Aja on the Lack of Non-Binary Identities in Mainstream Drag

The non-binary queen reflects on the relationship between drag and gender politics.

In the years since drag became a cultural juggernaut, a noticeable queer shift took place within Hollywood and the media. However, not every identity that falls under the LGBTQ umbrella has received the same level of visibility.

Aja, a drag queen who rose to fame through the Drag Race competition, knows this firsthand as a non-binary rapper who navigates the drag world. In this interview with NewNowNext, Aja reflects on their own perspective about the current landscape of non-binary representation in media, the ways in which drag informs understandings of non-binary identity, and their own personal endeavors as a musician.

How have you seen the landscape of non-binary representation shift within the realm of film, television, and media in recent years?

It’s been very minimal. People still want a reason to label you as different, to look down on you for not being “normal.” The idea of being non-binary can be contradictory in that it’s a label to say you don’t have a label. I do think having a label in American culture makes people [feel] comfortable, for whatever reason. I can’t relate. I just don’t understand the obsession with not only wanting to know, but having to know how somebody identifies. And it’s not to be like, “We accept you.” It feels like people are looking for a reason to say “You don’t belong here”—to question why we exist.

Slaven Vlasic/Getty
The cast of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars at Build Series.

Can you put into your words what non-binary identity means to you?

To me, being non-binary honestly means just not having a definitive label for my gender. Other non-binary people might use the term as an umbrella term for their more specific gender identity and have a more specific label, like genderqueer or genderfluid, but for me, I use the word non-binary to mean I don’t know how to put my gender identity into words, or I just feel more comfortable falling in the middle or completely off of the gender spectrum. Being non-binary, for me, is not picking a spot on the gender spectrum because I don’t feel the need to. It’s most comfortable for me to not align with the spectrum at all.

What have your personal experiences as a non-binary person navigating television and the world of media been like?

I think that being non-binary can be confusing for people who don’t understand gender politics because a lot of people think it’s popular or trendy to not be cisgender—that people are trans just for attention. Some people automatically assume you’re just trying to make a statement or be edgy. Because of that I, and other non-binary people, don’t get taken seriously, especially in the world of media. To the masses and the people who watch television, mostly Middle America, their idea of drag is comfortable clownery. They don’t look at drag as an art form or as anything serious. To them, drag is always going to be a man dressed as a woman. Even on the first episode of All Stars 4, Monique Heart openly said in her confessional about Farrah Moan, someone who does not fully identify as cisgender, “You’re a grown-ass man, stop crying.” I feel like that’s severely problematic because you’re implying people of masculine identities cannot cry and that emotions are a sign of weakness. There’s a lot that goes into a statement like that.

Another experience I’ve had as a non-binary person is that when people compare me to other artists or drag queens, they usually compare me to cis men. People think I have a problem being compared to other drag queens, but I don’t care if I’m compared to other drag queens. But if you’re going to compare me to anybody, why are you only comparing me to cis men when I’m not a cis man? I feel like doing that is a bold statement and it’s not acknowledging my gender. It’s not transphobia on purpose, but I feel like it’s ignorant transphobia.

Tanner Able

Your experiences as a public figure and non-binary person are a bit unique since you navigate the world of drag. Do you think drag—and by extension Drag Race—help people be more empathetic and willing to learn about nuances of what it means to be non-binary?

Drag Race is a great launching pad for drag careers, but the show itself until the recent appearances of Sonique and Gia Gunn has been primarily focused on male-to-female drag transformation. That transformation is a part of drag, but it’s not everything drag is about, and it’s not every drag artist’s transformation either. I feel if there was more emphasis on the drag artist’s gender identities, it would bring more positive attention to every person who is participating in the art of drag who isn’t cisgender. It would also open up the audience’s eyes to the fact that many people who aren’t cisgender men participate in drag, and to the fact that other identities exist, period.

What’s next for you?

I’m dropping my debut rap album, Box Office on February 7! I’m so beyond proud of this piece of work, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever done before. It’s a true rap record. It feels like a return to the music I loved growing up in Brooklyn and finding my own flow. There are 15 tracks and some exciting features, I can’t wait for people to hear it!

James Michael Nichols is a writer, storyteller and the former editor of HuffPost Queer Voices.
@jmn