A boy named Dan hovered outside a lingerie store and peered inside. He had brought me along as moral support for corset shopping, and a plain tan number, with the texture of cheap polyester, looked promising. His gathered his courage and entered. I hung back a few feet. Dan exchanged a few words with the saleswoman, a short, middle-age lady with long dark hair and an indifferent demeanor. She showed Dan a lacy black upper body bra. Mumbling something about a theater performance, Dan told her that he would need something to squeeze his torso and change his body shape.

In fact, Dan was shopping for a corset because later that night, he would be making his public debut as a drag queen. Several weeks earlier, I had met Dan and his best friend Keisha in a dark gay bar in Bangkok. Dan had showed me pictures of himself in drag and sang karaoke with my husband. Later, we exchanged messages, and decided that I would accompany Dan on his first time out in drag in Singapore. Though our acquaintance was tenuous, I would watch him undertake a rite of passage.

Dan, I learned the first night after my arrival, is 21 years old. He is a native Singaporean of Malay descent. He’s Muslim. He’s not particularly observant, but he keeps halal and believes in Allah. He has a theater background, and likes to fill awkward silences with snatches of American pop songs. Right now he’s stuck working as an administrative clerk at a fire station where he handles things like pay stubs. He smokes a pack a day of L&M Fast Forward menthols. He is gay. He practices drag at his best friend’s apartment. His family doesn’t know these last two things.

The corset was the last and most elusive thing Dan needed. The previous evening, he had spent S$ 117.70 on makeup at a high-end provider called Kryolan.

The corset was the last and most elusive thing Dan needed. The previous evening, he had spent S$ 117.70 on makeup at a high-end provider called Kryolan. He had ignored olfactory tints like turmeric, lemongrass, caraway, lavender, chive blossom, white pepper, lychee, lime, and aubergine, settling on a light tan foundation that blended well with his skin. He had ordered hair, a long, raven black wig named Donatella from the drag specialists Wigs and Grace in Texas. The wig had already traveled roughly 10,000 miles and taken a month to arrive.

Dan bought an unadorned chest corset, size L. That accomplished, we continued to prowl the labyrinthine, fluorescent corridors of Bugis Street market, a cheap mall at the center of a city full of expensive shopping. Dan stopped to admire a gaudy gold dress outside a minuscule shop. An Indian woman from the massage parlor across the hall stared at us, two men, one white, one Malaysian and younger, admiring a dress. She made eye contact with me and giggled. “Nice dress,” I said, and she disappeared into her shop. Dan and I kept walking. Another store seemed to have a larger selection of outrageous woman’s clothing. One was like the gold dress in its cut, but with silver sequins that Dan liked, so he bought it.

Dan now had everything he needed. He returned to my tiny hotel room, which he was using to get ready. (Home was obviously not an option.) The process of leaving his boy self and becoming a drag debutant began at 9 p.m. Keisha met us in my hotel room, sat down on top of the toilet—the only free chair in the room, and helped Dan with his makeup. Lacking a wig stand, Dan placed his hair on a tall water bottle and hummed along to the Village People’s “Macho Man.” Makeup ready, Keisha fastened the clips on Dan’s new corset as he inhaled sharply and tried to hide his pain. Finally, at eight minutes past midnight, three encores of “It’s Raining Men” and two of Rihanna’s “Higher” later, Dan was shaped like an hourglass, his penis taped under his crotch, his luxurious eyebrows covered and repainted, high heels at the ready, with three layers of panty hose on to cover his unshaven legs. Now he was a drag queen named Nikita.

***

Singapore Penal Code Section 377A forbids sex between two men under penalty of imprisonment. The ordinance, which includes consensual sex in private, is a remnant from the city state’s past as a British colony. In recent years, two separate gay couples have sued the government, alleging that the statue violates their claim to equal rights under the constitution. But in its most recent decision, on October 28, 2014, the Court of Appeals upheld the law, ruling that “the purpose of Section 377A was legitimate because of the weight of historical practice and ‘deep seated feelings’ pertaining to procreation and family lineage.” Yet Singapore is no Saudi Arabia or even Russia. Section 377A is not enforced, and none of the gay men I talked were remotely afraid that they would be imprisoned for having sex. What’s more, law and order in the city state is so strictly enforced that random violence does not pose a threat.

Privacy is a more immediate problem. The government Singapore Housing and Development Board (HDB) offers generous support to citizens looking to purchase property, but this support is restricted to married couples or single people age 35 and older. A rich expat community pushes rental prices sky high. So like many young Singaporeans, Dan lives at home. He hides his drag things at Keisha’s house. Almost always, having sex with somebody means risking getting caught by family. Dan told me, “I’ve had people basically strip me of my clothes, help me jerk off, and after that it was just like, ‘You need to go. My mom’s coming soon.’”

Dan told me he refused to take the famously safe, clean and efficient local public transportation system while in drag, because of Stomp.

Home is not the only place where gay Singaporeans have to tip-toe around the possibility of getting caught and outed. Dan told me he refused to take the famously safe, clean and efficient local public transportation system while in drag, because of Stomp. Stomp is a smartphone app, a white foot icon on an orange background, that encourages “citizen journalists” to film or photograph strangers engaging in bad behavior and post them online for others to view and comment on. “You are our eyes and ears,” the app description says, and “Have fun Stomp-ing.” (The connotation of a trampling by angry mob does not seem like a coincidence.) Dam was sure he’d appear on Stomp if he went out in drag in public. Out of curiosity, I downloaded the app: most posts were about transportation delays, public arguments etc., and were minor enough to suggest that he was right. “It’s basically a public shaming platform,” he said.

Stomp belongs to a company called Singapore Press Holdings, one of the government-controlled media corporations in the city state. (The current CEO, Ny Yat Chung, was chief of the Singapore Defense Force from 2003 to 2007.) More drag queens have dealt directly with another state-owned media company, Mediacorp, whose name that would be dismissed as a little too on-the-nose in a dystopian sci-fi thriller. Two drag queens who performed as men on Mediacorp TV shows told me they were asked to tone down performances to avoid giving the wrong impression. “We were just wearing different colored long pants and shirts,” one told me. “And we were told to change to all black, because to them [that] was too gay.” Of course, it’s not like I’ve unearthed some hidden scandal here. Censorship of the media is official government policy in Singapore.

***

Drag is everything that Singaporean society is not. It’s rude where Singaporeans are polite, loud where they are quiet, gaudy where they prefer discreet displays of branded wealth. Yet despite the obstacles, it is starting to flourish. One afternoon, I met a heavily tattooed, 39-year-old veteran of the city’s drag and performing arts scenes named Desmond Charles Perry-Wong, drag alias DeEnormouS. He wore a red and black custom flat brim baseball cap with his drag name embroidered on the front and the Singapore flag on the back, and brought his husband, a somewhat reserved employee of Honeywell Oil and Gas. Perry-Wong remembered playing with pieces of sequin fabric as a little boy. While he was studying dance, a teacher encouraged him to try drag. His first character was a Dolly Parton imitator. “Let me see if I can still do the accent,” he said in passably nasal American intonation.

Perry-Wong sketched for me the history of drag in Singapore, which began with an Indian performer and standup comedian named Kumar. Kumar got his start in the early ‘90s, when both drag and standup comedy were unknown and received with considerable confusion. He managed to parlay that confusion into fame. In 2011, he published an autobiography in which he came out publicly as gay. “The public, when they heard ‘drag queen,’ they thought of Kumar,” Perry-Wong told me. Though Kumar’s jokes may appear inscrutable to a Western audience—they play off unfamiliar stereotypes about Singapore’s four main ethnic groups, and are delivered in rapid Singlish—his influence in Singapore is great enough that many queens still feel the need to explicitly distance themselves from him. Recently, though, space has opened up for more avant-garde drag performance, where queens don’t necessarily have to look pretty or even much like women. “It was very fast, within the last two years: now, suddenly, drag is an art form,” Perry-Wong said.

“There was a time where I was getting very pissed off with some of my friends,” Perry-Wong said. “They tried to get me to go somewhere and watch whoever from Drag Race. They had to buy the airfare and the hotel. But when I or my friends have gigs and the tickets are 10 dollars they ask, ‘Can you put me on the guest list?’”

Several drag queens I spoke to also dated Singapore’s drag awakening to 2015. They specifically cited the influence of the reality TV competition RuPaul’s Drag Race. Though Drag Race had been on the air since 2008, 2015 coincided with the extremely high-level competition in Season Seven and a flood of renewed interest in the show. Singaporean drag queens are now remarkably fluent in the American gay slang of RuPaul’s Drag Race: “fish” for a queen who looks like a real woman; “trade” for sex; “reading” and “shade” for the art of the frenemy insult; frequent enthusiastic interjections of “yas” and “gurl.” Finalists and winners from the show like Naomi Smalls, Bianca del Rio, and Kim Chi have traveled to Singapore to perform.

This obsession with American stars has helped make drag more mainstream in Singapore, but has had some dangerous side effects. As Kim Chi, a Korean American drag queen, tweeted recently, “If you can name every single drag race queen but can’t name ten local queens in your hometown, you’re a drag race fan, not a drag fan.” He might as well have been referring to Dan, who constantly referenced Drag Race moments in conversation that went right over my head. “There was a time where I was getting very pissed off with some of my friends,” Perry-Wong said. “They tried to get me to go somewhere and watch whoever from Drag Race. They had to buy the airfare and the hotel. But when I or my friends have gigs and the tickets are 10 dollars they ask, ‘Can you put me on the guest list?’”

***

Dan, Keisha and I stepped out of a taxi and into the parking lot of a club called Peaches, where we were on the guest list. Dan wobbled nervously in his heels. A group of four boys came up to talk to him even before he went inside, with one speaking directly to Dan and the other three lining up behind him curiously, like the cast of “Scooby Doo” peering around a corner. “If you look this fierce, you have to be confident,” Dan told me. “Nobody likes an insecure queen.” In fact, he did look a little insecure, constantly checking his face on his phone, but the boys in the parking lot didn’t seem to notice.

We went inside Peaches, which has a large neon peach emoji near the entrance and a mantra of RuPaul’s above the dance floor, and ordered vodka tonics and Jäger bombs. Young gay couples danced to techno remixes of pop songs, handed credit cards to bartenders, and kissed beside the concrete columns. Dan swayed to the music a little, then took Keisha and I outside to smoke again. We watched the police go inside to check for underage drinkers and drugs. Within 15 minutes, they disappeared.

Still outside in the parking lot, we struck up a conversation with Vyla Virus, a vanishingly thin queen in a bodysuit. She told us about her first time out in drag.

“The first thing that happened was, I was hit on by a straight guy,” she said. “He thought I was a girl. He brought me home. And I was like, ‘Before anything happens: I’m not what you think I am.’ He was like, ‘It’s OK, I’m adventurous.’ And I was like, ‘Jackpot! Trade, honey, trade!’ It was a good start.”

“I love that wig,” Dan told Vyla. “I’ve always wondered what I would look like blond.”

“Just go with it. There’s no ‘no’ in drag. You can do anything,” Vyla answered.

You can come in your boy hair,” Dan suggested.

“People are into that,” Vyla said.

“I’ll do it later, at 4 a.m,” Dan promised.

“Like, ‘I’m done.’” Vyla put on a thick accent and lowered her voice half an octave. “Uncle. You wan’ me or not.”

Keisha fussed maternally with Dan’s wig, complaining about the humidity. Dan felt nourished by his interaction with Vyla. Though his makeup was a little blocky, his fear of being read by the other queens was diminishing, and his confidence was growing in proportion. We took some pictures in the parking lot, went inside again for selfies in front of the neon peach, then, put off by the volume of the music, back outside.

Arya Dunn and Vyla Virus outside „Peaches“

Now in the parking lot, Dan ran into a queen named Arya Dunn, whom he had earlier been afraid of meeting. He had thought Arya Dunn was angry with him: they knew each other from art school, but hadn’t spoken in years. As it turned out, each had thought the one was mad at the other, but all was well. Keisha and I lurked nearby as Dan said Arya Dunn’s drag name out loud.

“Arya Dunn, yeah,” Arya confirmed.

“No, are you done?” Dan said.

An off-duty drag queen by the name of Yeastmonster squealed hysterically.

“That’s shade, girl,” Keisha said.

“That shade is just his beard,” Arya countered.

“Oh my god. I am Willam here,” Dan said, referring to a queen who came on Drag Race with a visible five-o’clock shadow.

“Willam doesn’t have a beer belly,” Arya countered again.

More squealing from Yeastmonster. She and Arya sidled away. Hirzi, a Singaporean YouTube personality and comedian from the duo Munah and Hirzi came up to talk to Keisha, Dan and me. I didn’t know who he was, but Dan was star-struck.

“If I take a picture with you and put it on Instagram, would you acknowledge me?” Dan asked Hirzi.

“I would leave you on read,” he replied. Dan said nothing. “If you want to be a drag queen you have to give it back. Be quick. Believe in your fucking self,” Hirzi went on.

“I’ve seen you since I was 12,” Dan said quietly.

“OK, make me feel fucking old, why not!”

By 3:20 a.m., the energy level outside Peaches was winding down. Couples lay intertwined on the pavement. Dan, Keisha, and I left the club, walked down a sloping street lined with luxury residential buildings, and picked up a new pack of L&Ms from 7-Eleven. We took a taxi back to my hotel, and from there Keisha took a separate cab back home.

Dan came up to my hotel room to remove his corset and wipe away his makeup. We went to get a snack, and I asked Dan to reflect on his first night in drag in public. He thought he had room to improve in his persona; he had been a shy version of his boy self, rather than the drag character Nikita, but the debut still had been a great success. Dan had conquered his initial fear, gotten propositions, attention and compliments, and felt supported. He was reflective and satisfied. He told me, “I’m tired, but my soul is happy.”

***

That long Friday night, Dan was fortified by several nearly carefree hours. Those don’t come to him so often. Dan told me that he grew up with an alcoholic, abusive father. When he was a child, his mother divorced his father and fell into a deep depression, so Dan had to take care of his younger siblings. When he was 12 years old, Dan said, he was raped.

Dan had met an older man on an online chat portal. Dan was already aware of his attraction to boys, and the older man was a sympathetic confidante. One day he met him in person and took a ride in his car, Dan said. They parked somewhere and the man forced Dan to touch his penis. Then he forced him to perform oral sex. Finally, he pushed him into the back seat where he raped him anally without lube or spit. Dan yelled at him to stop, screamed, and cried. “I don’t know how he could have enjoyed it,” Dan told me.

When the rape was over, the man told Dan to get out of the car and then back into the front seat. He’d give him a ride home. Dan obeyed. But the man drove away before he could get back in the car. Dan hasn’t seen him since. He has no memory of the man’s face. Nightmares about the rape continue; in them his assailant is faceless and has claws. Dan has suffered from bulimia and cut himself. His days are still marked by anxiety and depression. He never told his mother about the rape, because he was worried what she would think of him. “It could have been worse,” Dan said. “I honestly thought he would murder me.”

Dan has sought out therapists provided by Singapore’s national service. Each time, they told him to ignore these “girl problems” that were “all in his head.”

***

After Dan told me this story, I found myself wondering what kind of solace drag can give. When Dan transforms into Nikita, does he hope to telescope back in time and erase his past? A girl, finding herself interested in boys at age 12, would never have needed to talk to a strange man on the internet for comfort. Then again, to truly achieve this would be impossible; and the boyhood traumas so many drag queens carry with them lend the art form its sly melancholy, forceful dark wit, and wild apocalyptic abandon. Drag is like “leading double lives, but you are still the same person,” Dan said. Behind so many great drag performances is one traumatized boy’s diamond-hard determination to be himself.

They embrace the fragile, amorphous essence of gayness and perform it loudly. They choose to ask and tell, and are quite aware they they’ll be punished. To drag—you might as well say, to courage.

On Saturday morning, I started noticing that drag queens in Singapore like to use “to drag” as a verb. The expression is potent because it combines doing something and being something. Singaporean society tells gay men that they will be left alone as long if they act discrete. By “dragging,” these queens reject that compromise. They embrace the fragile, amorphous essence of gayness and perform it loudly. They choose to ask and tell, and are quite aware they they’ll be punished. To drag—you might as well say, to courage.

That Saturday night, Dan, dressed as a boy, and I visited a popular gay club called Tantric. In the club’s empty restaurant, we sat down with a fearless, almost intimidating drag queen named Vanda Miss Joaquim, after Singapore’s national flower. Dan mentioned that he is currently doing his national service. Vanda told him, “I was in the police force, Ang Mo Kio, Foxtrot Division. I put on eyelashes and mascara. My commander would be like, ‘Officer, what are you wearing?’ I’d be like, ‘It’s fashion. Accept it.’” She continued, “I escorted some prisoners to court. They laughed at me. And I was like, ‘Seriously, you laugh at me? You guys have to go to prison. Don’t move.” She cackled, a sound I would categorize as heedless courage made audible.

Vanda Miss Joaquim

Dan asked Vanda for her advice to young drag queens just starting out in Singapore. “First you need to ask yourself: Do you really want to do this?” Vanda replied. “Because some of your friends will leave you. If you want to meet someone new it will be difficult. And then one day your parents will find out. Are you ready?” Dan looked Vanda in the eyes and nodded solemnly.

***

Dan learned at a young age about the mysterious power androgynous presentation can have on men. As young teenagers, he and his cousin liked to dress up as girls as a game. One afternoon while his mother was at work, a scrap collector came around his high-rise, singing a downward major third and asking passers-by if they had waste materials to donate. Dan and his cousin appeared on their balcony dressed as girls and started flirting with him. It worked a little too well. The scrap collector took the elevator up to their apartment and knocked on the door. They had to stay absolutely silent and pretend no one was at home. “It was fucking scary,” Dan said. Drag was like a bright light, with which he could easily blind himself into complacency, and provoke strangers.

Memories of that fear were nagging him on my last night in Singapore, a Sunday. Dan still needed to take photographs with me for this magazine before I left. We met particularly late at night, when he hoped the streets would be empty. Without Keisha’s help this time, he transformed into Nikita, and was satisfied with the result. “Yas,” he told the mirror in the tiny hotel room. Once downstairs, though, he was terrified, knowing that he was truly in public this time—there was no safe, gay space waiting for him. He crossed to a quiet, well-lit sidewalk. He spread his legs on a bench. He posed like a tree. Two men walked past. They were speaking in Mandarin, which Dan understands. “Dirty tranny fag,” one of them said to the other. They were gone before Dan was sure he had understood their words correctly.

Nikita outside the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

I turned my tape recorder on and asked Dan to talk about what just happened. But though he had tears in his eyes, he said almost nothing, like he was choosing not to dignify the men with a response. He quietly smoked a cigarette. Then he spotted a graffiti wall belonging to an art school, a good place to take pictures. He stepped over the warning tape, a bold move in deeply rule-bound Singapore. For my camera, he flaunted his boy hair. He put on a baseball cap, forwards and backwards. He thrusted his tongue out towards two graffiti nipples and gave the camera two middle fingers. He hadn’t been intimidated; instead he was fierce, proud, sexy. We took pictures for another hour and a half in an atmosphere of bliss. Once again, Dan had become a different person, and in those brief moments he was free.

Was denkst du darüber?