It’s a conundrum familiar to every drag queen, even if she doesn’t talk about it publicly: How should one feel about Chasers, the men who aggressively pursue drag performers? To be clear, I’m not talking about so-called “tranny chasers,” the admirers who harass transgender people, described in a recent Outward article by Christin Scarlett Milloy. I’m talking about the men who will do whatever it takes to get lucky with queens like me—despite the fact that we queens are no more than grease-paint illusions.
Chasers can be found wherever drag queens gather. In my experience, there’s at least one at every show. They stand along the walls of clubs, or post up at bars, watching and waiting to introduce themselves. Ask any queen, and she’ll tell you that Chasers are handsy headaches who turn our work life into a tiring game of cat and mouse. But not every queen will admit the other side of the story, which is that some of us depend on them.
A few weeks ago, I had an encounter that perfectly illustrates the uneasy symbiosis between queens and Chasers. I was on the subway to my Friday gig, dressed in a skimpy gold lame cocktail dress, when a stranger approached to say “Hey, I’m straight but I really admire you for just being yourself.” I knew this guy’s game right away, but he had a Firefighter Calendar torso, and having a body guard while traveling in drag is never a bad idea, so I decided to play along. I took “Mikey” to my show, where he swept me off my feet (literally) for photo ops, stripped butt naked for applause, and fetched my Red Bulls. “I’m doing good for a straight guy in a gay bar, huh?” he grinned. He certainly was. And in exchange, I let him grab my padded rump, smell my hair, and even bite my ear too-too hard. “Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve always had a secret thing for, you know, girls like you,” Mikey said. “I’ve just never tried it.” Mikey loved my attention, the audience loved him, and beneath my mild irritation at his groping, I was queasily pleased by his worship. So it was a shame when he pitched a screaming fit after I declined to go home with him. His temper brought an end to our odd give-and-take.
Chasers are a mixed blessing for us queens. They can be aggressive and disrespectful in their advances, sometimes to the point where they disrupt our performances. And yet there’s something alluring about them. I talked to my drag sister Monét X Change about this dichotomy, because she was there for the great Mikey Drama of 2015, yaaaaaazing and waving her enormous Japanese fan when he tore off his pants onstage. Ms. Change so perfectly explained the appeal of Chasers to me, I felt as though she were reading from my diary. “When I’m home alone sewing all day, I take solace in the fact that there’s guaranteed to be one gentleman at my show who will be all over me,” she laughed. “I don’t have to put out any effort. I can spit on him if I want to. He’ll love it.”
As performance artists, we queens tend to spend the bulk of our time in isolating circumstances, either preparing for shows in the chaos of our little apartments, or hiding behind masks of rouge and lashes in the glare spotlights. That Chasers can fall in love with our masks makes them ideal matches for us. The façade that keeps most people at a distance only brings them closer, allowing us to enjoy the casual flirtations that other boys enjoy so freely at gay bars.
To anyone who looks down their nose at a queen accepting a Chaser’s attention, Ms. Change says, “Yes, they’re attracted to something that isn’t real, but I don’t see how that’s any different from a typical Grindr date.” I’ll avoid a born-naked-and-the-rest-is-drag joke here and just say it plain: A queen wearing heels and lipstick for Chasers is no different from a Hell’s Kitchen bottom wearing elaborate, expensive jock straps for tops. We gays have built a community where everyone must wear a costume—twink, bear, geek, pig—so it feels perfectly natural for a queen when she follows up an evening of performance art with a night of role-play.
But a Chaser’s affection comes at a price. I always joke that there’s a vocational training course for Chasers at University of Phoenix, because they all seem to have the same perceptions of drag queens, and they all take the same approach. To borrow from Milloy’s description of trans chasers, drag Chasers often demonstrate an ugly misogyny, treating their targets as sex objects: “They don’t care to know us very well; they just want to date us. Date us so hard.” Or, to put a fine point on it, fuck us. And because Chasers ignore our humanity, they don’t mind going wild with anger when we don’t put out.
And while Milloy’s trans chasers acknowledge their trans-attraction and mention past affairs with trans people, drag queen Chasers often add to the degrading tone of their overtures by feigning confusion and inexperience. A typical Chaser begins by assuring me that’s he’s “a normal guy,” explaining that he wandered into my gay bar by accident and mistook me for “real woman”—though I’m often dressed more like an extraterrestrial than a lady. Or maybe he’ll admit to being gay or trans-attracted, but claim that he’s “never done this kind of thing before,” even though he was spotted doing exactly this kind of thing with another queen last week.
So flirting with a chaser involves manifold layers of pretending that can be truly discomfiting. The Chaser pretends that his flirtation is a new and thrilling transgression. The queen tries to fully embody the long-lashed, curvaceous cartoon woman of the Chaser’s fantasies—as if her lady features aren’t tacked on with spirit gum and duct tape, as if the living, breathing person beneath them is immaterial. I recently brought home a Chaser who insisted so intensely that I was a “real woman,” I couldn’t tell what he expected to see when my dress slipped off. It was a surreal, disorienting moment where even I lost track of my gender. I wondered if my Chaser would react violently when I revealed my male chest, which suddenly seemed disgusting to me, so I decided to leave my little outfit on. Better not destroy the delusions of someone who stands a foot taller than you. And in this twisted pas-de-deux, it was easy to paint the Chaser as a predator.
But it’s absurd to otherize Chasers for chasing illusions. Everyone is drawn in by appearances before they search for the human beings behind them. Everyone has a type, and knows where to look for the people that embody it. And what man hasn’t lost a few too many dollars buying drink for a lady whose lipstick caught his eye? When I really think about it, I can only recall one man who went too far in his adoration of drag. That man quit his day job to spend all his nights and coins chasing one queen, ignoring friends, family, and personal well-being to give her the attentions and luxuries she demanded. That man forgot that a queen is just a fictional character, and lent his imagination to making her a real woman. That man is me.