I first noticed Neil Lawrence when he sat four rows behind me in Professor Lee’s English 45C class. He was the source of the first, “That’s so Berkeley” text I set back to my parents in Cleveland. “Today,” I wrote them, “Prof. Lee asked if there were any Communists in my class. Someone actually raised their hand.”
So that he was — pseudonym “Communist four rows back” — at least until this Tuesday, when he sat across from me on the second floor of Cafe Milano, as he told me a bit about himself, UC Berkeley’s Unity House and its upcoming annual Drag Show.
Lawrence is a transmasculine freshman who commands the attention of every room. Sporting a head shaven on both sides, his self-proclaimed “casual” makeup — which that day consisted of a tinge of blue lipstick — and a briefcase, Neil does not worry what others think about him.
“We have such a body-oriented sexual culture, and I get there and they’re like, ‘Oh God … what do we do? Uhm, uh, can I look up a manual?’ ” Lawrence said. Lawrence is one of many who applied for and received housing in UC Berkeley’s Unity House, a LGBT residence hall, housed in Unit 3’s Spens-Black Hall. The first of its kind to focus on both sexual identity and gender, Unity House is a safe place for a majority of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender freshmen and transfer students, as well as a powerhouse of creative, LGBTQA-centered events.
This Friday’s anticipated annual Unity House Drag Show — a free show set for 7:30 p.m. at Clark Kerr’s Krutch Theater — will show Berkeley what being a drag queen or king is really about. Although it will be many of the performers’ first time in drag — including Lawrence’s — he assures me that it will be both entertaining and respectful. Plus, how could it be bad when UC Berkeley alumnus and drag queen extraordinaire Honey Mahogany is hosting?
DC: Why did you choose to live in Unity House?
NL: I’m a lil’ weird around the edges — it’s kind of wonderful that our campus has queer-specific housing, so that I know I can go home somewhere where I don’t have to explain myself to anybody, where I have something in common with all the people I live with. The words “safe space” get tossed around a lot, but it really is one. We (also) do a lot of educational activities — we did a consent workshop, we’re planning a conversation around transgender issues, and there’s been a lot of education that has been part of our whole Drag Awareness Month.
DC: Can you talk more about the difference between transgender and drag?
NL: Basically, I have friends who are transfeminine who are going to be performing, and their biggest anxiety is that people are going to see them up there and just think they are drag queens and guys. And I’m like no, no, no, if you’ve looked at drag makeup, that’s not what a woman looks like, that’s what a drag queen looks like! It’s an exaggerated performance. Drag is performance to the extreme — all identity is, to some extent, performance. Trans is about how you identify. Drag is a job, you get paid to do drag, and you don’t get paid to be a transwoman. There’s this huge misconception, especially gay men who are drag queens are frustrated that people think that they want to be women. They’re like, “No, this is what I do, and it’s fun, and I like being pretty, but you know I take it off and I go home and my name is Mark, or whatever.”
DC: What is the history of the Unity House Drag Show?
NL: Unity’s Drag Show has been a yearly event. Honey Mahogany, who hosts every year, was on Drag Race, went to Berkeley, was in Unity House, and so she comes back every year and hosts our drag show. Pretty much, it’s been formatted after RuPaul’s Drag Race — it’s a competition. We are trying to find “Berkeley’s Next Top Drag Performer.” I mean, you couldn’t put on a drag show now without drawing a little from Mama Ru.
DC: Are the majority of the people performing in Unity House?
NL: We have a lot of Unity House performers, but we also have a lot of people in Unity who are just involved in logistics. We have a lot of performers from SEO — the queer fraternity — we love them; WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) will be performing; they do a drag king number every year.
DC: I’ve never heard of drag kings before??
NL: They are sort of lower profile — they don’t have their own reality show yet. There’s going to be a lot of sort of, just general playing with gender. We have people who are transgender living in Unity House who are doing their own thing, myself included. I think a lot of people are really confused. Okay, I’m a transboy, I’m a drag queen. And people are just like, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand!” And I’m just like that’s me, just sit there and be confused, there’s not one way to be a man. I think drag is a huge part of what everyone does when they get up in the morning, so have been trying to build that in, just talking about identity in general.
DC: Wellesley University recently decided to not allow trans men to stay at the university because they want to keep it an all-girls institution. What are your thoughts on that?
NL: I have opinions! I personally think that if you’re transmasculine and you’re far
enough on that side of the binary — one, personally, I’m like, how could you send yourself to an all-women’s college, honey, honey, love yourself — two, the way these transmasculine people demand this space is completely disrespectful, and then to try to make it a trans issue … like, “No, no, no, sit down, your bowtie is very nice, but this is not your space.” It’s completely justified of them. I think single-sex institutions have a place. That’s a personal thing you have to work on yourself, like, this is no longer my space.
DC: What do you hope to get from this show? What is the main purpose for our community and Unity House?
NL: Um, I think top of the list is, put on a good show! Have fun, do something interesting, do something that makes you feel good about yourself. For people who show up, I hope that in some way you will learn something about what drag is and what drag can be and also maybe what drag isn’t. We sat down, and I said, “I want our theme to be something with substance.” Life is my runway is really just talking about the aesthetics of existence, about how it is that you make yourself and show you can move beyond “Who I am to who do I want to turn myself into?”
Sarah Adler is a staff writer for The Weekender. Contact her at [email protected]