DRAG & GENDER PERFORMANCE
Windows are opening in walls where a kind of exchange takes place. Fresh air & light comes in, stale air goes out. People look in, people look out at the people looking at them. In this space where light shines in, our essence shines out. We are showing/expressing parts of our intimate selves and they are being perceived by someone who’s perception of us is ultimately beyond our control. In this window frame, the exchange between how we view ourselves and express it, that complex space between our true selves, what we want other’s to see of us, and how others see and interpret that expression; is gender.
Gender performance and self-actualisation sits at the core of what Ballroom is really about. It’s a space where we can try on different identities, fully embody whoever we feel like we truly are, express and explore both our fantasies and our internal realities (which can sometimes be fantastical).
Often we frame conversations about diverse gender and sexual expression as an act of resistance, this radical new world of trans, two-spirit and non binary beings that have emerged in resistance to heteronormativity… when in reality, gender diversity is natural and in many ways normal, and eternal. Black folks (and indeed all folks) have always been gender diverse and of varying sexual orientations. This is not a concept that was created by Ballroom, and indeed the folks who participate and exist in the Ballroom scene are endlessly multifaceted and expressive in ways that extend far beyond the categories that structure the House competitions.
In order to fully delve into Black gender non-conforming ways of being we need to look at pre-colonial Africa and colonisation and how it’s impacted all of our relationships to gender and sexuality (which really isn’t quantifiable). This will hopefully open some pathways for y’all to do your own research and further explore these topics .
*PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS SECTION CONTAINS MENTIONS OF ENSLAVEMENT, OPPRESSION & VIOLENCE AGAINST BLACK PROPLE*
“If you say being gay is not African, you don’t know your history”
- Bisi Alimi, Nigerian Gay Rights Activist
Within Black community there is a widely held and damaging belief that queerness is a Western import. A Kenyan petition to decriminalise sexual acts between people of the same sex was rejected by the Kenyan High Court when Irungu Kangata, a Murang’a County senator argued that “none of the Kenyan communities or culture embraces homosexuality and that historically, homosexuality was punished through ostracisation or death”, and that therefore decriminalising homosexuality would be “in breach of their right to preservation of their culture.” This demonstrates a deep set belief system that sees these ‘new rights’ -aka equal rights for gays- as contrary to a quintessentially African set of values, norms, traditions, and beliefs rooted in heteronormativity.
But there is nothing African about homophobia. On the contrary, there is an ancient and expansive history of “queerness” on the continent. What we would now label as “queer” (acknowledging this label is limiting and this word itself rooted in a colonial mindset and the English language) gender expressions and sexualities including non monogamy existed as part of society but weren’t regarded as abnormal in any way. They were part of spiritual beliefs, ritual practises and an integrated and necessary part of community life. Distinctive groupings in society were formed along varying different lines, such as interests/occupation, or geography…not always gender. It’s incredibly sad that we’ve lost a lot of the language used to describe what we would now dub as “queerness” through the homogenising and erasing violence of colonialism. The long term perpetuation of heteronormativity as a dominant social structure has also resulted in a lack of interest, scholarship and much misinterpretation in this field. It’s hard to find information about pre-colonial queerness.
“The idea that homosexuality is ‘western’ is based on another western import – Christianity. True African culture celebrates diversity and promotes acceptance”
- Bisi Alimi, Nigerian Gay Rights Activist
It’s important to remember race is a social construct, and so is gender and there is evidence to suggest that neither one of these existed in the rigid terms we understand them in now before colonisation. There are examples of diverse queer sexualities & gender expressions in Africa, Central America, the East, and the Arab world as well as a wide variety of Indigenous sexualities & gender expressions across all regions. Here are some examples of pre-colonial queerness in Africa to really get you thinking about how pervasive heteronormativity is and how radically different our understanding of ourselves and our societies can be.
Queen Nzingha (1583-1663) ruled the kingdoms of Ndongo and Matamba in modern day Angola.
"The thing about Nzinga is her title was Ngola, and Ngola means king… Nzinga ruled dressed in full male clothing as a king, and she had a harem of young men dressed as women who were her wives. So in the 1600s, you basically had a butch queen with a bunch of drag queens for wives leading a fight against European colonization.”
- Mikael Owunna, Nigerian American photographer & maker of project Limit(less)
Yan Daudu (Nigeria)
“In the northern part of Nigeria, yan daudu is a Hausa term to describe effeminate men who are considered to be wives to men. While the Yoruba word might be more about behaviour than identity, this Hausa term is more about identity. You have to look and act like a yan daudu to be called one. It is not an identity you can just carry. These words are neutral; they are not infused with hate or disgust.” -Bisi Alimi
Motsoalle were socially acceptable long-term relationships between women that often occurred alongside their marriages to men. Though they were committed relationships they were not seen as lesbian but as their own special kind of bond. One key difference is that although erotic intimacy could be part of Motsoalle relationships, sexual relations weren’t considered to be sex if a penis was not involved. So the type of intimacy these women shared wasn’t considered sexual even though perhaps from a contemporary Western perspective, it was.
“The Italian Paolo Ambrogetti, at the beginning of the twentieth century, reported age based homo-sexual relations between Eritrean men and what he called Diavoletti (Eritrea) (little devils). Regarded as being no more than a mild fault, these relationships were pursued quite openly and tolerated by the boys’ fathers since it was a source of income. After puberty, the boys generally began to have relations with females, but diavoletti especially attached to their patrons might continue with them until they were twenty.”
- Boy Wives, Female Husbands: Studies in African Homosexualities (book)
Among the Maale of southern Ethiopia, Donald Donham observed that “a small minority [of men] crossed over to feminine roles. Called ashtime, these (AMAB) males dressed like women, performed female tasks, cared for their own houses, and apparently had sexual relations with men”
Donham interviewed an ashtime, who described his status in terms of a distinct gender conception: “The Divinity created me wobo, crooked. If I had been a man, I could have taken a wife and begotten children. If I had been a woman, I could have married and borne children. But I am wobo; I can do neither.” Although this individual was the only ashtime Donham knew, Maale men told him that more had existed in the nineteenth century: “Indeed, part of the Maale king’s traditional installation had consisted of a ritual ordination of an ashtime.” By 1975, however, the Maale people considered the ashtime as “abnormal”. - Boy Wives, Female Husbands: Studies in African Homosexualities (book)
Mugawe was a religious leadership role among the agriculturalist Meru of the Kenyan highlands. Mugawe were AMAB (Assigned Male At Birth) individuals who wore women’s clothes and hairstyles and sometimes married men.
These are just a few of the examples we know about, there are many many more but they do give us a good sense of the fact that the societal norms and structures we take for granted in this colonial hell-scape are just made up and imposed. There are many other ways to exist.
One of the most insidious impacts of colonisation and white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is that they have limited our imaginations to what we know, an experience rooted in a very heteronormative and colonial understanding of the self.
Greenberg reminds us in The construction of Homosexuality that:
“Homosexuality is not a conceptual category everywhere. To us, it connotes symmetry between male-male and female-female relationships.... When used to characterise individuals, it implies that erotic attraction originates in a relatively stable, more or less exclusive attribute of the individual. Usually it connotes an exclusive orientation: the homosexual is not also heterosexual; the heterosexual is not also homosexual. Most non-Western societies make few of these assumptions. Distinctions of age, gender, and social status loom larger. The sexes are not necessarily conceived symmetrically.”
Nigerian scholar Oyèronké Oyèwumí asserts that gender is actually a white/western construct, reminding us that the colonial enterprise was 'a male institution in all its aspects, its "masculine" ideology, its military organisation and processes, its rituals of power and hierarchy, its strong boundaries between the sexes’.
She basically says that colonisation emerged out of western rationalities that create hierarchies including gendered and racialised power dynamics. She says that “racist systems of hierarchizing does not merely classify subjects in terms of a racialised schematic (coloniser over native, white over black, human over non-human), but includes the hierarchizing of the colonial masculine over the colonial feminine.”
The concept of gender needs to always be contextualised as having Western cultural origins, a socially constructed system that formed part of the foundations for the system of colonisation.
For more on Oyèronké Oyèwumí read HERE
This connection between the system of colonisation and the gender system is important because it reminds us that heteronormative gender expression is wedded to whiteness. The ideal heterosexual feminine or masculine archetype according to the systems we all live under is fundamentally white. It set a standard that we all strive toward to be accepted, successful, desirable, but this standard is synonymous with whiteness. Blackness cannot therefore achieve these gendered norms under this criteria. We believe that this understanding can free Black folk to define ourselves on our own terms.
“The social categories "women" and "men" are social constructs deriving from the Western assumption that "physical bodies are social bodies" [...] the original impulse to apply this assumption trans-culturally is rooted in the simplistic notion that gender is a natural and universal way of organizing society [...] But gender is socially constructed: it is historical and culture-bound.”
- Oyèrónké Oyèwumí, The Invention of Women
In the late C14th and C15th Europeans started “exploring” and colonising large parts of the world..
(you may ask).
Two reasons; the idea of “empire” (power, greed), and also money/resources (also greed).
Later on in the C17th, the scramble for Africa was exacerbated by an economic depression in Europe. The stock market crashed and The Panic of 1873 led to the Long Depression of 1873.
The Europeans colonised all over using varying methods of exploitation including:
• Technological advantages.
• New geographic boundaries. Dividing regions geographically and not culturally was a huge trauma that caused a lot of violence.
• Dirty trade tactics.
• Trauma. Europeans used sexual violence, public shaming and mass violence and mass death to scare and traumatise people into submission.
• Tribalism / the constructing and compounding of Western notions of African Traditions (remember the claim in Kenya that Gayness ran counter to tradition, well not only is this untrue but many of the traditions that people hold on to as inherently African are also a colonial imposition - white people really did a number.)
Colonisation = Poverty (keep people poor)
+ Patriarchy (cis heteronormativity/gender-roles)
+ Racism/Eugenics (scientific proof)
+ Religion (moral justification)
The Europeans recognised the economic potential in Africa, the East and Central America with their natural resources, fertile soils, spices etc. and sought to economise them for the benefit of the Western economy. They developed the sugar and coffee industries in the Caribbean and Brazil, Banana plantations in Central America, Tea, Opium and spices in the East and set out to conquer and exploit. But to do all of this they obviously needed total control over native populations to pillage their resources, and they needed a labour force. And this is where slavery comes in… But how could you possibly justify something as savage as slavery to the “civilized” Europeans?
Eugenics was a branch of science that justified that Black and Brown people were an entirely different species, that they weren’t human. These scientific “findings” heralded the advent of colourism, the caste system in India, and also the construct of the “Caucasian” and Western beauty standards. Again, we return to the assertion that race is a white concept created to keep white people on top and everyone else subservient. Eugenics justified and compounded this social order by claiming that all other races were sub-human. Eugenics was believed as truth partially because of armchair anthropology; a lot of the early information on race and indigenous bodies was written from a distance. Some of our “great” early anthropologists such as Levi Strauss, never ventured outside of Europe.
Eugenics and therefore racism and colourism was a perfect tool of control for the British with the lowest/darkest Caste in India paying the most to the Brits and the highest/ lightest caste paying the least and enjoying a semblance of privilege that would make them agents in their own oppression. Colourism has always been a tool for division, by the British aligning themselves with the highest caste they created a difference that would keep the Indian population busy oppressing each other and the white British on top. This reminds us of an essay about the Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans in the US which basically explains how Asians and African Americans are pitted against each other by the systems of whiteness, vying to be the most accepted minority, keeping white people on top. It’s both a distraction technique and a divisive tactic of white supremacy.
The Racial triangulation of Asian Americans
The Invention of Tradition in Colonial Africa
Anyway, the Colonists came to the African continent and used the diverse sexuality and gender expressions they saw there, as well as African spiritual practises and beliefs, languages and physical differences as proof that indigenous people were sub-human. That’s basically how people slept at night while committing genocide. Slavery was really to do with money and labour force, eugenics and religion were used as moral justification.
Colonists came and enforced Western ideals and belief systems that were informed by religion (in the face of all this indigenous “barbarism”). Ideas of the gender binary (a tool for patriarchy), ideas of heteronormativity and cisnormativity. The spreading of gospel and “saving people” was part of a means to justify violence.
Part of this “civilising mission” was essentially an organisational project, an effort to divide and conquer by means of tribalism. Europeans realised that a continent unified through race and “civilised” by the Europeans would threaten their rule so they divided and compounded ethnolinguistic groups as legal “tribes” in order to maintain control under the guise of restoring African culture to its true form.
“Almost all recent studies of pre-colonial Africa have emphasised that far from there being a single “tribal” identity, most Africans moved in and out of multiple identities, defining themselves at one moment subject to this chief, at another moment as a member of that cult, at another moment as part of this clan, and at yet another moment as an initiate in that professional guild… the boundaries of the “tribal” polity and the hierarchies of authority within them did not define conceptual horizons of Africans.”
Before there was much more free movement between peoples and identities and not this sense of tribal absolutism / purity that we have now.
All the methods of colonisation - patriarchy, violence, eugenics & religion basically worked together to create a chokehold that shamed and traumatised people into heteronormative ways of being. Straying from that framework was literally a matter of life or death, and people were being brainwashed to believe that Western ways of being were better. Not only that but there was also so much physical violence and sexual trauma including selective breeding practices in the colonies (forcing enslaved people to have sex to produce more labour force for their owners).
The impact that all of this combined had on Black people’s relationship to gender and sexuality cannot be underestimated. Imagine what this level of systematic trauma (still ongoing), physical violence, forced disembodiment, displacement and dehumanisation has done to our relationship to our bodies. Imagine what this level of trauma bonding and forced separations must have done to our intimate bonds. We cannot talk about Black gender and sexuality without considering the impact of this.
“With this understanding of love’s meaning it is clear that more often than not slavery made it all but impossible for black people to love one another. When emotional ties were established between individuals, when children were born to enslaved mothers and fathers, these attachments were often severed. No matter the tenderness of connection, it was often overshadowed by the trauma of abandonment and loss.” - Bell Hooks, Salvation: Black people and Love
Colonisation as an official thing ended in a staggered sort of way. Global consciousness and public opinions shifted with the abolitionist movement, and also because people began realising that resources were finite, and it was no longer as profitable. In the Caribbean for example slave owners were reluctant to leave and began coercing people into servitude or “indentured labour”. It is a widely held opinion that colonisation never really ended it just shifted from colonisation and chattel slavery as we knew it to imperialism and neo-colonialism. Governments and state nations did begin to exist but only with the “help” of Western nations and empires. Colonisation morphed into a different version of economic control via capitalism, globalisation and cultural imperialism.
Neocolonialism as defined by the Britannica encyclopaedia:
“used to refer to a form of global power in which transnational corporations and global and multilateral institutions combine to perpetuate colonial forms of exploitation of developing countries. Neocolonialism has been broadly theorised as a further development of capitalism that enables capitalist powers (both nations and corporations) to dominate subject nations through the operations of international capitalism rather than by means of direct rule.”
Neocolonialism came to be seen more generally as involving a coordinated effort by former colonial powers and other developed countries to block growth in developing countries and retain them as sources of cheap raw materials and cheap labour.
In terms of Black people and queerness the effects of colonialism were detrimental and are still very much alive today including:
• Compulsory heteronormativity, patriarchy, cisnormativity, and monogamy.
• Contemporary anti-blackness and anti-queerness including hate crimes, corrective rape, violence, trans death.
• The loss of language to describe different nuanced gender and sexual identities.
• In Brown and Black communities all of these white concepts and violences have been internalised and self-perpetuated and inflicted in many forms including hierarchy, colourism and internalised racism.
• The myth of gayness as a western import drives a lot of homophobia in non western nations.
• Emotional colonisation: being told who to love, and how to love.
• Black and brown people being regarded as animals, led to lack of bodily autonomy and centuries of sexual violence and religious violence used as a colonising and oppressive tactic.
• Myths about black people having a higher tolerance for pain, and subsequent negligence by the medical system.
• Fetishisation and exoticisation.
• Christianity as a prevalent force in Black and brown communities.
• Machismo as a value system, virility and hypersexualisation, and oppression over femmes.
• How we relate to masculinity and femininity is warped and shaped by ideas of white gender roles.
• All these ideas built into ideas of the nation state and “healthy society”, how we navigate notions of citizenship.
“If all the world’s a stage, then identity is nothing but a costume” - Marc Jacobs
So, now that we’ve given a context within which to consider the relationship between Gender and Race we would like to offer you a few more thinking points as springboards for consideration at your own leisure…
1. Gender is a performance
(a seminal book on this is Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble) Here’s a video by YouTuber Shanspeare exploring Femininity as performance.
2. Gender performance as a ritual
an everyday set of actions and choices that we make to decide how we want to present ourselves to the world. Here is Alok on Style Like you’s podcast “What’s Underneath” speaking about the gender binary.
3. Gender and its relationship to spirituality. When we consider our spiritual selves we realise that they are neither heterosexual nor gendered. Indeed many spiritualities have examples of gods who exhibit many different genders and sexual orientations, and take many forms. “I, you, he, she, we In the garden of mystic lovers, there Are not true distinctions.” - Rumi
For more on this read: Queer Magic: LGBT+ spirituality and Culture from around the world by Thomas Prowler (Book)
Other related readings you may find interesting: Disidentifications by José Esteban Munoz
Black Performance on the Outskirts of the Left by Malik Gaines
William Dorsey Swan
It is important to note that William Dorsey Swann, known as “The Queen '' to friends, is the first recorded Drag Queen in the United States. Born in Maryland in 1858, The Queen was a Black & enslaved person who upon obtaining his freedom, led a queer resistance movement in the 1880’s and called himself a “queen of drag” aka a drag queen.
He was known for running queer gatherings and balls in Washington & in 1896 he was convicted to 10 months in jail for “keeping a disorderly house” which is old fashioned code for running a brothel. When he got out he was charged again for holding a drag ball. He demanded a pardon from President Grover Cleveland and was denied. This was the first time someone had taken legal action to defend the rights of queer people to congregate safely. Throughout his life Swann continued to resist, hold balls and defend LGBT rights, and is a key historical figure when considering the history of Drag in the United States.
There is so much possibility, and an almost infinite number of examples of queer Black folk who are performing gender in their own personal and unique way. We hope that this section will have helped somewhat in understanding some of the context that shapes conversation around and experiences of gender and gendering for Black people in our current context. We hope that this understanding will open up pathways to a fuller expression of our most authentic selves.