How Drag Helped Me Find Identity and Community in Seoul
I already had a few Queer friends in Korea, but now I had a community, a way into Queer spaces and a place where I could exist as a Queer woman without worrying if I was being too flamboyant.
Reading time: 4 minutes 30 seconds.
Sometimes, I tell people I started doing drag because I didn’t want to be rude.
I moved to South Korea to teach English in 2018. I’ve been openly gay for years, and the Queer community was a huge part of my life in the UK. So, while I loved living in Korea, the shift to living somewhere much more culturally conservative, where LGBT+ issues weren’t discussed as openly, was a culture shock. Korea has few legal protections for LGBT+ people: a teacher found to be gay could be fired, though there would likely be a different ‘official’ reason. Almost every Queer person I met in Korea was closeted in the workplace, including me.
My first real brush with the drag scene was Seoul Pride. I marched with the crowd, got screamed at by homophobic protesters, and ended the night in drunken conversation with a drag queen who gave me her Instagram and told me to DM her if I wanted to get into drag. Alas, sober me was a coward: I never messaged.
A few months later, I met Drag King Sapphire Reign at another Pride event. We chatted and I mentioned an interest in drag. Sapphire immediately started telling me about the drag king workshops she was hosting and pulled out leaflets. When she asked me if I wanted to come, I panicked. Nervousness aside, I had 21 years of ridiculous British courtesy programmed in: refusing would be rude!
[...] the drag queens I met were never anything but welcoming. I was never made to feel like the space wasn’t meant for me or that I was less of a performer.
The next day, I showed up in a basement bar and learned how to walk like a man. The next week, we learned how to do our makeup, dress, choreograph a routine, and tape down our breasts with KT tape. It was liberating. I already had a few Queer friends in Korea, but now I had a community, a way into Queer spaces and a place where I could exist as a Queer woman without worrying if I was being too flamboyant. After the workshops ended, I attended weekly drag shows and monthly brunches, either performing or as an audience member.
It was at one of these drag brunches, months after Pride, that the drag queen who’d encouraged me to DM her recognised me as the drunk girl who wanted to do drag and never messaged - by then I was performing as a drag king, so my chickening out was forgiven.
Drag culture has a reputation for being dominated by cisgender, gay men. RuPaul’s drag race, arguably the most prominent mainstream representation of drag, doesn’t allow drag kings to compete. And while it has had some trans and nonbinary contestants (16 out of 166), Rupaul’s public comments on the subject have been less than kind. But the drag queens I met were never anything but welcoming. I was never made to feel like the space wasn’t meant for me or that I was less of a performer. I met some incredible performers of colour, and trans and nonbinary artists I felt privileged to work with and know.
My last few months in Korea were dogged by Covid-19 outbreaks and restrictions. I went to what shows I could, squeezing in my last performance two weeks before my departure. I’d hoped to see at least one more performance before I left, but it was cancelled the night before I flew out. I never got to properly say goodbye.
I’m back in England now, locked down in a rural area with no clubs or drag shows for miles. But I still have great memories of my time in Korea, in and out of drag. I just wish I’d started sooner.
 KT tape, also known as elastic therapeutic tape or kinesiology tape is a stretchy adhesive tape mostly used by athletes to strap up and treat injury. Unlike ace bandages it doesn’t constrict breathing so is safe to use for binding.
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