Am­rou Al-Kadhi

I’m not straight, I’m a sun coral: On how marine bi­ol­ogy was my first foray into drag.

Gay Times Magazine - - Contents -

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.

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