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.

Hamzah al Zobi
Show Hide image

Meet the Syrians using education to escape the refugee camps

On the bus to university with Syrian refugees in Jordan. 

The bus to Zarqa University leaves Jordan’s largest refugee camp at 7am sharp. The journey is one of the day’s highlights for the Syrian students who ride this route - a chance to plan weekend get-togethers, bemoan heavy course loads and even enjoy the occasional school-bus style sing-along. It’s also their daily ticket out of Za’atari camp and a means of escaping the dreary realities of refugee life.

“We are the lucky ones. Most had to give up their dreams of higher education” says 19-year-old Reema Nasser Al Hamad, whose family fled to Jordan five years ago when bombs destroyed her home in Dara’a, Syria. She shudders to think of the alternatives: aimless days spent sitting in a crowded caravan, or early marriage. “After the war, students in Syria lost their cities, their opportunities and their futures, so many of the girls just married when they got here. There’s a huge difference between the lives of those who study and those who don’t.”

Despite missing two years of school, Reema (pictured below) was able to pass her exams before securing a Saudi-funded scholarship to study Pharmacy at Zaraq’ University. “In Syria, I’d planned to do medicine and be a doctor because I always had high grades. There are fewer choices for us here but I’m happy to be studying at all,” she says. Hamza al Zobi, who’s studying Pharmacy on an the EU-funded EDU-Syria programnme, says young Syrians are hungry to learn. “We all have friends and relatives who didn’t get this chance and we feel so upset for them. If they’re not well educated, how can they go back and do the right thing for our country?”

More than a quarter of 18-24 year olds in Syria were enrolled in higher education when the war broke out. “Based on data provided by UNHCR we assess that around 20,000 young Syrians in Jordan would qualify for vocational education and higher education,” says Job Arts, Programme Manager Education and Youth, EU Delegation to Jordan, which is supporting some 1800 Syrians and disadvantaged Jordanians on degree courses in Jordan.

“While the number of places for Syrian students to pursue their education has increased dramatically over the past few years, there are still many more interested students than spaces available for study,” says Sarah Dryden-Peterson, non-resident Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. “Without these possibilities, young Syrians will lose the kind of hope that is essential to productive futures.”

According to the Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis, 1,250 Syrian youth were in higher education in Jordan in 2016. Building on commitments made by the international community at the London Conference on Syria last year, the Jordanian government hopes to secure funding to increase access to tertiary education and vocational training at the upcoming conference in Brussels this April.

“Jordan views higher education from a strategic point of view, specifically in terms of providing the Syrian youth with the education, skill and knowledge that will allow the opportunity to be part of rebuilding their country once the current situation comes to an end,” says Feda Gharaibeh, Director, Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at the Jordanian Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation.

Reema plans to return to Syria when the war is over. “After graduation a lot of students want to go to Europe. That would be fine for me too if it’s just to do a masters or doctorate, but then I want to go back to Syria and use what I’ve learnt to help my people.” Now four semesters into her course, she is making good progress but says adapting to the Jordanian education system was a challenge. “It’s really difficult for us. Classes are taught in English and the teaching style is different. They also have a lot more exams here.”

Only the brightest stand a chance of securing a scholarship but many young Syrians have seen their grades plummet after missing years of schooling. For, some, it’s too late to catch up. Accountancy student Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, came to Jordan in 2013 with his younger brother Khalil, now 19, who works in a print shop. “He stopped studying when he was 14. He didn’t even have a chance to get his high school certificate,” says Ibrahim.

Attempts to bridge the gap through open and distance learning programmes aren’t always effective. “It’s not a tool that is frequently used in the education environment in the Middle East,” explains Arts. Refugee students' access to electricity, internet connections, computers and space to study can be in short supply. Moreover, many students seek the escapism that a university education offers. “In our dialogue with parents and students, we often hear the phrase ‘being normal again’,” Arts adds.

Hamzah tries to help fellow students achieve this in his role as representative for the Syrian community at Zarqa University. He and Reema are part of a team that offers advice to new students and support for those from poorer families living in the camps. “There are 900 Syrian students here and each one has a different story of suffering,” says Hamzah, who organises group trips to restaurants and fairgrounds, helping to create a sense of regular student life. “It makes us forget what we are,” explains Reema.

During term time, she prefers to stay with her uncle in Mafraq, a city nearby. It’s hard to study in Za’atari. As soon as the power comes on at 5pm, her brothers switch on the TV, making it difficult to concentrate in the cramped caravan they share. There’s nowhere else to go; the camp is dangerous at night, particularly for young women. It’s even more crowded since the arrival of her baby sister. Reema remembers how her mother sobbed when she learned of the pregnancy, worried about bringing another child into the makeshift world of the camp.

But in five years a lot has changed. “In Syria, I had never left my village; now I feel there is another world to know,” says Reema. Like many Syrian students, she worries about life after university, particularly if they stay in Jordan where employment opportunities remain restricted for Syrian refugees. “It seems like work is forbidden to us Syrians and without a job we can’t take control of our lives. We’re studying hard but with no prospects,” says Hamzah. Few can see beyond graduation. “The future is opaque for us,” he adds, “We’re just living day by day.”

To date, the Jordanian government has issued some 39,000 works permits out of the 200,000 it pledged to make available for Syrians during the London Conference last February. However, with these opportunities built around low-income roles, primarily in the construction, agriculture, and textile manufacture sectors, the way for Syrian university graduates in Jordan still seems barred.

“Jordan is a small country with limited job opportunities,” says Ghaith Rababah Head of Projects & International Cooperation Unit (PICU) at the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research. “Maybe the market will be better able to absorb educated Syrians at a later stage.”

In the meantime, higher education offers young Syrians a semblance of the security and stability their lives otherwise lack, Rababah continues. Given the opportunity to “use their talents for something good”, he adds, young people placed in difficult situations are less likely to fall prey to extremist ideologies and be “tricked into committing terrorist acts".