Decolonize Drag by Kareem Khubchandani

About the Book

The global popularity of TV reality competition RuPaul’s Drag Race, going into its 12th season, is an unprecedented queer phenomenon. It has spawned official spinoffs such as Drag Race Thailand and Drag Race UK, as well as a host of other series such as Dragula, Camp Wannakiki, Las Mas Dragas (Mexico), and The Switch (Chile). As drag enters the mainstream through a particularly fabulous, feminine, commercial, and mediatized format, various forms of gender-based performance fall out of the purview of what we (could) call drag. A range of critical performance practices that mimic, play with, and reinvent gender—all part of the project of drag—become obsolete as drag concretizes into archetypes offered by Drag Race and its counterparts. While drag is often rhetoricized as a subversion of gender norms, it has also been bound to projects of securing normativity and power, pre- and post-Drag Race. Decolonize Drag! explores a range of performance practices that purposefully engage gender to understand how drag colludes with, reinforces, elides, resists, and laughs at colonial projects. It discusses drag as a performance practice, more specifically a form of entertainment, by those on the margins of gender and sexual normativity. However, at various moments the book also show how gender nonconformity is employed by straight white men to secure colonial power.

Decolonize Drag! opens in the voice of Khubchandani’s drag alter-ego, judgmental aunty LaWhore Vagistan. In “Imposter Syndrome,” Aunty discusses her participation in a ten-week drag competition in Austin, Texas. She tells us about the week she was asked to perform an impersonation, and how she runs into the limits of representing South Asian-ness in this very white city. She explains her choice to perform as U.S.-based Trindiadian Hip-Hop star Nicki Minaj, showing us how drag is on the one hand a troublesome site of gender performance, sexual exhibition, and cultural appropriation, and how on the other it holds possibilities for feminist rhetoric, global-South solidarities, and sexual and artistic freedom.

The book continues with “Finding Vagistan,” which charts the author’s changing relationships to drag as he moved across national borders—from Ghana, to U.S., to India, and across transnational social media. He detail how queer nightlife spaces recalibrated Hollywood versions of drag he watched on TV as a teenager, how South Asian drag queens in U.S. nightclubs incited not just the pleasures of queer erotics but of home and community, how he began to do drag and network with other South Asian drag queens across the globe, how audiences changed as he moved across national borders, and how he realized that drag was everywhere around him in Ghana but he just didn’t have the permission to call it that. Using these experiences to set out some of the major questions that guide this book, Khubchandani asks: Who defines what drag is? What are we allowed to call drag? Where do we look for drag? How does drag change meaning and efficacy as it shifts across geographies? These questions lead us to think not only about the trans and non-binary people, women, disabled folks, indigenous people, and people of color who are kept marginal to popular understandings of drag, but also to evidence how colonial masculinities are secured through drag.

  • Kareem Khubchandani

    is a researcher, performance artist, and organizer. He is the Mellon Bridge Assistant Professor in the Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies, teaching at Tufts University. Khubchandani performs in drag as LaWhore Vagistan who interweaves storytelling, standup comedy, body art, theater, and digital media.