Drag performer and social activist Aleksa Manila on the cover of Seattle’s Child Magazine. Cover photo by Joshua Huston

By Aleksa Manila, a special to the International Examiner

There was a boy about five or six playing in the playground at St. Scholastica’s Academy during recess. He thought to himself, “I should be over there with the girls, and not here with the boys.” Many decades ago, and to this day, schools in the Philippines would divide the boys from the girls, whether it be private or public schools, during recess, and specific classes like Home Economics for the girls, who would learn how homebound skills, Practical Arts for the boys, who would then learn carpentry and other related skills expected for both genders. And of course, there was Physical Education. The boys would play basketball, the girls would play volleyball primarily. 

At a very young age, and though I didn’t have the vocabulary nor the social mores to support these thoughts and feelings, I always felt different from the designated groups I was assigned to. 

Thankfully, my mother’s resilience was passed on to me. Her stories of survival fortified me at a young age that I’ve kept with me to this day. From her stories of her father cutting her hair like a boy, dressing her in boy-clothes and putting her on a train away from Japanese-occupied Manila during WWII, to raising her children as a single-parent in a conservative Catholic society that frowned upon that despite her fleeing a domestically-violent marriage. 

I learned quickly in elementary and high school that despite being sickly that I saw the silver-lining. It allowed me to escape bullying during Physical Education classes and ROTC (Reserved Officers Training Corps). I was instead assigned to the medical team to provide first aid and other related care for my classmates as they needed them. I also enjoyed singing very much. Have I mentioned I’m FilipinX? My love of singing then introduced me to being in our school choir, and eventually, our church choir. Instead of being taunted by bullies in the pews, I was busy singing with other students who enjoyed singing. I was still bullied, of course – in the classrooms and hallways. Looking back, I now recognize that I was (and still am) effeminate, and was called, “bakla” many times, too much. 

“Bakla” is a Tagalog (Filipino) term for someone gay, and is often conflated with being feminine, or crossdressers (male-to-female). At that age, it was very confusing for me. “Bakla” is a general reference to someone’s sexuality, and not one’s gender identity per se because of the limitations in language. So to be called “bakla,” did not make sense to me. I rejected it, and avoided the situation altogether. 

I would always avoid going to the restroom at peak times. I would only try, whenever possible during classroom time, which inevitably, made me miss instruction. I learned to hold my bladder, which is not a healthy practice. I had unfortunate accidents along the way. At the very least embarrassing, and of course, traumatizing for anyone, especially at that young age.

Fast forward to becoming an adolescent and immigrating to the United States, I found my home in Seattle. Through online resources, like AOL at the time, I found virtual safe spaces that held discussions with gay, lesbian and transgender people. I quickly learned from others like me who I thought I was and eventually learned new vocabulary to match my feelings and thoughts. 

Because of the social stereotypes of gay people in the Philippines in popular culture and day-to-day living, I thought being gay meant desiring to be of the opposite sex and that the image of a gay man is the screaming hairdresser at the public market. Comedy and ridicule often revolved around gay people. Not only was I afraid, but I was also embarrassed to be gay. 

I know that many LGBTQI+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex +) people are resilient survivors that maximize opportunities to thrive in a harsh world through creativity and activism. Meeting them via online chat rooms, and eventually in-person through acquaintances and friendships, I saw my value for existing.

I learned quickly that being gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc. meant the person’s attraction to another person is about their sexual orientation &/or identity; whereas, someone’s gender identity or expression from masculinity to femininity and beyond is separate from it. Basically, “who you sleep with is different from who you sleep as.” “Who you sleep with” (or intimate with or have an attraction to) is one’s sexual orientation and “who you sleep as” (one’s sense of self related to gender expression/identity) represents one’s gender identity. 

The current rhetoric on sexuality and gender are vexed while relying on the complicated controversy of a simple topic on human sexuality and gender. Fact is, we all have sexual and gender identities and expressions, including asexual and non-binary people. Conservative views limit the norms with heterosexual and cisgender people, thus vilifying anyone and everyone outside or even just in the hems of heteronormativity and cisgenderism. 

What does this have to do with the chatter all over social media and the news related to “Drag Queen Story Hour” or “Time” you might ask?

One of the key issues is that it’s misinformed, maligned, and malicious. This is highly offensive and problematic for society at large. I find it intentionally polarizing to create multiple distractions from the real issues on gun control and violence in the United States. 

To use sex and sexuality in this salacious manner to create a parallel with drag queens, where it doesn’t exist in the context of drag queen storytime, is obscene. One’s identity or expression in drag is not about that person’s sexuality, but of their gender and/or artistic expression. It has nothing to do with their heterosexuality, homosexuality, and sexual identity whatsoever. It’s irrelevant to that person’s public presentation. For some drag queens, it’s purely for entertainment purposes. It’s something they create for others to see onstage or on screen. That’s where it starts and ends. 

It’s a centuries old strategy used to create hate and violence towards marginalized groups that continues to alienate and exterminate. Talk about sex and children in the same phrase, and that will get ears burning and popping. And as it should. But, equating drag queens with sex is incredibly false. By adding “children” in the conversation, of course, it would trigger anyone to protect them. Again, as we should.

By creating this divisive strategy, it then opens an opportunity to expand legislation on bias, prejudice and discrimination into law. Tennessee is the first state to ban male and female impersonators, including drag queens, aptly calling it the “drag bill” signed into law by Governor Bill Lee. But don’t let your eyes and ears fool you. This is just the tip of the iceberg. This also paved the way to then extend their ban on gender care for minors. Never mind this definition according to the US Department of Health & Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Health Office of Population Affairs that “gender-affirming care is a supportive form of healthcare. It consists of an array of services that may include medical, surgical, mental health, and non-medical services for transgender and nonbinary people. For transgender and nonbinary children and adolescents, early gender-affirming care is crucial to overall health and well-being as it allows the child or adolescent to focus on social transitions and can increase their confidence while navigating the healthcare system.”

Why am I invested in this conversation? Not only am I an LGBTQI+ activist, social worker, and public health researcher, I am proudly a drag queen. I use this term lovingly that pays homage to the struggles of the LGBQI+ civil rights decades before I found language that included me in the community. Not only do I use the term to illustrate my artistic expression via its entertainment value and catalyst for change, but its expansive definition to describe my gender identity and expression. As a genderqueer person, it allows me grace to recognize gender is fluid and ever-evolving. Cultural restrictions do not see all people for their wholeness, diversity and complexities. Rather, limited and boxed into somebody else’s individualized rules and regulations that truly and only prioritize and privilege into existence the very few – cisgender, straight, white men of wealth and education in this country.

“Mama Jose” Sarria, the first openly gay man to ever run for public office in the US, who ran for San Francisco City Supervisor in 1961; and founded the International Imperial Court of the United States, Canada, and Mexico, said “united we stand, divided they will pick us out one by one.” Her words couldn’t be any truer now. 

By attacking gay people, it creates hatred and violence from non-gay people – white, people-of-color alike, cisgender men and women, and so on. They pit us against each other. And once one of us is down, the enemy will then come after the rest. It’s an unfortunate pyramid of marginalized groups as defined by the privileged in power and control of government. 

If it’s not about gender, it’s about race. It’s not just about transgender people (drag queens and trans* women in particular), but about everyone except cisgender men. According to the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) civil rights organization, states on their landing webpage, “2022 has already seen at least 38 transgender people fatally shot or killed by other violent means. We say “at least” because too often these stories go unreported — or misreported. In previous years, the majority of these people were Black and Latinx transgender women.”

Drag Queen Storytime is very simple for me. I first started doing this at Seattle Pridefest’s Family Day in the early 2010’s. From day one, I dress up in fun and colorful costumes from head to toe for children of all ages, particularly from diverse families, and from people-of-color communities where I focus on reading from books about and authored by LGBTQI+ and/or People Of Color from “My Princess Boy,” “Thank You Very Mochi” to “I Am Brown With A Crown, Don’t Let That Make You Frown.” Often curated by local libraries, and community-based organizations; and attended by the children’s parents and families from indoor and outdoor locations, weather permitting, we create safe space for storytelling- stories by us and about us. 

Who’s stopping us from reading and telling our stories? It’s not us.

I often joke that when I get invited to the next Drag Queen Storytime and if I‘m being asked to read Cinderella or Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, that I’ll pass because anyone else can read that story, a story told from time immemorial about the lives of other people who don’t look like me. I’d rather read our stories, as written by us.

It’s yet another pattern of destruction of our existence wrapped in controversy and diversion that continues to divide our communities while maintaining the power and position of the very few, whose stories aren’t reflected in Drag Queen Storytime.

Let’s focus on the real story here – let’s talk about the violence towards children brought upon by the lack of gun control legislation, and overall protections for historically and systematically oppressed communities in this country. Let’s talk about the hate and violence against every LGBTQI+ person in the world. Children, LGBTQI+, Black, Indigenous people are murdered because of the lack of real-world legislation that protects the most vulnerable and most marginalized. It’s a waste of time to drag the general public into thinking Drag Queen Storytime is the problem.

Aleksa Manila (She/They/Siya) is a Seattle-based artist and activist. She is a former Miss Gay Filipino (FCS), La Femme Magnifique – Puget Sound, Miss Gay Seattle and Empress of Seattle (ISCSORE). She recognizes that drag is not exclusively just for cisgender men, and honors people of all genders and identities who celebrate the artistry and educational value of drag as an art form of expression. Follow her via www.aleksamanila.com and @ALEKSAMANILA on all social media platforms.

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