I’m not straight, I’m a sun coral: On how marine biology was my first foray into drag.
When being taught that homosexuality would lead me to disownment, I simply turned to the shimmering glass of my fish tank and got lost inside the colourful water. @glamrou
When I was 13, and having a traumatic time at home and at school, I developed an obsession with marine biology.
It quite literally took over my life. Aquariumkeeping was my hobby of choice for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award (which, as a qualification, has had no bearing on any of our careers, let’s be real), and for three years, I worked every weekend at the local marine-life stockist.
I obtained an advanced PADI qualification in scuba-diving, was the most popular and knowledgeable person on the online aquatics scene (I’m debating whether to boast this on Grindr) and I devoted every spare second to my very own marine aquarium.
My obsession developed in tandem with my fears about being different. I grew up in a Muslim household that policed and punished gender and sexual non-conformism; I existed in a muffled terror, where my queer identity wasn’t even allowed the words with which to articulate its questions.
But even in the darkest moments, my fish tank was there, expressing all that I couldn’t. When being taught that homosexuality would lead me to disownment, or that seeming effeminate was a social embarrassment, I simply turned to the shimmering glass and got lost inside the colourful water.
The marine world, as I see it, is an intrinsically queer one. The colours, textures, and patterns of the many curious creatures rival those of a resplendent drag queen. And as a society, coral reefs are far more woke when it comes to gender subversion than the pitiful human race. Male seahorses carry their unborn. Nudibranch sea slugs are biologically genderless – literally, they’re non-binary. Sea hares change sex according to whatever they need for reproduction.
Octopi are queer to an epic degree: they change colour and size at will, can imitate their environmental structures, with the male’s ejaculating simply by extending the penis into the necessary orifice, the rest of their body disengaged – is this not 7am chemsex?
As a kid, I was particularly hypnotised by the glowing jelly hands of anemones; they felt so formless and fluid, unrestricted by the behavioural gender codes of the human world.
When you grow up queer in a society that isn’t, you naturally feel like an alien. In many cases, your queer identity is not something that can be expressed, for it has never been given the resources by which to understand itself. And so we look for other worlds, and ones that touch us more intimately than the world surrounding us.
The peak of my happiness in the world of aquatics was on acquiring a sun coral. Sun corals weren’t a popular choice in fish-keeping circles; in the day, they shut off from the world, closing their structures, restrained, even dull; but when the tank falls asleep, they bloom, revealing their true colours, gaudy, proud, and mesmerising. I used to get up in the early hours of the morning to catch its private beauty. She taught me so much. The next time I felt as happy as I was when I watched my sun coral, was when I discovered drag.
Drag was my own blooming, a way for me to be a creature of the night, unleashing all I couldn’t as a vulnerable gay teenager in a religious household. I think of drag in the same vein as marine aquatics – a window into another world, here on earth. Drag unshackles us from the earthly confines of being lodged in our genders. Like the anemone, drag gives us fluidity – and the power to sting when necessary. Drag loosens the human subject from the rigid prisms of gender codes; like the queer underworld beneath our feet, queens use colour, shape, texture and behaviour to expose an alternative reality.
I often think of myself as a marine aquarium when I’m in drag and in a particularly ‘straight’ environment. I am both cut off from the room around me, but boast a queer wisdom for the outside world to wonder into. And there to be a symbol of hope to yet unknown queer comrades, perhaps too scared to understand what they’re feeling yet, but whose faces sparkle from the light which reflects off my coral-coloured sequins.
Many still don’t have the tools to express the inexpressible. But eventually, a queer magic will make itself known, offering an alternative that’s much more beautiful – and much more fun.