Before I came out of the closet, not going to drag brunch was easy. I was functionally living as a straight man, so as with Charli XCX, poppers, and other facets of queer culture, it seemed like drag just wasn’t for me. But unlike with Charli XCX and poppers, I had no interest in taking part as an ally. Gender dysphoria can be a funny thing, especially when you don’t have the words to describe it. Still, I distinctly remember quietly squirming through RuPaul viewing parties, feeling an unshakable mixture of envy and embarrassment. I wanted to be praised—like the queens—for performing femininity, but worried that if I ever came to terms with my identity, transitioning would only turn me into a caricature of a woman. Even if I came out as trans, I worried others would never see me as more than a makeup-slathered man in a dress.
But now I live as an out trans woman and drag feels much harder to avoid. Without the excuse of my presumed cis-dom, my attendance at drag shows is all but assumed. My phone buzzes endlessly with invites to cool bars full of hot gay people. (I know, rude.) “Too busy this week!” I shoot back, “Have fun without me!!!”
To most of my friends, my flakiness is just another one of my queer shortcomings—like exclusively taking my coffee hot (never iced) or constantly forgetting whether I’m a Virgo moon or Virgo rising. But if I’m being honest, I still just didn’t see the appeal of watching drag. Dealing with my still very present discomfort sounded hard, and between very loud stand-up comedians saying I don’t deserve rights and very loud politicians saying I don’t deserve rights, being trans is usually hard enough.
But when I told my friend (and Bon Appétit associate editor) Chala Tyson Tshitundu I’d never been to a drag brunch, it was—direct quote—“a gay crime.” So the following Saturday I found myself spending a sunny morning not reading my book in the park as usual but at a busy Manhattan restaurant, sipping on a guava mimosa, snacking on poached eggs, and sitting across from two drag queens so dazzling I’d need a second article to describe them.
If you’re also new to drag brunch, the idea doesn’t take much explaining. Picture brunch (hollandaise sauce, Champagne before noon, the works) and add a drag show (lip-synching, campy makeup, and of course, drag queens). Chala took me to Sona, an Indian restaurant near New York City’s Union Square. On this particular Saturday we were graced by the presence of Ms. Paige Monroe and Zola Powell, whose performances filled the time between courses of tikka-inspired flatbread, madras fried chicken sandwiches, and smoked salmon served on everything-bagel-seasoned naan.
Sona’s menu draws from a mélange of restaurateur Maneesh K. Goyal’s identities, serving stereotypically brunchy fare like eggs Benedict and lox alongside South Asian–inspired breads, curries, and drinks. Goyal is a first-generation Indian American, son to the founder of the first Indian restaurant in his home state of Texas. His background is in marketing, but since childhood he’d dreamed of opening his own restaurant as a spiritual successor to his father’s, India House, which is honored at Sona through a namesake dish, the India House’s Butter Chicken.
I often treat brunch as a restorative to nurse myself back from nasty hangovers, but drag brunch at Sona is not a quiet meal. Avoiding the show is simply not an option here. The music throbbed over my ringing ears, louder than any other bar I’ve frequented, and even if I wanted to ignore the big gay spectacle, it’s not like there’s a stage to turn away from. Instead, the queens were always right there, sashaying down the aisles between tables as if the entire dining room were a runway. I was biting into a french fry as Ms. Paige, in a floor-length gown and heels, leapt into a full-blown backward handspring, landing beside my table with a startling thud that made me briefly choke on said fry. As she shimmied away, her platinum hair still miraculously flawless, I could swear I heard her laugh out the word gag.
The queens left me in awe. Between songs they made their presence known at every opportunity, sliding into booths to mingle with guests, demanding we all take shots, chiming into conversations with a somehow endless array of innuendos, and demanding a round of applause after not one but two costume changes in the course of an hour. They were catty. They were fabulous. They were so freaking loud.
Goyal did not apologize for the noise, the spectacle, or the show. After all, though his vision for Sona was always brazenly queer, drag brunch happens only once a week. “It’s about the fun atmosphere,” he says, “if you want a quiet brunch, you can come on Sunday.”
Goyal himself is gay, and opening Sona felt like a way to honor his queer identity along with his memories of growing up in an Indian restaurant. The idea to do a drag brunch came from members of Sona’s largely queer and trans staff. Organizing the weekly show felt like a way to honor their identities as well, but also a way to turn an upscale restaurant in lower Manhattan—a phrase that makes me shudder from the implied heterosexuality—into a visibly LGBTQ-friendly space. Patrons come from all walks of life, queer and straight, young and old. I even saw a toddler being lifted from his stroller into a high chair.
I wonder what I’d be like if I’d grown up around drag queens. Not raised by them, necessarily, just what it would have been like if playing with gender had been allowed and encouraged from a young age. Maybe I’d know how to wear makeup better, or how to dress myself. Despite now being openly trans, I still struggle to feel comfortable in my body or present in high femme, mostly out of fear that I’m doing something wrong. Sitting beside the drag queens, I couldn’t have been more aware of how utterly boring I felt. My green jumpsuit, though absolutely adorable, paled in comparison to their floor-length gowns studded with sequins, ribbons, and all kinds of bells and whistles (literally, probably). Their makeup was intricate and immaculate; I struggled to manage a simple winged eyeliner look before getting out the door. Their femininity looked stunning and effortless; mine felt lacking in effort.
Even beyond the bubbly atmosphere of Sona, I don’t know if I’d call myself “visibly queer.” As a writer it’s easy to avoid topics like gender identity, hormone therapy, and the absolute joy that is going through puberty again in your early 20s, especially when you mostly write articles about mixing cocktails and kitchen hacks. Not only is that information personal, but in a country that still seems unsure whether people like me deserve to be treated with dignity, I try to be careful about how and when I share it with others.
But at drag brunch, I realized, visibility is the entire point. For the staff, for the performers, and for an audience largely made up of same-sex couples, the event is about creating something unmistakably gay. And where that unabashed queerness might have made me shift in my seat before transitioning, after my second or third mimosa, it started to feel like a comfort. Servers called me “Miss” and complimented my nails. I got drunk in the early afternoon without worrying about being harassed on a dark, lonely walk home. I sang along in my seat to Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” I was having fun. So much fun that the queens noticed and I was pulled from my seat to dance. And not to be like “and then everyone clapped,” but everyone actually clapped.
When I got full, I peed in a gender-neutral restroom without having to hesitate for a second over which one to use. Sitting on the toilet, away from the festivities, I took a moment to reflect. A lot of the world just wasn’t designed to make trans people feel welcome. I’m reminded of this every time an app asks for my gender when I’m literally just ordering takeout, every time I’m groped by a TSA agent because my body confused the scanner, and every time I spend hours on the phone with an insurance agent begging her to please, please, just give me health care. More often than not, I count myself lucky to be an afterthought, picking at whatever crumbs of consideration, representation, and acceptance others are willing to offer me.
But this place was made for me. The bathroom, yes, but also the restaurant it was attached to. And whether or not I liked the show, I can say for sure that, if it weren’t for this rowdy, chaotic gay brunch, I never would have known that a swanky establishment in a stodgy part of town would go out of its way to treat me with respect. Tall, bright, and bellowing, Ms. Paige and Zola were like big queer lighthouses, a sign of safer beaches where people like me can relax, just for a second. Sure, you could always go to Jacob Riis Park if you’re in New York, but they don’t serve waffles.
We handed Zola a twenty on our way out the door and thanked her for her performance (“Always tip your queens,” Chala reminded me). When I got home I thought about throwing on an episode of Drag Race, just to see how it felt, but decided against it. Drag brunch hadn’t made me a drag lover, but it made me think about queer spaces, why they matter, and how they come to be. I thought about my work and the difference between being a trans food writer and a food writer who happens to be trans. Maybe it’s impossible to find community if you don’t know where to look. Maybe you can’t attract community if no one can see you in the first place.
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Originally Appeared on Bon Appétit