London’s Drag Kings Challenge the Everyday Performance of Gender

“Unless you fuck in a vacuum, sex is a gendered experience,” says Pecs, a London-based drag king troupe poised to take part in Hotbed: A Festival of Sex at the Camden People’s Theater this weekend.

Formed at a party, Pecs is an ever-expanding group of performers—at present, all cis women—who have things to say about gender. Members of the collective will be holding a workshop exploring the relationship between gender and sexuality. It’s a topic they’ve thought about lots, and one, they say, we should all get our heads around.

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Temi Wilkey as Drag King Cole

“We want people to go away feeling empowered to talk to their sex partners and discover for themselves what they want their gender performance—or lack of—to be during sex,” says Pecs co-founder Temi Wilkey, whose character, Drag King Cole, is a singer, songwriter, and producer from Chicago.

I caught up with Temi and her co-founder, Celine Lowenthal—whose occasional character (she usually directs) is Home Counties boy Leo, who went to an all-boys boarding school, works in the city, and is a trained sommelier—to talk about drag, gender, and telling people how you want to fuck.

VICE: How would you describe the feeling of doing drag?
Celine: Drag gives me access to a power I hadn’t felt before. My character is super privileged, really doesn’t question his privilege, and is quite a dick. And getting to be that is really liberating—a part of myself I wouldn’t want to be in real life.
Temi: I find it sexy and, sometimes, exposing. Not in a bad way, but in terms of facing up to parts of yourself. My character’s become much more vulnerable in the past few years because of stuff that’s been happening in my own personal life. It also makes you think about physicality and the way you take up space.
Celine: Yes, I’ve definitely found I’m less afraid of physically taking up space.
Temi: I sometimes notice I’m doing a manspreading on the train.


WATCH: Meet London’s Female Drag Queens


Do your characters evolve?
Temi: When we began, it was very much a fuck the patriarchy thing, and it still is, but we were doing a parody of masculinity much more then than now. We realized recently that we really love our men, and they’re part of who we are. So the characters change because of what’s happened politically and personally.

So this could be a way of learning to hate men less? Finding sympathy for some forms of masculinity?
Temi: One of the things we felt early on was that we couldn’t be as expressive or emotional when we were being men. One of the few privileges of being a woman or being non-binary is that you’re allowed to be emotional. It’s seen as your trait, and that can be damning in some ways—like in arguments—but is one of the unique privileges.
Celine: It’s definitely revealed to us that the patriarchy fucks men as well as women. The ways men are forced to engage with the idea of being a man can be damaging, and I think we get to explore and reveal that in ways that are loving and supportive of those male characters, rather than damning them from the start.

What sort of reactions do you get when you tell people you’re drag kings?
Temi: I remember telling someone we were creating a drag king show, and they were like, “What will you even do? Just wear clothes?” Female gender is seen as a thing, but maleness as a default. This is the message: Men have to perform their gender, too.

Drag is becoming more mainstream. Is there a danger of any radical message being diluted?
Temi: The radical message is ultimately that gender is a social construct, so if more people did drag, I don’t think that would be eroded. If more people know about Ru Paul’s Drag Race, and more people are invited to question their gender, their gender presentation and the way they talk and take up space, then that’s a good thing.

Your workshop next weekend is on the interplay between gender and sexuality. How has drag shaped your views on this?
Celine: After our shows, we get a lot of people who identity as straight coming up to us saying, “Oh, that was so confusing. I don’t know if I was attracted to you as women or as men or just generally aroused by the sexiness.” I think what’s been amazing is that blurring of the boundaries around what people find attractive.
Temi: One thing we’ve all agreed on is that whether you’re cis, or non-binary, or trans, there are gendered expectations placed on you during sex. We’re constantly trying to read gender and create expectations based on that. It’s interesting to think about how you can perform gender in a public space like a stage but also in the most private space in the world: during sex. We’re constantly being forced to perform gender.

Follow Frankie Mullin on Twitter.

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