In the hours before I perform in a drag show, I treat my body like I’m an athlete. I arrange my makeup like a chef would lay out their ingredients as I listen to the tracks I’m about to dance and lip sync to—Ariana Grande’s "Dangerous Woman" or MUNA’s "What I Want" or "Plastic Doll" by Lady Gaga. Then, I recite some affirmations in the mirror.
"You're a fucking bad bitch. You're talented. You’re powerful. You are a representation of liberation and trans excellence. You’re transforming yourself to transform the world."
For the next several minutes, I'm not the therapist my patients see or the university lecturer my students learn from. I am a performer who is about to absolutely slay in front of a crowd (though trust I can also slay a therapy session and class lesson).
Drag and I go way back to college, but it took about six more years before I actually started booking regular gigs. The first time I got into drag was for an amateur competition in 2013 (shout-out to the University of Michigan’s Coalition for Queer and Trans People of Color). The only other time I’d been exposed to drag was watching RuPaul’s Drag Race for a summer communications class focused on LGBTQ+ representation, and it was striking to see so many queer femme people on TV. But I’d never dabbled in it before.
So there I was, wearing a Rihanna-red wig, a mesh top, and a skirt and sparkly short-shorts combo, alongside my best friend, Mel, performing to "Bottle Pop" by The Pussycat Dolls and a remix of Destiny’s Child’s "Say My Name." Turns out, I actually loved doing drag, and part of me was afraid of that love. I enjoyed leaning into my feminine side on stage, but I realized that I wanted to do that all the time, not just during a drag show. And that was a scary feeling.
I was used to doing theater all my life, but this felt different. Drag stirred an urge in me to explore my gender identity off stage in a way that I wasn’t really ready for. When I was approached to do drag locally again, I turned down the offer. At the time, I was too anxious to even wear a pair of slightly heeled Chelsea boots (men’s boots!). So how could I step on stage and confront my complicated feelings about gender expression?
Hiding from the spotlight.
Growing up, I fantasized about what it would have been like if I was born a girl. It wasn’t that I felt like I was stuck in the wrong body—which is a common narrative of what it means to be trans—but I wanted to do things that society said all of my friends (who happened to be girls) could do and boys couldn’t do. Things like expressing my emotions more openly and intensely and loving boy bands, reality TV, and trashy tabloids.
I was bullied for being a super feminine and flamboyant kid who didn’t relate to the other boys, and that femininity always seemed like something I had to correct. By middle school, I had become a shell of myself—stoic, small, quiet, never smiling in photos. Then, in high school, I joined theater and found a way to not just access the part of myself I was suppressing but be celebrated for it too. I was comfortable enough to come out as gay when I was 17, though I still never really felt “good” at being a boy and couldn’t conform to what society said a man should be.
I came to terms with the fact that I was genderqueer and nonbinary in 2015, around the time I moved to Chicago to study social work in graduate school. That year, I went to my first live drag show at Berlin nightclub. You should have seen the command those sparkly performers in big hair and feathers had on the audience! They worked the crowd with a shimmy and a wink. As I watched, tears welled up in my eyes.
“Bitch, are you crying?” my friend asked, looking over at me.
Yes, I was crying in the club. Something about seeing queer people embody this amazing feminine energy made me emotional because I wanted that same freedom for myself and was still grappling with whether or not I truly saw myself as a woman.
Finding Alex Jenny.
A few years after that emotional night at Berlin, my friends pushed me on stage at that same club to do an impromptu dance competition for Troye Sivan tickets. It was electric. I whipped my hair around and even broke out into a split! It simultaneously felt like coming home and starting something completely new. I realized, Oh, shit, I love this! I think I should actually try drag again. And, yes, I won those tickets.
That winter, I signed up for an amateur competition as Alex Jenny. She’s based on a persona I fantasized about growing up—one society allowed to obsess over pop culture and “girly” things. A person who held attention and turned heads like a reality star meets pop star (think: Lindsay Lohan plus Paris Hilton). But she’s also a deep and significant part of me (Jenny is the name my mom picked when she moved to the U.S. as a Vietnamese refugee).
I borrowed a ginger orange wig from my good friend and fellow drag performer Isa Diamond and, fittingly, stunted it out to Lindsay Lohan’s "Rumors." I didn’t win that time around, but I was just getting started.
As I booked more and more gigs as Alex Jenny, being her under the lights made me fully realize my identity as a trans woman. From the very first performance, drag queens and club-goers used she/her pronouns when talking about me, which felt really nice. If someone was looking for me in the club, people would say, “She’s over there.” They greeted me with a simple, “Hey, girlie,” without second thought. And the trans women in the drag scene called me “sister,” even when I had a beard and wore masculine clothes. It was liberating to be referred to as a woman and have access to femininity I wasn’t always comfortable expressing.
Finding a community that uplifted me and saw me for who I truly was helped my mental health immensely. It’s hella stressful when you’re hiding parts of yourself that don’t conform to societal expectations of how you should identify, whether that has to do with who you love or how you express yourself. You don’t feel like a full human. But being able to come out and step into your authentic self relieves that pressure and stress so that you can explore what feels authentic to you. That’s exactly what happened to me.
Shortly after Alex Jenny was born, I told everyone in my life that I wanted them to use she/her pronouns all the time for me. Alex Jenny may have started as a character that I embodied, but eventually she became both my stage name and my name name. Now, I go by Alex, Jenny, or Alex Jenny.
I started medically transitioning in August 2020. It wasn’t that I felt trapped in my body—I loved my body and didn’t grow up hating it—but transitioning medically made me feel like my best and hottest self. Everything that I've done within my transition—from hormone therapy to plastic surgery—has been to help me feel more confident, rather than to prove my identity to the world. Drag encouraged me to accept my womanhood regardless of what I looked like. Just as I didn’t need to shave my beard or dress outwardly feminine to prove to other drag queens that I was a woman, I know that if I decided to stop taking hormones tomorrow, I would still be a woman. I’m a woman no matter what.
My work as a therapist also helped reinforce these feelings of self-worth. When some of my transfeminine clients told me they felt like they weren’t living authentically if they couldn’t afford hormones or didn’t want to medically transition, I assured them that those things didn’t dictate their gender. “I see the womanhood in you,” I said. Preaching this to my clients pushed me to offer myself the same grace in my own gender exploration.
Drag is liberation.
As a mental health professional, I know that one of the risk factors for depression is feeling disconnected from yourself and others. Drag has helped me directly with both of those things: I’m more connected to me, and I’m more connected to a community of people who accept my femininity without question.
I know if I was ever sick or needed something or if, God forbid, I was ever hurt, I have a whole team of people who would step up in a heartbeat, who would protect me, and who would raise money on my behalf. Knowing that makes me feel safer and so loved.
For me and my community, drag shows are a refuge—especially now, in our political climate, when being queer and trans is polarizing. Especially now when conservative-led bills threaten to restrict drag shows in some states because of the twisted narrative that we’re wrong or perverted. It’s just wigs, a beat face, and dress-up, people! It’s really not that deep.
What is deep is that, for me, being in drag in front of a full room is an act of mutual worship. The audience worships someone who doesn’t usually receive praise in our society: someone who’s trans, Asian, and unapologetically queer. For those four minutes that I’m commanding attention, I get to worship the audience—including fellow queer and trans people of color—right back. Have you ever experienced such a prideful thing?!
Drag queens and trans women were and continue to be at the forefront of queer and trans liberation. Queer clubs started as a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community to find comfort, find food, find shelter, find work. That context is always on my mind when I'm performing in clubs now. Being able to honor that legacy with people like me, my chosen family, feels like pure love.
If I could tell younger Alex anything, it would be that I finally found myself and my liberation in a dingy club basement, dressed in drag, surrounded by my people. And that is pure love too.
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