I’ve never felt so fine while so completely out of place. Surrounded by amazons, performers, partiers and spectators. Standing beside animals and fairies and divas and misfits. I am averse to classifying further, to using any societally given name to describe such unique people, but sometimes a term can serve as a reference. And sometimes, when spoken well, it can also be used to unite.
At the 2018 Superball in Amsterdam were hundreds of drag queens, men in women’s dress, embracing all ends of this definition. I was in awe. Gathered within the historic Paradiso concert hall was an entire community of under acknowledged and often berated persons, in full splendor. I smiled when seeing the young hipsters crossing the line into drag, with hairy chests and simple sun dresses. I was jealous of the slender, muscular men with long legs and slinky gowns. And I was completely blown away by the creativity of the costumes, make up and headpieces of a large quantity of queens who had come in from all over Europe to compete on that day.
Grouped into “Houses,” not much different from those of fashion, were ten sets of about half a dozen queens each from countries around the continent, exhibiting coherent styles with a theme. There were pre-directed music videos followed by live lip syncs, dance performances, runway struts and overall acts. To conclude, the audience as well as a few celebrity judges voted upon their favorites, awarding the winners with a range of prizes.
More importantly, the large-scale event, with its organized performances and public voting, awarded the Houses with recognition. It was a way of bringing often shunned people together, and letting them be free. No dirty looks, no laughs, no names. Just empathy, praise and acceptance.
I don’t know how I’ve gone thirty+ years without giving more than a moment’s thought to the person behind a man in drag, for it took only a few hours at the Superball to awaken a series of questions about their lives, their thoughts and their feelings. In spite of the pomp and circumstance of the show, it was excruciatingly clear in the performances of the queens how much pain and suffering they’ve gone through individually and as a community. And it struck me when the one word that I wanted to use to describe them was, ‘authentic.’
Yes, authentic. A man would only be a queen because—as Lady Gaga says—she was born that way. Underneath the wigs and weaves and layers of color and fake curves are people who feel the innate urge to wear them. And whereas I’ve always thought that many heterosexual women who ‘overdo’ themselves are hiding, I left the Superball with a strong sensation of drag queens being intensely who they really are, with carefully constructed identities. With conscientiously chosen elements of the feminine and what it means to them to be a woman.
And it made me wonder, how many other perspectives on life have I been missing? It’s so easy for us to stick to our routines. We may travel, or we may try new restaurants or go to lectures or join new clubs, but how many of them are really different, if we select them out of habit or go with the same people? How much better could our senses of self and the world be if every once in a while, we saw an ad for an event that we would never choose to go and, just go to it. Or let a friend or a family member take us to that thing that they’ve heard of. How much more expansive, how much more inclusive, could we come away?
The sheer existence of this full-house show at one of the most loved spaces in Amsterdam also says a lot about the city, the people who live in and manage it, and what it stands for. There was a moment during the program when I thought that we might all be in danger. We were in a crowded concert hall in a major city with a minority group in gear. In almost any other part of the world, such an event either would not have been hosted, it would’ve been relegated to the underground, or it would’ve been swarming with security. But not here. No pat downs, no bag checks.
In Amsterdam, it’s okay to be different. It’s allowed to exercise one’s individual freedoms. It’s acknowledged that anyone who is not harming another person can just be. Just authentically be, whatever that may look like. It’s about time we embrace the example.