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Daphne Bohémien: "drag is a form of art"

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Translation by:

Faith Williams


My first meeting with Daphne Bohémien, a well-known figure in the Milanese drag scene who defines herself as an "activist, vegetarian, drama queen, lover of cats and red hair" took place over Instagram. Bohémien is also an advocate for the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community, of people who are HIV positive, and minorities more generally. Our conversation opened a window into the kaleidoscopic world of drag in Italy and the prejudices its practitioners must yet overcome.

Daphne, first things first, what does drag mean to you?

For me, drag is an art form. Actually, I believe that 'drag' is no longer enough, we should start talking about 'drag+', a more inclusive term. Unfortunately, when we talk about drag activities, we still refer to binary optics for which we mean a man disguising himself as a woman or vice versa. But I don't necessarily want to be a woman when I dress up. I can become anything I want. In my case, doing drag was a therapeutic act: it helped me - and it still helps me - to grow. At the same time, it is the work that 'I want to do when I grow up,' and I am dedicating everything to it. It's not just me that has grown up either, my character has evolved too.

Tell me more, how did your character evolve?

Initially my intention was to 'scare' people. I needed to create a monster that was scarier than the ones I carried inside me, one that 'forced' people to respect me. Back then I was much more [of a] 'club kid.' Today, however, my style of drag and my looks have softened. I no longer need to intimidate. Drag art is something else for me now: it is about creating connections with people, having a dialogue and building a safe space for everyone and everything.

How do you manage to create this safe space?

I talk about my life, and I like it when people feel free to do the same. My story belongs to everyone I tell it to. This is the only way to create a safe space: I don't want to feel alone in my room, and face my problems on my own, but to have a community that supports me too.

When did you start doing drag?

My character was born almost ten years ago. So you could say I'm getting old! (laughs). Specifically, they were born from a turbulent childhood and adolescence. I had an epiphany when I saw the film Party Monster (a film based on the true story of Michael Alig, the American club promoter, set in New York in the 90s). Shortly after, I started building my character.

Where does your stage name come from?

'Daphne Bohémien' wasn't my first name, but the previous ones are too embarrassing to reveal (laughs). I chose it for several reasons: some quite frivolous, like the reference to Daphne Guinness who for me is a great fashion icon, but also because it derives from Daphoene, the Greek goddess of orgiastic fury... in short some very specific things! I chose 'Bohémien', on the other hand, because I am fond of that kind of artistic current. The Bohemians re-claimed what was initially meant to be an insult as part of their own identity: they were 'the cursed poets.' Though my style is less violent today their characteristics have been a common thread in many of my past performances.

Since you started doing drag, how has your relationship with friends and family changed?

Honestly, it hasn't changed. My parents have always supported me. My mum is my number one fan: she always asks me for photos and videos, and she shares everything on Facebook like the boomer she is (laughs). She’s really great. Friends also accompanied me on this journey, and some people have even become my 'drag daughters.' I would say it has gone well.

There's no denying that drag stories are often told through a tragic lens. So it's very important to share positive stories like yours too.

Absolutely yes! Representation is very important. And unfortunately today, the reality of the queer world is often characterised by the 'pornography of drama' and the obsessive seeking of tragedy. I am privileged: I have always had family and friends by my side when I decided to do drag, when I discovered I was HIV positive, and even now as I've decided to transition. I think it's also important to show these kinds of positive stories.

Many still argue that focusing on representation is superficial, and that the focus on, say, inclusive language is secondary to other more important issues.

The use of inclusive language and normalisation are fundamental. I, for example, am HIV positive and, if I think about it, perhaps I can think of only one film in which this reality is normalised. Usually it is always seen as a great burden. All this leads to people with HIV - of which there are 38 million worldwide - to hide it. If you have high cholesterol people don’t point fingers at you; if you have HIV, though, yes, they do, because, it being a sexually transmitted disease, the idea is that 'you were asking for it.' Having more coherent representation, in which it is reiterated that a person in therapy does not transmit the virus and can live peacefully, for example, would be a great step forward. Honest representation helps people who live a certain reality not to feel alone. It also helps those who are not involved in such a situation themselves to know and understand it better. That's why it's so important: we need it because it hasn't been there [in any real sense] until now.

How do you think drag is treated in the Italian versus the European media?

In Italy we are still behind. Drag art is seen as a caricature, and it's still rooted deeply in the idea of the binary that we were talking about before. In the rest of Europe there is a different artistic trend: there are many more biological women, trans women and non-binary people doing drag, for example, while in Italy it is mostly gay men. Of course, this is part of the picture, but it’s not the entire truth, and it's a shame only this group is represented. I've been lucky enough to perform in different cities and I've observed different approaches. Doing drag in Berlin is more of a political action, while in New York it is a profession. Here in Italy it is seen as a hobby.

How do you find life in Milan? Do you think there are more opportunities and a greater sense of openness than in other Italian cities?

I wouldn't like to live in any other Italian city except Milan. The city offers many opportunities, and the drag world lives in its own beautiful bubble. Here there is a type of drag that, in Italy, is rather unique; it’s very marked by fashion, design and full of different influences. In Rome, for example, they have an idea of drag in which a stage costume plays a more important part; in Milan, though, a drag queen can also wear a normal dress. Basically, this city knows its stuff. There is a much broader ecosystem here.

Do you think the recent lockdowns have opened the way for new variations of drag?

The drag+ world was by no means prepared for this. There will certainly be an evolution. But while knowing how to adapt is very important, it is frankly just a necessity now, to avoid dying artistically. At the same time, however, live performance has its own magic and that is incomparable.

You are currently transitioning from male to female, how did you come to this decision?

I don't think it’s quite right to talk about a 'decision' because it's more of an awareness: you get to a point where you know who you are and decide to act accordingly. For me it was natural. I realised that I did not introduce myself to people with the name I had on my identity card. Even when I had a beard I presented myself as 'Daphne.' I have always talked about myself in a feminine way. I got to a point where the dysphoria that I had experienced in a fairly light way made its presence stronger. And so I took this step. The journey begins within oneself first, and then it moves on to the exterior. Many trans people decide not to undertake a medical and surgical path because they are not in the right psychophysical state with the right kind of family, social or working environment behind them. That's not to mention the economic aspect.

There are various restrictions on social life in Italy at the moment, from the lockdowns to social distancing measures. How is it facing your journey in such extraordinary circumstances?

Certainly being in lockdown does not help, as, during a transition process you'd ideally like to have your loved ones close to you, or you'd like to be able to have fun and go out with your friends. All this is impossible, though, and that does make this situation challenging. I must say for the umpteenth time that I am privileged because I live with two friends in an ultra queer and artistically very stimulating situation. Obviously, though, there are many moments of despair in which you start overthinking things, and getting lost in your own thoughts. It's very important to give yourself time and the chance to let your emotions validate themselves.

In Italy, a bill against homophobia, biphobia and transphobia has been presented to Parliament and it has sparked much controversy. It's still awaiting approval. What would you say to the bill’s detractors who have defined it as a limit to freedom of expression?

To call this a 'gag law' or anything like that [as some people have been] is both useless and stupid. One cannot think, in the context of an event like this, that the executioner has the same value as the victim. We cannot give the floor to people who continue to discriminate against minorities. Disagreement is OK but only on the basis of an equal starting point. To be more inclusive you paradoxically need to be less inclusive. I no longer want to give space to those who say 'I'm not a racist but that's just my opinion.' Well, if your opinion is shit, it's not valid, I'm sorry. Now the debate is on the table. We must try to direct it and, if necessary, shout louder. It is ridiculous to hide behind labels such as ‘politically correct’: if your opinion is sexist, racist or homophobic you cannot express it because it damages other people’s feelings, and so humanity itself. In a society that thinks of itself as being evolved, I'd expect this reasoning to be shared by all.

Translated from Daphne Bohémien: «Fare drag è una forma d'arte»