Indy music, typical of coffee shops, filtered through the speakers that hang overhead, the chronically hipster beat and millennial aesthetic coming through strong. The rich smell of an Ethiopian blend brewing set people at ease and encouraged an atmosphere of trust. Multiple conversations enveloped Malachi Clement as he sat for a few moments in silence.
His laugh reverberated through Onyx Coffee Lab, bringing a smile to the face of those around him before the ebb and flow of the conversations returned.
Clement took a deep breath before speaking. He hasn’t shared his story with many people since coming out a year ago.
Coffee shops are not Clement’s typical or favorite place. The 22-year-old feels most alive and most himself when he adorns a chin strap and nose bridge and dances under the disco ball in a dark basement-like club that smells like tequila shots and sweat and sounds like an early 2000s mashup concert.
Clement feels most comfortable as his drag king alias O’Shea Reed, who’s not just a well-known drag king in Northwest Arkansas but the only drag king in NWA. When Clement turns into O’Shea Reed, he comes alive in ways he was never given the chance to growing up in the church.
Sitting next to Clement was Liam Vows whom Clement introduced as his brother. “We’re brothers by choice, not by blood,” Clement said. Both men identify as transgender and find solace in the LGBTQ+ community in Fayetteville, especially the drag culture.
Here’s the T
“I don’t want to be a boy. I am a boy,” Clement said with a defiant tone, scorning those who had told him growing up that he only wanted to act like a boy and live like a boy because he had never had good sex with a man.
Vows and Clement exchanged a knowing glance, their eyes filled with pain and anxiety in their voices. “I don’t want to be Liam the ‘trans guy.’ I just want to be Liam. I don’t want that label, I don’t want to be looked at any differently than any other person,” Vows said.
Gender dysphoria has started to slowly creep steadily into their psyche, becoming a part of their morning routine, just like brushing their teeth and fixing their hair. Binding themselves and sorting through multiple outfits occurs every day.
Clement and Vows said they struggle feeling masculine. “It’s extremely draining. The more you come to accept it, the worse dysphoria will get. My dysphoria is absolutely terrible. There are some days I don’t want to leave my house because I don’t want people to see me, I don’t want to see myself. Transgender suicide rate is through the roof,” Vows said. “You put on a hundred different t-shirts and just can’t make yourself feel okay. Nothing I am doing makes me feel flat enough. Nothing hides features I don’t want to be seen. I don’t want to be me anymore. It would have been so much easier never to have to do any of this. It gets really rough. Sometimes you have to have somebody there for you because it’s so bad.”
Both said they are looking forward to using testosterone as soon as they can.
However, Clement’s parents refuse to contribute to his testosterone, but he said that if he had it he would feel more confident. “When I am O’Shae, I am a completely different person. Me getting on T [testosterone] and transitioning would be like having my [drag] makeup on every day.”
Thou Shalt Not be an Abomination
After growing up in a religious household, Clement does not choose to believe what his parents believed. He described their view of God as dark and said they would sit on the couch and listen to an old man on television talking about how the world was going to end soon with Jesus’ return. Clement’s senior year, his father told him not to worry about graduating because the world was going to end soon. Additionally, Clement and Vows tend to shy away from identifying as Christians because of their experience with Christian people who have not accepted them for who they are.
Vows said that when he was at Rodeo Bible School in the southern hills of Louisiana, a guest preacher came to speak to his class. “She went out of her way, came up to me and said, ‘why do you dress the way that you dress?’ I told her ‘I’m gay, that’s why.’” Vows told her God made him that way. The woman said, “That’s not true, sweetheart. God wouldn’t make an abomination.”
Clement, who had never heard this story before, muttered “Jesus!”
Clement said that the Bible is just a book by people for how to live a good life. “We’re taking information off a book that was written 3,500 years ago. Somebody could have, back in the day, seen somebody show gay signs and said, ‘Oh, I don’t like that, I’m going to write that down.’”
Cross-Dressing for Christ
Community is a buzz word in Christian culture, and every denomination, school and small group has a different definition for it. Drag culture uses the word community as a buzz word, too.
“We all like to be able to fit in. With religion, we have a common ground. But then we get into religious disputes,” Clement said, but at C 4, a popular club in Fayetteville, Ark. that hosts drag shows, as O’Shea Reed on Sunday nights, Clement finds acceptance and belonging in ways he never could going to church. Sunday, traditionally a sacred day for Christians, is a sacred day for drag queens and kings. It is the day that allies and members of the LGBTQ+ community show up at C 4 to support drag queens and kings and tip them during shows.
Kyler Tabor, a member of the LGBTQ+ community in Fayetteville, said he has found community in the drag culture even though he doesn’t compete himself. “Drag queens have always been there for the gay community. They’re also people who set an example of expression and we can be who we want to be and shouldn’t be ashamed of it. I think that [drag queens and kings] set an example of confidence that is contagious. They can mold your self-confidence and help it grow.”
Tabor also said he respects the courage and charisma it takes to compete in drag, specifically that of O’Shea Reed. “He is the only king in Fayetteville. I think he’s very brave, and I think he’s revolutionary. It’s very original and cool to be the first person to do it here.”
“I feel like I am worshipping, in a sense, when I am doing drag,” Clement said, feeling he can be more authentically himself in front of God and the world. He described Sunday nights at C 4 as a community, a family gathering together and being one, in a way “cross-dressing for Christ,” loving each other without condition.
Chloe Jacobs, a drag queen in Fayetteville, has her own “biblical” experience, commanding crowds she is walking through to “part like the Red Sea. At least, that’s what Moses did. Or was it Abraham?”
Jesus, the Universe, and Unicorns
Though Clement does not identify as a Christian, he does believe in a higher power, and he believes that higher power made him exactly the way he is.
“If we are all made in God’s image, we are all perfect. No matter what form we come in. Sometimes, the whole physical thing of it … we were made a certain way by God. Our physical body is technically made by us. Our souls are made by him,” Clement said. “You come down to earth, and what makes us us is the physical human body, and so, I feel like being born in the wrong body is what people misplace. I don’t think it was Him being like ‘when you come out, you’re gonna have a certain body part.’ It’s more of ‘this is who you are spiritually, I am sending you into a body that may or may not develop in the way it needs to. And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t, I’m so sorry, you’re going to get through it.’ He would still love everybody. I chose to not believe this higher being we call God is going to shame us for being the way he created us.”
In this sense, drag culture is providing the love and acceptance the church fails to.
Clement still reads the Bible occasionally and said he likes the stories in it. He said they sound amazing, “Like Noah being able to gather all the animals. But, what about the unicorns? Apparently, they weren’t on the boat.”