This performer brings shocking / titillating displays of horror and sexuality to the stage, challenging the “norms” of gender presentation and drag style. And throughout the month of October, we will have plenty of digital chances to experience the amazing “drag quing’ Shay They!
Thotyssey: Hello Shay! Thanks for chatting with us!
Shay They: Hey! I’m super excited to speak with you today.
Likewise! So, um… the President is sick! Maybe! Thoughts?
Yes, the topic on everyone’s mind is absolutely Trump testing positive for COVID. My biggest hope is that this wakes him up to the severity of the pandemic. We could save so many lives if he would just listen to the scientists.
You already see everyone on his team is suddenly all masked up now (the ones who aren’t already sick, at least), so maybe that much good has come out of it!
Yes! Everyone is starting to mask up. I’m really hoping this is the wake up call they all needed, and that there will be measurable change moving forward. I’m a big science person, so it really upsets me to see Trump’s administration disregard the experts.
How has your own experience been with masks, social distancing, etc?
I’m taking the pandemic very seriously. I always wear a mask in public, and have significantly limited my interactions with other people. Especially since COVID disproportionately affects Black and brown people, I want to take responsibility for my role in stopping the spread. It’s definitely been taxing on my mental health, but I’m incredibly privileged to still be employed and able to work from home. And of course like every other drag artist, I really miss performing for live audiences.
So, where are you from originally, and what were you into while growing up?
I’m from rural Ohio! Specifically, on land stolen from the Seneca tribe. Growing up, I was involved in a million activities: ballet, jazz, modern, flag squad, cheerleading, choir, theater, horseback riding, pageants, quiz bowl, student council, etc. I was also very studious. I actually graduated college at age 19 with an honors diploma in psychology and theater, and a 4.0 G.P.A. I moved to NYC fifteen days after graduation.
Amazing! Was there a specific pursuit that brought you here?
A lot of things brought me to NYC! I’ve always wanted to live here. My sister had cancer, so growing up we spent a lot of time in the city seeking treatment to save her. I also had it in my mind that NYC was the only place I would be able to live as myself. Ohio is brutal towards queer people; I feel guilty being a gentrifier, but I would not be alive in Ohio. And of course there’s the obvious: I’m a theater fag, and NYC is the theater capital of the world.
These are all very noble reasons! Did you immerse yourself in theater and the arts when you got here?
Most definitely! I arrived in NYC on January 1st and starting working at a theater company, New Dramatists, January 2nd. I’ve been incredibly privileged in that 100% of my income comes from the arts. Currently, I work a 9 to 5 doing theatrical publishing and licensing. Before the theater shutdowns, I was a freelance dramaturg and stage manager as well. I actually had a show that closed down due to COVID after opening night. Tangential to theater, I also quickly got involved with the drag scene.
Tell us how Shay They came into being.
Oh boy! As soon as I discovered drag, I was a big fan. Everything about it just really resonates with me. When I first moved to NYC, I would go watch drag shows about three times a week. I didn’t really see a place for me in the drag world, though. Then one day I just said “fuck it” and debuted as a drag king, because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do. I had fun that night, but being a king wasn’t for me. I’m trans, so I found myself just getting frustrated and dysphoric by how much I didn’t pass in drag. A month later, I re-debuted as Shay They, a Drag Quing, and I haven’t looked back since.
The notion of a drag performer presenting in a way that doesn’t exaggerate a binary gender form is still kind of new to a lot of people.
For sure. There also are very, very few of us Quings out in the scene. When shows were happening live, I never did a show where I wasn’t the token Quing, and often times more broadly, the token non-Queen. I’m really hopeful this will change. I would love the share the stage with more genderbenders.
I imagine it’s a challenge to navigate nightlife as an AFAB or trans performer, where cis male drag queens are still very much the norm. Although it must be said that NYC’s scene does boast a few great AFAB entertainers.
We do have some incredible AFAB performers! I think AFAB performers know they have to work twice as hard for half the recognition, so every time I see an AFAB drag artist perform they’re absolutely incredible. It’s wild though, I can’t think of a single AFAB performer who has their own show in NYC.
I personally haven’t experienced any joys from being AFAB, but that might be the tranny in me talking. It can really be disheartening sometimes, because it seems like AMAB drag artists can do the bare minimum and still have large social media followings and be financially stable… whereas I don’t know any AFAB performers who have been able to make drag viable. Being AFAB also means lots of sexual assault. It’s common for men to grab my chest and exclaim some variation of “these are real!” I’ve had my crotch grabbed several times as well, which makes me very dysphoric.
This might be controversial, but I also hate getting lumped in with the AFAB drag queens. From my experience, they’re the loudest about saying “all drag is valid” but then turn around and don’t support trans artists or non-queens. To clarify, AFAB artists deserve better. I just wish they were better allies to other groups of people also.
How would you describe Shay’s quingdom, both as a gender presentation and in a general sense as a performer?
Shay They is genderfluid, so they kind of have two modes. When they’re agender, they present as a $ex Clown. These performances tend to be more punk and horror oriented. For example, Shay They is known to embroider into their skin or staple dollars to their face and body. When they’re bigender, they look like hyper femininity and hyper masculinity living harmoniously. Shay They is a DomTop, so their performances can get pretty steamy. Lots of flexibility stunts and floor work. In general, I want everyone to be scared and turned on.
Ouch! That certainly sounds exciting. What’s it like to staple oneself?
Haha! I mean, it feels like giving yourself two piercings at a time over and over. And of course when you’re dancing with staples in your body they wiggle and pull, so it hurts. I get bruises and scars from it. I have a high pain tolerance, though. Honestly, it’s a shame I’m not a bottom. Sometimes I let audience members staple me, which is always fun.
I’ll tell you something that’s really hypocritical though: I faint when I get a shot. It’s always baffled me that I can sew patterns into my skin, safety pin my hands, and staple my body… but the second I get a shot from a trained professional, I’m passed out.
I guess we all have our things!
I always think it’s interesting, though, that that’s what sticks out to people. Like, most of my numbers are just me being sexy and dancing, but it’s the horror that really leaves an impression.
Who would you say is your nightlife “tribe?”
I’m a lot of different things, so I fit in a lot of places! My drag friends range from musical theater and glamor to punk and performance art. I feel equally at home at The Ritz as I do The Rosemont. I also don’t have a drag family, which contributes to me being a floater. Hopefully one day I’ll get adopted! I will say, though, that there will always be a fondness in my heart for fellow transgender performers.
Hopefully we will see more trans performers in live, in-person showcases when we are past this lockdown juncture! But in the meantime, you’re gonna be quite busy with digital drag… starting with this Monday night on Twitch, for Reya Sunshine’s birthday show! You’ll be part of a huge cast of great performers. Do you know Reya well?
She’s my ex-girlfriend, so I’d say I know her pretty well, lol!
Then on October 23rd, you’ll partake in the Halloween edition of Michael Block and Haireola Grande’s monthly Zoom show, Elation!
I was thrilled to be asked to do it. I haven’t fully decided what I’m doing for that one yet!
And tell us about the Quing pageant that you’re competing in via Zoom on October 24th, hosted by Erika Klash.
I’m so excited! It will be my first drag pageant. In the muggle world, I was a title holder multiple times for the Miss America organization. People are always surprised to hear that! Anyways, I’ve never done something before where the category was specifically for Quings, so I’m stoked. Usually I’m at shows for queens or show for kings. So, it’ll be nice to actually be where I’m supposed to be for once.
Then October 30 is The Frocking Dead, hosted by Amanda Pörq. Lots of great Halloween queens for that one, including the host!
Amanda is incredible! She’s one of my best friends. She actually just mailed me a wig today! We worked at New Dramatists together back in the day. There was a solid seven months were I didn’t miss a single gig Amanda did, so it’s neat that we’re colleagues now.
And there’s a bunch of other things coming up for you in October that haven’t officially been announced yet.
Yes! Show Ghouls (October 28th, via a private YouTube link) with Amanda Massacre, a fantastic human. Talk about an amazing ally! I think she had the same idea as me and wanted to create a Halloween show for actual ghouls, rather than twinks in cat ears. Her cast list [including Sherry Poppins, Makon Mayhem, Seraphim, Oliver Herface, Angela Mansberry and Shanita Bump] is straight fire.
Then there’s a live Zoom party (October 30th) hosted by Lily, from the performance art world; I think I’ll be the only drag artist.
And then it’s Lemonade Social’s Halloween Horror (October 31st, 8pm). Lemonade Social is a platform for invite only events, and they asked me to curate a Halloween drag show for them as part of their virtual haunted house. I wanted it to be actually spooky, so I filled the cast with 15 of the top drag monsters. This is my first time quasi producing, so cheers to new skills!
And looking ahead, I see that you’ll be part of C’etait BonTemps‘ digital benefit (November 6th on Twitch) for his top surgery… along with another stellar lineup!
Yes! I’m looking forward to that show because it makes my heart so happy that C’etait is finally getting gender affirmation surgery. C’etait also has an active go fund me, so I encourage everyone to donate. All queer people are in debt to Black trans people, so donating is a great way to pay reparations.
As far as theater goes… are you excited, terrified, or both about what Broadway and off-Broadway might look like next year, or whenever theater will be allowed to be a thing again?
The theatrical landscape is going to be different, that’s the one thing I’m confident in. Streaming is starting to take off in the theater world… and for accessibility purposes, I hope that it stays. I’m really hoping for a theatrical revolution. Before the shutdown, I was started to get disenchanted with theater because of the lack of representation and the inaccessibility. However, we’re starting to have conversations, critique institutions, and demand better, so I’m hopeful for a more inclusive industry.
On a personal note, I really miss seeing live theater. I used to see shows for work, so I’d see between 50 to 80 shows a year. This year I’ve seen maybe five.
To end on a festive note, do you have a favorite horror movie monster / killer?
This is another curveball… but I’m actually a baby, and can’t handle horror movies! Like, I got scared watching Jurassic Park and had to stop. My drag character and I are very different, lol! My favorite “Halloween movie,” though, hands down is Rocky Horror. That show means so much to me… and the music slaps.
Excellent choice! Thanks, Shay!
Check Thotyssey’s calendar for Shay They’s upcoming appearances, and follow them on Instagram and Twitter.