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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The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood