Anatomy of a Bio-Queen

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #103, Fall 2003.

?By Miss Debra Kate and H. Kapplow

One of Miss Debra Kate?s biggest regrets is that her current schedule doesn?t leave her enough time to put her makeup on properly. It?s not that she doesn?t get a chance to apply everything she intends to?it?s all there?and it looks fantastic. She just doesn?t have the luxury these days of savoring the experience. Applying makeup is a fulfilling act for Debra Kate, and the pleasure she?s accustomed to taking in the process is an essential part of the magic by which she transforms herself into a woman. Or into a man. It can be confusing for the casual onlooker, trying to guess what the final transformation is. Perhaps there is no final transformation.
On stage, if I don?t speak, I?m often mistaken for a man, although I?m wearing women?s clothing, a woman?s wig, and heavy makeup. This is also the case with many photos of me in ?drag.? When I?m not dressed in women?s clothing, I?m usually never perceived as a man. I wear primarily androgynous clothing, and am often told by men I am totally ?weiblich? (womanly). I believe this has nothing to do with my bearing, but is due, rather, to my big tits, belly, and thighs. On stage I enlarge the breasts even more, so they appear fake. I also sometimes enlarge my belly and my ass and add an abnormally large bulge in the crotch.

Debra Kate?s thinking and work deals with the expectations that people have of each other?it focuses on what a person should be and then on what they actually are if they aren?t what they should be.

There?s a lot of crossover in this life. Glamour can be ugliness, and ugliness can be glamorous. I often wear ill-fitting clothes, which changes the audience?s perception of my form even further. In addition, I wear backwards wigs and unevenly applied makeup. It?s completely ridiculous what people do in real life to modify their bodies to make them smaller and more ?perfect,? the way they agonize over supposed flaws no one else sees. In my case, and in the case of others I know, the issues are deeper. My breasts started to sprout when I was eight years old, and a tremendous confusion began. But at some point, I just couldn?t let myself be overwhelmed by those things anymore. I had to turn my negative situation inside out. I decided to take what I have and make something new out of it.

I can make people laugh at the absurdity of the whole ?beauty? situation. Laughter keeps those smiling muscles fit, and a beautiful smile is the true key to looking great. The more you laugh at me, and at yourself, the sexier you become!

Who is this Debra Kate? And more to the point, what is this Debra Kate? An American-born performance/multi-media artist, Debra Kate began traveling between the U.S. D.I.Y. (Do It Yourself) circles and the Berlin drag scene in 1998. This movement was critical to her work.

Her general explorations of identity became more concentrated during this transition, and a clear persona began to evolve. Her drag persona is mischievous in sexual orientation: she is a biological woman dressing as a ?man? who is dressing as a ?woman.? She refuses to see herself or anyone else in the world as definitely male or female, gay, straight, or bisexual?not so much in revolt against the traditional categories as because she just doesn?t ?get? those boundaries. Debra Kate describes them as ?sort of there, but ghostly.? She sees them, but then walks right through them.

No matter how many times they explained the whole ?girls do this, and boys do that? thing to me as a child, it never sunk in. All the rules about how to behave and what to wear and who should like who... It just went on and on, and I didn?t understand any of the reasoning behind it. It always just sounded like babble to me.

If I want to wear it, then I want to wear it. Today I will be wearing a clown nose on the train. Not because it bothers you, but because I enjoy it. I like red. Red is pretty. It hurts no one when I wear a clown nose on the subway, and it makes me happy. This is the basis for much of my work. Acting on a simple desire, without regards for certain constructed social confines, I want to wear a red clown nose. I want to be a princess. Crown. Don?t have one? Put something shiny on my head and get on with it. I like to take this into the public realm. Because it?s natural to be who you are, not just in your own home, but during the whole day. I ride the trains in fummel (drag).

Debra Kate cites her grandmother as a big influence. She remembers shooting a video of her
relatives at a big family event once, and her grandmother repeatedly asking her what she was doing. She couldn?t understand why everyone was being filmed, when they weren?t really doing anything. Finally, her grandmother whipped out a mirror and a lipstick and began putting her makeup on for the camera, making a real show out of it, calling to her across the tables, ?Look, I?m doing something!? the whole while.

It was an eye opening moment for me. In the middle of a Bar Mitzvah celebration, surrounded by people on their best behavior for the occasion, she reveled in an everyday activity and made that activity into a special event. It was intimate and comical. Small scale, but to me, totally glamorous. She was laughing at us as well as at herself, and displaying an incredible honesty about the absurdity of our situation. She wasn?t preaching; she was playing, and she brought me onto the playground with her.
Debra Kate hears this little grandma-voice in the back of her head constantly, and it informs all of her work. Her performance is about performing ?acting out for an audience?doing something that would be nothing if no one were watching. But she?s using the activity?the audience?s response and participation, her relationships with other
performers?to get at truths about herself and about the construction of identity more generally.
The queens taught me femme. I?m naturally butch and the feminine comes to me as more or less a second language. But also, being a drag queen heightens my masculinity. I could never look as butch in male clothing as I do in female clothing. In male clothing, I?m obviously biologically female, but in women?s clothing, especially when I wear prosthetics, it can be hard to tell. Underneath the various layers of acquired femininity is the butch core that I was born with. Being female is more like a running gag for me. It?s a silly commentary on the silly preconceptions people have of what a woman should be. It?s a schtick, as opposed to what I am. Oh, also, when I sing my own songs in drag at straight venues, no one even recognizes that I?m in drag?they just think I?m a strangely dressed, or sometimes glamorous woman?it?s a completely
different experience than performing within the scene.

Before finding her way into drag culture, Miss Debra Kate was involved in theater, and then performance art and poetry throughout high school, college and after?but she couldn?t stand the prima donnas or the pretension surrounding these scenes. Her artwork has always struggled with self-identification, as well as with the dynamics of social or group norms.

Once I laid out many of my belongings on a table at a crafts fair. Because it was a crafts fair, people expected that my belongings were for sale. When they inquired about the price, I told them the things were, in fact, my personal belongings and were not for sale. They were, however, to borrow. I told the fair visitors I had a problem?I had been given the wrong name at birth. It was obvious from my belongings that my name was
simply not suitable for the owner
of these objects. In order to live a normal life, I needed a new name that was more suitable. By using my things for a short while and wearing my clothes and accessories, I was hoping the visitors would realize what my name actually was. Many people were willing to help me find and recognize my true identity. I was given many names to choose from, ranging from old standards such as Brenda to more whimsical names such as Blue Swimmer. All of these names were much more suited to the owner of my belongings than my original birth name, giving me a feeling of continuity in my life and an overall sense of well-being.

In addition to working as a part of a drag troupe (the recently defunct Caf? Transler), performing solo at queer venues, and in straight venues without being identified as ?in drag,? Miss Debra Kate is also a photographer who has been documenting the drag scene for several years now. This work is reminiscent of Nan Goldin?s portraiture, but because she?s drag performer as well an observer, Debra Kate?s photographs provide a true insider?s view into the glamorous and not so glamorous everyday life of the transgendered individual.

There is a commonly held notion that those unlike us are abnormal. In the case of drag queens, we are viewed oftentimes as crass, shrill, trashy, exotic, extreme. Sure, many times we are. But I?ve met my share of straight people who fit those descriptions, and plenty of bland transen. Through my photo documentation, I want to show transen not just as performers, but also in various other stages of our lives. In fummel and out. I also want to show that there are a wide
variety of transgendered people. For instance, there
are those that crossdress but still identify with their
biological sex, and there are those that identify much more strongly with the opposite of their biological sex. There are many more differences, just like with straights. Each transgendered person expresses their personality in their own way. I want to dig under the stereotyped view of transen and show the individualities.
Debra Kate?s move to Berlin was unexpected, but has come to seem exactly right?it was in part her transition into an ex-patriot that enabled her transition into a full bio-queen.

I first came to Berlin to visit friends. I decided to stay a bit longer and enroll in a German class. I?d always wanted to learn German, and the classes were quite cheap. I needed to find a place to stay while I was studying. I tend to get on
fabulously with gay men, so a schoolmate took me down to a gay information center to look at the advertisements for roommates on the pinboard. On a shelf under the pinboard was a flyer for a Barbara Streisand lookalike contest, and that?s how I found my way to my first Caf? Transler show.
As far as integration into the transgender scene,
this was tough for me at first. Primarily because of the language barrier and the fact that I was living out of two bags. I had virtually no makeup, and no collection of odd costume apparel, so that I was limited in
my ability to show everyone what I could do. Being a biological female didn?t help me either. I had the feeling that certain people viewed me as an American girl looking for a shrill Berlin adventure. Once I got some German under my belt, and brought my makeup over from the States, things began to change albeit slowly.

I had been going to Caf? Transler shows in outfits made out of whatever I had to fit the theme of the show. For instance, once I fashioned an angel costume out of an old raincoat, toilet paper and tape. Eventually,
Caf? Transler asked me to join them as a member. They were all very supportive. I was feeling pretty
self-conscious when I showed up at my first Wigst?ckel
meeting. I walked into a room full of queens that had been on the scene, most of them, for years. I was the only biological female in the room, and I had the feeling that they were wondering what the cat had dragged in, but Camelia (a member of Caf? Transler) stood up and said, ?This is Debra. She is wonderful, and I?m glad that she?s here.? Camelia always stood up for me like that. The other Transler ladies were also supportive?kept me informed about various goings-on that might be of interest to me, helped me study German.

Through Wigst?ckel, I met a lot of people, but I still didn?t really feel integrated. There weren?t so many kings on the scene those first years, so I was one of only a handful of biological females. There was also no one else I knew of who was really doing what I was doing performance-wise in the scene. There were a few other bio queens such as Coco Lores, who is a fabulous moderator, but they weren?t dressing up to the extent I was, or playing the variety of roles I
was playing. I really tried to do something different for each show although I definitely have a thing for tiaras. That is a re-occurring motif for me.

As far as finally having the feeling that I was being more widely accepted, things started picking up when I began to sing. As the result of a humiliating experience in front of an auditorium of teenagers at the age of 13, I developed a terrible fear of singing for other people. I would get overwhelming panic attacks and have trouble breathing. I started singing at
Caf? Transler as a joke. Just singing really crappy on purpose so I wouldn?t feel so self-conscious. People began asking me when I was going to sing again. I guess I wasn?t so crappy after all. I really believe a certain amount of my fear of singing comes from being transgendered. I?ve got huge boobs, and a rather voluptuous female figure, which developed at a fairly young age. When the girls at school still looked like boys, I already looked like a woman. It was torture for me to have people look at my body. To top it off, I was a fricken soprano. Ick! How could those high sounds be coming out of me? I couldn?t face the humiliation of singing badly, but even worse was the horror of being ?the girl with big boobs who sings badly.? In drag, it?s different. Female is a role I?m playing, a costume I?m wearing for a performance. I pad my outfits to change my form even more. I really like to give myself a fat gut and substantial backside. I also like to dress as a chicken. I?m into the transspecies thing as well.

For the most part, the kings I meet accept me pretty much off the bat, which is a really great feeling for me, since I was basically a king in my youth. I didn?t understand girls at all. I found them baffling. My figure started developing at the age of eight, so as the schoolyard boys began rejecting me as a possible mate, I gradually switched tracks to the sissy boys. The rest is history. Hanging out with kings is like coming home. I love kicking around with the other guys. It?s great, although in a different way from when I?m with queens. With the queens, even when I?m playing the schoolgirl, I?m still often the most butch in the group, which I really get off on. I get to be the little sister while being the big brother at the same time. I thrive on that.

Any transformation of one?s gender-presentation, whether full (in terms of either an alteration of one?s body or an alteration of one?s lifestyle) or partial, constitutes a profound work of self- and social-exploration. It can be an extremely difficult experience. It can also be a work of art.

Bio-queens are a tiny, but steadily growing
segment of our population. They have occupied an unsteady place in the transgender community so far, but have been gaining support with the growth of the drag king community. Miss Debra Kate seems to have found her particular place in
action?through performance. Her transformation?like the application of her makeup?
is happening very much ?on the go.? She is
following her artistic instincts (often at a breakneck pace) in order to find herself. That process, more than any wig, outfit, or prosthesis, which shines through in each photograph, skit, or song she produces, is the most prominent anatomical
feature of this bio-queen. That, and of course, her incredible charm, which is what makes her a queen rather than simply a lady.