Renegades

The Outcasts of Drag Have a New Kind of Queen

As this once fringe cultural scene goes mainstream, women and gender-nonconforming artists like Ata Racks are challenging notions of who can take the stage.

The Outcasts of Drag Have a New Kind of Queen

Drenched in fake blood, wearing nothing but a ragged tutu and a bra, the drag performer known as Ata Racks gingerly steps in front of the small crowd gathered to watch them perform. This visual onslaught is in jarring contrast to their calm, almost shy body language. Ata Racks stands motionless, gaze directed at the ground, waiting for the music to start.

As soon as the first chords of the song come on, Ata Racks’ body explodes into performance. This is a lip sync number, but the performance is overtly physical. Ata Racks, who uses they/them pronouns, throws their body around like a tormented ragdoll, but still hits carefully choreographed marks, working the crowd and collecting dollar bills from cheering audience members.

This is a different kind of drag scene, and this is a different kind of drag queen. Instead of the typical setting — a gay bar with shirtless bartenders and $20-minimum bar tabs — the young crowd (some not old enough to drink) is crammed in the back patio of the Flower Power Coffee House, a neighborhood coffee shop in Ridgewood, Queens.

Luna Page, also known by their drag persona Ata Racks, performing at the Flower Power Coffee House in Ridgewood, Queens.

Ata Racks is Luna Page, 25. They are AFAB (assigned female at birth) but identify as agender, or genderless. Their everyday gender expression is neutral, or mostly androgynous. Out of drag, Luna has short black hair that’s shaved on the sides and flips between looking boyish and feminine. They sometimes wear a binder that presents a more masculine body shape.

Luna’s path to discovering their own agender identity was spurred by participating in drag. “I was always a ‘weird’ kid growing up,” Luna says. “I struggled a lot with my own sense of self internally. Drag culture led me on the path to learn more about LGBTQ+ culture in general, and I was able to discover so many things about myself because of it.”

In a subculture that, historically speaking, has been primarily dominated by cisgender gay men who impersonate women, people like Luna are an outlier. However, this is rapidly changing.

Via the massively popular show RuPaul’s Drag Race, this once-taboo performance art is now on primetime TV. But the mainstreaming of drag, Luna says, is a blessing and a curse. On one hand, you have an entirely new demographic of people who are consumers of drag culture who otherwise might not have been exposed to it. This means more interest in what they do, and more opportunities for paid gigs, tours and collaborations with other artists. On the other hand, the popular conception of drag culture doesn’t include performers who aren’t men.

“For queens like me,” Luna says, “it can be hell. People only have shows like Drag Race to reference, and so it becomes a situation in which if you’re not doing Ru Girl drag, you’re outcasted.” RuPaul himself said in a controversial interview with The Guardian last year that “Drag loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once it’s not men doing it.” These comments sparked backlash among trans and non-cisgender-male drag performers, and RuPaul later walked them back.

Page at home and out of drag. Page, who was assigned female at birth but identifies as agender, or genderless, works in the beauty industry by day and performs in drag at night.

Decoupling the idea that drag can only be a man dressing as a woman is part of Ata Racks’ and other alternative drag performers’ raison d’être. However, creating this kind of change of perception within an insular subculture can be just as hard as it is in a mainstream one. Some debate whether or not what Ata Racks does is drag. A haunted baby doll drenched in fake blood is a far cry from the glamorous performers that people are used to seeing perform drag. Is it cosplay? Is it drag? Or is it just live performance? The lines dividing these different forms of art are blurred, but to Luna, there is no question that what they do is drag.

“I didn’t even think about it at first,” Luna says about defining their work. “I’m a fan of drag, I’ve been a fan of drag, so my choice to participate was a natural one.” Luna works in the beauty industry by day and has been a fan of makeup for their whole life, so translating that skill to a drag look was a natural evolution, they say.

There have been a few instances of shade thrown their way from other queens, although “It’s mostly been based around confusion,” Luna says. When they first started performing as Ata Racks in gay bars in Brooklyn, the staring was unbearable. “Once I was walking off stage,” Luna recounts, “and a queen came up to me to compliment me, and as she got closer and realized I was AFAB, her facial expression became very confused. She said, ‘Oh my goodness. I didn’t realize you were a woman. That was a great show for a female performer.’ Literally the most backhanded compliment.”

Growing up in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, Luna was always interested in performance art, acting, makeup and fashion, but they were held back by a shy demeanor. Luna says their father was a steady source of inspiration with his never-ending words of encouragement, pushing them to put it all out there. Luna lost this stalwart pillar when their father unexpectedly passed away in 2018. Their father’s death hit hard, but it also became a creative catalyst.

Page, who has been a fan of makeup their whole life, puts on eyeslashes before performing as Ata Racks.

“When my dad died, I felt as if I owed it to him to share my art with the world,” Luna says. “It was definitely what sparked my desire to perform. I couldn’t take his words of encouragement out of my head.”

And so, the drag persona was born.

The character’s drag name Ata Racks is named after the anti-anxiety medication (Atarax) that Luna was prescribed after their father’s passing. Like the medication, their drag persona acts to calm their nerves. “Performing as Ata Racks allows me to do things I never could do on my own,” Luna says. “It’s a form of courage.”

This theme of drag being a form of therapy is prevalent in Ata Racks’ performances. “The character is an outlet to overcome stresses, fears and mental health issues,” Luna says. “Ata Racks is a characterization of all of my troubles; my anxiety disorders, my panic disorders, all of my fears and frustrations are all poured into this one character.”

“There’s a darkness to queer art, and I think it should stay that way,” they continue. “We have a lot of shit to deal with, and this is my own personal way of exploring that.”

Drag performers and members of Ata Rack’s CVNT COLLXCTIVE house pose after a show at 2Twenty2 in Boston, November 2018.

After a year of performing in bars, clubs and DIY spaces across Brooklyn and Queens, Luna’s family-oriented instinct kicked in and inspired them to create a drag house of their own called CVNT COLLXTIVE (a tongue-in-cheek acronym for Creative, Versatile, iNternational, and Transcendent). In drag culture, houses, which go back to 1980s ballroom culture, are like alternative families, support systems for LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming people to collectivize in a safe space. From a business perspective, houses also act as a network and talent pool from which to cast performers.

Ata Racks’ drag house is now a diverse collective of young people, united by their involvement in alternative drag both in New York City and across the world, thanks to social media. “I wanted to bring a focus on the outcasts of the queer community,” Luna says, “the queerdos that are not into top 40 or that are not cis gay men. These people need love in our community too!”

Luna’s house also hosts events with a community support element, such as a recent anti-bullying event for young people, held at the Flower Power Coffee House. All of the proceeds generated were donated to a nearby LGBTQ youth center.

“I feel AFAB performers have to work twice as hard just to get noticed,” Luna says, but adds that their success in drag thus far greatly outweighs any negative criticism they’ve received: “It just proves how irrelevant my gender is to my performance skills.”

Ata Racks performing at the Rosemont, a Brooklyn neighborhood bar with a thriving drag scene.