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.

NICHOLAS KAMM / Staff
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Blow-dried and supplicant, Ivanka shows the limits of the power women are allowed in Trumpworld

A new book by the US President’s daughter has surpisingly strong echoes of medieval royalty.

Exactly 500 years ago this month, the apprentices of London rose up, ­angry with Flemish immigrants and the bankers of Lombard Street. The race riot was quelled only when a couple of dukes sent in their private armies. Hundreds of looters were arrested and some were hanged, drawn and quartered. But some rioters were as young as 13 and the city’s residents felt sorry for them.

Henry VIII wanted to look magnanimous, but not weak. And so, at the trial in Westminster Hall on 7 May, ­Cardinal Wolsey first asked for mercy on the youngsters’ behalf. He was refused.

And then three women came forward: Henry’s queen, Catherine of Aragon, and his sisters Mary and Margaret, the widowed queens of France and Scotland. Faced with three women on their knees, the king relented. “It was a scene straight from the pages of chivalry,” writes Sarah Gristwood in her history of Renaissance women and power, Game of Queens. “An intercessory function, of course, had been traditional for queens, from the biblical Esther and Bathsheba to the Virgin Mary.”

Whenever contemporary politics gets too depressing, I take refuge in history. I always hope I will gain some perspective from people whose problems are very different from my own. Yes, climate change is terrifying; but at least I don’t have scrofula! Yet modern life has a way of creeping back. Late-medieval Europe was full of resentment for “aliens”, for example, who were felt to be prospering at the expense of native populations, even if those tensions were often expressed in religious rather than nationalist terms. It was Catherine of Aragon’s parents, Isabella and Ferdinand, who expelled all Jews from Spain in 1492.

Nonetheless, I was surprised to find such strong echoes of medieval royalty in Ivanka Trump’s new book, Women Who Work. I won’t waste your time by attempting to review this seminal tome, especially as it’s largely constructed out of bits of other self-help books. The advice boils down to: be “multi-dimensional”; don’t be afraid to use “architect” as a verb; feel free to turn down Anna Wintour, when she offers you a job at Vogue straight out of university, because your true passion is real estate. If it’s a busy time at work, as it was for Ivanka on the campaign trail, go into “survival mode”. (“Honestly,” she writes, “I wasn’t treating myself to a massage or making much time for self-care.”) Something for everyone.

Still, Women Who Work gave me the chance to contemplate the point of Ivanka Trump. I’ve seen her far more than I have heard her, which is no surprise, as her role in the administration is largely symbolic. What is Ivanka if not a Renaissance queen, tearfully pleading with her lord to show mercy? She is, we are told, his conscience. When his daughter’s clothing line was dropped by the US retailer Nordstrom in February, Trump tweeted: “My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom. She is a great person – always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!”

Two months later, her name was invoked again. The First Daughter was distraught – “heartbroken and outraged”, she tweeted – at the sight of Syrian children gassed by the Assad regime. This prompted her father to bomb an airbase to atone for the slaughter of what his statement referred to as “beautiful babies”. “Ivanka is a mother of three kids and she has influence,” her brother Eric told the Telegraph. “I’m sure she said: ‘Listen, this is horrible stuff.’”

This is the power that women are granted in Trumpworld: softening, humanising, empathetic. Their tears moisten the oak-like carapace of great leaders, showing them that sometimes it’s OK to be kind – but obviously not too kind, because that’s a bit soppy and girly and gay. Women are naturally prone to emotion, of course, unlike sturdy, ­rational men, who get so cross about the way TV news is reporting their firing of the FBI director that they start sending unhinged tweets implying they have incriminating “tapes” of White House conversations.

In this structure, however, the limits of women’s power are sharply circumscribed. The tears of both Ivanka and Catherine of Aragon only provided cover for something that their lord and master wanted to do anyway. (As New York magazine urged acidly on 13 April, “Someone Please Show Ivanka Pictures of Starving Yemeni Children”.) Ivanka’s whole book is designed to render female power unthreatening by making it “feminine”; merely a complement to male power instead of a challenge to it.

To reassure us that she isn’t some frumpy bluestocking, Ivanka has crafted an image of expensive, time-consuming perfection: perfect white teeth, perfect blow-dried hair, perfectly toned body. Her make-up, clothes and home are all styled in unobtrusive neutrals. Together it says: let me in the room and I promise not to be a nuisance or take up too much space, even on the colour wheel. It’s noticeable that no woman in Trump’s orbit has “let herself go”, even though his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has the complexion of a body that’s been found after two weeks in the water. I somehow doubt he ever makes “time for self-care”.

And don’t come at me with all that garbage about a nice frock and a manicure being “empowering”. Look at Donald Trump, the one with his own military: he has a fat arse and uses Sellotape to hold his ties in place. A president is allowed to have appetites – for women, for food, for power. His supplicant daughter gets to peddle platitudes about how you should “bond with your boss”. (Being a blood relative helps, although, sadly, Women Who Work is silent on what to do if he also fancies you.)

Is this how far we’ve come in 500 years? Ivanka Trump might try to sell herself as a modern woman, but her brand of female power is positively medieval.

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 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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