From Nayla to Tommy: my life as a "Drag King"

It’s more a question of going about my everyday life while experiencing something of what it is to be in a man’s skin.

I’m having a boy night. I am carefully cutting light brunette tufts, trimmed from the bottom of my shoulder length hair, into stubble. I have bound my breasts. In a couple of minutes I apply spirit gum to my face with a cotton bud, and strategically place a pair of socks in the boxers I’ve got on. A year or two of incremental boy nights have taught me never to wear my t-shirt when I’m putting on my beard; the gum is unpredictable and inevitably gets everywhere. When all the stubble is on I wet my hands and rub them hard against my cheeks (in what I suppose is a masculating manner). I slip on a worn a dark t-shirt, low cut boy jeans, and a blue hoodie. After I’ve tucked my hair under a black beanie, and hidden my hands in a pair of black fingerless gloves, the transformation is complete.  In less than 15 minutes all trace of girl has been erased from my gender performance. I look into the mirror and smile like a smug git.

Soon enough I’m standing at the bar in a pub off New Cavendish Street. The man next to me takes a step back, turns to face me head on, and squints.

“How did you get your facial hair?”, he spits a bit on my recently stubbled cheeks as the words pop out of his mouth. He is built up like a bad joke, with a pronounced South African accent and dense five o’clock shadow. Clearly the universe has sent me some sort of cliché of alpha masculinity.

“How did you get your facial hair?”. I resort to the time-tested playground trick of throwing his own question back at him, putting on my best teenage boy pitch as I do.

“I grew it”

“I grew it too”. I try to be casual (technically this is true, after all). There’s a pause, in which he gives me a look that hovers somewhere between disgust and curiosity.

“You’re not fooling anyone… baby”. The man (who I have now nicknamed “wanker” in my head) lowers his voice slightly on that last word, gently touching my right upper arm.

Later that night in a different pub, in Islington, a friend of a friend repeatedly tries to remove my hat. I shimmy around sofas and chairs, clumsily trying to avoid her, half-heartedly voicing complaints about unwanted physical contact and consent (low pitch completely forgotten at this point - I sound like an indignant mouse cartoon character). Escaping outside for a cigarette, I vaguely explain to the rest of the group that I’m dressed as a boy tonight, will be taking only male gender  pronouns (meaning that I want to be referred to as he, his or him), and that my name is Tommy.

Why Tommy? The name seemed to encapsulate everything my male persona was when I first chose it; young, playful, harmless, a potential bad boy. At the time I struggled with the idea of taking on a Western name. What with my posh British accent, not to mention broken Arabic, my name is one of the most obviously Lebanese things about me. I couldn’t think of anything Arab that fit me though. I decided to keep my surname, and take my grandfather’s first name as a middle name, by way of compromise – Tommy Nicola Ziadeh.

Some of the lesbians don’t even bat an eyelid, having met Tommy a few times. To my amusement and delight a straight man, that I’ve just been introduced to, immediately starts broing out with me. Broing out is quite fun. I’m no expert, but as far as I’m aware it involves a great deal of nodding and monosyllabic communication - as well as fist bumping, of course.

Half way through our chit-chat I realise, to my dismay, that I’ve started to cross my legs in an almost effeminate manner. I quickly try to amend this by easing my knees apart, and leaning over with my elbows on them, in what I perceive to be a typical ‘man pose’.

“You arsehole. You’re presenting”, one of the lesbians says in a monotone.

Unsurprisingly we get talking about Drag Kings. These aren’t as well known as their female counterparts, despite having similar theatrical and performance based origins (supposedly going as far back as the 17th century) – girl actors playing boy roles and vice versa. But maybe it’s predictable that female interpretations of masculinity have taken a back seat in terms of cross dressing. The harnessing of femininity by men has historically always taken precedence -  why would drag be any different? In the last six months or so ‘boi nights’ have become more popular on the London scene though. What I do isn’t drag though; there’s no intentional performance aspect to it, and I wouldn’t even think of going up on stage. It’s more a question of going about my everyday life whilst experiencing what it is to be in a man’s skin. For me Tommy is about tapping into my own sense of masculinity; the ‘boy’ part of my gender which exists alongside the ‘girl’ that is expected of me because I was born with female genitalia.

The same lesbian then cocks her head to one side and asks, with an air of resigned curiosity, “Are you a twink?” (slang for a young slim gay man – Teenage White Into No Kink).

Am I? Truthfully, I’ve only been to a couple of gay nights dressed like this. I was surprised at how much attention smiling weakly, whilst awkwardly sitting to the side got me from both guys my own age and much older gay men.

I’ve never kissed anyone as Tommy, though. And were I to enter into a sexual relationship as a boy, yet not as one who is seen as biologically male, it wouldn’t be without an element of risk. In the past two years both Chris Wilson and Gemma Barker faced allegations of obtaining sex through gender deception. This makes me nervous, and I worry that we have a long way to go before making laws that work in the best interests of the trans* community, as well as those of other vulnerable members of society. Perhaps this is what makes me err on the side of caution.

Do I get away with it? Well sometimes I don’t, but sometimes I really do. What I struggle with most is deepening my voice; it takes a significant amount of effort. Usually the beginning of conversations are fine, but once I get comfortable I have a tendency to revert to my everyday girl squeak. The hardest things to say, in what I aspiringly refer to as ‘my boy voice’, are “sorry”, “excuse me”, and to ask anyone for help or willingly portray vulnerability.

The easiest are requests which I’ve learnt, in order to take up space as a man, to make with a certain sense of entitlement. When I order a drink (naturally a pint to go with my general look) I act as if the drink is already coming to me. I’m just instigating the process.

If I’m Tommy for several days in a row I notice myself becoming mentally and emotionally drained; it can often be exhausting to remember to make every  part of myself what we perceive as ‘man’. Generally when my masculinity affirmed, when I pass as biologically male, it feels good. If I am viewed as trans*, differed or othered in any way, the experience can be alienating.

When I first started going out in everyday spaces dressed up (or should I say down?) I worried that I was a privileged member of the LGBTQ community taking a selfish and exotifying dip into a more marginalised trans* subculture. But it was a feeling of curiosity that pushed me to find Tommy. When I became aware of trans* culture I realised that dressing as a man was something I could do, and because I could do it I was compelled to. Boying up has opened a door through which I can now queer and rethink my gender, as well as my sexuality.

Editor's note: this article was updated on 6 January 2014 to correct the nature of the charges faced by Wilson and Barker.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle