The first time Onyx Godwin Ogaga saw a drag queen perform, they were amazed. “I was surprised that [drag] even existed,” says the 23-year-old nonbinary drag artist from Lekki, Nigeria.
It was 2014 — five years after RuPaul’s Drag Race began pitting queens against one another in a battle royale to become America’s Next Drag Superstar. The same year, Nigeria signed the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill into law.
Under the law, discussing LGBTQ rights and gender expression is forbidden; being gay is a crime that can lead to a 14-year prison sentence. In states that practice Sharia Law, it can even lead to death.
To openly discuss the joys of drag is to commit a crime. To perform in drag can be downright dangerous. Nevertheless, Onyx found the Runiverse, and within a few years, they began challenging the gender binary on stage.
“When I’m in drag I feel powerful,” they say. “It makes me feel like myself. I feel glamorous; I feel fierce. Out of drag, I feel anxious.”
“Drag is all over the world,” shrieks international drag juggernaut RuPaul in Phenomenon, one of her many club-ready ear-worms. It’s a happy-go-lucky marketing soundbite backed by her ever-expanding reality show empire. This fall, RuPaul’s Drag Race will air an international spinoff in France, bringing the total number of nations with a version of Drag Race to 11.
But there are 195 countries in the world. RuPaul’s glamazonian kingdom accounts for five percent of the global drag scene. The show has homogenized the artform into a one-size-fits-all package replete with drag houses and sisters who work in the same cities, use the same designers, and appreciate a similar polish. While queens across the globe get inspired by Drag Race contestants (Onyx is a fan of Season 11’s Insta-famous beauty queen Plastique Tiara), artists in countries with anti-LGBTQ laws lead drastically different lives than those who strut for Mama Ru. Artists like Onyx are the drag world’s foot soldiers.
Before drag became a form of reality-show escapism in places like the US, it was an act of resistance against political oppression. It’s no coincidence that drag queens led some of America’s earliest fights for LGBTQ rights. There’s the Cooper Do-nuts Riot in 1959, when LA-based drag queens, transgender individuals, and hustlers fought against police officers attempting to arrest members of their tribe. In 1966, drag queens and trans women led a riot at San Francisco’s Compton’s Cafeteria to protest police violence. A similar demographic also spearheaded the 1969 Stonewall Uprising — an international rallying cry for the modern LGBTQ rights movement.
When those queens painted their faces, they weren’t getting ready for a performance. They were getting ready for war. In many places worldwide, there are still battles to be won.
The journey to the stage
“I always say Anissa is an ex-porn star,” says Anissa Krana, the stage name for Aniss Ezzeddine, a 25-year-old fashion designer and drag queen who splits her time between Beirut and Paris. (Anissa Krana means “I’m drunk” in Arabic.) “She’s all about sexual liberation. She’s against slut shaming.”
Anissa, who started performing five years ago in Lebanon, is the personification of resistance to Article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code, which prohibits sexual acts that contradict “the laws of nature.” In Beirut — the Middle East’s most liberal city — judges don’t usually link the law to same-sex sexual activity, but it remains on the books. And while public perception of LGBTQ individuals is improving, there’s still work to be done.
In 2012, Lebanon banned the abusive practice of performing anal examinations on men suspected of homosexual acts — but Anissa says drag queens can still face persecution, humiliation, and coercion at the hands of authorities.
Three Beirut venues host drag performances, and owners usually tell performers to don their makeup and costumes on site. Traveling the streets in drag can be risky. “If there’s a checkpoint and [police] stop you, they might ask a lot of questions,” says Anissa. “They can sometimes link drag to prostitution for no reason — just because you’re gay.” (To note: doing drag doesn’t imply sexual orientation, though many make assumptions.)
Despite the dangers, Aniss gets ready for shows at home and travels as Anissa. “I feel like I always look like a woman, so people don’t really question my gender,” she says.
Lorina Rey, an avant-garde drag artist from Moscow, Russia, avoids public transport to performances altogether. Her style — a combination of Sasha Velour glamor and Sharon Needles fright-fest — would undoubtedly turn heads. “I don’t walk down the street in drag unless it’s a photo shoot,” she says.
According to an Equaldex survey, 66 percent of Russian residents don’t approve of openly LGBTQ neighbors; over 70 percent don’t think there’s justification for identifying on the LGBTQ spectrum. Nearly one in five Russians want to “eliminate” the LGBTQ community entirely. With few legal protections against discrimination, taking one’s chances on the street isn’t advisable.
As for Onyx, appearing publicly in drag is out of the question — unless they’re with a group.
Once, while dolled up in makeup and a dress, Onyx got stopped by police. “They actually thought I was a woman, so they left me alone,” they say. (Onyx’s high cheekbones and toothy grin make them a dead ringer for Naomi Campbell.)
“If they had any idea I was a drag queen, I don’t know what would’ve happened. I thought I would get beat up — or something even worse.”
To avoid attention, Onyx leaves the house wearing baggy clothes as camouflage. “If I’m in drag, I use an Uber and avoid the police at all costs. If you try using public buses in drag, I’m sure something horrible will happen to you. It’s a risk I can’t take.”
The local drag scene
For drag performers in anti-queer countries, the stage is a bright light at the end of a dark tunnel.
Nigeria’s underground drag scene is filled with queens “having fun, wearing crowns, and wearing beautiful clothes,” says Onyx. “They’re in their natural element.” Attending one of the clandestine pageants is like stepping into a frame from Paris is Burning, the famed 1990 documentary about NYC ballroom culture often invoked by RuPaul on Drag Race.
“When you forget about being arrested, assaulted, or even being killed — you see beautiful individuals living their truth,” they say. “If we had the opportunities and platforms [as Drag Race contestants], we’d be some of the world’s top contenders.”
Thanks to the internet, Onyx is taking her drag career from private banquet halls to the world. “My major platform is social media. That’s where I get to show off my looks and my makeup.” Exposure on Instagram and Twitter helped them land photoshoots and interviews with Vogue Italia, Paper, i-d Magazine, and more.
In Moscow, drag queens find work at nightclubs and local parties, but Lorina notes that mounting costs can be prohibitive. “Creating an image: wigs, cosmetics, costumes — it costs a lot of money,” she says.
Like Onyx, Russia’s boundary-breaking drag artists are finding their voices virtually. Moscow’s drag community, which includes roughly 30 or 40 queens, comprises three types of drag. Seasoned queens dress in what Lorina calls a “very feminine” style. “Drag artists from the 2010s to today try to be like the American drag queens from RuPaul.” Although the show has never aired in Russia, most queens follow the series online.
As for new-wave boundary-breakers like Lorina — who skew more performance artist than pageant queen — apps like Instagram are a valuable asset. Over the past two years, Lorina says a growing number of progressive artists started appearing on social media, “experimenting with looks and moving away from femininity.”
Lorina’s Instagram boasts a diversity of styles. In one clip, she pulls chiffon from an outfit while stalking the stage like a tigress. In another, she appears behind a glory hole in a soft pink suit seemingly cut from a Janelle Monae music video.
One thing you won’t find on Lorina’s page is politics. “I am out of politics,” she says. “I’m only interested in beauty and art.”
Considering Russia’s recent crackdowns on free speech, Lorina’s stance is understandable. “I try not to pay much attention to this topic — I try to live my life and do what I like.”
But Lorina’s art, like so many drag artists, is undercover activism. “Every drag queen in Nigeria is making a statement,” says Onyx. It’s going against homophobia. It’s going against transphobia.”
“By itself, doing drag in a country like Lebanon is political,” Anissa agrees. It’s a way of telling people, ‘Fuck you. I’m going to be whoever I want.'”
Performance as politics
Soon after Anissa started dabbling in drag, she traded dance-club lip syncs for raw, introspective performances on topics affecting Beirut’s queer population.
“A lot of LGBTQ people live la vie en rose,” she says. “But I think they should also tackle political and social issues and help members of their community.”
In one of her most memorable pieces, Anissa mixed musical tracks to tell the story of a boy tormented by his family and friends for his sexuality. “They call him a monster,” Anissa explains, “until he believes he is a monster.”
As the story continues, the boy spirals into drug addiction and plans to kill those who caused him pain “until he looks in the mirror and sees he’s become the monster everyone told him he was,” she says.
To end the performance, Anissa lip-synced “Creep” by Radiohead. “While performing, I broke down in tears,” she remembers. As lead singer Thom Yorke crooned, “I don’t belong here,” the audience began spontaneously shouting, “You do belong here!” in response.
“It was such a beautiful moment for me,” she recalls. “I thought, we have a strong community in Beirut. We’re here to support each other, even if other people don’t support us.”
A family affair
Despite local cultures that demonize drag, Anissa, Onyx, and Lorina have families who encourage their ambitions.
“There is not a single person in my life who would not support what I do,” says Lorina. “I am a hairstylist, and even my clients know about Lorina and support me.”
As for Anissa, her mother and sister regularly attend performances, but her father doesn’t know about her drag career. “I don’t think he would understand drag,” she says. Her Muslim father’s religion already makes homosexuality challenging to accept.
For Onyx, the story is similar. They didn’t attempt drag until after their father passed away in 2013. “He expected a masculine child,” says Onyx. “It was tough — he was abusive.” Today, their mother and siblings are all supportive. Onyx’s mother occasionally loans her clothes and makeup. She even constructed Onyx parts of a bikini for a costume.
When it comes to extended family and neighbors, Onyx avoids contact. “I had to search for them online and block them from my social media pages,” they say. “It’s a safety precaution because most of them don’t know I’m a drag queen. I don’t want them to know. You don’t know who they might tell.”
Mainstream appeal and antiquated ideology
In America, Drag Race made a once-subversive artform mainstream. Long gone are the days when drag was relegated to the dimly-lit stages of seedy gay bars. RuPaul’s coven of queens have gone on to model for Marc Jacobs and act opposite Lady Gaga in the Oscar-nominated film A Star is Born. Prominent government officials have served as judges on the show. Drag Race is Family Matters for a new generation: Instead of 1990s TGIF programming, kids across America can tune in to VH1 on Friday nights and watch Michelle Visage come for queens in bodysuits. Drag artists read Eric Carle classics in libraries for Drag Queen Story Hour. There’s even a Muppet Babies-style Drag Race spinoff for “kids of all ages” entitled Drag Tots.
“Not a lot of people used to understand why a man would dress up and perform as a woman,” says Anissa. But, even in Beirut, those conservative notions are slowly changing — a win Anissa credits with an increased viewership of the famed reality show.
With RuPaul’s ever-growing reach, Beirut’s tiny transformations give hope that Drag Race will continue to foster acceptance in more places with anti-LGBTQ laws.
But then again, change is a fickle beast. On March 28th, Florida’s governor signed the “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” prohibiting public school teachers in America’s most southern state from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity. Hateful legislation like this doesn’t go away quickly. It took until 2011 for New York State to abolish a law allowing someone perceived as male to be arrested for wearing “the dress of the opposite sex.” The law dates back to the 19th century.
The story of senseless rules is one with which Onyx is all-too-familiar. “One of the major problems with being a drag queen in Nigeria is the anti-LGBTQ law,” they say. Popular media is unlikely to show drag queens on tv or in print because it’s uncertain how the government will react.
“It’s limited my career a lot,” says Onyx. She hides her exasperation by flashing a million-dollar smile, then quotes Gloria Gaynor’s gay disco anthem, performed during an elimination on Season 8 of Drag Race: “But…I will survive.”
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.