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The avant-garde of queer culture on the rise: drag in North Macedonia

Four courageous young people fight their creative battle for an open-minded society in one of the most homophobic countries of Europe. An interview with the drag queens from Skopje. 

March 2019 saw a new addition to the anti discrimination law in North Macedonia: from this month, discrimination based on sexual orientation is legally forbidden. This marks an important step in one of the most homophobic countries in Europe. When the precedent law was adopted in 2010 the Macedonian government had ignored the warning by the EU that an anti discrimination law without any legal protection of LGBT+ would not harmonize with European values. The nationalist conservative government at that time did not care much about this and instead sparked an ideologically loaded, chauvinistic debate on the heteronormative definition of partnership and marriage.

Since 2017, however, Northern Macedonia is governed by a government which has been brought to power by social protest and claims to live by social-democratic values. When this government took office representatives clearly committed themselves to a European path. The integration into both the EU and NATO were set as strong priorities. In the last two years this was mirrored by the political progress on the foreign agenda and an outstanding ability to compromise on patriotic ideals for the sake of healthy bilateral and neighbourly relations. Radical domestic changes are yet to be made, however, and the patience of disappointed Macedonians is dwindling.

Particularly harsh is life in the South Eastern European country for marginalized groups. The pro-European ambitions of the government lead to a formal conviction of reprisals against members of the LGBT+ community, but this does not end their stigmatisation among the hostile society. Since years Northern Macedonia moves at the lower end of the ILGA rainbore score which rates the equal treatment of LGBT around Europe. With a score of 14% Northern Macedonia lies dangerously close to the factor “gross violations of human rights, discrimination” (0%).

In the capital Skopje, the constant repression from the public sphere and never ending discrimination and stigmatisation are not longer uncontestedly accepted. One of the few organizations which works restlessly for more acceptance and protection of LGBT+ is Koalicja Margini, Coalition ‘sexual and health rights of marginalized communities’. When their offices in the old town were vandalized in 2013 by young hooligans, the NGO moved to a mansion block just outside the city centre. Down the hall of the building no sign gives away that LGBT+ activists plan cultural activities, work on political campaigns and research the living conditions of LGBT+ in Macedonia and the Western Balkan countries. One goal of the organization is to create safe spaces. One of these safe spaces is, according to a worker of Koalicja Margini, the queer culture which happens in semiprivate settings, offside the broader public yet accessible to everyone who is interested to participate in it. It would be behind closed doors that the creative potential from the community could flourish without the danger to be exposed to violence and harassment from the society.

Queer resistance against the oppression: Drag in Northern Macedonia

Like everything in Northern Macedonia, the queer culture is changing and an important contribution to this overdue transformation make four courageous young people from Macedonia and the United States who do not want to hide themselves and their identity any longer. They are the members of the House auf Fauché, the first community of drag queens in Macedonia.

Simplified, members of the LGBT+ community have two options in Macedonia: to live either undercover, hiding the own identity, or to live in the open resistance. The drag queens of the House of Fauché opted for the second option. They will use drag as the most powerful queer weapon, they reveal in the interview, to show their fellow Macedonian citizens that a confident LGBT+ community exists in this country, like it does all over the world, and that this community has the right to be an equal part of the society.

Drag in Macedonia is still in the fledgling stage. The first drag contest was organized during annual festivities in 2017.  In 2018, the young drag queen Tokyo – back then still performing with the name Katherina the Sinnister – was one of the winners during the contest. Together with a show by queer artist David Hoyle during the Pride Weekend 2018 this encouraged her to found the House of Fauché with her drag sisters. Since their first show in December 2018 the attention given to the drag queens and their popularity has almost sky-rocketed.

Queen Kaja: “Growing up in a Diaspora family in Chicago I was very Macedonian, before I came out as gay. Now I’m … gay. As a gay I am going against everything that is Macedonian, these are two inflicting sides. And if I have to choose, I am choosing gay.” ©Haus of Fauché, used with permission

This has, however, not been the first attempt to found such a drag collective. Already before 2018 Tokyo and her drag sister Naoki, an contemporary art student and today the mother of the house, had tried to establish drag in Skopje. Despite the support of different organizations their first try-outs were not crowned by success. Through Social Media, the third sister Kaja – a Fulbright scholar in North Macedonia – got in touch with them and the long breath of the three, now four, students and graduates paid off: During their second public show in Skopje in January 2019 several hundred guests showed up in a small, sparse club in the basement of a plain building across a neglected yard. The whole night the drag queens extended themselves under the excited cheers of their audience. “It was fantastic”, Naoki recalls. “It was the first time in a Skopje club that people really lived for [the party]. They were enjoying themselves and were not just getting drunk for the sake of getting drunk. They were invited to take part in doing what we are doing and it encouraged them to be themselves.” Thinking about the show all of them wallow in their memories and outdo each other with their positive experience. Just recalling the night would give them ghoose bumps all over again. Criticism did not tarry. An online media portal saw Sodom and Gomorrha happening in Skopje. The drag queens seem to be rather pleased about the attention – even the negative, homophobic reactions. “Unlike the other articles on this page they had many likes, shares and comments”, Kaja explains,“And I was like: you could have at least tagged us”. The others laugh.

Anger grows from the pain

The conversation often enough shows, however, that the three do not always feel like laughing. From their experience and their testimony speak anger, sadness and pain which will feel familiar to most of their LGBT+ peers in the region. A study conducted in North Macedonia found out that even school books spread homophobic attitudes, verbal attacks against the community from politicians carry no consequences and are rather frequent. This leads to an atmosphere in which young people have to hide their sexual orientation and gender identity. They have to fear isolation and bullying after – or even before – their coming-out. A regional study by the LGBT organization ERA found out that – across the region – 80% of surveyed would not feel save to show their sexual or gender identity in a street, square or similar, 43% do not feel save to open up even at home. Young LGBT+ experience verbal and physical harassement and violence regularly in the school and aroud. The suicide rate of LGBT+ is significantly higher than of their straight cis peers.

The determination with which the young drag queens give their show in Skopje to revolutionize the Macedonian society should not hide the fact that they as well experience discrimination and defamations on a regular base. Except for one of them the majority of their personal environment does not know about their extraordinary, artsy and brave second life on stage. Some of them were not even able to out themselves to their families. This is not unusual in North Macedonia where LGBT+ are often needed to find a new family in the LGBT+ community.

In Skopje drag has many faces

The personal stories of the drag queens in Skopje could, however, not be more different – on stage and in their daily lifes. Although the Haus of Fauché only conists of four queens (so far), an incredible diversity is showcased on stage. It appears as if many more than just four artists would feature their talent. This is connected to the fact that their own style is coined by different life experiences, inspirational artists and world regions. Kaja, for example, grew up as a child to Macedonian parents in Chicago where she managed to discard her fear and hostility towards everything gay and queer as a young student to get in touch with the wild local LGBT+ scene. Tokyo got, as her name gives away, a lot of her inspiration from the Japanese culture. And Naoki dove into the world of drag through an escape from the homophobic reality in Macedonia during a study exchange in Paris where she pulled many all-nighters in sparkling costumes and sparkling company. On stage in Skopje some on-lookers might miss spectacular costumes and high-reaching wigs like they are popular for RuPaul’s Drag Race (a casting show from the US where drag queens race since 2009 in different challenges for the season’s title). For the drag queens in Skopje drag means more than just elaborate (women’s) costumes. While two of the drag queens see their dramatic character merely as an extension of their own personality to be more glamorous and artful, two of them experience a butterfly moment on stage. Here they are allowed to hatch out their cocoon, put on a fantastic mask and to bare all. Here they are able to have the courage for everything made impossible in their daily life.

Queen Naoki: “People always consider me to be a bitch. I had to become a bitch to survive.”

The conversation with the drag queens quickly shows that the performance means more for them than wigs, make-up and costumes – or about a possible business behind it. Their goal is visionary: as the avant-garde of the Macedonian LGBT+ they desire to widen the borders of the possible in order to break up the rigid views of the conservative Macedonian society. They are striving for nothing less than a revolution, says Tokyo. This makes the Haus of Fauché to a political institutions without being clustered into the polarized understanding of politics in North Macedonia where being political is reduced to support for either the government or the opposition party. “Its political because we say “fuck you” to everybody. This is who we are, this is what we do.” To be political means for them to pillory social and political deficiancies – which means that a performance can run to a mix tape on the terrible air pollution in Skopje. Most of all, however, their political fight is against traditional gender norms and for a modern understanding of gender and sexuality. A performance of Tokyo shows this perfectly. She begins her show dressed up as a 50s house wife with a gender critical intro from the off, to then blur the borders between gender and sex with elements of burlesque and a skillfull confusion of lascivious femininity and masculine corporeality. This is what drag should be about: the art to blend culturally constructed sexes, gender, into one beautiful harmony. Naoki breaks it down. “I know I look like a woman [on stage], but can you tell I am woman? Can you pinpoint where I belong? That’s the polarity of gender. If I am in drag I don’t have a gender. I don’t want to be a woman, I don’t want to be a man. I just want to be this beautiful creature that doesn’t have to be put in a box to be understood.” In the end of the day this is their main fight: to be – in the borders of the political correct – just whom they want to be and to do exactly what they feel like. All of them are sick to hide their personalities and their sexual orientation and they also want to fight in the name of those who have no energy or no courage to battle for their right to a self-determined and  uncompromising life. “I only have one lifetime span”, Naoki sums up. “And I am not using it on society. Especially as a young gay man, I already did too many compromises on myself.” One of these compromises is the battle in the hidden, the life and art in secret. With the help of engaged organizations in Skopje the drag queens will change this now. For the first time ever, a public pride parade is planned in North Macedonia’s capital in 2019. The Drag queens are excited. “This country is in chaos”, says Tokyo. “And we are not fighting only for us. We do this for the whole of society.” The lasting applause of their growing audience is what the Drag Queens of Skopje, the Avant-garde of a crisis-ridden country, really deserve for their courageous struggle.

Queen Kaja on stage. ©Haus of Fauché, used with permission

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