I’m a fairly typical 13-year-old girl. I love singing, acting and hanging out with my friends. I spend countless hours sketching, felting and playing ukulele in my bedroom. But there’s one thing that makes me a little different from many other kids: I’m also a drag queen.
Growing up as the daughter of a fashion stylist and milliner, I have been surrounded by fashion and glamour for as long as I can remember. I have memories of going to fashion shows when I was very young and watching the elegant models strut down the long runways while wearing their fabulous fashions. I so wished that it was me walking on the runway with everyone watching. I wanted to be the one in the glamorous gowns.
Before long, I began to make my mark by dressing up when I went to these events and I even made it into the society pages of our local newspaper in Vancouver, British Columbia.
I would put on one of my fanciest dresses, pair it with a hat my mom made for me, and complete the look by placing small colored rhinestones next to both of my eyes. I called myself “a little fashionista” when people would ask why I was so dressed up. What kid doesn’t love to dress up? My clothes and the way they let me express myself gave me such joy.
One summer afternoon when I was 9 years old, I went upstairs and found my mom watching a video on her phone. I remember it instantly caught my eye because of the gorgeous women in flamboyant gowns, crazy hair and dramatic makeup I saw walking down a long, sleek catwalk. This was unlike any fashion show I had seen before. Eyes wide, I asked my mom, “What is this?” She told me she was watching a TV show called “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and began to explain what a drag queen is.
I already knew some things about drag queens because my family had gone to watch the Vancouver Pride parade every year and some of our friends even performed in drag but I had never seen anything like “RuPaul’s Drag Race” before. I was instantly hooked.
My mom and I began to watch the show together ― though she was careful to skip through some of the competition’s more grown-up parts. When she showed me Season 5 so that I would be introduced to Alaska, her favorite queen, I immediately fell in love with her too. I loved the horse mask she wore when she first entered the competition. I loved the bizarre outfits she wore on the runways. I loved everything about her. Then it dawned on me: If Alaska could wear a dress made out of garbage bags and still make it look good, why couldn’t I?
I asked my mom if I could try doing a drag look with plastic bags and was quite disappointed when she said no. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to dress like these queens I idolized. My mom told me she was concerned it might be seen as appropriation ― that drag queens had a long history of being persecuted for what they did and who they were and that it might not be appropriate for me, someone who never experienced the things most of them had, to begin dressing in drag.
I refused to give up. I asked again and again if I could just once try to be like these queens, but she still wasn’t sure. This went on for months. Finally, one day my mom and I went to visit a friend of ours, Kendall Gender, a local drag queen who also worked at a store we liked. While we were chatting, my mom told Kendall that I had been asking to do drag and she immediately lit up and told us about a kind of drag queen called a “hyper queen.” A hyper queen is a drag queen who identifies as female both in and out of drag and who often hyper-feminizes themselves while performing.
After hearing this, my mom finally gave in to me and handed me her makeup bags. There was so much to choose from ― shimmers, mattes, glosses and powders. She helped me select the products I would need for my first drag look and we set up all of our materials by the bathroom sink, propping up her phone so we could watch one of Alaska’s video makeup tutorials. My mom helped me apply the makeup and I watched as I transformed into a completely different person.
For the first year on my drag journey, I would just get dressed up and prance around my front room, lip-syncing to my favorite songs. It was hard to find events that were suitable for me to go to until Kendall told us about an upcoming Christmas-themed all-ages vogue ball. I will be honest ― I didn’t know much about ballroom culture at the time, but it sounded super fun and I was desperate to have the chance to finally be on a runway.
Vogue balls, as we know them today, originated in New York City in the 1980s. People from the LGBTQ+ community, most of them LGBTQ+ people of color, would gather and compete in different categories such as “face,” “best dressed” and “vogue.” I did not fully understand the rules or the technicalities of competing at the ball, but dressed head to toe in my “tinsel couture,” a pink sequin dress with a tinsel boa tacked onto the hem and many shiny accessories stuck on to me, I gave it my best shot. And it was incredible!
The ball was also where I met some of the most important people who have supported me as a drag queen: my vogue mother, Ralph Escamillan, and vogue family, or “house” ― ours is called the House of Gvasalia ― who have taught me everything I know about ballroom culture and voguing, another one of my passions. Not all drag queens vogue or belong to a house, but many do and the ballroom community and the drag community often overlap.
I soon began to create a space for myself in the local community and continued to learn more as local queens would help me improve my makeup skills and even tried to find places for me to perform. Still, since most drag shows take place at bars and other venues that don’t allow kids, it was hard.
Finally, when I was 11, I got to do my first real performance at Vancouver Pride. I was rocking a blue and white unicorn onesie with my newly styled pink wig that I recently bought with my birthday money. I stood backstage, and the nerves I felt were intense. I had been practicing my choreography to Meghan Trainor’s “Me Too” for weeks, but I was still worried that I was going to forget something. I counted down the performances ahead of mine until, at last, it was time for me to take the stage. I was so anxious but as soon as my track began and the curtains opened, I knew I was where I was meant to be and that performing was what I wanted to do.
I have never had stage fright again. The stage is like home to me. I feel so happy and welcomed. Everyone seems to understand me and accept me no matter what is going on in my life.
Two days after that first performance, I flew out to Montreal to perform at Fierté Montréal/Montréal Pride with three other incredible youth performers who also happen to be part of “Drag Kids,” a documentary I’m in that shows the highs and lows kids like me experience when we just want a space to do what we love and a community that will support us and that we can support too. And I’ve been performing ever since.
I often get asked why I love drag, and the answer always stays the same: Drag brings me so much happiness. It is my creative outlet, it helps me express myself, and there are no ruIes or limits. I dance, sing, sew outfits, create characters and play dress-up.
Drag also has a political side for me, too. As a young girl constantly being told by the media and society how I should look and behave, drag lets me poke fun at that idea and make a caricature of those expectations. When I am in drag, I can become whatever character I want, knowing I am just a couple of makeup wipes away from being “regular me” again. I enjoy just being regular me, but it can be fun to be someone else just for a minute.
Some people think it’s inappropriate for a child to be participating in drag. I think this comes from the misconception that all drag is about adult jokes and risqué content, but drag also has so much history in children’s entertainment. Just think how many kids shows and films have a comedic cross-dressing character in them. And, like with every performative art, there are many different kinds of performers who are making many different kinds of art.
Of course some drag shows might not be appropriate for me to attend, just like some movies aren’t appropriate for me to watch. When I perform, it is usually at drag brunches or drag queen story times, where drag queens read books and perform for kids, often at libraries. They’re a fantastic opportunity for queer (and non-queer) kids and families to come together and be a part of their community. I believe drag is, and should be, for everybody.
Something I never expected to come from all of this is the messages I receive from kids around the world. Even though we’re a lot alike, unfortunately, many aren’t exactly like me because they don’t have the support of their family and community. Some of these kids are really struggling. As a 13-year-old, it is hard to give them all the answers, but I am grateful I can help them to see they are not the only ones like them, and that they aren’t wrong, or alone.
These messages have also taught me that visibility is so important. We are living in a time where there are so many kids, especially queer kids, turning to self-harm and even suicide due to bullying and hate they experience ― not only in their local communities but to a massive extent on social media.
I hope I can help create a conversation about healthy outlets for LGBTQ+ kids as well as support and inspire kids who are still trying to find their way to live authentically in an unaccepting and often judgmental world. Drag has always been a form of protest and for many of the kids who are participating in it now, it is for them too. At the end of the day, building spaces for queer youth and anyone who feels different doesn’t detract from the world ― it transforms it.
Bracken Hanke is a 13-year-old actress, drag artist and LGBTQ+ youth advocate from Vancouver, British Columbia. She enjoys snuggling her puppy, hanging out with friends and finding new creative outlets when she isn’t doing her homework. You can follow her on Instagram @brackenhanke.