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From left to right: Amnesia, Yatra Vulcania/Jalfgoc Vulcan, Cristal Diamond and Norma Mor. Photograph by Mathias Rosenzweig.

A Santiago Drag Scene Parties Against Right-Wing Politics

Mathias Rosenzweig

For Chilean "transformistas," drag represents a dissenting voice against the wave of conservatism currently sweeping the nation.

From left to right: Amnesia, Yatra Vulcania/Jalfgoc Vulcan, Cristal Diamond and Norma Mor. Photograph by Mathias Rosenzweig.

This past December, Chile elected Sebastián Piñera as its new president, set to take office in March 2018. The Piñera administration will not be strictly “new”; the conservative politician held the same office between 2010 and 2014, followed by socialist Michelle Bachelet, who helped push forward a liberal agenda, expanding women’s reproductive rights (abortion had previously been illegal in all cases), as well as sponsoring a bill to legalize adoption by same-sex couples. Piñera’s return represents a right-wing backlash to the country’s previous progressive momentum, notably with regard to the queer community. The incoming president has suggested that “these transgender or gender dysphoria [sic] [youth] are corrected as they grow up.” He’s also working to stop a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage.

“Drag, just by itself, is always political,” says Catarsis, a strikingly tall queen who recently joined the bustling, avant-garde Santiago drag scene termed “las transformistas.” The name is a traditional and direct translation of what the English-speaking world now calls “drag,” but with a difference: old-school Chilean transformistas are less interested in showmanship than their American counterparts.

For the transformistas, drag is a lifestyle that connotes freedom of expression, as well as explorations of gender. “For a lot of people, doing drag is a way of being trans,” explains Santiago-based filmmaker and performance artist Amnesia Leta, who describes herself as trans. Amnesia helps operate and promote the scene through regular parties, and she refers to the girls as a sorority, adding that they’re more supportive (read: less competitive) than the city’s older queens. “Me and a lot of friends started by going to parties not to perform, but to live our female personalities or male personalities in other ways, and then the performance came.” These parties were typically held in apartments and weren’t open to the public. One party, the name of which translates to “Dragged and Drugged,” served as a safe zone for people interested in gender-fluid dressing. The parties have since grown, and live on the periphery between the transformistas themselves and the rest of the queer community.

Cristal Diamond and Norma Mor. Photograph by Mathias Rosenzweig.

The transformistas in Chile also occupy a niche of the country’s art scene that departs from the Rupaulian portrayal of drag in the American media. “Drag is just a name that’s being used right now. It’s an expression,” Amnesia explains; she actually doesn’t like the term and prefers transformista. “We’ve been labeled as drag queens because it’s a phenomenon, but there’s an underground scene that’s been growing stronger…there are more radical artists crossdressing and experimenting with gender.”

This scene has become a quiet yet powerful dissenting voice to the country’s growing right. Though they are not explicitly political, nor involved in overt revolution, their presence in Chilean nightlife—a major element of urban culture—as well as their growing visibility on social media are subtly challenging the status quo. “For the public or for religion, it’s dangerous for us to show up and be so powerful because it serves as a tool for the rest of the people, saying, ‘Oh, I don’t care what you say. I’m going to do what I want because I’m happy like this,’” says Morganne LaMorte, a Santiago-based transformista and makeup artist. “A straight guy can say he doesn’t like drag, but the truth is that he does and he’s fascinated by the art in it.”

Ultimately, these individuals see being a transformista as an assertion of freedom that extends beyond the social and political issues surrounding gender alone. “There are drag queens that are animal rights activists,” says LaMorte, and she adds with a laugh, “Drag is a powerful face to have in the first line of attack. A pretty face will always stop traffic.”