The first time I wore women clothes was when I was six. I was hanging out with my mom on a lazy Sunday afternoon while my dad was out. She let me try on her evening gown and carry my favorite glittery purse of hers. As I pranced around on her bed, I playfully dubbed myself “the nightgown chicken.” In Cantonese, “chicken” is the slang for “prostitute.” My mom was cracking up. We both had so much fun. I remember I really enjoyed playing a character… being someone whom I wasn’t.
Growing up, I was obsessed with female vampires and witches. I thought they were the most beautiful and scary characters, and I wanted to be beautiful and scary. I had a childhood ritual of putting myself to sleep by imagining myself as different characters. Very often I would become a vampire or a witch and make up some adventures until I fell asleep.
In high school, I was obsessed with effeminate boys. I tried to befriend every effeminate boy in my grade. My best friend was reasonably effeminate, though he was too handsome to be picked on. Then there was this one boy that everybody picked on and gave him the nickname “Woman.” I thought he was hot, so I really worked hard to be his friend. I was attracted to his effeminate beauty, his pale and flawless skin, his perfectly chiseled features, and his persecuted status. After he left Hong Kong, I even visited him in Canada. To my sad surprise, “Woman” got married and turned out to be straight.
The idea of wearing women clothes didn’t come up again until my sophomore year in college at Berkeley. It was the day before Halloween. I thought I had never done drag before, and it was about time. I shopped for a dress, a pair of flats and some make-up supplies. With a nightlong of anticipation, I bounced out of bed the next morning with excitement. I put on make-up, wore my dress and flats, and off I went to school. As I walked up Telegraph Avenue, no one seemed to even notice I was in drag.
My best friend Deeya met me for lunch at Café Intermezzo where we were lining up for our salad orders. As soon as I opened my mouth to order, the girl behind the counter jumped back in shock. “Oh my God!” she exclaimed. I laughed so hard. It was just hilarious that people didn’t know I was in drag.
I could totally pass as a woman!
Shocking people was simply instant gratification for me. I felt empowered being able to totally subvert people’s expectations. I had a blast going to school in drag that day. At night, I dressed up as a witch and went to a Halloween party.
Passing was an important theme in the Harlem Renaissance as African American writers wrote a lot about how mulatto characters could pass as “white.” In my studies, I was fascinated by passing in terms of gender and how subversive it could be. I started doing a lot of work on drag as cultural resistance and the use of drag to deconstruct gender stereotypes.
Why is our society so obsessed with policing masculinity and femininity?
I started doing drag on an ordinary day… whenever I felt like it. I would just go to school in drag once in a while or go to parties in drag. It was pure fun and subversive. And I kind of liked the attention, though I also found out that I really didn’t want to be a woman. It was just so much work. I could not spend more than 15 minutes doing make-up. And having make-up on was uncomfortable. Walking in heels hurt.
The reality is dressing up as a woman takes a lot of energy.
My parents decided to come for my graduation, but I really didn’t quite want to go because I didn’t believe in the idea of a ceremony. All my work then was about cultural rebellion and deconstruction. Going to graduation and wearing an “official” gown would betray what I believed in. It was like you spent all this time fighting the establishment and you had to suck up to it one last time… when I really didn’t have to,
Okay. I was arrogant. And I was proud. I was an intellectual. And I was queer.
So I thought, “Why don’t I just go in drag?”
It would be interesting and different… and most definitely subversive and in line with my studies at Cal. I would do what my parents wanted, but I could still be myself and make a statement.
I grew my hair out, bought a bright floral print dress for the occasion and my first pair of heels. The reality was I was on the top on the world without even knowing it. I was delirious. I was proud. I was out. I was queer. I was celebrating my graduation the way I wanted to because I was at Berkeley. No one could stop me.
In fact, the English Department encouraged me to not to wear a gown.
“Quentin, in my time, students only went to graduation to give professors a finger,” said my beloved Professor Boyd who would say, “Fuck you if you don’t get it, boys and girls!” at the end of almost every one of my class aptly titled the Philosophy of Grammar.
“That’s quite sneaky of you… growing out your hair,” my dad laughed with his jolly sense of humor when he saw me after a 6-hour flight from Montréal.
Hoyt, a militant right-wing Asian American columnist who incidentally was also an English major, came up and shook my hands. He had to utter a pseudo-bitter comment like, “Of course you can afford to be in drag. You have Phi Beta Kappa, highest honors in the department, and magna cum laude.”
“Thanks, Hoyt,” I hugged him and held my boyfriend’s hand.
I remember the heels were killing me when I was walking home with Mike. He kindly traded his sneakers for my heels. We made out in his apartment when I was drag… and it was a bit strange I had to say. It felt like I wasn’t really me. We went into the shower and kissed under the warm water. Now that was amazing because I could vividly remember the make-up melting down my face. I felt like I was transforming back into myself.
At Yale, I went to my English department Christmas party in drag. I was looking at my professor Elizabeth Wilson and she didn’t seem to recognize me. There were exactly two people in her class “Intellectuals”—an undergraduate girl and me.
So the next class, I asked Professor Wilson, “Did you know I was in drag at the Christmas party?”
“Really? I was wondering why this woman kept staring at me,” said Professor Wilson.
At UCLA, I went to film school in drag a couple of times. One morning I was in the hallway and a professor flirtatiously said to me, “Howdy.”
“It’s me,” I laughed.
“That’s very good. See you later!” he said.
And that was the last time I was in drag.
I don’t think I can pass in drag anymore. And I guess I feel I’ve made enough of a statement with drag and that act is no longer fresh to me.
But I do think that everyone should try drag once and see how it feels.
It’s sad that even the gay world nowadays is so conservative and conforming to the hegemonic American masculinity. I do think that one of the great things about being queer is that you don’t have to follow the traditional societal values that are often so oppressive. Being gay should really open you more and make you more tolerant of gender subversion or any type of nonconformity.
Being gay should give you an opportunity to be who you are, i.e. not being trapped in the oppressive conservative way of mainstream heterosexual life.
I know the right thing, but can I do the right thing? Or have I just become a L.A. clone in my old age?