WHAT IS YOUR DRAG NAME?
By Kile Atwater
August 28, 2019
Growing up in Houston, Texas, the world often taught me that my Blackness and my queerness could not coexist. I was continually trying to remold myself to be “man enough” to survive. I remember in school, being bullied for the soft inflection in my voice, and for my desire to skip gym class and opt for choir and theater practice instead. My desire to be myself was and still is frequently crushed by the world’s appetite for me to fit into a binary. Fast forward to present-day New York; I’m an actor auditioning to play various masculine roles, for parts where the slightest sign of femininity is an instant disqualifier. When I walked into an audition room, I made sure my wrist didn’t twist, my voice resonated from my chest, and I walked as straight as a straight man should. I was exhausted. I noticed that once I left the audition room, the presentation of masculinity never stopped. I was this character at my day job; I was this character on the train ride home; I was this character with my family. I was portraying a portrait of Black masculinity in a queer body, to blend into straight spaces for corporate dollars.
After my auditions, I would occasionally go to “Therapy” the gay club by my Hell’s Kitchen apartment. I saw larger-than-life drag performers like Bob The Drag Queen perform for mostly cis-gendered white gay audiences at the time, with freedom I wish I had. I used “Therapy” and various other gay spaces around the Manhattan neighborhood as an escape, but the more I ventured into those spaces, the more the anxiety built. Because I was bombarded with overtly masculine gay images of chiseled white bodies, so I realized that I didn’t quite fit into those spaces either.
My battle to find myself was overwhelming, and I started seeking help. I started going to therapy — real-life therapy, and a powerful thing happened. They asked me what my pronouns were. It was at that moment where I begin considering what would happen if I stopped blending in and allowed myself to become myself.
I had spent years learning how to operate in oppressive systems that I never thought comedy was an option for me. I remember watching Richard Pryor when I was younger and hearing comedic brilliance mixed with overt homophobia and transphobia. I remember as a child sneaking to watch famous Black comedians on HBO specials shouting gay slurs to roaring laughter and applause. However, I also remembered being the butt of many gay jokes, and how I used comedy for survival growing up. Instead of getting jumped in the lunchroom for the way I talked, I used the language of humor as my greatest defense. It protected me back then so as an adult struggling to be seen in New York I thought why not give it a shot. My friend told me about a local open mic for queer comedians called Open Flame, and I decided to check it out. I used it as an opportunity to find a safe space and challenge the world around me. It was there where I saw fellow Black queer comedians like Jaboukie Young-White, Walter Kelly, and Jess Henderson. It was there where I realized that I had the power to change the spaces that I’m in without changing who I am. I realized that I had jokes, hella jokes, but my identity was not one of them. As time passed, I started performing consistently at that open mic and other spaces. I started matching my voice with my outfits, playing up the aspects of myself that traditionally were considered weak because they were deemed to be too feminine. I started buying wigs, experimenting with makeup, and sequins. I started reciting rap lyrics and speaking boldly against white supremacy and transphobia. It was there where I realized being Black, and queer was powerful and noteworthy by itself.
After my comedy sets, people have been asking me what my drag name is, or they even suggest names to me with good intentions. I wish I could give them an answer, but I can’t. The truth is I’ve always felt trapped inside a masculine binary. I grew up fearing my femininity, continually in a battle to be “man enough,” in a world of pretending. Comedy has given me the power to find acceptance within myself and to say quite naturally; I don’t give a fuck. Comedy has made me realize that I can’t live my life worried about who understands. Just because they don’t share the experience doesn’t mean it’s not valid.
Now, I’ve arrived at a place of knowing that people are more nuanced than just two categories; and the traditional rules of gender are outdated, artificial, and ultimately oppressive. Why should I feel afraid because I want to express the feminine aspects of myself that are naturally there? Why is femininity not accepted across the board? I think we as a society need to have the courage to ask more questions about the world around us.
So with my comedy, that’s what I do. When I’m off stage, my pronouns are They/Them. But when I’m on stage I feel freedom in being called She/Me/Her, because at the end of the day this is Kile, and I am no longer playing by anyone’s rules but my own.