At first glance, Iceland appears to be a country of contradictions.
Consistently ranked high for its progressive, pro-feminist values, this “land of fire and ice” boasts a government where half are women, and the leader of the Left Green Alliance, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, sits at its head. The world’s first openly lesbian head of state, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, was none other than Iceland’s prime minister. What’s more, strip joints have been made illegal, and for the same reason ~ concern that these institutions objectify and promote violence against women ~ the government is also considering banning online porn.
Far from being anti-culture, however, Iceland lays claim to the highest literacy rate in the world, with Icelandic authors publishing more books per capita than in any other country. This relatively tiny nation also produces musical artists recognized worldwide for their fresh voices and original sound (think Björk, Of Monsters and Men, Sigur Rós, Kaleo, Emilíana Torrinias, to name the most famous…)
But now it gets a bit tricky: In recent years, Iceland has also become a growing hotspot for another kind of artform slowly increasing in popularity: the underground Drag scene.
So how has the county dubbed by The Nation as “the most feminist place in the world” come to nurture an artform where male performers, once referred to as “female impersonators,” strut around in big heels, layers of caked-on make-up, outrageous hair, and over-the-top costumes to exaggerate all things female? What’s pro-feminist about that, you may wonder? Isn’t the whole humor behind Drag that it mocks femininity? That it reduces women to caricatures of themselves, perpetuating stereotypes that demean rather than celebrate what it means to be a woman?
Recently, I was approached by Kaspars Bekeris, a former TV reporter and journalist in his native Latvia, who has spent a good part of the past year photographing and documenting the drag scene in Iceland. While other photographers have focused on the interactions between the artists and the audience, Bekeris has been more interested in telling the story of the relationship between the performers and their art. The photo essay F*CK GENDER was the result, a project which has grown into plans for this September launching his own magazine, estranged, via an indiegogo campaign.
What follows is my conversation with three of the drag performers Bekeris photographed: Turner Strait and Deff Starr, “reigning king and queen of the North” (Akureyri), and Strell Ytzia, a drag queen who performs in Reykjavik and is also now co-founder of estranged magazine.
While there is much diversity between these artists, both in terms of what inspires their performances and how each has uniquely experienced the journey, the performers all share one core value: freedom. Freedom from gender norms and expectations, freedom even from the very idea of gender as a male/female, either/or. For them, as Deff Starr observes, drag has become what punk rock did for the music scene in the mid-70’s: a way to break free and turn everything on its head, creating a platform for dialog about authentic, artistic expression. “Gender is a social construct,” says Deff Starr, “and drag breaks it down and reconstructs it.”
INTERVIEW WITH ICELANDIC DRAG ARTISTS STRELL YTZIA, TURNER STRAIT AND DEFF STARR
REYKJAVIK, ICELAND ~
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What initially attracted you to this means of artistic expression? What about dressing up in drag gives you the greatest enjoyment today?
Strell Ytzia: I am myself when I do drag, not a woman, not another gender. Just a human substance.
Deff Starr: I’ve always been attracted to dressing up. As a boy, I was cast as a tree in the school play, boys were trees and girls were flowers. I wanted to be a flower, the part was more interesting, so I was a flower.
Deff Starr: I guess the idea of becoming something or someone else and escaping the mundane attracts me, but also the beauty in clothing and adornment, which I experimented a lot with as a teen. I chose to express many different versions of myself, often in relation to my musical tastes at the time. We are constantly evolving as humans, both inside and outwardly, and I feel that by dressing up, we can show the world a piece of our inner self. Everything about getting into drag gives me pleasure. Well, apart from covering your eyebrows, because mine are rather unruly.
The most exciting part is when my face is complete. It really brings out the character inside of me. Something happens at that stage and you start to really feel like you’ve become transformed.
Turner Strait (drag king): My roommate at the time had just gotten into the whole scene (I think via watching Drag Race with a mutual friend) and I absolutely adored seeing his transformation.
Making up a name, exploring different aesthetics, the makeup, thinking up a character, then getting invited to different drag events…it all sort of fit for me.
I’ve always loved performing and seeing the audience having fun. At the time, I thought only men could be queens and women could be kings, so I settled for a king look. I even intended to partake in the annual drag competition in Iceland, but backed out last minute as I didn’t feel my character was fully realized.
My character is now far from what I originally pictured, but it’s still the performance aspect that gives me my greatest enjoyment.
Once I’m onstage, I feel like I can do anything. When I’m in full dress and onstage, I’m unstoppable. My confidence level goes through the roof during those few minutes, and I am definitely NOT a confident person in real life. So I feel like drag has given me a lot, both as a performer and as a person.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Drag performers experience criticism from both sides for their artistic expression ~ from the more mainstream LGBT community, as well as from the straight community. A common criticism is that drag perpetuates gender-sexuality stereotypes.
Many in the straight culture associate male homosexuality with over-the-top, hyper-feminine expression. Meanwhile, some in the queer community feel put-off as well: feeling that drag makes a mockery of their sexuality, which can lead to being trivialized and ostracized by the straight community.
How would each of you respond to these criticisms?
Strell Ytzia: Like all artists, we have to consider the consequences of our performances ~ for ourselves, as well as for the rest of society. We must bear a political responsibility while at the same time not compromising our artistic aspirations. So, such criticism is legitimate. The problem is that drag artists have to answer to political criticism almost exclusively. We are not critiqued so much for the artistic dimension of our work as for the political dimension. This inequality is just one among many prejudices.
Deff Starr: I wouldn’t say that we are mocking sexuality at all! Sexuality and drag have nothing in common. I actually feel we allow the straight community to understand queer culture better.
By putting on this costume, we allow ourselves to be real and to break down illusions. We don’t mock sexuality or gender; we mock life.
I guess the reason why drag is mainly an art form largely dominated by gay males is that it’s a safer way for us to express our feminine side.
Drag is also an underground culture. As gay men, we are used to being part of a fringe culture. But there is nothing stopping a straight male, female or trans woman (to name a few) from being a drag king or queen.
Turner Strait: As a King, I don‘t have a lot to say in the matter, as I don‘t feel Kings have a big enough of a presence to cause such a stir.
However, as a cis woman (female assigned female at birth), I can respect those criticisms when coming from a genuine place. I know plenty of trans women and genderqueer people who feel uncomfortable with drag, queens in particular, because of these very criticisms you presented. Since the vast majority of queens are cisgender men, I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for a trans woman to feel constantly invalidated, mocked, or ridiculed by them. So while I’m not part of either group (queens or trans woman) I can certainly see where the criticisms are coming from, and in my opinion, it is definitely something that needs to be routinely addressed and acknowledged so that we don’t erase our sisters while performing our art. After all, it was trans women in drag that said “enough is enough” at Stonewall, let’s not forget.
Honestly, both as an artist and as an onlooker, it angers me how much drag is trivialized in general. Far too many times have I seen straight people either make a mockery of drag or view it only as a show or some kind of shock factor (e.g. hen nights “infiltrating” drag shows just to be funny because “men in dresses is funny!”).
Strell Ytzia: Dress, make-up and body language are all cultural constructs, yet straights have assigned specific types as belonging only to those born with female reproductive systems (women). If you are a gay man, and you perform as the feminine gender, you will legitimize your oppressors’ attitudes. But as a drag queen, even if I actively challenge the binarism of genders, I do not have the pretension of being representative of all in the gay community, nor all the queer community, not even the drag community. There are so many people whose personal stories contradict the stereotypes, including homosexuals who express all the attributes of masculinity, and heterosexuals who perform as drag queens.
Strell Ytzia: So the real issue is not whether or not people should perform in drag, but how some people persist in trying to limit the expression of another group of people, due to their own narrow understanding of gender. The criticism coming from some members of the queer community is based on a confusion of what drag is.
Strell Ytzia: Drag is the performance of an identity formulated from genders (respecting or not what is masculine or feminine in a culture) as a way of expression and/or as an entertainment. This does not include any mockery of one sexuality or another, and drag artists are not only, or not at all, doing drag because of their sexuality.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Let’s address another criticism, which is that because of their flamboyant expression, drag queens tend to gain more media attention at events such as Gay Pride celebrations. Queers who don’t wish to stand out and be perceived as overtly different from their straight peers may as a result opt to keep their sexual identity a secret, even denying it from themselves.
Deff Starr: Yes, we probably do get more media attention. I mean we do look a little more interesting, so why not, we look fabulous!
Turner Strait: I don’t think the flamboyance is intended to be any sort of erasure. More often than not, it’s either an act because the person is playing a character, or the person feels the moment since they are in full dress and feel like they can be fabulous for once, if they so choose.
There are all kinds of people, some wish to keep quiet, others wish to be loud and brash about who they are. It all depends on the person.
Deff Starr: I don’t feel we negatively impact more discreet queers, I feel quite the opposite: our openness and courage to be the way we are can actually inspire more closeted queers. But there is no pressure from us for others to be more flamboyant.
I respect other people’s discretion as they should respect my lack of it. If you have an issue with me expressing myself, then it’s your problem, not mine. If a man is gay, he is attracted to another man, it’s really quite simple. There are no rules to being gay, apart from the obvious sexual attraction. Of course you don’t need to know all of the lyrics to Whitney Houston, but it’s defiantly handy as a performer.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Are there issues and struggles that the drag and the larger queer community share in common that you wish to draw attention to and start conversations around? Or is it important to identify drag as a sub-culture?
Deff Starr: At this current time, drag has become rather mainstream, with the popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
I do feel that drag will and should always be a sub-culture and remain boundary pushing. Its punk rock energy needs to stay alive and challenge the norm.
Deff Starr: Of course there are many issues within the scene of drag and queer culture. One pet peeve of mine is when other performers are disrespected: Drag is easily accepted within mainstream queer culture, but Drag Kings and Bio Queens (female performance artist who adopt the style typical of male drag queens) find more of a challenge. The whole idea of modern Drag is gender expression, people who can’t see that are stuck in the past and need to develop. The world is changing, and we are individuals, so why can’t the ideals of drag develop also?
Deff Starr: We should also talk about discrimination within the gay community of feme (feminine) men. Being a feminine-acting man often scares away more conventional, “normal” queers from most things romantic, and of course being a drag queen can also do this, as some queers find our alter egos off-putting and us too feminine. Each to their own, right? But don’t discriminate a drag queen on sight, you might be missing out on their fabulous love-making skills.
Deff Starr: I’ve come to this stage in my life where I don’t give a fuck. It doesn’t make me happy to change myself to suit others. I’m very proud of my femininity, and I’m happy to see that there is a new generation of pro-feme sweeping away a toxic masculinity that still exists within the gay male community.
Strell Ytzia: Drag is art. So its participation is spreading into wider and wider cultural arenas. In the second half of the 20th century, a drag culture was formed, mainly in the LGBTQI+ community. It continues to grow, and as it does, the larger public is now interested, but in a way which I think is not fully beneficial for all members of the drag community.
Even if I am glad to see the celebration of the art of drag growing, thanks to the tv show, “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” I am still concerned about some consequences of this promotion. In this show, Drag culture is depicted as a subculture with its own norms, values, traditions and imagery, but within a dominant culture: one that oppresses and still dominates drag artists socially, politically and symbolically. Each season of RPDR, in spite of numerous competitors talking about the injustices they experienced because of their sexuality and/or drag vocation, claims that are clearly expressed, this political dimension is then just swept aside. The choice was clearly made to present the show as a competition to entertain a mass audience. Economics won out over fidelity.
What we can learn from the history shared by the drag community and the LGBTQI+ community is that we have shared aspirations: to change society.
This history of our combined social and economic struggles is made of politic demands for our fundamental human rights to be respected, but we have still a long way to go because we live in a society built on homophobia and binarism of genders, with the “feminine gender” seen as inferior.
I think that it is important to identify drag culture, not only as a subculture but as a counter-culture, an ally of cultures who recognize fundamental rights for every human being, without distinction of sex, skin color, class, age or physical ability.
And to take that even further: to recognize the fundamental rights of all sentient beings, including non-human animals.
Turner Strait: For me personally, I like to distance drag from, say, my personal or professional life, as I don’t do drag full-time. I wholly identify with the queer culture, while also embracing drag as a culture in and of itself, particularly as a way to express oneself. Me personally, I use drag to act the way I wish I could in any other circumstance ~ and more recently have been trying to embrace my body more while using the platform. I guess that’s kind of what I feel is the key difference between the “cultures”: the queer culture is fighting for survival, a right to exist, basic human rights and respect, while drag is (to me at least) more a way to vent out those feelings of frustration via performance, using this platform to give oneself permission to act in a way that might otherwise be frowned upon if you weren’t in full costume.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: As a member of the drag culture, do you feel that there are two genders, multiple genders, or that gender is just a feeling? That it actually doesn’t exist?
Deff Starr: Well, what do you believe? Many cultures have believed in more than two genders. The native Americans say, “two spirits, five genders, one heart.” They believed we have a male and a female spirit that both work together inside our body. But also that there were five genders. On a side note: shamans put on make-up and dresses and performed ceremonial rites through music and dance ~ the first drag queens maybe?
I personally believe that gender, like sexuality, is fluid, and if it would be a shape, it would be a circle with many different points on it. We as humans break down things into black and white to better understand them, but life is not like that, there are many beautiful shades. [quote]Gender is a social construct and drag breaks it down and reconstructs it.
I personally don’t mind being called he or she. My drag character expresses both male and female gender tropes. She’s feminine but also muscular and hairy. A penis is really just a vagina that fell out. We were all women in the womb.
Turner Strait: I definitely do not believe there are only two genders, in or out of drag. It’s a social construct that society decided we have to adhere to. Which is just nonsense in my opinion. Even as a cisgender woman I feel like it shouldn’t be so damn hard to just respect and accept that there is more to humans than “male” and “female”. We’re all so diverse, both as individuals and as cultures, and it’d be such a shame to limit that to such a bullshit binary.
Drag plays with the concept of gender: you can have queens with natural beards or hairy chests; and you can have kings with their cameltoes and tits out. Or the other way around. Or all the ways. A single being embracing everything. A complete genderfuckery. A non-binary bearded queen. A queen who’s a demi-girl. A king who’s a trans man. The possibilities goes on and on. And honestly, who the hell cares anyway? Just don’t be an asshole.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Do you feel that gender and gender expression are the same thing? If not, in what ways are they different?
Turner Strait: To me, gender is what you identify as, whereas gender expression is how you present yourself. For example, I identify as the gender I was assigned at birth (girl), therefore I am a cisgender woman. But I don’t always express that gender in a way society expects me to. I shave my head for comfort, I don’t wear makeup to enhance my looks ~ hell, in some cultures, just wearing pants is technically not feminine because skirts are more accepted.
By extension, someone who might identify as non-binary/genderqueer/agender can express their gender in multiple ways, such as drawing on a mustache while also wearing eyeshadow and eyeliner, just to mess with people’s perception of what fits “either” gender in the binary. And I love that.
Deff Starr: Gender expression is the way we choose to show ourselves based on gender tropes created by society. For example, I know many women who express very masculine traits but identify as women. Gender expression is the energy that we give to the outside world which we feel within us.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: A couple years back, Mary Cheney, the openly lesbian and conservative daughter of former United States Vice President Dick Cheney, compared drag to the racist practice of blackface, saying that dressing in drag ridicules women.
“Why is it socially acceptable — as a form of entertainment — for men to put on dresses, make up and high heels and act out every offensive stereotype of women (bitchy, catty, dumb, slutty, etc.) — but it is not socially acceptable — as a form of entertainment — for a white person to put on blackface and act out offensive stereotypes of African Americans?” Cheney wrote in a post on her private Facebook page.
How would you respond to her?
Deff Starr: I disagree with the idea that drag is a mockery of women. I often have women come up to me after shows and express admiration for my being able to express myself this way, to which I reply, “So can you! So can anyone!” My drag performance comes from a place of admiration for women.
Strell Ytzia: The art of drag manipulates this social and cultural material. It proves that it is possible, and I think, better, to stop defining ourselves by gender. But any person who would like to make fun of women by doing drag, like any person who would like to make fun of Black people by doing blackface, is horrendous.
Turner Strait: Such an argument can be made with drag, yes, and has been done (and sometimes rightly so) but I think that’s where the similarities end. Sometimes drag ridicules women, and in particular trans women, and that’s something to condemn, definitely. However, I feel like drag is more of an expression than anything. To be able to put on a costume that you don’t necessarily feel that you identify as per se, but can pull off a show and look fabulous while doing it.
Sometimes, however, particularly for queens, drag can actually be somewhat of a struggle. Just as with women, there have come to be certain standards a queen must adhere to in order to be accepted: she has to be thin, tall, limber, pretty, blahblahblah, and it’s so frustrating to me. For some of us, it’s just another costume, just another night on the town. Actors aren’t ridiculed for their roles, why should we? Just because we reverse them? Shove all the way off.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Which identity do you feel most connected to: How you appear during a normal day? Or when you dress up to perform in drag?
Turner Strait: I feel like there’s a bit of a blurred line here because I’m a King; what I wear in drag I could get away with wearing out of drag because society doesn’t frown so much upon women in “men’s clothes” as it does men in “women’s clothes.”
Deff Starr: Do I need to pick? I’m connected to both versions of myself, as I think every queen or king should be. I mean in drag I can definitely get away with more outrageous behavior. Drag has definitely changed my life and made me a stronger person; it’s taught me to love myself, which I think is the most important thing a human can do. I’m often fairly nude in drag, i found that I feel very comfortable that way, and the contrast of my feminine and masculine aspects excites me and my audience, I guess you could say I’m a gender fuck queen.
To learn more about Stonewall, referred to by Turner Strait earlier in this article, read The Atlantic‘s analysis, “An Amazing 1969 Account of the Stonewall Uprising.“
Matthias “Strell Ytzia” Boyer, hailing originally from Reunion Island, is the co–founding editor of estranged magazine, an intersectional zine on counter cultures. Follow Strell Ytzia on Instagram and Facebook.
Drag king Turner Strait is a cis (biologically born) female who performs as a male, and can be followed on Facebook.
Kaspars Bekeris is a Latvian journalist and photographer currently residing in Iceland and co-founding editor of estranged magazine. Bekeris’ most recent portrait photography project, F*CK GENDER, follows a group of drag artists from Iceland exploring “the performative nature of gender.” Bekeris says that by documenting “playful ways” drag performers destroy, mock or add new layers of gender identity, each photograph is an attempt to catch a glimpse of humanity “beyond the limits of heteronormativity.” During Pride week, at Gaukurinn, a live music venue & bar in downtown Reykjavík, Bekeris presented a selection of these behind-the-scenes photographs taken during drag shows and drag contests since the beginning of 2017 in Reykjavik and Akureyri.
About the photographs: “When I started the project,” says Bekeris, “I wasn’t familiar with this form of art. I had never been to a drag show before. So I expected to take pictures of all that glitter and glamour – perfect make up, colourful wigs, wild costumes. Well…I found all that, but I found so much more. My aim was to document drag as a critique of the artificial nature of gender. But instead of that, I became more and more interested with the people themselves. I realized that gender is not important, because of the simple fact that there is no such thing as gender.”
The first thing Bekeris says that struck him about the Icelandic drag scene was how small it was, and yet, “how insanely dedicated are those people. I can only imagine how hard it must be to keep it alive in such a small community. And it is really hard to be a drag artist, as well…They should be good at dancing, directing, lip-syncing or even singing. They should be make-up artists, designers, sewers, comedians, actors and more. You simply won’t be doing that if you are not enjoying the whole thing.
But if we skip all that, there is just one important thing I can walk away with, after spending the last six months with these wonderful people. And it is pure enjoyment of being. The way you are.”