What does it mean to be a drag queen in a country that silently condemns sexual expression? Yes, the West is far from perfect, but for some unfortunate outsiders, it is seen as a promised land.
Being part of the LGBTQ+ community in Romania is not exactly scoring a winning ticket in the lottery of life. And please don’t get this wrong: Romania can be a welcoming country with hospitable people, but there is an equally hostile set of laws and social norms created to support the “traditional” family.
A complicated eastern European land, Romania is a post-communist country which still retains some of those old Soviet influences more than 30 years since communism fell.
Doing drag in a place where the public tends to mock such acts of self-expression is challenging, to say the least. So what does it take to be able to express your true self in this environment?
In a quest to find some answers, I found Răzvan, a non-binary 19-year-old that has been doing drag shows for two years. Răzvan is passionate about make-up, nail art and hair styling, and he started to learn these skills and work in salons from the age of eight. Coming from a family with a history of domestic abuse, he started working young, while also handling school, and now prides himself of being a self-made artist.
I wanted to deep dive into the subject and find out more about the drag culture in Romania, and how this intersects with the sexuality of the performer. Răzvan shared some insights from his experience with the community.
Mihaela: How did you discover drag?
Răzvan: I started playing with make-up and nails from an early age, I have always been passionate about clothes and make-up. My first drag transformation was at 17. I had to be out at 8pm, and I started doing my make-up at 3pm, hours in advance. I practised for days, I wanted everything to be perfect. So, I dressedup and did my make-up, which turned out really bad, but I still felt amazing. At the time, I didn’t know there was a name for what I was doing, but later I learned the term “drag”. By seeing other people in the community doing this, I became more interested.
M: What are your sources of inspiration?
R: When I was little, my sister, mother and grandmother were like fairy tales to me. I used to always watch them putting on make-up and used to love what I was seeing. I wanted to be like them. Nowadays, I am not so much inspired, but I admire a few people from the community, such as Naomi Smalls and Gia Gunn. I like to always be original. I chose my stage name, Barbie, because I think it fits with my features. I like to play with the Barbie theme in all my shows.
M: What can Barbie do that Răzvan cannot?
R: Barbie can be sensual and fun all the time. After I put my wig on, everything changes. I transform, I become more delicate, ethereal. When I perform, I forget about absolutely everything else. My goal is to show people a good time, and to inspire them to feel confident and have fun. Răzvan is more serious, and I believe that there is still a little boy inside of him.
M: How do you feel that this form of art is perceived by the Romanian public?
R: There are different types of people that see us, and they all feel differently. Many from the community admire our work and see it as an art performance. Some are envious, because they would love to do drag but they don’t have the courage to get started on the journey yet. In the community, there are many incidents that originated from envy and rivalry.
People from the mainstream public look at us and all they see is a circus. They tend to laugh and ridicule our work.
M: What do you think the Romanian public lacks when it comes to understanding and appreciating your work?
R: People don’t realise how important it is to educate children properly on this matter. As long as there are families that still teach their children to denigrate us and to mock our work, there will never be real progress. Children grow up, and they will eventually know how to tell right from wrong, but in our country this mentality is implanted from a young age, when they are still unpolished. They are taught that being like us is wrong, even though it’s something normal that we are born with. That’s why, as a nation, it will be difficult to change mentalities. Education is really important, and the system doesn’t help at all.
M: Have you ever experienced bullying?
R: From a young age I struggled to make friends because I was seen as different from everybody else. In my home village, the other parents didn’t let their kids play with me because in their view there was something wrong with me. When I got older, going out on the street with my coloured hair and make-up, I would get bitter looks from neighbours.
M: Have you ever felt unsafe?
R: Yes, all the time. Every time I step out the door, I am terrified, and always alert. My house and the salon where I work, are the only two places where I feel safe.
In 2018, during the referendum for illegalising same-sex marriages in Romania, I went out with my boyfriend. We were sitting in a restaurant, and we got beaten up for no reason. Well, the reason was…because we were together and I was wearing make-up. I got slapped so hard in my ear that I couldn’t hear for three days.
No matter how courageous and proud you are, the fear and pain are constant.
M: Is there anything that could stop you from doing this?
R: Nothing can stop me from continuing to do what I love. Being a drag queen is my whole life’s purpose. With all the risks and consequences, I want to continue here in Romania. I will always give my best and work hard, I want to show that it is possible, that it can be done even here, in our country. My hopes are not very high, but I think in time people will understand.
M: How do you see the future?
R: I see myself doing much bigger shows. To be honest, I still look in the mirror and feel like a change is needed. I will always be the same Răzvan, I want to keep my name, but hopefully in some years, if I have the possibility and support, I will get sex reassignment surgery. I know doing this will help me a lot in my drag shows. I think people like me can relate, we are all lost souls locked in the wrong bodies.
The surgery is free in Romania, but with many terms, and only because it is considered a medical treatment for a mental health condition. Even this fact can tell you a lot about how much we still need to learn.
I could fill hundreds of pages writing about the social and systemic discriminations that people from the community face daily. Romania is also considered one of the most religious countries in Europe, and that certainly leads to more conservative views. Few NGOs offer support, but there are still people abused and humiliated every day in a society that avoids addressing the real problem.
Citizens use their identity cards with gender markers on them, to vote for laws that deny some others’ freedoms. But when the system is broken, what we really need is a reboot. What we can hope for is small steps towards acceptance. Until then, the promised land is faraway, and this conversation remains a taboo.
This article first appeared in Chapter Z Magazine and is reproduced here with their kind permission.
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