Sometimes you don’t know who you are until you put on a mask.
H A I R
The year is 1990. The place is San Francisco, the Castro. It is Halloween night. I am in my friend John’s bathroom, alone in front of the mirror, wearing a black turtleneck and leggings. My face glows back at me from the light of twelve 100-watt bulbs.
In high school I learned to do makeup for theater. I did fake mustaches and eyelashes then, bruises, wounds, tattoos. I remember always being tempted then to do what I have just done now, and always stopping, always thinking I would do it later.
This is that day.
My face, in the makeup I have just applied, is a success. My high cheekbones, large slanting eyes, wide mouth, small chin, and rounded jaw have been restrung in base, powder, eyeliner, lipstick, eyebrow pencil. With these tools I have built another face on top of my own, unrecognizable, and yet I am already adjusting to it; somehow I have always known how to put this face together. My hands do not shake, but move with the slow assurance of routine.
I am smiling.
I pick up the black eyeliner pencil and go back to the outer corners of my eyes, drawing slashes there, and, licking the edges of my fingers, I pull the lines out into sharp black points—the wings of crows, not their feet.
I have nine moles on my face, all obscured by base and powder. I choose one on my upper lip, to the right, where everyone inserts a beauty mark. I have one already, it feels like a prophecy. I dot it with the pencil.
I pick up the lipstick and open my mouth in an O. I have always loved unscrewing lipsticks, and as the shining nub appears I feel a charge. I apply the color, Mauve Frost, then reapply, and with that, my face shimmers—a white sky, the mole a black planet, the eyes its ringed big sisters. I press my lips down against each other and feel the color spread anywhere it hasn’t gone yet.
The wig is shoulder-length blond hair, artificial—Dynel doll hair, like Barbie’s, which is why I choose it. The cap shows how cheap the wig is, so I cut a headband out of a t-shirt sleeve and make it into a fall.
The wig I put on last. Without it, you can see my man’s hairline, receding faintly into a widow’s peak. You can see my dark hair, you can tell I’m not a blond woman or a white one, or even a woman. It is a Valkyrie’s headpiece, and I gel it to hold it into place. The static it generates pulls the hairs out into the air one by one. In an hour I will have a faint halo of frizz. Blue sparks will fly from me when I touch people.
John knocks on the door. “Girl!” he says through the door. “Aren’t you ready yet?” He is already finished, dressed in a sweater and black miniskirt, his black banged wig tied up with a pink bow. He has highlighted his cheekbones with rouge, which I forgo. He is wearing high heels; I have on combat boots. I decided to wear sensible shoes, but John wears “fuck me” pumps, the heels three inches high. This is my first time. It is Halloween tonight in the Castro and we are both trying to pass, to be “real,” only we are imitating very different women.
What kind of girl am I? With the wig in place, I understand that it is possible I am not just in drag as a girl but as a white girl. Or, as someone trying to pass as a white girl.
“Come in!” I yell back. John appears over my shoulder in the mirror, a cheerleader gone wrong, the girl who sits on the back of the rebel’s motorcycle. His brows rise all the way up.
“Jesus Mother of God,” he says. “Girl, you’re beautiful. I don’t believe it.”
“Believe it,” I say, looking into his eyes.
I tilt my head back and carefully toss my hair over my right shoulder in the way I have seen my younger sister do. I realize I know one more thing about her than I did before—what it feels like to do this and why you would. It’s like your own little thunderclap.
“Scared of you,” John says. “You’re flawless.”
“So are you,” I say. “Where’s Fred?” Fred is my newest boyfriend, and I have been unsure if I should do this with him, but here we are.
“Are you okay?” Fred asks, as if something has gone wrong in the bathroom. “Oh my God, you are beautiful.” He steps into the doorway, dazed. He still looks like himself, a skinny white boy with big ears and long eyelashes, his dark hair all of an inch long. He hasn’t gotten dressed yet.
He is really spellbound, though, in a way he hasn’t been before this. I have never had this effect on a man, never transfixed him so thoroughly, and I wonder what I might be able to make him do now that I could not before. “Honey,” he says, his voice full of wonder. He walks closer, slowly, his head hung, looking up at me. I feel my smile rise from somewhere old in me, maybe older than me; I know this scene, I have seen this scene a thousand times and never thought I would be in it; this is the scene where the beautiful girl receives her man’s adoration and I am that girl.
In this moment, the confusion of my whole life has receded. No one will ask me if I am white or Asian. No one will ask me if I am a man or a woman. No one will ask me why I love men. For a moment, I want Fred to stay a man all night. There is nothing brave in this: any man and woman can walk together, in love and unharassed in this country, in this world—and for a moment, I just want to be his overly made-up girlfriend all night. I want him to be my quiet, strong man. I want to hold his hand all night and have it be only that; not political, not dangerous, just that. I want the ancient reassurances legislated for by centuries by mobs.
He puts his arms around me and I tip my head back. “Wow,” he says. “Even up close.”
“Ever kissed a girl?” I ask.
“No,” he says, and laughs.
“Now’s your chance,” I say, and he leans in, kissing me slowly through his smile.
M YC O U N T R Y
I am half white, half Korean, or, to be more specific, Scotch-Irish, Irish, Welsh, Korean, Chinese, Mongolian. It is a regular topic, my whole life, this question of what I am. People are always telling me, like my first San Francisco hairdresser.
“Girl, you are mixed, aren’t you? But you can pass,” he said, as if this was a good thing.
“Pass as what?” I asked.
“White. You look white.”
When people use the word “passing” in talking about race, they only ever mean one thing, but I still make them say it. He told me he was Filipino. “You could be one of us,” he said. “But you’re not.”
Yes. I could be, but I am not. I am used to this feeling.
As a child in Korea, living in my grandfather’s house, I was not to play in the street by myself: Amerasian children had no rights there generally, as usually no one knew who their father was, and they could be bought and sold as help or prostitutes, or both. No one would check to see if I was any different from the others.
“One day everyone will look like you,” people say to me, all the time. I am a citizen of a nation that has only ever existed in the future, a nation where nationalism dies of confusion. And so I cringe when someone tells me I am a “fine mix,” that it “worked well”; what if it hadn’t?
After I read Eduardo Galeano’s stories in Century of Fire, I mostly remember the mulatto ex-slaves in Haiti, obliterated when the French recaptured the island, the the mestizaArgentinean courtesans—hated both by the white women for daring to put on wigs as fine as theirs, and by the Chilote slaves, who think the courtesans put on airs when they do so. The book is supposed to be a lyric history of the Americas, but it read more like a history of racial mixing.
I found in it a pattern for the history of half-breeds hidden in every culture: historically, we are allowed neither the privileges of the ruling class nor the community of those who are ruled. To each side that disowns us, we represent everything the other does not have. We only survive if we are valued, and we are valued only for strength, or beauty, sometimes for intelligence or cunning. As I read these stories of who survives and who does not, I know that I have survived in all of these ways and that these are the only ways I have survived so far.
This beauty I find when I put on drag then; it is made up of these talismans of power, a balancing act of the self-hatreds of at least two cultures, an act I’ve engaged in my whole life, here on the fulcrum I make of my face. That night, I find I want this beauty to last because it seems more powerful than any beauty I’ve had before. Being pretty like this is stronger than any drug I’ve ever tried.
But in my blond hair, I ask myself, are you really passing? Or is it just the dark, the night, people seeing what they want to see?
And what exactly are you passing as? And is that what we are really doing here?
Each time I pass that night it is a victory over these doubts, a hit off the pipe. This hair is all mermaid’s gold and like anyone in a fairy tale I want it to be real when I wake up.
A N G E L S
John and I are patient as we make Fred up. His eyelids flutter as we try to line and shadow them, he talks while we try to put on his lipstick. He feels this will liberate him, and tells us, repeats, how much he would never have done this before. I realize he means before me.
“Close your eyes,” I tell him. He closes them. I feel like his big sister. I dust the puff ball with translucent powder and hold it in front of his face. I take a big breath and blow it toward him. A cloud surrounds him and settles lightly across his skin. The sheen of the base is gone, replaced by powder smoothness. He giggles.
John pulls the wig down from behind him and twists it into place. He comes around beside me and we look at Fred carefully for fixable flaws. There are none. Fred opens his eyes. “Well?”
“Definitely the smart sister. Kate Jackson,” John says and turns toward me, smiling. “I’m the pretty one, the femmy one. Farrah. Which one are you, girl?”
I shake my head and pull the lapels of my leather trench coat. I don’t feel like any of Charlie’s Angels and I know I don’t look like one. I look more like a lost member of the Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! gang. Like if Tura Satana had a child with the blond sidekick. Or just took her hair out for a ride one day.
“You’re the mean sister,” John says, with a laugh. “The one that makes you cry and breaks all your dolls.”
Outside John’s apartment 18th Street is full of cars, their headlights like footlights for the sidewalk stage in the early night. I can see my hair flashing around me in the dark as it catches the light. Doing drag on Halloween night in the Castro is an amateur, but high-level, competitive sport. Participating means doing drag in front of people who do drag on just about every other day of the year, and some of these people are my friends. I am most nervous at the thought of seeing them. I want to measure up.
According to the paper the next day, 400,000 people will come into the Castro tonight to see us. They will all try to drive down this street, and many will succeed. Some will have baseball bats, beer bottles, guns. Some of them hate drag queens, trans women, gender queers. They will tell you they want their girls to be girls. If they pick you up and find out the truth they will beat, and maybe kill you. Being good at a blow job is a survival skill for some of my friends for this very reason—though men are unpredictable at best.
“Most men, when they find out you have a dick, well, hon, they roll right over.” This is something a drag-queen friend tells me early on in my life here. “Turns out, their whole lives, all they ever wanted was to get fucked and they never had the nerve to ask for it.”
I think about this a lot. I find I think about it right now, on the street, in my new look.
John, Fred, and I walk out in front of the stopped cars. They are full of people I will never see again. John swivels on his heels, pivoting as he walks, smiling and waving. He knows he is why they are here from the suburbs, that he is what they have come to see. I smile at a boy behind a steering wheel who catches my eye. He honks and yells, all excitement. I twirl my hair and keep walking, strutting. In the second grade, the boys would stop me in the hall to tell me I walked like a girl, my hips switching, and as I cross this street, and feel the cars full of people watching me, for the first time I really let myself walk as I have always felt my hips want to. I have always walked this way but I have never walked this way like this.
The yelling continues from the car, and the boy’s friends lean out the window, shouting for me. John is laughing. “Shit, girl, you better be careful. I’m going to keep my eye on you.” Fred is walking quietly ahead of us. From behind, in his camouflage jacket, he looks like a man with long hair. His legs move from his thin hips in straight lines, he bobs as he steps, and the wig hair bounces gently at his shoulders. He has always walked like this also, I can see this, and here is a difference between us. I don’t want him to be hurt tonight, however that happens—either for not being enough of a girl or for being too much, not enough of a boy.
The catcalls from the cars make me feel strong, at first. Isn’t beauty strong? I’d always thought beauty was strength and so I wanted to be beautiful. Those cheers on the street are like a weightlifter’s bench-press record. The blond hair is like a flag, and all around me in the night are teams. But with each shout I am more aware of the edge, how the excitement could turn into violence, blood, bruises, death.
We arrive at Café Flore, a few blocks from John’s apartment. We run into Danny Nicoletta, a photographer friend. He sees us, and does not recognize me. I see him every day at this café, I have posed for him on other occasions. He has no idea who I am. I wave at him and as he looks at me, I feel him examine the frosted blond thing in front of him. I toss my hair—I already love the way this feels, to punctuate arrivals, announcements, a change of mood with your hair.
“Hi Danny,” I say finally.
“Oh my God, you look exactly like this girl who used to babysit for me,” he says. He takes out his camera and snaps photos of me in the middle of the crowded café, and the flash is like a little kiss each time it hits my retinas.
We leave the café and I move through the Halloween night, glowing, as if all of the headlights and flashes have been stored inside me. I pause to peer into store windows, to catch a glimpse of myself. I stop to let people take my picture, and wave if they yell. I dance with friends to music playing from the tower of speakers by a stage set up outside the café. A parade of what look to be heavily muscled prom queens in glistening gowns and baubles pours out into the street from one of the gyms nearby. They glow beneath the stage lights, their shoulders and chests shaved smooth, their pectorals suitable for cleavage. They titter and coo at the people lining the streets, affecting the manner of easily shocked women, or they strut, waving the wave of queens. As they come by, they appraise us with a glance and then move on.
This power I feel tonight, I understand now—this is what it means when we say “queen.”
G I R L
My fascination with makeup started young. I remember the first time I wore lipstick in public. I was seven, eight years old at the time, with my mother at the Jordan Marsh makeup counter at the Maine Mall in South Portland, Maine. We were Christmas shopping, I think—it was winter, at least—and she was there trying on samples.
My mother is a beauty, from a family of Maine farmers who are almost all tall, long-waisted, thin, and pretty, the men and the women. Her eyes are Atlantic Ocean blue. She has a pragmatic streak, from being a farmer’s daughter, that typically rules her, but she also loves fashion and glamour—when she was younger, she wore simple but chic clothes she often accessorized with cocktail rings, knee-high black leather boots, white sunglasses with black frames.
I had a secret from my mom, or at least I thought I did: I would go into her bathroom and try on her makeup, looking at myself in the mirror. I spent hours in front of my mother’s bathroom mirror, rearranging my facial expressions—my face at rest looked unresolved to me, in between one thing and another. I would sometimes stare at my face and imagine it was either more white or more Asian. But makeup, I understood; I had watched the change that came over my mother when she put on makeup and I wanted it for myself. So while she was busy at the makeup counter, I reached up for one of the lipsticks, applied it, and then turned to her with a smile.
I thought it would surprise her, make her happy. I am sure the reddish-orange color looked clownish, even frightening, on my little face.
“Alexander,” was all she said, stepping off the chair at the Clinique counter and sweeping me up. She pulled my ski mask over my head and led me out of the department store to the car, like I had stolen something. We drove home in silence, and once there, she washed the lipstick off my face and warned me to never do that again.
She was angry, upset, she felt betrayed by me. There was a line, and I had thought I could go back and forth across it, but it seemed I could not.
Until I could. Until I did.
I was not just mistaken for a member of other races, as a child. I was also often mistaken for a girl. What a beautiful little girl you have, people used to say to my mother at the grocery store when I was six, seven, eight. She had let my hair grow long.
I’m a boy, I would say each time. And they would turn red, or stammer an apology, or say, His hair is so long, and I would feel as if I had done something wrong, or she had.
I have been trying to convince people for so long that I am a real boy, it is a relief to stop—to run in the other direction.
Before Halloween night, I thought I knew some things about being a woman. I’d had women teachers, read women writers, women were my best friends growing up. But that night was a glimpse into a universe beside my own. Drag is its own world of experience—a theater of being female more than a reality. It isn’t like being trans, either—it isn’t, the more I think about it, like anything except what it is: costumes, illusion, a spell you cast on others and on yourself. But girl, girl is something else.
My friends in San Francisco at this time, we all call each other “girl,” except for the ones who think they are too butch for such nellying, though we call them “girl” maybe most of all. My women friends call each other “girl” too, and they say it sometimes like they are a little surprised at how much they like it. This, for me, began in meetings for ACT UP and Queer Nation, a little word that moved in on us all back then. When we say it, the word is like a stone we pass one to the other: the stone thrown at all of us. And the more we catch it and pass it, it seems like the less it can hurt us, the more we know who our new family is now. Who knows us, and who doesn’t. It is something like a bullet turned into something like a badge of pride.
Later that night we go to a club, Club Uranus. John and Fred have removed their wigs and makeup. I have decided not to. Fred was uncomfortable—a wig is hot—and John wanted to get laid by a man as a man. I wasn’t ready to let go. As we walked there, we passed heterosexual couples on the street. I walked with Fred, holding his arm, and noted the passing men who treated me like a woman—and the women who did also. Only one person let on that they saw through me—a man at a stoplight who leaned out his car window to shout, “Hey, Lola! Come back here, baby! I love you!”
My friend Darren is there, a thin blond boy done up as Marie Antoinette in hair nearly a foot tall and a professional costume rental dress, hoopskirts and all. On his feet, combat boots also. He raises his skirts periodically to show he is wearing nothing underneath.
Soon I am on the go-go stage by the bar. On my back, riding me, is a skinny white boy in a thong made out of duct tape, his body shaved. We are both sweating, the lights a crown of wet bright heat. The music is loud and very fast, and I roll my head like a lion, whipping the wig around for the cool air this lets in. People squeeze by the stage, staring and ignoring us alternately.
I see very little, but I soon spot Fred, who raises his hand and gives me a little wave from where he is standing. I want to tell him I know the boy on my back, and that it isn’t anything he needs to worry about, but he seems to understand this. I wonder if he is jealous, but I tell myself he is not, that he knew what he was getting into with me—when we met, he mentioned the other stages he had seen me on around town. Tonight is one of those nights when I am growing, changing quickly, without warning, into new shapes and configurations, and I don’t know where this all goes.
I feel more at home than I ever have in that moment, not in San Francisco, not on earth, but in myself. I am on the other side of something and I don’t know what it is. I wait to find out.
R E A L
I am proud for years of the way I looked real that night. I remember the men who thought I was a real woman, the straight guys in the cars whooping at me and their expressions when I said, “Thanks, guys,” my voice my voice, and the change that rippled over their faces.
You wanted me, I wanted to say. You might still want me.
Real is good. Real is what you want. No one does drag to be a real woman, though. Drag is not the same as that. Drag knows it is different. But if you can pass as real, when it comes to drag, that is its own gold medal.
I’m also very aware of how that night was the first night I felt comfortable with my face. It makes me wary, even confused. I can feel the longing for the power I had. I jones for it like it’s cocaine.
The little boy I used to be, in the mirror making faces, he was happy. But the process took so much work. I can’t do that every day, though I know women who do. And that isn’t the answer to my unhappiness, and I know it.
When my friend Danny gives me a photo from that night, I see something I didn’t notice at the time. I look a little like my mom. I had put on my glasses for him—a joke about “girls who wear glasses”—and in that one picture, I see it all—the dark edges of my real hair sticking out, the cheapness of the wig, the smooth face, finally confident.
I send a copy to my sister and write, This is what I would look like if I was your big sister.
I can’t skip what I need to do to love this face by making it over. I can’t chase after the power I felt that night, the fleeting sense of finally belonging to the status quo, by making myself into something that looks like the something they want. Being real means being at home in this face, just as it is when I wake up.
I am not the person who appeared for the first time that night. I am the one only I saw, the one I had rejected until then, the one I needed to see, and didn’t see until I had taken nearly everything about him away. His face is not half this or half that, it is all something else.
Sometimes you don’t know who you are until you put on a mask.
A few months after Halloween, a friend borrows my wig. He has begun performing in drag on a regular basis. I have not. I bring it into the bookstore where we both work and pass it off to him. It looks like a burned-out thing, what’s left in the wick of a candle after a long night.
I go to see my friend perform in the wig—he has turned it into the ponytail of a titanic hair sculpture, made from three separate wigs. He is beautiful beneath its impossible size, a hoopskirted vision, his face whited out, a beauty mark on his lip. Who was the first blond to dot a beauty mark on her upper lip? How far back in time do we have to go? It is like some spirit in the wig has moved on, into him.
He never gives me the wig back, and I don’t ask for it back—it was never really mine.
The article was primarily published in Guernica.
Alexander Chee is the author of the novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night. He is a contributing editor at The New Republic and Lit Hub and an editor at large at VQR. His essays and stories have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Tin House, Slate, Guernica, NPR and Out, among others. He is the winner of a 2003 Whiting Award, a 2004 NEA Fellowship in prose, a 2010 MCCA Fellowship, and residency fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the VCCA, Civitella Ranieri, and Amtrak.