On my way to the most recent Albionfaeries Summer Solstice Gathering, on a train somewhere between Gloucester and Bristol, an idea struck me for something I could contribute during the week. I wanted to host a drag workshop.
Personally, I have a chequered past with drag and gender aspecting. I can recall when I was around 9 years old and going through my “Adam Ant phase” my Mother gave me a Cadbury’s Roses tin of makeup to go and play with. I have a vague memory of a couple of years previous to that, in The Body Shop standing next to my Mother again, dumbstruck as a man applied lipstick in the shop mirror.
However, as with most other little gay boys my survival instinct kicked in and it was time to hide such little acts of fabulosity away from prying and judgemental eyes. Also the media of the time decried those who did not adhere to the heteronormative model as perverts and freaks. Like so many of us, I took this message to heart and tried to distance myself from the world of wigs and frocks.
To me, there was an expectation that meant if you were gay you had to wear a dress. I was going to rebel against that, even if it meant conforming to established gender norms as hard as I could! Ah, the folly of the young. But this stayed firmly in place for many long years. Sure, I loved RuPaul as when I was younger, especially the year Chanel 4 had Camp Christmas, including her Christmas Special and Quentin Crisp’s Alternative Queens Message. But that wasn’t me. Even though I adored the likes of Rocky Horror, Priscilla and To Wong Foo, even Stonewall, it was more as a guilty pleasure, or at the very least as a spectator. During my years involved in local LGBT events and services I knew a few of our local Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence but I never really understood the call to personally engage in drag as me (with the sole and fleeting exception of Rocky Horror at the Edinburgh Playhouse, aged 17).
It was only under the gossamer wing of a rather loud, loving and misunderstood dutch drag queen Faerie that my ideas were challenged and altered. He taught me the humility that is the bedrock beneath the bravado. Once I saw the person behind the mask I could understand the power of the mask as a ritual tool.
It is most accurate to say that I do not present a feminine visage. Androgyny is beyond my repertoire. I am 100% bear and resigned to it.
However, these past few years, I have been exploring the world of gender dress-up as an expression of my faerieness and queerness. At the wedding of two dear friends this month I was Drag Mother of the Bride. I packed more frocks than t-shirts for my last gathering.
Not being one of the pretty queens gives me a freedom that I’ve only just discovered. Again, the faeries who have tread paths in heels or barefoot have inspired me. The ones who sought out the most vile taffeta monstrosities, the longest string of pearls and the biggest docker boots they could find. The faeries whose wardrobe for a week-long gathering is 2 scarves (and that’s only in case the first scarf blows away). The ones in figure-hugging dresses and no knickers, thin fabric showing off their cocks. With them to guide me, I can engage with drag without the requirement of having to try and look femme, or to “pass”.
Drag is a historically potent symbol in Radical Faeries, representing the reclaiming of the sissy energy, the staunch refusal to engage in the heteronormative constructs of the outer world and healing that little inner boy who just wanted to play and dress up but wasn’t allowed to freely. From the outcast queer street kids to the Native American Two Spirits, the idea of drag as a means to escape an imposed identity and to transcend into something wonderful and other-than, not less-than. I love seeing images of Harry Hay at marches and events with what I see as Faerie Drag, button down shirt with a skirt and pearls.
Early on in the gathering Wild Boar asked me about where we could set up a drag room for the gathering. We took some time to think of the best location and while we were mulling it over I asked if he would like to co-host the workshop, knowing his strengths are wildly different from mine but we complement each other well. His exuberance and playfulness is well set against my introspection and need for structure.
I explained that the workshop I’d created was designed for Faeries who might have some issues with drag, like my own from the past, or perhaps different. We would start with a discussion, look at what items we liked, have a show and tell, maybe even try things on if everything went well. He was on board and once we had the room set up we held the workshop.
This was not to be a how-to, with perfect make-up tips, contouring, padding, lashes and all the wonderful resources available through the likes of youtube. The idea was simple – how can we make drag more accessible and joyous for everyone?
We shared our stories and discussed obstacles we’ve encountered, both external and internally – questions around inclusion and gender, size, attraction, families, expectations of others. One Faerie told of how he would be repulsed sexually if a man was in drag, how he had never done it and couldn’t. Another hadn’t done drag in years, since he was much younger but had lost it somewhere along the way.
We brought all of our niggling insecurities and confusions into the open, shared without any shame and supported each other, as we tend to do. This is our process and it works.
Before long I invited everyone to find an item in the drag room that appealed to them and then we could look at it together, find the beauty and the tackiness, look at colours and textures. The idea being that a tactile and appreciative experience could then bridge into trying things on.
Within minutes we leapt merrily over a couple of stages and I couldn’t have stopped people trying things on if I had wanted to! All the mutual support that was needed was on-hand, whether that was offering encouragement or accessories, helping to find the perfect dress, dispensing cuddles or the great sari emergency that befuddled the best of us.
It is one of the most treasured memories I’m taking from this gathering. A room full of people showing off, becoming extroverted and fearless, transforming together in a carefree and communal way. We then hived off into other areas of the gathering, spreading our energy and enthusiasm with us, earning more admirers as we went.
Faerie Drag Power for me is about playfulness, empowerment, creativity and challenging norms. These are deeply fey values that enrich our experiences not just of gatherings but life too.
For anyone wishing to connect with some of the more queer political applications of drag, I recommend Men In Frocks (Kirk, Heath – Gay Mens Press, 1984). The chapter on the Rad Drag Queens that emerged from London’s Gay Liberation Front in the 70 may prove helpful reading for those who view drag as inherently misogynistic. For an exploration of drag throughout history and on a global scale, try The Changing Room (Senelick – Routledge, 2000). It’s about more than just Drag Race, hunties – crack a book occasionally. Then come back with a 700 word essay on the Cockettes.
So it’s been just over a week since I heaved my rucksack onto my back, kissed/hugged some new found friends goodbye and tearily made my way back to civilisation. After what was one of the most cathartic and honest experiences of my life.
Due to prior commitments, the last seven days have been wildly different to the previously wonderful 4.5 days spent on that great farm in Glastonbury. The very next day I was surrounded by about 300 other gays at a pool-party for Sitges Pride. For the first time in my life I’m actually enjoying the spectacle of it all and not feeling body shamed or self-conscious. Followed the next day by a BBQ with a bunch of old friends who’ve recently come back into my life, and I realised I have very much missed. Then I easyjetted it over to the beautiful city of Rome – for a week’s crash course on people and crisis management. Strange but true.
It is in that great Italian city, where I am now, in a cute little Air bnb flat, just off the beautiful Plaza Cavour – where about an hour ago, I felt compelled to commit some thoughts to paper. Due to the cancellation of one of my friends’ flights I have found myself alone in Rome this weekend, with only my wits to keep me company. Not such a wise thing sometimes.
Today having spent the afternoon walking around the stunning city, whilst marvelling at the remnants of 3000 years of human endeavour, something fundamental happened for me. Something within me shifted and like the parting of the curtain within the emerald city, I suddenly could see the truth of the old man behind the illusion of the Wizard. Stick with me friends of Dorothy, you will see what I mean.
Since my departure from the land of the Faeries I have been getting these sweet little after-shocks of emotional realization, that can and have hit me out of the blue. One such aftershock hit me today, and it nearly knocked my off my feet. For the truth of it was so strong and clear that I had to steady myself. It was something I have known for many years, but have never, ever been able to give it voice or shape before.
I hate myself or rather, I am racked with self-loathing. It is like a cloak of shadow that I have wound so tightly around my soul that it is always with me. It consumes me. It shapes how I see, feel and perceive the world around me. It provides me with vitriol that I use against myself and against all those whom I can target – in a bid to make my shadow-self feel better.
I am only just realising this, only today have I seen this truth for what it is. There is a part of me that hates myself so much, it would actually happily see me destroyed. This revelation was so strong that I almost had an out-of-body experience. I felt, for a while, as though I was outside myself, looking at a strange being inhabiting my own body, someone/something that I didn’t recognise or like. Or to put it another way, I felt how I imagine the perpetually handsome Dorian Gray would have felt each and every time he lifted the cover from the painting, to see how truly ugly it had become. Somehow separate and distinct from the ugliness – yet still one and the same with it.
Then a second thought hit me.
Why have hated I myself and for how long? Why did this start? Then a third.
When did this start? When did I first look in the mirror and only see my faults? The answer is that I don’t know and I never want to know. A very, very LONG time. Almost for as long as I can remember.
Then I thought about how these thoughts manifested. What I had heard the voice in my head say to me, over and over again:
My eyes are too deeply set! My brow too Neanderthal! My stomach is too big! My nose too wide! My legs too thin! My hairline too low…On and on I went, listing the ways the negative voice could always find fault, when all others saw something completely different.
All were very real thoughts I have entertained, things I have said to myself repeatedly, building up a mental image of myself as some sort of missing link in the chain of human evolution. Somewhere between Neanderthal and homo-sapien, but even less attractive.
And then all at once, a new realisation hit. All of this was total and utter BOLLOCKS. These were untruths, negative opinions of myself. With no basis in reality and no evidence for their existence. Bullshit and rubbish I have been carrying around with me for far too long.
The negative thoughts/voices – whatever you want to call them, have been so loud, for so long that they have shaped me. NO that word isn’t strong enough. RESTRAINED me. Forced me into contorted, twisted shapes that were uncomfortable and unnatural to me.
I stoop, because I feel I am too tall. And thus I now have rounded shoulders and a painful lower back. I breath in because my stomach sticks out – which it would do if I stoop. On and on these thoughts have taken physical and emotional manifestations that have become so overpowering that I nearly lost all sense of self in the vortex of negativity.
Jesus H Christ! This has even destroyed my love life and my relationships. I am too scared to talk to people I am attracted to for fear they will see an ugly wretch, barely worthy of their contempt – when this frankly isn’t true. Then, even with those whom I am not entirely attracted to but want to try to connect with, I become so self-conscious – that they can only see someone who is nervous, agitated and clearly not happy in themselves, so they run for the trees.
Well, enough is enough. This is bullshit and I can now see it for what it is. It genuinely does feel as though the exploitative old man, whispering negative thoughts from behind the curtain has been exposed, and now I know he is there I have vowed to destroy him. No longer will I listen to such crap about myself.
I know I am fairly good-looking. I know this as I have been told it many, many a time, and have always shrugged it off. Well from now on, I shall accept that compliment in the manner that it was intended and not recoil from it, as though someone had poked me in the eye with a hot branding iron. So when I look in the mirror I will see what is there. I may not be perfect, but I am happy and that suits me just fine!
I know I am respected in my job and career. I actually have the awards / accolades and experience to prove that. So old man, nothing you can say can / will take that away from me.
I also know I am strong, for over my 39 years, I have survived many different trials. Not only those that are caused by the chaos that is external life. But battles that have raged within, those created by the thoughts / feelings of self-loathing. For here I stand, at 39 years of age discovering myself, liking myself, and growing into a much stronger, happier me.
Last week I found a new me. A confident me. A me that I can see myself truly becoming. So I am owning that new me. Today I am WOLF. WOLF is a work in progress. But WOLF is happy and there is no self-loathing here.
WOLF is Giles. Giles is WOLF. The two will always be one. But WOLF is the good, positive, strong Giles. The real Giles, not the shadow self – the shadow self is dead!
Thanks Faeries. You don’t know the gift you have given me. The gift of freedom, it was only 4 days, but such an important four days.
This year, as part of the Albion Faeries summer solstice celebrations, a circle of courageous faeries came together to share our experiences of embodiment: to talk about how our body issues; anxieties, fears, comparisons, resentments and projections shape our experience of the world, our intimacies and relationships.
Our circle was well attended by a diversity of bodies vis a vis size, shape and age: slim and skinny, big and wholesome, young and old. Our collective was mostly white, mostly male and cisgender – but also genderqueer.
We recognised the lack of representation by our female, trans, black and brown brothers and sisters and honoured their unique experiences. We hope our thoughts and process help initiate further circles where all bodies; their histories, narratives and futures can be held and welcomed, seen and heard, loved and supported.
We set out our space with love and intention and our facilitator encouraged discussion around a number of talking points. As an introduction, participants were invited to reflect on why they had come to the workshop:
Why are we here? What moved you individually about the workshop title? What particular feelings and / or grievances do you have about you body that you want to share and / or understand?
Each individual was given space for five minutes to talk around this opening point. A variety of experiences / trauma / conflicts and reflections were offered. Some of us had experienced serious accidents and had been left with the pain and insecurities of scars and surgeries. Some of us, perceived as ‘not having body issues’, felt silenced, unheard and isolated in our pain; not ‘taken seriously’ by others about our anxieties and fears. Some of us were confused by our bodies and by others bodies too – feeling like the body and the symbolism around the ‘preferred’ and ‘body beautiful’ were barriers to finding connection and relationships. Most of us felt dismayed at the pervasiveness of such notions, feeling that even ‘spiritual’ and ‘queer’ communities were just as afflicted and affected by such exclusion and reductivism.
Some of us disliked particular areas of our bodies: our bellies, our faces, our stretch marks, acne, teeth, gums, varicose veins, grey hair and general appearance. Some of us felt a little resentful that just as we were embarking on newly discovered queer-trajectories and callings, our bodies betrayed us by ageing and becoming less appealing to those seeking out the youthful body, the adonis or its non-binary equivalent.
How does it feel to inhabit a body that doesn’t conform to mainstream prescriptions of beauty and allure? How does it feel to be disenchanted / depressed or resentful of your own body when it or parts of it feel ‘ugly’ or are sick and weak? How does this affect our lives and relationships?
This section was timed at around 10-15mins and was an open session with people volunteering reflections and insights. Here we uncovered a great sense of awareness and mourning around the painful experience of being in the world with a body that doesn’t ‘match up’ or that ‘plays up’. Some of us spoke of entertaining a love / hate duality with our bodies; recognising and appreciating its potency, capability and inherent beauty but feeling resentful of its ‘shortfalls’ and ‘weaknesses’. Some of us described the act of recoiling from others touch or interest – literally flinching at the approach of another body or intimate encounter. And also of second guessing and being suspicious of the others intentions: the internal narrative of ‘they’re not really interested’, or ‘I’m not enough’.
The common experience here was on of inadequacy, which was referenced continuously. Some of us spoke of an energetic experience of ‘closing inwards’ or ‘closing down’, a ‘shrinking feeling’ and a ‘peeling back’ from the world; a clammy fear of being seen and avoiding the gaze of others.
In times of complete disillusionment with our bodies, some of us spoke of adopting an asexual energy and position as a defensive strategy: ‘no one wants it anyway honey, so put it away’. Our natural impulses toward sexuality and intimacy were denied through fear of rejection or having to expose a body that we felt interminably shameful about. Some of us spoke about wanting to just disappear, to be invisible – in humour (but also, in deadly seriousness), some of us spoke of the magic trick of invisibility accompanying a visit to a gay bar, when the affected gaze of the audience to only detect certain bodies, denied the existence of our own.
We all blamed our bodies at some point for all kinds of events and misfortunes: ‘if only my body would do or be such and such, then such and such would be easier’. As a result, at times when our bodies needed the most compassion, in times of ill health or disease, we confessed to subjecting them to all manner of insults and scolding for their ‘lack of perfection’.
Ultimately, all of these experiences converged to instil in us an unbearable low self-esteem. Some of us were so distraught by our embodiment, that we actively retreated into disembodiment, or of taking notions of the energetic body to extremes by inhabiting them as a defensive alternative to being our bodies as material.
Some of us reflected on how all kinds of sexual practices and fetishes were explored as a way of coping with having a different body: how swim wear, leather and sports gear (not exhaustive) allow us to engage sexually and provocatively but to also hide our skins (well, at least partially). The significance of the dark-room in gay sex spaces was not lost on us.
Finally, we closed our section in realising how, whilst being so neurotic in our fear of rejection from others, we spend most of our waking day rejecting our embodied selves.
Where do our body anxieties stem from? Whose idealistic and normative prescriptions of the body are we trying to live up to? And where do they come from?
This section ran for another 10-15mins and was another open session. The intention here was to grasp some of the social factors that inform and influence the context for our bodies and our experience of them.
An interesting insight was into our similar experience as queers as growing up in a straight (white) man’s world: and how, our bodies would ‘betray’ us from an early age, appearing too effeminate or not masculine enough. This would provide the early context for a deep distrust of our bodies and sow the seeds for our delight or retreat into disembodiment. Or perhaps our love of costume and drag – to hide our skins of shame. Our ‘bodies as betrayal’ extends to the bodies expression of natural sexual interest and expression too – how we psychically punish our bodies as youngsters for exhibiting arousal for our same-sex attractors. Shame was recognised as a common emotion and experience for us all and a primary factor in distorting our own body-image.
Some of us commented on the unrealistic portrayals of the body in the media and in fashion especially. Some of us had worked specifically in this industry and reassured everyone of how much of a hot mess models look before being pampered, preened and photoshopped. All of us recognised the damaging effects of this propaganda. All of us felt beleaguered by the trend of a new style for assessing the validity and worth of bodies on ‘the scene’ by ‘rating them’. How our magnificence and complexity had now been reduced to two, three or four stars if-you-should-be-so-lucky.
Many of us felt this phenomena to be fascinating and relevant in the context of our capitalist and consumer culture: how our bodies have been reduced to commodities and forced to operate by the instrumental and transactional logic of capitalism. Dating apps like Grindr have only confounded this problem: we now ‘shop for cock’ and scroll menus of flesh completely disembodied from their human and spiritual realities. Grindr is commodity-fetishism at its zenith.
Further, categorisations and labeling of our bodies (most predominately on that gay scene) excluded those that aren’t deemed to fit and further inflamed the commodification frenzy of them. Not to mention, the fact that the idea of the solid, smooth, athletic body of prowess that is the now everywhere standard, especially within our LGBTQI communities, leaves no room for the visibility and compassion for bodies affected and depleted by a whole spectrum of social issues that affect us disproportionately (chronic and mental health conditions, drug abuse, domestic violence, homelessness and poverty etc).
Some of us commented on how the lack of representation of bodies that are different from the mainstream accepted and celebrated types only bolsters our collective desensitization to bodies deemed ‘other’ or ‘out of control’. In particular, categorisations and labeling of our bodies (most predominately on the gay scene) excluded those that aren’t deemed fit and / or desirable and further inflame the commodification frenzy of them.
It was agreed that the situation has reached fever pitch: an ever narrowing self-perpetuating cycle of exclusion and shame accompanies the media-orgy and fetishisation of the body beautiful. We all acknowledged that non of us belonged to any such ‘boys club’ – and yet recognized that whilst those bodies weren’t represented amongst us, how their particular body issues were unique, significant and valid in their own right.
Yet, even in a state of some prescribed ‘non-perfection’, sickness or ill-health – what do our bodies allow? What are our bodies really, beyond biased and corrupt notions of beauty, capability and worth?
Another ten minute open session. Here we discussed ideas of what the body signified or represented ‘authentically’ (to us as disruptive, open-minded and spiritual queers). Here we enjoyed the notion that our bodies were vessels / vehicles / platforms from which to enjoy and celebrate the world and each other. Beyond the above reductivism, we smiled at our bodies as conferring gifts and abilities, such as our innate drive for creativity: our small circle for example, boasted dancers, gardeners, writers, artists, healers, actors, singers and songwriters, musicians and poets.
We agreed that our bodies, ultimately, are vehicles for connection, for love and intimacy and for building community – the notion that disability, disease or a failure to achieve or possess a certain body type should disqualify us from such bounty, are abstract and destructive concepts born of an abstract and destructive culture.
Some of us enjoyed the idea, inspired by our own journeying with medicine plants and otherwise, that our bodies are but magnificent containers for our consciousness. That what we perceive as individuality is a confusion and a distraction – that this is a momentary, transient and permeable experience: consciousness is eternal and our embodied lives are an experience. We rested together in the miracle and awesomeness of our bodies, the mystery and mystical nature of them. We found solace in reconnecting with their fundamental interdependence with and interconnection with the world around us – how our lives are a perfect symbiosis from the microbial and beyond.
We encouraged together a sense of gratefulness for this realisation and reflected at how easily these understandings were forgotten in the nexus of bodily-symbolic violence and commodification. We connected with the promise of our bodies for our personal development – our facing of fears, our learning and our embracing of the strange, unknown and of each other. We took refuge in the ability of our bodies to transform and for us to act upon our bodies in the pursuit of our personal transformations. A touching story came to the circle, when in her parting moments, one of our Mother’s declared: ‘I am not my body’. Closing, we all nodded in recognition of this familiar experience and knowledge of similar realisations.
Moving forward, what are our strategies for resisting commodification of our bodies? For celebrating the glory of our bodies and resisting mainstream prescriptions for allure and beauty?
A twenty minute session by accident. We first dealt with some conflict around what these strategies were and should be. We agreed that what they are not is yet more prescriptions for ‘what we should do’ to our bodies, or how we should be in them. We agreed that the cycle of violence must stop by learning to accept and love our bodies how they are in the moment, without change or regime on the route to some notion of perfection.
All of us pledged to investing in future co-created space where we could safely enjoy our bodies as they are, to be heard and seen in our vulnerability and to see and touch other bodies free from constraining bodily-ideals. We agreed to work to create spaces where we can progress in grappling with and ultimately transcending limiting and damaging ideas of what constitutes an acceptable and/or desirable body: to ‘fuck gender’ and do it anyway. Integral to this is to compliment the intellectual with ‘heart space’ – to bring love into our relationship with our own bodies and to approach other bodies with love too. To ‘be the change’ and to impact on culture by limiting our personal indulgence in reductive and exclusive desires.
We suggested that restricting our exposure to portrayals of the body beautiful via mainstream media would be nourishing for us: the TV must be sacrificed for our freedom. At the same time to ‘treat our bodies well’ by doing whatever it is to them that brings us nourishment, happiness, contentment or support: to indulge frequently in self-care and to reward ourselves continuously for the courageousness of just ‘being in the body’ and living out our embodied lives.
We promised to smile more, at our bodies and at others too – as a way of signalling our respect, adoration and acceptance of them. But we also recognised the importance of ‘being okay with not being okay’, to give space for sorrow when our bodies are not performing as we would have them, or when looking a certain way – whilst importantly, remembering our discussions and lessons here to guide us again to a place of ease and contentment.
Finally and in recognition that our time together put a limit on the diversity and infinite number of ways we can celebrate our bodies consistently as a way of being, we also set out to challenge ourselves. To step into vulnerability, safely – to celebrate our bodies from within, to allow them to be seen and celebrated more by others.
This process was undertaken on the day of the solstice and I can say that I saw some courageous celebrations of our bodies that evening – and it was beautiful. We were beautiful x
To: Faunalicious, Queever, Big Sister, Brunelle, Brother Sun, Marlena, Stan, Pink Dalek, Hagbard, Badger, Cunty and Swallow.
From my body to yours, Octopus x
You can read more by Octopus at his personal blog here.