-shirt. A week after we meet, he will finally gain his Silver Play Button, the honor given to YouTube content creators who surpass 100,000 subscribers.

 

“I don’t just do this for a living. Si Gagita yung ginagamit kong mukha para mag-represent ng mga LGBTQ+. Nasa puso ko talaga na ipinaglaban sila.”

 

He doesn’t yield his influence unthinkingly. “I use my profession to make political statements,” he says. “I don’t just do this for a living. Si Gagita yung ginagamit kong mukha para mag-represent ng mga LGBTQ+. Nasa puso ko talaga na ipinaglaban sila.”

Backstage: Lady Gagita prepares for a show at Club LEVEL

Vinzon is inviting and charismatic, but he warns me that when he’s in drag, that charisma can become too much to handle. “Gagita is fearless,” he proclaims. “Her confidence levels are off the charts.” The armor of drag, then, allows him to carry out his advocacy with a fantastical kind of fearlessness. Right now, that fight is hinged not just on the SOGIE Bill, but on politicizing the more apathetic members of the community.

“Binigay sakin to ni Lord”. Vinzon Booc a.k.a. Lady Gagita uses his influence as a drag queen to make political statements.

Sa Pride march, napakadaming tao. Pero pagdating sa mga SOGIE rally, walang pumupunta,” he groans. “Nagpupunta lang sila doon dahil gusto nilang rumampa, gusto nilang umaura, gusto nilang maki-party. But when Pride month ends, they stop speaking out. Did they vote yes to the Congress poll about same-sex marriage? Ewan ko.”

If there’s anyone familiar with the necessity of self-correction however, it’s the Davao drag queen. “I used to be a Duterte supporter,” he admits. “But when he became president, bumaliktad ang mundo ko.” I ask him about the homophobic comment that kicked off Pride month. “Whatever he says has a big impact on Filipinos. LGBTQ+ people have enough to worry about just passing the SOGIE Bill. Tapos dagdagin pa niya ng ganun.”

The only way to set things right, then, would be to keep on resisting. “It’s been 50 years since Stonewall and we’re still fighting for our rights,” he says as he sheds his shirt, puts on a wig cap and begins to shave off some invisible stubble. Gagita is due to perform a lip sync of Bad Romance tonight, and she won’t disappoint. “Pride march will not end until we get what we want.”

Arjay Plan a.k.a. Andy Crocker

“Imagine what Emilia Clarke has to go through,” Andy Crocker mutters as she puts on her Daenerys wig. She explains that the Game of Thrones actress has to sit in a makeup chair for hours as a crew attends to her luminous lace front, her scalp constricted by an uncomfortable wig cap.

But Andy’s art might require even more patience and discipline, not to mention resourcefulness. That wig, for instance, was a piece she painstakingly braided herself. Her boldly-contoured face took her hours to paint on. Her costumes, ostensibly pricey, are often made out of materials she sources from Divisoria. She sometimes commutes there as early as 6 a.m., right after her shows end at 4 a.m.. To temper her body clock, she sleeps during the day and rises in the evening, after which she hops on an Angkas to catch her shift at Nectar, a gay club in BGC. Like many queens, Andy is a hustler, a queer artist eking out a living in the concrete jungle of Manila. 

For Andy, or Arjay, as he’s known out of drag, self-identity has always been filtered through a sartorial lens. He remembers being five years old and insisting on wearing his bath towel around his chest instead of his hips. Growing up, he enjoyed primping up dolls. Later in college, he started crossdressing for school presentations. Nowadays though, he likes to compartmentalize, reserving the glamour (and camp) for gigs.

This approach to gender expression is contained in his drag name. “Andy” is from Kris Bernal’s cross-dressing character in Coffee Prince, a telenovela based on the K-drama of the same name, while “Crocker” is from YouTube personality Chris Crocker, perhaps best known for his immortal “Leave Britney Alone” video. “Pareho kami ng stand sa gender,” Andy says of Chris, who shifts between femme and masc personas. “On and off siya. Ganun din ako.”

For Andy, or Arjay, as he’s known out of drag, self-identity has always been filtered through a sartorial lens.

Gender fuckery, while highly visible, has always been a bit of a marginal practice; a flippant rejection of social norms that has sometimes been dismissed even by certain members of the LGBTQ+ community. But this in-your-face conspicuousness, Andy argues, has historically led to positive change for everyone: “A friend once told me that drag queens are at the top of the gay food chain, kasi sila ang nag-stand sa mga Stonewall riots nung hindi kaya ng mga discrete—ng mga paminta—na ipaglaban yung rights nila,” she says, holding back tears. “Kaya talagang maniniwala ako na doon pa lang sa umpisa seryoso na sila.”

 

“What’s the line between acceptance and tolerance? Because I still don’t feel like I’m accepted in the Philippines.”

 

Isa rin ang mga drag queen sa nagli-lead sa movement dito sa Pilipinas,” she reminds me, refusing erasure. In the year of #ResistTogether, she’s intent on taking the leap from the margins to the mainstream. “What’s the line between acceptance and tolerance?” she wonders aloud. “Because I still don’t feel like I’m accepted in the Philippines.”

A partial resolution for this, she believes, lies in the increasing popularity of drag, which can expose the glitter and grit of gender play to an audience that can imbibe its values. “Mas luluwag ang acceptance sa LGBTQ+,” she says hopefully. “Tingnan mo sa U.S., dahil sa RuPaul’s Drag Race, dumami ang drag queen at dumami ang mga straight fans.”

And that’s what Andy Crocker’s drag is: an open invitation to express yourself in terms that are both profound and personal. “I want to maintain intimacy with my audience,” she says, the muffled voices of club guests echoing through the dressing room. “I perform for the people.”

Nectar Queens Viñas and Andy Crocker prepare for the night

Christian Viñas aka Viñas

Viñas has already started beating her face for tonight’s performance, but she hasn’t settled on a final look yet. As I watch her slip ever so slowly into her drag persona, affixing her blue contacts and carefully securing a pair of face crystals under her eyes, she grows less attuned to her surroundings, wholly intent on the woman she is becoming in the mirror. 

A garish fur coat hangs from her dresser — a piece on loan from the designer, who’s friends with Nectar’s manager. Who knows if she’ll end up wearing it? The fun of Viñas’ drag is that she improvises every night.

This off-the-cuff approach is a refreshing pivot from her days in theater. Whereas acting on stage allowed her little room for creative license, drag affords her absolute control. She also welcomes the change in performance style: “Sa teatro, tahimik yung mga tao, nagnonood na kahit sobrang liit ng mga nuances mo, ma-appreciate nila. Sa bar, kailangan mong maging extravagant.”

 

Masaya ako na hindi ako kailangan maging babae or lalaki.

 

Like RuPaul Charles, Christian Viñas doesn’t go by a stage name. Viñas isn’t so much a character as she is an integral part of the 22-year-old, who identifies as gender non-binary. (For the purposes of this article, Viñas says I can use male pronouns for Christian and female ones for Queen Viñas.) He came to this realization during a school discussion of the SOGIE Bill, where the term was brought up. “Masaya ako na hindi ako kailangan maging babae or lalaki,” he says, content to have finally found a label to be comfortable with.

Though Viñas’ astonishing polish gives her the aura of a queen well into her career, she’s actually just 22 years old, having started drag at 18. She’s now one-fifth of the Nectarines, Nectar’s in-house roster of queens. The residency has been a rewarding one: she once got a P5,000 tip in one night from a single audience member.

Kahit anong nangyari, kahit gaanong kalungkot na hindi napasa ang SOGIE Bill, sama-sama pa rin kami, tulong-tulong pa rin, at parang doon mas lalong nabubuo yung community. Walang naiiwan.”

But drag isn’t all about the thrill of stage performance. In the struggle for national acceptance, Viñas values drag for its capacity to normalize flamboyance and femininity. She’s seen straight boys wander into Nectar, which is located in the middle of The Fort Strip, and actually appreciate her shows. “Nakikita ko na unti-unti, natutuwa sila sa drag,” she says. “Small steps ‘to para mawala ang discrimination.”

Though she obviously isn’t pleased with how the Senate has handled the SOGIE Bill, Viñas is optimistic about the future. #ResistTogether is an assurance that the family is strong, she says. “Kahit anong nangyari, kahit gaanong kalungkot na hindi napasa ang SOGIE Bill, sama-sama pa rin kami, tulong-tulong pa rin, at parang doon mas lalong nabubuo yung community. Walang naiiwan.”

After a few hours of preparation, Viñas finally decides on a black lace catsuit and giant purple hair. She smolders for a few photos, then reevaluates her choices and trades in the voluminous wig for a dark, silky hairpiece. Gender isn’t constant, and Viñas’ drag reflects that. Her lip sync song challenges the social construct even further: Chris Brown, Busta Rhymes, and Lil Wayne’s Look at Me Now. It’s not everyday that you see a drag queen cut loose to a track by three straight male rappers, but Viñas doesn’t really care about the rules, and, for what it’s worth, she is getting paper. When Busta’s rapid-fire verse comes on, she strikes a pose, one hand on her hip and the other pointing to her mouth, as if to say read my fucking lips. She never misses a word.

Tags:
#culture #gender #pride

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