Showing up for Drag Night

Yara SofiaLily Velona ’18 talks about embodying art, finding community and seeing Yara Sofia at Queen’s Head Drag Night during Visitas.

By Sasha Barish ‘20

 

When I was in twelfth grade, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go to Harvard. I thought of Harvard as a place full of uptight rich people from the East Coast, people who didn’t know about counterculture and didn’t care about the disenfranchised. The clean pathways of the Yard seemed a world away from my hometown, from punk music collectives, anarchists, homeless activists and kids with blue hair. But during Visitas I saw Drag Night on the schedule, and I went with some other prospective students, down below Annenberg to the crowded and dimly lit Queen’s Head Pub. A small group of students in hasty, humorously unconvincing drag was lip-synching to The Schuyler Sisters, and that was the moment it clicked for me. Oh, I thought, Harvard has LGBTQ people, and creative people, and people like me. I can find my people at Harvard.

Drag Night at the Queen’s Head is an annual Visitas event that features Harvard student drag performances and is hosted by a professional drag performer, and I love it. This year the host will be Yara Sofia, who competed on RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 3. The event, which is free, will be held 8:45-10:45 p.m., Saturday, April 21 in Cambridge Queen’s Head Pub.

Lily Velona ’18 is going to be performing at Drag Night. I’m fascinated by drag, but I’m not always sure I really understand it in all its contradictions – of

Yara Sofia
Yara Sofia
celebrating and subverting gender stereotypes, of performing in a character but making that character an integral part of the performer’s identity. So I was excited to hear what Velona had to say. Velona is nonbinary and assigned female at birth, which already sets them apart from the image of drag that has come into the mainstream. A condensed and edited version of our conversation follows.

How did you get into drag?
I came out when I was 14 or 15. I grew up in the suburbs of New York, and there was nobody really out at my high school, and so I used to go into the city. This was when queer bars still didn’t card at the door, and I was part of an activist group as well that had a lot of drag queens in it. I would see drag performance [by] a bunch of different people, all kinds of genders, and throwing [genders] up in the air, ripping them up, and pasting them back together, both in their everyday lives and in drag. And then also going into those bars – I mean, I didn’t even drink at the time. I just wanted to be around queer people. And then I was also late-night looking up logo clips online of Drag Race; I watched Season 3 with my first girlfriend at the time, which is why Yara Sofia being the host [of this year’s Drag Night] is so exciting. So that’s probably where I first started getting into drag.

Why do you like drag? 
 I love drag. I love the moment when drag is a satire of gender but doing the satire so well, better than how people perform their gender in everyday life, where it makes it necessarily like “what is any of this anyway?” I think that’s why I first fell in love with drag, and definitely why I still love it.

How does your self-identification in real life relate to your drag? I would imagine there’s a distinction.
Yes and no. Drag for me is very much an expression of my personal identity. The vibe that I’m doing for this upcoming drag night performance is definitely the most authentic form of my gender that I’ve done in public thus far. It’s allowed me to explore different parts of my gender. Something that as an AFAB person I have a tough time with is wanting to be feminine and effeminate and not wanting that to be associated with being a woman, and I feel like I’ve found the ability to do that in drag. The kind of songs and vibes that I’m doing are very canonically queer male things – like, the Village People figure in. And even if that’s not exactly what I am in real life, or in drag either, it’s a vehicle for me to blow up gender from that angle. If I’m just feminine and people are taking my body for how they perceive my body, then it looks like I’m just a cis woman, which is definitely not what I am or what I’m trying to be. I think I identify both in drag and out of drag with things that are not cis or not gender-conforming from every angle. I’m excited to do drag at Drag Night specifically for people who think that drag is a queer-cis-men-dressing-up-as-women thing. I want to bust that wide open also.

Lily Velona
Lily Velona ’18 Photo: Ali Park
We’ve been talking a bunch about drag as an expression of personal identity; do you view it as art as well?
I definitely think it’s art. I think it’s political. I think it’s fun, I think it’s all of those lovely things. I’ve also seen a lot of drag in this day and age in 2018 [that is] very leather and mesh and super sexy, which I think is great – it’s a great aesthetic, I’m into it – but drag is a lot more than that, and drag is a lot more than the pageant queens of yore. So I’m excited to show that and be that. Especially like you said, going to the drag show at Visitas, as someone who’s graduating, I’m very conscious of wanting to show younger queers that drag can be anything, gender can be anything, and I think that’s exciting.

How does Harvard, as an institution and as a community, help facilitate this event?
The institutional answer is the Queer-Straight Alliance and the Queen’s Head. When I first started working there – Fall 2014 – it was a very different vibe, and our freshman year, [several of us queer student workers] all showed up, and from then on it became more and more queer, and the Queen’s Head is honestly one of the places where I feel best on campus. I’ve actually lived off campus for the past two years. Everyone [in our home] is queer; it’s majority trans people, and most people are artists in one way or another, and activists in one way or another, and I feel like that community for me has been central. I would push Harvard students to get outside of Harvard or at least to make communities in here that are on your own terms and not necessarily institutional.

In the era of RuPaul’s Drag Race et cetera, how does having relatively mainstream drag on TV affect your work?
It brings drag to more people, which is great, but also makes it canonical. It makes there be a right type of drag and a wrong type of drag. I encourage people to watch Drag Race if they want, but I think that exploring drag with other human people in communities is where people will find the most satisfaction, where people explore the most and push drag the most.