Balkan Insight / Burgeoning Drag Scene Pushes Boundaries in Macho Serbia

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Burgeoning Drag Scene Pushes Boundaries in Macho Serbia
Drag queens perform in Belgrade night club. Photo: Monica Starr

This article was published in Balkan Insight on May 14, 2019.

by Monica Starr

Socially conservative Serbia might not seem a natural stage for gender-bending performance artists – but a new generation of drag kings and queens is determined to make its presence felt.

Drag is a visual art form that plays with gender, sexuality and power. Typically associated with the LGBT community, modern drag mostly contains drag queens: typically gay men adopting female personas who then perform lip syncs, dances or skits in front of an audience.

But women are increasingly getting involved in drag as well. The number of drag kings – women performing as men – is growing.

However, it is a surprise that socially conservative Serbia has a drag scene at all.

“The LGBTQ+ group here is one of the really marginalized groups,” said Marko Milosavljevic, 27, a programming assistant at the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, an NGO dedicated to reporting on human rights violations and campaigning for fair laws.

In 2001, the first Belgrade Pride parade ended in violence. Subsequent attempts to stage parade resulted in cancellations and riots.

Sandals and glitter – an inevitable part of any drag performance.
Sandals and glitter – an inevitable part of any drag performance. Photo: Monica Starr

“Homophobia in Serbia was deeply rooted in the 1990s, when a huge stigma was built up through the government controlled media, and when being gay was the worst thing somebody could be,” recalls Marko Mihailovic, 25, a Regional Program Assistant at Civil Rights Defenders and member of the organizing committee of Belgrade Pride.

For LGBTQ+ people, 2009 marked a change of policy. For the first time, the Law on the Prohibition of Discrimination in Serbia included language that protected people from discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

The timing was not coincidental. That year, Serbia applied for membership to the European Union – which prides itself on upholding diversity and tolerance.

In 2014, the first Pride parade without homophobic incidents took place in Serbia. Ever since, the parades have been peaceful, albeit with heavy security.

The Serbian state most likely cooperates with Pride and other LGBTQ+ related issues because of pressure coming from the international community, “like the EU and other Western countries”, says Milosavljevic.

The drag scene has meanwhile grown in Belgrade.

“In 2017, there was a boom in the drag scene. Now we have over 20 queens,” said Mihailovic, who follows the scene.

The performers have noticed the rise in numbers, too. “All of these kids have popped up on the scene,” says Dekadenca, a drag queen in Belgrade of “dubious age”.

Dekadenca has been performing since childhood. “I always liked to dress up as a kid, putting on plays for my family and friends,” she says.

In college, Dekadenca went on to perform in larger productions like Chicago starring as Mama Morton. “My first ‘drag performance’ was in a musical,” Dekadenca recalls.

Dekadenca later got a “real” opportunity to do drag at an open call hosted by a performing arts festival in Zagreb, Croatia.

“In 2014, House of Flamingo hosted their first DRAGram festival, where I met other performers. We collaborated for a year and then, in 2015, I began to focus on Belgrade,” she says.

Dekadenca has seen the scene grow in Belgrade, and feels that the drag scene in Serbia is unique and has its own aesthetics precisely because it lacks tradition.

“It is inspired by some Western culture, but we don’t have a history of drag in our Balkan culture as performance art, so it is really quite new,” she says. “It is not like [contemporary] drag in the US, where it has been around for the last 30 or 40 years.”

Even if it wasn’t as visible as it is now, drag art isn’t entirely new to the Balkans according to Gudovic, the drag king.

Twenty years ago, Gudovic’s friend came up with the idea to do a performance to deconstruct the perception of women and the body. Gudovic’s friend became a drag queen, and Gudovic became a drag king.

drag-scene-002-photo-Monica-Starr-e
Photo: Monica Starr

In 2001, the duo started performing the show and conducting workshops to transform women into men as well.

“In the beginning they did not know what they need to do, but immediately when they got into the body position, [male] dress and put on a beard or moustache, the transformation would start,” says Gudovic about the exercises.

This transformation is an experience she relates to. “The moment I become the drag king and come into the role of the man, a lot of perspectives change for me. The moment you bind your breasts, the transformation begins,” Gudovic says.

The role of Zed has also helped Zoe in her life off stage. “It has given me much more security, self confidence and some kind of different view of society in the sense of power and which way you use power,” says Gudovic, who explains power as the main mechanism for a patriarchial society in which women in society are objectified, while men are not.

“With men, it doesn’t matter if you look a little bit weird, they won’t do anything,” Gudovic notes.

To Gudovic, this is why it is important that drag kings exist. She says people should get the chance to have this type of experience, even saying: “Every woman [should] pass through this transformation to become a man for at least one day, to feel it from their roots, to stand and walk in the city and just be the man.”

Because there are not a lot of drag kings in the Balkans, she says she “made the role of Zed, to initiate more kings in the community.”

But even people who follow the drag scene are still often unaware of them. “I don’t know of any drag kings that are on the scene,” Mihailovic admits.

This may be because Zed isn’t playing clubs as much as the “average” drag performer. He needs a lot of elements for his shows – a stage, props, a set, musical instruments and technical elements like lighting and sound.

In one show, called, EFEMerne Konfesije [“EPHEMeral Confessions”], Zed works with other drag performers like Dekadenca and Markiza de Sada, who he refers to as his “beautiful ladies.” This show sends a political message in a sort of musical cabaret way.

“We are not only singing and changing clothes. We are doing artistic stuff that requires different production,” says Gudovic, who is finding it difficult to locate a space for an upcoming performance.

“Our identity and story is not only in the nightlife,” Gudovic says. Her colleagues perform in theatres, music videos and on the radio as well.

While there is room for amusement and fun, Gudovic is troubled by some attitudes in the drag scene, which reproduce the things she fights against, like sexism and misogyny.

Dekadenca also has concerns about the Serbian scene.

“We have an opportunity to create something really specific here; we don’t have to imitate drag race,” she said, referencing the popular US TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race.

The reality competition show has become somewhat of a standard for what drag should be.

She worries that some newer queens are only reproducing what they see on the show, which risks creating a culture that lacks self-reflection and creativity – things that drag has historically aimed to provide.

On a Sunday night at KC Grad, a cultural and music center in the heart Belgrade, the lights dim, the crowd lowers their voices and the music starts to fade. Bright light fills the room as Dekadenca and Markiza de Sada glide onto the stage to roars of applause from the audience. Another night of dancing, singing and laughter is about to begin.

Monica Starr is an alumnus of the SIT Study Abroad Program Serbia, Bosnia and Kosovo: Peace and Conflict Studies in the Balkans. This story was written as an Independent Study Project in Journalism.