WORDS | Regina Featherstone
When I first moved into my dorm I was greeted by an empty flat. The only telltale signs that I indeed had housemates were the shoes left outside of rooms, and labelled shelves in the kitchen. As different housemates returned from holidays, different shoes and shelves were reunited with their owners. By the end of January, there remained just one room and one pair of shoes still unfilled. I was curious. Outside room 408 sat size 10, black heels with chunky gold chain detailing. I concluded I was living with a tall, party girl, but it just didn’t fit with the Ramadan diet plan attached to shelf 408. Okay, so then I decided I was living with a tall (or just big footed), party-loving, but strict Muslim girl. Finally, at the end of January, I overheard a new voice in the kitchen. I opened the door to be greeted by two perfectly tweezed eyebrows, dark olive skin, and stubble. “Hey girl, my name’s Ameer.” It was then that I realised that there was more to room 408 than I could have ever imagined.
Ameer is an openly gay, 23-year-old South African Muslim who also goes by his drag queen alias, Tatiana Laurent. I wondered how it was possible to be a drag queen in Africa, let alone gay. Homosexuality is currently still illegal in 38 African countries with punishments ranging from one year prison sentences to death. Earlier this year, Uganda’s leader, President Yoweri Museveni passed stricter laws that not only ban homosexuality, but make it a criminal offence to not expose known gay Ugandans. These witch hunts for gay citizens are common in other parts of Africa, including Nigeria and Senegal. South Africa is the opposite with constitutional recognition to protect the gay community.
“South Africa is like its own island in terms of gay rights. We’re in a bubble. We’re different to the rest of Africa.” Ameer is speaking of the more urban areas of his home, Cape Town where he feels safe and free to do drag, but admits that rural areas are still quite homophobic. These would be areas that account for the 2013 Pew Research Center survey that reveals 60 per cent of South Africans don’t think homosexuality should be accepted. He describes South Africa as a “melting pot of cultures, and races with intercultural clashes, but I think many people forget that South Africa was the second country in the world to legalise same sex marriage after the Netherlands.”
Tatiana Laurent made her first public appearance in Norway. Padded, wigged, and tucked, she got on the metro to the city and was stared at by everyone, not quite knowing who or what she was. For Ameer, this was completely liberating. It was this environment, away from his family, friends, and studying in a new place, that he was able to finally express himself, and explore gender in a way that he was unable to growing up in a Muslim house.
Having discovered RuPaul (the Queen of all drag queens) Ameer became more interested in the drag scene. He met his drag mother, Edna Monroe online, who taught him to beat his mug (apply make up) which was another step to perfecting his look. When he returned home to South Africa for the holidays, he met with another drag queen, Manilla Von Teez who introduced him to the South African drag community. From there he continued to expand his network, becoming completely comfortable in the Pink Strip of Cape Town.
A typical day getting ready for a drag performance is exhausting. It takes hours to get your face ready, wigs prepared, lip syncs perfected and to get into costume. “You have to change yourself for the night and change your entire persona.” The fundamental aesthetic is the illusion of a woman, but most importantly, drag is a creative art that uses the body as a canvas. Tatiana is an outlet for Ameer to challenge heteronormative ideas of gender and culture, which he does by mixing looks, for example combining chest hair and drag, or foregoing padding at different times. Tatiana can be blonde with dark skin or pale with dark hair. Similarly to the Eurovision 2014 winner, Conchita Wurst, the ideas of feminine and masculine can be blurred by juxtaposing the symbolic norms of gender.
The most challenging thing for a drag queen is to be completely comfortable and “exude absolute confidence and pride in whatever you are doing.” The purpose of drag is often confused as an obsession with women, and men who want to be women. Rather, it is loosely based on the female form where an exaggerated character can be created. To clarify, Ameer says he is very happy being male. “I love being me, but I love dressing up and playing different characters. Drag can be associated with clowning, it’s entertainment.” Drag is so many different things to different people. Ameer and his drag sister, Kitty De Lorenza both acknowledge how lucky they are to be in a country that allows you to embrace freedom of expression.
Ameer describes Tatiana as a fiesty, comedic queen, while Kitty is more fishy (an extremely feminine drag queen). Both queens perform regularly in clubs, with Kitty saying you can make up to $6000 AUS a night for a private corporate performance. Tatiana’s advice for serving face (having a great drag face of makeup) is thick foundation that can cover stubble because, “Covergirl don’t cover boy.”
These two queens represent just a fraction of the many drag subcultures, not only in South Africa, but around the world. The drag scene is huge globally, and we are lucky in Australia that we accept such expression. After living with Ameer, I now understand drag much better. I understand that people are more than they seem, and South Africa is more than just leopard prints and diamonds…well sort of.