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Kings, Queens and Everything In-Between Photographs by Andrew Querner.

Kings, Queens and Everything In-Between

Men and women are only part of the equation. Sara Harowitz on the non-binary drag performers who are redefining gender.

THE STAGE AT 1181 IS SMALL, but then again, so is the person standing on it. Tucked away on Davie Street in Vancouver’s gay village, the tiny bar is packed as the first notes of Of Montreal’s “Id Engager” play over the sound system. Suddenly, Rose Butch bursts to life, mouth wrapping around the song’s first piercing OHHH YEAH. Rose pulses to every beat, fingers twirling into fists, arms bending into goal posts above a five-foot-three frame, and lip-syncs the words: Don’t wanna be your man, just wanna play with you. Rose is dressed in tight snakeskin pants, a tank top and a silky turquoise bomber with a swirly black “Rose” embroidered across the front. A blue flower crown is perched atop short, wavy brown hair; tonight’s makeup consists of pale powder, light pink lipstick, a raccoon mask of gold glitter, enormous false eyelashes and a moustache.

Halfway through the song, Rose moves off the stage and slinks along the bar’s glass wall. Someone from the audience presents a $5 bill—customary at drag shows—and Rose, in perfect time with the music, leans forward to grab it, arms shooting back and lips mouthing a climactic OHHH YEAH right in the man’s face.

Rose Butch is the drag persona of Rae Takei, who has quickly become a celebrated staple of the Vancouver scene. But Takei’s form of drag is not what most people picture when hearing the word: assigned female at birth, twenty-five-year-old Takei is non-binary, meaning their gender is outside the male-female dichotomy. For non-binary people, gender, rather than being one of two isolated islands, is something beyond and between them. (For this reason, many who identify as non-binary, Takei included, use the pronoun “they” instead of “he” or “she.”)

Instead of working within the traditional drag queen and king norms of performing as either male or female, Takei (and a growing group of others like them) offers something completely unique. Takei’s drag style is a mix of femme and macho, and they perform to songs sung by both men and women in a gender-bending mishmash of just about anything. Their costumes incorporate everything from fake chest hair and a beard to a pearl necklace and sparkly high heels. “It totally ended up being the best outlet of gender expression and creative expression,” Takei says. “I have a vision and I want to see it through.”

Queer issues are now part of the world’s collective consciousness in ways they have never been before. In 2015 alone, Ireland held a national referendum that legalized same-sex marriage, while the United States Supreme Court ruled it legal in every state; transgender icons Laverne Cox of Orange Is the New Black, and Caitlyn Jenner of Olympic and Keeping Up with the Kardashians fame, dominated North American pop culture. For the most part, though, our thinking surrounding gender still demands that you must either be man or woman—one or the other. In Vancouver’s drag scene, Takei and a host of other performers are bucking this binary, demonstrating that our outdated understanding of gender needs to evolve. Yes, gender includes men and women—but it can also encompass so much more.

BORN TO A WHITE MOTHER and a Japanese father, Takei grew up in Richmond, a suburb of Vancouver. They were raised devoutly religious, and were actively involved in their church, spending their adolescence as a Christian camp counsellor and youth leader. Even from a young age, though, Takei knew that there was something different about them. “I knew I was queer when I was thirteen,” they say. Instead of gravitating towards girls’ magazines, Takei asked to share their brother’s subscription to Breakaway, a Christian magazine aimed at boys. “My experience growing up doesn’t follow the trans narrative that is most often presented in the media, of ‘I always knew I was a boy or girl,’” they say. “I had a lot of curiosity about gender and gender roles and all of those expectations. I had a feeling that I didn’t fit into my assigned role.”

At the time, Takei didn’t have the words to describe what they felt—or know how to handle it. “I found these notebooks where I used to write down my prayers,” Takei recalls. “I used to write, ‘Please change me from this thing that I don’t like being.’” They wrote about feeling awkward and not belonging—they knew they stood out, and not in a positive way.

After high school, Takei enrolled in Vancouver’s Langara College, eventually transferring into its prestigious Studio 58 acting program. It was there that they publicly played with gender, performing a tap dance dressed in hot pink lingerie and a beard covered with flowers and bows. Classmates and instructors cheered and clapped; some even came up to Takei after, praising their performance. It was in their second year at Langara, when they were nineteen—the same year they left the church—that Takei learned about non-binary gender. “Then I was like, ‘Oh, that totally makes sense,’” they remember.

Everyone who identifies as non-binary takes their own meaning from the definition. “To me, having a non-binary gender means being both and neither and something completely different,” Takei explains. “My non-binary gender is not an absence of gender, it is not being free of gender.” Rather, they say, it is something unexplainable—something outside the prescribed boxes of male and female.

Takei officially came out as non-binary when they were twenty-one and started using “they” pronouns shortly after. While it took time for loved ones to get used to the terms, Takei says that they embraced the change. However, opening up to their college instructors proved more difficult. Takei wrote letters to all of their teachers explaining their pronouns and how they are comfortable being identified. Instructors were understanding but ultimately discouraging; they argued that Takei was not “female” enough for the female roles they were willing to play—a factor that would one day hurt their career. After all, what would they tell casting directors? There isn’t exactly a high demand for an actor who is outside of the traditional gender norms. Classes became a struggle. Though they had always dreamed of being an actor, Takei ultimately left the program after three semesters, transferring into theatre production.

After the move to working behind the scenes, Takei still felt the pull of the stage and started searching for a new way to express themselves in front of an audience. They had friends who did burlesque, but after some consideration, it didn’t seem like quite the right fit for them. And besides, something else had started to grab their attention: drag. Takei had been attending shows for a few years, but it wasn’t until seeing an artist named Ponyboy perform to Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself” in 2010 that Takei knew they wanted to try it. Takei was enthralled by the show, having never seen a drag king before. Though they knew that Ponyboy’s style of masculine performance was not exactly what they wanted to explore, the seed had been planted.

EVERY YEAR, EAST VANCOUVER QUEER CLUB the Cobalt hosts Mr./Miss Cobalt, one of the biggest drag competitions in the city. The winner, decided by the audience and a panel of judges after three rounds of performances, walks away with a slew of bookings and $500 cash.

In June 2013, Takei was sitting in the basement bedroom of their apartment, eyes glued to a YouTube video of that year’s winner, Tranapus Rex. In the clip, Tranapus is shirtless, performing to Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” in tight gold pants, a bright blue furry scarf, colourful beads, a twirly moustache and sparkly eye shadow. So far away, but still so near, the lights go on, the music dies. Tranapus bends down behind a box and re-emerges with gold-tassel-clad football shoulder pads, and, when the music surges to its peak, releases a stream of cards from the crotch of his pants. Transfixed, Takei watched the video again and again. “Tranapus’ playful aesthetic was inspirational in that I could see it making room for the kind of drag that I wanted to do,” they say. “His success made me very hopeful.”

Takei made their own drag debut in March 2014, after their friend Molly Sjerdal expressed an interest in performing. Takei and Sjerdal decided to take the plunge together at the Cobalt’s amateur night. “[Sjerdal] was like, ‘I want to be a drag queen but I’m not a boy,’ and I said, ‘You should just do it,’” Takei remembers. “So she has this drag queen persona and I have this drag thing persona and we put a number together to ‘Verbatim’ by Mother Mother.” They decided that Sjerdal, whose drag name is Grimm, would lip-sync lead singer Ryan Guldemond’s part, while Takei would do the back-up vocals. The day of their drag debut, Takei was busy cleaning up after a show they had stage managed. All through work, they kept thinking of their upcoming performance: the lyrics, the dance moves. Suddenly, in walked the band that would be using the space next: Mother Mother. “I was like, ‘It’s a fucking sign!’” Takei recalls.

There was a small crowd at the Cobalt that night, mostly friends of the performers, but everyone cheered when Takei and Sjerdal took the stage. “It was so rewarding, and also a relief that we had done it and that other people liked it,” Takei says. They ended up winning the amateur night, and with drag fully pounding through their system, Takei started performing at Man Up, the Cobalt’s monthly anything-goes drag spectacle.

Takei already had their drag name picked by the time they walked on stage for their first performance. There was no big ah-ha! moment when they selected it; rather, Takei played it over in their head, carefully considering the words. They said it aloud a few times, too, making sure it sounded right: Rose Butch. Ultimately, Takei felt it encompassed the kind of art they had set out to make. That sort of thoughtfulness and careful consideration is perhaps where Rae Takei differs most from Rose Butch. “I think that Rae second guesses themselves a lot more than Rose does,” Takei says. “Everything is easier for Rose to do: to be more sexy and feminine, which is something that were I to do as Rae, I would be really worried about people reading me or reading that presentation in a way that I didn’t want them to. But when Rose does it, Rose doesn’t give a fuck—they’re just doing their own thing.” That being said, Rose did not waltz on stage fully formed on day one; like Takei, the persona has grown over time and continues to evolve. “The last thing that I want to do with drag is to be stagnant,” Takei says. “I never want to get stuck in a pattern.”

DURING ENGLAND’S ELIZABETHAN ERA, audiences watching a Shakespeare play at the Globe Theatre witnessed an early kind of drag performance. Women were not allowed on stage, so male actors were assigned female roles. Fast forward to the early 1900s and there was Julian Eltinge, a famous American female impersonator who eventually had his own magazine and line of women’s cosmetics. Drag queens as we know them today began to emerge in the 1950s and many were active in New York’s pivotal 1969 Stonewall riots, which started when police raided a popular gay bar.

Back then, the dominant style of drag was indicative of Old Hollywood: fur, mermaid dresses, flashy earrings. It wasn’t until the 1980s that drag as an art form really took off, with an aesthetic of long, sparkly gowns and big, flowing hair. This popularity was largely thanks to household names such as Lady Bunny, who created Wigstock, a New York drag festival that started in 1985 and ran for more than two decades, and, of course, the most famous queen of all: RuPaul.

RuPaul saw immense success in the eighties and nineties, catapulting drag into the mainstream with acting gigs and a talk show. After going back underground in the early 2000s (something RuPaul has said reflected Americans’ regressive attitudes post-9/11), drag has resurged once again. There is even a popular TV show, RuPaul’s Drag Race, a sort of America’s Next Top Model for drag queens. (Takei is a dedicated viewer.)

But for all the gains that it has made through exploring gender, conventional drag still leaves room for improvement. Paige Frewer (who, performing as Ponyboy, inspired Takei to take up the art) says that customary drag—when a man dresses up as a woman or vice versa—can actually confirm the male-female binary. Drag needed to start there, Frewer says, but they are happy to see the new wave of performers—Takei included—progressing beyond that stationary definition. “The shift that we’ve seen in the last several years [is] around gender and trans issues moving more to the forefront of people’s awareness, and younger generations of queers in particular bringing radically progressive notions of [the] many genders that can be,” Frewer says. “Non-binary is bringing new meaning to drag.” It is through the art that people are able to see that gender exists on a spectrum.

WHEN TAKEI IS NOT PERFORMING, they manage a trendy East Vancouver ice cream shop, wear next to no makeup and dress mostly in dark colours—the polar opposite of flashy Rose Butch. “It feels like there are two people in my closet,” they say. “Black, dark clothes and then all these bright pink patterns.”

Takei is shy, quiet and thoughtful, always pausing to think instead of rushing to an answer. Like many performers, though, they transform on stage. “I don’t wear heels every day but I put on platform stilettos and feel so powerful,” they say. “All of these exuberant, bright, campy, sexy, confident parts of myself have a very specific outlet.”

A lot of work goes into every Rose Butch performance: Takei takes time to listen to every song, making sure they know all the words and musical nuances. Each number is choreographed and rehearsed at home—sometimes just for a few days, other times for a month—and costume prep often involves a hot glue gun (and in the early days, burnt fingers). Takei learned some makeup tricks from friends, but is mostly self-taught. When Rose Butch emerges, they are fierce, confident and playful. Their audience? Enchanted.

Drag is, after all, a creative expression—an art—just like any other. Though performers wear extravagant costumes and boisterous makeup, what they leave on stage is often a reflection of true self. And while their reasons for getting into drag were largely personal, Takei and their drag persona have become something of a beacon for others who are non-binary. “When I started doing drag it was just for me and for my own self-expression,” Takei says. But now they see how their work has affected others, offering a visible example of someone to relate to: “I’ve received messages from people who aren’t even in Vancouver saying, ‘Thank you for existing, thank you for doing the kind of drag that you do.’”

STANDING AT THE BAR OF THE EMERALD, a Vegas-style supper club in Vancouver’s Chinatown, Takei asks for an old fashioned. While waiting for their drink, dressed in their usual black T-shirt and dark pants, up walks a man in a fedora. He turns to Takei. “What ya drinking?” he asks. Takei stiffens and answers bluntly: “Alcohol.” The man, ignoring a clear cue from someone who doesn’t want to talk, launches into a rant about how Takei must need to feel like an “independent woman” to buy “her” own drinks—he was only trying to be nice, the man explains, and now “she” won’t get a free drink after all, so take that. Takei’s cocktail arrives and they snatch it up, heading back to their table without another word.

Misgendering, which happens when someone is referred to by the wrong pronoun, is a common occurrence for people who are gender variant. It can happen during a conversation, or in denying a person entry to a gender-specific washroom. It happens to Takei every day, but they say it used to sting a lot more than it does now. “Before, if I were to be misgendered in public, especially in front of people who knew about my pronouns or gender whatever, it would really take me out of the situation and upset me,” they say. “Now I shrug it off and move on—sometimes I make a joke out of it—but it does still hurt a little. It can feel like a little reminder that people don’t take me seriously, that they don’t think that my gender or pronouns are real.”

After Takei came out, they spent a lot of time explaining to others what it means to be non-binary. For them, though, understanding how one person could exist between two poles came naturally, a result of their mixed-race upbringing. Still, they have encountered the odd person who, upon learning about their gender and pronouns, scoffs at them: Are you serious? Oh, you’re one of those people? When that happens, Takei simply answers: Yes, I am.

According to Jamaal Von Parker, a gender-fluid contortionist who performs under the name Vixen Von Flex, one way to avoid offending someone is simply to inquire about their preferences. “I think a big [issue] for a lot of performers who are not necessarily trans is that people assume that we are, or they really won’t believe we’re not,” Von Parker says. “I think a lot of problems going on with gender have to do with people using the wrong pronouns, or not understanding what people prefer, or they just don’t know, which can be really hurtful.” Von Parker, who uses whichever gender pronouns feel right in the moment, says people need to become more sensitive in this area by asking someone how they are comfortable being addressed instead of guessing or going with the mainstream norm based on appearance.

Though non-binary gender has existed for years in queer communities (and long before: ancient Greek mythology references androgyny, with many figures described has having both male and female features and characteristics), it is still considered new—even radical—in the larger public consciousness. Consequently, those who identify on the non-binary spectrum still have to fight for acceptance and awareness. Online, non-binary people have been accused of being part of a fad or trend; of “choosing” to be that way; of identifying as such for attention; of wanting to destroy the idea of gender for others; of being confused.

Ayesha Kanani is a non-binary person who works with youth at Qmunity, a Vancouver-based queer and trans resource centre. They say that insults against their gender are common. “Not identifying with how you’re assigned at birth and how you’re raised is a tough thing to experience—you’re constantly having to assert yourself and who you are, and people often don’t want to listen,” Kanani says. They say that non-binary people do not want to limit their access to society or face possible mistreatment whenever they leave the house. “I experience a lot of aggressive behaviour from people who don’t like that they can’t place me, or when they want me to stop being who I am,” Kanani says. “It’s usually on the bus or street: people stare aggressively, make jokes or act like they might confront me. The threat of physical violence is always there.”

According to a study conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, people identifying as off the traditional gender spectrum can face equal or greater violence and discrimination compared to transgender men and women. Their 2008 survey of more than six thousand Americans concluded that genderqueer people were 7 percent more likely to suffer a physical assault, 10 percent more likely to face police harassment and 9 percent more likely to avoid healthcare treatment for fear of discrimination. (The term non-binary is often interchanged with genderqueer.)

Society is slowly changing, though, and improvements are being made more and more often. In Vancouver, the city’s school board updated its sexual orientation and gender identities policy in 2014 to allow students to be called by their chosen name and pronoun, as well as use gender-neutral washrooms; in addition, if a child is experimenting with gender, the school is not obligated to inform their parents. (This controversial move was met with backlash from some parents and observers, who claim the policy violates students’ privacy rights and undermines parents’ authority.) Vancouver City Council also passed a motion in 2013 to create gender-neutral washrooms in parks and recreational centres, and in 2015, an East Vancouver pool launched a trans-inclusive public swim.

But there is still the argument that, in most cities, any gains made for the queer community conform to the basic man-woman duality, leaving non-binary people behind. This disregard for certain voices was addressed by Alok Vaid-Menon in an October 2015 article for the Guardian. “Our culture still holds an ingrained suspicion of gender nonconformity, as if people like me exist solely to deceive and harm others,” Vaid-Menon wrote. “I remember all the times I have been called a freak, an ‘it’ and ugly. To refuse to participate in the gender binary—the idea that there are only ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ which exist in opposition—is to be considered a monster.” Vaid-Menon, who feels most comfortable wearing a skirt and a beard, suggests that “the rest of us—whose identities are more fluid, more difficult for strangers to comprehend and relate to—may not be visible in media but are more noticeable on the streets,” which could explain why non-binary people can feel particularly vulnerable to violence and discrimination. It is a classic case of the public being afraid of what it doesn’t know or understand. In a society that loves putting people into boxes, neatly lined up and defined, the non-binary community is pushing down all four walls and charging into the empty space.

THIS PAST MAY, two years after watching Tranapus Rex’s winning Mr./Miss Cobalt performance on repeat, Rose Butch stands on that same stage and competes in that same contest. For their final number—“Bulletproof” by La Roux—Rose sports sparkly gold eye shadow, a moustache, chest hair, and a pair of football shoulder pads embellished with gold and silver studs, gems, and, scattered throughout, white roses. It is their silent (albeit aesthetically loud) toast to Tranapus. The audience—people who identify as homosexual, heterosexual, male, female, bisexual, transgender, asexual, non-binary, gender-fluid and more—goes wild as Rose tears up the stage. In the middle of the crush, Molly Sjerdal watches her friend and weeps. Afterwards, Rose—the most adventurous (and smallest) contestant—is crowned the winner.

The champion of the contest usually goes by either Mr. or Miss Cobalt, depending on their gender identity. Takei chooses to go by both. Rose Butch is dubbed “Mistermiss Cobalt”—the first to carry both prefixes. And that distinction is essential: a Rose by any other name would not smell as sweet.