Divina GranSparkle moved around a lot growing up. “I lived in four different countries and like seven different cities before I was 18,” says the Brooklyn-based drag and burlesque artist, who was raised Muslim and spent much of her youth in South America. “My family and I often lived far away from relatives, so I learned from them that you make family wherever you go.”
Still, it took a move to New York and six years of gigs for her to find a place to call home. That home was the little back room of the Branded Saloon, the old-timey honky-tonk bar in Prospect Heights where she first performed with the drag collective Switch n’ Play in 2015. “Suddenly I could be exactly who I was without the questions,” she says. “I felt loved.”
Four years later, Divina is still hitting that same stage (sometimes in nothing but pasties and a strategically placed Twinkie) with her band of queer misfits, who span the gender spectrum and continue to rack up nightlife awards for their bimonthly show. The troupe—Divina, “femmecee” Miss Malice, trans drag king K.James, drag/burlesque “queerdo” Nyx Nocturne, drag artist Pearl Harbor, nonbinary drag king Vigor Mortis, and snake charmer-stage kitten Zoe Ziegfeld—may share a common goal of producing the most outrageous show in the city, but their lewd, unhinged theatrics have led them to real-life epiphanies. Their bonds transcend the work.
“I had no concept of being able to play with gender like that,” says Vigor Mortis, who came out as trans a week after first performing in drag with Switch n’ Play a few years ago. “People respected me immediately. I was walking around and they were referring to me with he/him pronouns. It gave me the confidence to be like, ‘I can do this. It doesn’t just have to live in my head. It can also live outside it.’”
When they’re not creating an intimate, wildly entertaining safe space at the saloon, Switch n’ Play have a regular group text in which they exchange ideas for other projects, lament the current state of affairs, and share personal updates. They are the embodiment of the modern-day queer chosen family. “The value of finding people who explore and support each other’s journeys is so precious,” Divina says. “You’re showing up for people whose existence is often so much more complicated because of a lack of acceptance, and they are showing up for you.”
That kinship is on full display in the new documentary A Night at Switch n’ Play, which tells each member’s story and features footage of their subversive and captivating acts (if K.James ever takes his sexy milkman striptease on the road, he could singlehandedly save the dairy industry). Watching the film, you get the sense that their self-assurance and audacity were hard won—that after spending too long peering in from the outside, they’re finally thriving on the inside. Or as one guest burlesque performer, Veronica Viper, puts it: It’s like they’ve finally found all the people from their spaceship.
“I think a lot of queer people hold onto a lot of pain from their experiences with family,” says Pearl Harbor. “The family that chooses you—and whom you choose—says to you that you no longer need to practice old habits to protect yourself from rejection and abandonment. You can grow in a new way.”
Below, the members of Switch n’ Play share their experiences and reflect on the importance of queer chosen families.
Miss Malice (she/her)
“I was welcomed into the Switch n’ Play family in 2009 as a baby femme, and working to cultivate this community has been one of the greatest joys of my life. In drag, there’s a lot of emphasis on standing out as an individual, but I think the best drag is shaped through interaction, love, and support. We’re all incredible artists individually, but I think collectivity has only strengthened our performances. Drag is important because it is about marginalized people—queer and trans folks—saying, ’I am worthy of taking up space. I deserve to be extra, to be glamorous, to be whatever I want or need to be.’ It defies a world that has said the opposite of that—that’s what makes drag a form of resistance. The chosen families that nurture these acts of rebellion and self-love are crucial to ensuring the work continues.”
“Switch n’ Play showed me the importance of a queer family. There’s something about the seven of us that jells really well. No matter what’s happening in our everyday lives, we show up and support one another, whether it’s at a gig, a photo shoot, or just talking about our day over our group text thread. We recently went to Woodstock, N.Y., for a sneak peek of the documentary about us, and we all drove up in a seven-passenger van (I was driving and Vigor was navigating). It was such a special experience to travel together. Even though we already spend so much time together, we learned things we never knew about each other. We were just laughing and singing the whole drive.”
Divina GranSparkle (she/her)
“There was this time when I was really down. My green card application had been denied, my immigration lawyer of 10 years whom I adored had passed away, and I was in a dark place. We had a show, and I was standing on the stairs backstage, peeping between the banisters, and the audience was smiling with joy at the performers, who were ready to give everything they had on that stage. I felt held by it, moved to tears by the love and power shared by us coming together. Switch n’ Play is what has kept my head above water during those times. No matter what, we get our faces on and get on that stage and bring light and love to each other’s lives, and that is worth picking yourself up for.”
Nyx Nocturne (they/them)
“Performing with this collective for the first time was like finding the missing piece I was looking for in my community. Switch n’ Play doesn’t conform to the ’rules’ of what drag or burlesque ’should’ be. Sometimes I present masculine, but don’t necessarily feel like I have to have a ’passable’ male illusion for my drag to be considered valid ’king’ work. Sometimes I am bearded and everything else is presented very femme; other times I’m just a demonic monster. Having space for this kind of mix-and-match gender play absolutely informed my genderfluid identity offstage. On top of that, there is such a feeling of support and belonging in this group and the space they’ve created—which, for someone who has spent a lot of time feeling othered, is absolutely invaluable.”
Pearl Harbor (they/them)
“Divina and I shared a room recently after an overnight show, and when we woke up we began to chat about the families we come from, the countries we’ve lived in, and the paths we took to end up where we are now. That’s always one of the most mysterious things to me—how we end up meeting the people we meet against so many odds. Divina traced her childhood in Colombia, and talked about her sibling and her family’s expectations, while I, a Chinese immigrant, laid across the bed watching her with morning tears rolling down the side of my face as I recognized so much of her experience in my own. I don’t think finding a chosen family is a one-and-done thing. It happens over and over again in moments of connection, like the one I had with Divina in those early hours before we started our days.”
Vigor Mortis (he/they)
“With a chosen family you’re saying, ’Even when things suck, when things are not candy-coated rainbows and exploding unicorns, when things are uncomfortable or sad, I’ve chosen you, and I’m not just gonna up and walk out.’ And in collaborating you’re saying, ’I choose you every single day I’m here and part of his project.’ But it takes time, and it’s tender. People are sharing their ideas and dreams with you and being vulnerable with you and processing hard things with you, and they’re trusting you to be real about how they can be better. A chosen family is about saying,’Let’s not shy away. Let’s lean in.'”
Zoe Ziegfeld (she/they)
“As I was developing my career in the city, I was feeling competitive and jealous, like I was being pitted against other people. I never felt that with Switch n’ Play. There was just this feeling of, ’I support you, I want to see you shine, and I can tell you feel the same way about me.’ There wasn’t any self-importance, which can happen a lot in nightlife. We’re all very different, but we want to give space to voices other than our own. I want success for everyone else as much I want it for myself. That feeling has made this a family for me—a special, safe place like no other.”
Directed by Cody Stickels and produced by Chelsea Moore, A Night at Switch n’ Play recently made its New York premiere at NewFest.