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The Beauty of Pinoy Drag

Article by: Crismhil S. Anselmo and Kandhalvi M. Asaali

Graphics by: Ma. Alyssa Therese S. Manalang

For many years, the portrayal of queer folk in media has widely been reserved for mere entertainment. Thanks to the recent phenomenon that is "RuPaul’s Drag Race," the world has finally got to see drag queens beyond the comedic trope. Made by the queer for the queer, the show has shaken pop culture on a massive scale and put queens in the spotlight.

With the dawn of the installment series such as Drag Den and Drag Race Philippines, drag is beginning to occupy more space in mainstream Pinoy media, giving Filipino drag queens a platform to showcase themselves, their art form, and their advocacies. In celebration of Pride Month, The New Builder showcases why the Philippine drag scene stands to be one of the most historical, unique, and of course, phenomenal, of all.

Defining Drag

Drag, like many other forms of art, does not have a concrete definition. In essence, it is about dressing up as the other sex but underneath the makeup, accessories, and flamboyant costumes, it is so much more than that.

In an interview with Maharlika, a Filipino drag queen hailing from Cagayan de Oro, she defined drag “as the most liberating form of artistic self-expression,” as it involves the practice of other art forms such as fashion design, makeup artistry, and performance arts.

My drag persona really brings out the best in David. She is the sexier, more confident, more outrageous version of the boy me… when I’m performing, everything becomes a blur… it truly is a fantasy,” she expounded.

Moreover, she described drag as armor that one puts on which allows them to live the best version of themselves without letting anyone tell them any differently. According to Maharlika, there are no rules in drag.

Aside from being a form of art, however, Maharlika believes that “drag is a response to the heteronormative standards the world has set […] upon the LGBT community.”

Pinoy Drag Herstory

The Philippines is not exactly new to drag, or at least some versions of it. J. Neil C. Garcia’s essay on “Male Homosexuality in the Philippines” took note of historical accounts detailing gender crossing and transvestism as a widely accepted practice in pre-colonial society. Serving as babaylans, men dressed in women’s clothing served as the bridge between the physical and spiritual realm, enjoying the reverence of their communities as figures of authority and shamans. The third gender enjoyed esteemed status until the colonizers branded them as threats alongside the indoctrination of machismo in Philippine society. However, effeminate and gender transitive behavior, despite suffering oppression and ridicule for the succeeding centuries, was never truly erased by colonial rule.

Modern drag started to gain traction in Pinoy mainstream media in the 1970s when drag queens began to be portrayed in movies, most notably in the late Dolphy Quizon’s Ang Tatay Kong Nanay Ko. During the 1990s, Eat Bulaga!’s Doble Kara segment also featured a form of drag as contestants dress up as two halves of a split masculine and feminine apparel.

Despite this, Maharlika argues that during these times, the portrayal of drag was limited to comic relief and caricature. “You would only see drag queens in entertainment venues such as gay bars and comedy bars and movies that feature crossdressers as the funny character as the humor sa mga movies,” she adds.

Drag and the Pinoy Flair

Filipino drag has its own flavor and nuances that sets it apart from the international scene. Apart from the way Filo drag queens make use of unconventional materials to craft their looks, humor, and comedy hit different with Pinoy queens. “You can literally feel it when the comedy is different [with] Filipinos. No one captivates an audience like a Filipino drag artist,” Maharlika declares.

Pop culture also has a substantial influence on Pinoy drag. In drag shows, staple Filipino pop divas like Regine Velasquez and Sharon Cuneta, among other strong women, are most often referenced and impersonated. In terms of looks, many queens take inspiration from the Philippines’ rich culture, especially through their outfits, the textiles they use, and their hair, as seen in their extravagant looks.

Much like the drag scene in the United States of America, different areas in the Philippines also have distinct styles that set them apart from one another. According to Maharlika, many of the hyper-glamorized drag and the pageant queens hail from Manila, while the drag from Western Visayas, particularly Bacolod, tend to take a more avant-garde approach.

The Pinoy Drag Experience

Nowadays, the Filipino drag experience can exist anywhere. From social media to gay bars, drag is sashaying its way into the spotlight and shining brighter than ever before. Aside from livestreams on Facebook, Instagram, and Tiktok, spaces like Drag Playhouse Philippines, founded by drag queen Eva Le Queen, give queens a safe space and a platform to showcase their art. These online spaces have helped keep the drag scene alive amid the lockdowns during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, people looking to experience drag firsthand may do so in gay bars and nightclubs that feature drag artists such as Nectar, O Bar, and Today x Future, among others.

The sisterhood of Pinoy queens is also very much alive. There are various drag houses in the Philippines that Maharlika describes as “a form of family that doesn't involve blood,” noting her own, House of La Feya, as an example. Other notable houses include House of Mizrahi PH and Haus on Manza, which are prominent names in the budding local ballroom culture.

Beyond Glitz and Glamour

It is inarguable that repression brought by the colonizers made its lingering cultural engraves reach modern society. Today, drag artists still face discrimination. Maharlika attested that drag queens and kings, especially those in small cities and towns like her, find it hard to have safe spaces to perform drag. “When I started doing drag around 2018, I only knew two other people who shared the same passion with me here in Cagayan de Oro. Along with that, there were no bars or clubs that featured drag queens here in Cagayan de Oro during that time,” she added.

Although modern society is already a far cry from the past as present-day drag artists are now taking the spotlight on the main stage, there still exists a ceiling that constraints them from going all out in “extravaganza realness.” One of these ceilings is the gender stereotypes carved upon drag culture.

Societies that are limited by censorship and traditionalism generalize that “all drag artists are gay or lesbian” and “drag artists merely want to change their gender.” Unfortunately, these myths are far from the truth as drag does not correlate with gender identity. “Drag is for everyone. You don’t have to be gay or any other gender identity and sexual orientation to do drag,” Maharlika explained. “It is a form of artistic self-expression… to summarize, drag is your job title, not your identity.

The practice of drag culture extends beyond glitz and glamour. Embedded in the flamboyant fashion and beauty are centuries’ worth of herstory and protests for self-expression and freedom. “Drag, aside from being a form of entertainment and being artistic, is also a political statement since drag is a reflection of all the hardships that the LGBTQIA+ community has faced in the past and are still facing today,” Maharlika stated.

Drag is now celebrated around the world and is taking center stage. Drag artists continue to fruitfully set their mark in society and push boundaries to combat the lingering standards left by the old generations of traditionalism and conservatism. People are now coming out of their shells to support drag, not just as a form of cartoonish, comedic caricatural entertainment, but also as a medium of storytelling and political protest in its truest and most unapologetic form.

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