Life & Culture

Crystal Rasmussen: What Drag Taught Me About Masculinity

It’s safe to say that drag has changed – maybe even saved – Crystal Rasmussen’s life. Here, they describe the lessons they’ve learned since falling ‘into the glorious whirlpool of femininity’

When did you first realise you are the gender you are? Was there an act that made you stop and think, “oh shit, I’m a lad”, or “whew, I’m a lass”? Did you drink something? Beer, perhaps? Or a bottle of Barefoot (mood) Rosé?

I spent about 25 years in a deep confusion about what it meant to be a man. Assigned this body, and this role, against my choosing. My gender questioning wasn’t brought about by something academic, or socially contracted from a rise in media representation of queer people like me. The deep confusion at my categorisation as male by others was just something I always knew.

I can remember the first moment I knew that I wasn’t a man, which was at primary school. We were doing long jump, and all the boys went first – how impolite – and the girls went second. But the teacher put me in between, because my face turned puce at the idea of being with the lads, of leaving the girls.

I ended up jumping 31cm, and scored the lowest of my whole class. What does that say about my gender? That I’m definitely not a man by society’s standards. Plus, I was sucking off all my best boy friends for all those years, which further distanced me from male expectation. At school I was passive, femme, a receiver – but that didn’t make me a woman either. Those things are not traits that fit with the women I was either raised by, nor now know.

Then I found drag, and fell deep into the glorious whirlpool of femininity first, and gender criticism thereafter. I spent the last seven of those aforementioned 25 years so far away from masculinity that every man was an enemy (dw, they still are for the most part) that I didn’t know how to have a conversation with the odd cis-het dude that would pop up in my now exclusively queer, femme, and bottom-heavy world.

I began to collate all the ways cis masculinity had punished me for failing it: all the stones and the words, the punch outside my house in east London, the gay men off of Grindr who’d told me to leave ten seconds in because of my acrylic nails. And so I raged, and am still raging, at cis men, maleness, masculinity, masc4masc culture. All of it: in the bin, covered over with old wigs, worn out heels, and clicky-clacky clap backs to men on the tube who are so blind to the toxicity of their masculinity. (It should be noted here that in was lucky enough to have female and femme educators who pushed me, and still push me, to unpick my male-bodied privilege.)

But as I got older, and more distanced from preconceived notions of gender, and into a world, a community, and a self far away from those labels, I began to repurpose my entire gender – whether the “man” bits, the “lady bits” – they just become my bits.

It was drag which took me there: into spaces online and places in real life where I saw countless conceptions of how limitless gender could be. From Rose, my pan-gender friend who performs the most amazing criticisms of gender on stage, to inspirations like Travis Alabanza, Victoria Sin, and my friends Amrou, Hatty, Margo, Hugh, Kai, my flatmates, my cis mates who use my they pronoun and educate anyone who doesn’t on my behalf. The people I met through consuming that very same space I was put in during long jump at primary school – the in-between – taught me that it was all fake in our world, they showed me the future. And we were at the front.

When I sat down to write this article (lol, what a clanger of a line, hi Carrie!) I wanted to write a big, inspirational, well-worded exploration on What Drag Taught Me About Masculinity, with a clean end that said something like: “masculinity isn’t something to be feared, it’s the men who wield it irresponsibly that are,” or “I’m more of a man because I have the courage to wear a dress.” But, as I redrafted and redrafted, I realised there’s no finite answer for What Drag Taught Me About Masculinity.

Because the very act of being in drag teaches me, still, to be terrified of cis masculinity. I don’t go outside in drag anymore, I wear dull, gender-conforming clothes when I’m out of drag because I remain so scared of violent men, and I’ve lost that jokes youthfulness that would let me holler back at groups of boys who’d call me words not worth repeating here, on every street, train, and bus.

If anything, living life as a drag queen, has shown me how wonderful it is not to be a cis man. That’s something I could never see finding when I was growing up, when everyone expected me to be just that. In fact, not being a man – known otherwise as being non-binary – has taught me to embrace the femme parts of myself not as failure, but as wonderful, unique, brilliantly unusual parts of myself.

The final part of the puzzle: after long-jumping all the way from a failing man to gleefully non-binary, is how to let go of the rage at men. I’ve spent so much time filled with rage that cis men will never feel because their identities won’t be called into question the way ours are. And I’m tired, and they’re absolutely not worth it.

So perhaps drag will teach me, next, how not to care, not to sell myself to and seek the approval of cisgender men. Perhaps drag will show me how to de-centre cis masculinity, because I know and love people in my community who are masculine and still don’t receive male privilege. Perhaps drag will teach me, next, that my femininity, my nonconformity, renders cis masculinity as weak as it used to make me feel.

Diary of a Drag Queen by Crystal Rasmussen, is published by Ebury on February 7, and is available online and in all good book shops