Peter, 21, New York, NY

My mom said, “All artists are male and female. To be an artist you have to be psychologically hermaphrodite.” I don’t know if I agree with that. A lot of artists are really boring. I don’t necessarily think everyone who painted a ceramic mug on Etsy is a hermaphrodite.

But I really just want to use myself in my work. When I came to New York for my freshman year of college, I knew I wanted to do drag. In my early performances I played banjo. All the other drag kings were trying to be the cute boy, and I was the creepy uncle. I was more like Pete Seeger than ‘’N Sync.

It’s great being in New York, just being able to be in drag and not get questioned. There’s so much freedom in being anonymous. There are times when I want to pass as a guy, and times where I want to stop people a bit and slow ’em down.

Recently I was on a subway car, in my beard, and there was a group of drunk girls — maybe barely 18, maybe drunk for the first time. I asked where they were going.  Normally they’d probably think I was weird, but maybe not scary or aggressive. But they saw me as a guy, and they didn’t even look at me. They probably assumed I thought, “You’re young, you’re attractive, you’re drunk.”

It hurt me for a minute. They got me wrong. I didn’t want trouble or anything. There are some ways I’m perceived differently when people think I’m a guy, and not all of them are good. It makes me think about how you really be a gentleman: a gentle man. So many guys I know are misread.

How do I identify my gender? Oh man, I don’t know. I guess I say I’m a drag king for now, as long as that will work. I think a lot about Murray Hill, the New York drag king performer. He gets called out a lot for being misogynistic, but I kind of admire him. There are parts of the character and performance in everything he does. It’s not totally essential to parse it out all the time.

The worst saying in the whole world is to “be yourself.” Any kind of change is viewed with suspicion, like, “Wasn’t your hair long?” or “You used to date boys.” As though there’s some responsibility to be how you’ve always been.

As told to Diana Scholl.
Photo by Laurel Golio, taken in New York, NY, 2011
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