Editor's Note: The Changing Face of Drag is a five-part KQED Arts series spotlighting innovative performers pushing the boundaries of drag in the Bay Area. Click to read more about the series.
Stepping into Diego Gomez's Tenderloin apartment feels like being painted into the pages of an X-Men comic. The walls are splashed with bright, radioactive colors and covered with posters of Storm, Rogue and company saving the world (or just kicking it poolside). A dying Captain Planet and a skeletal Gaia make a startling cameo. And Björk and Marilyn Monroe crash the party, too. It's pop culture sensory overload at its best.
As Gomez pours me homemade lemonade—laced with lavender to ease anxiety—into a Wonder Woman mug, I gaze up at the kitchen ceiling and find another unexpected hero gazing down at me: it's a huge portrait of Gomez' drag alter ego, Trangela Lansbury, whose latex catsuits would make her a natural fit for the X-Men universe. Her face is beat for the gods (translation for heterosexuals: her makeup is so impeccable, it's divine). And unlike most drag queens, she rocks a full beard, covered in colored glitter.
As RuPaul's Drag Race pushes drag further into the mainstream, fans have come to expect certain drag archetypes: there are the old-school, big-haired pageant girls and the "fishy" queens dedicated to looking as womanly as possible. Then there are the comedy queens, the artsy queens and the crafty queens. But bearded cosplay queens? Not so much. At least not yet.
Trangela Lansbury doesn't fit into a mainstream box. (A comic strip one, maybe.) Instead, her superpowers are expectation-busting and shape-shifting. One night, she's a seductive Mystique, the next she's a bald Professor X, then a sea monster, or Sailor Venus or a piece of Warhol pop art. Like the last few minutes of a thriller, it's hard to know what twist or turn Lansbury will serve up next.
Embracing being different didn't always come easily for Gomez, though. He grew up in an "overprotective" Mexican, Catholic home in Daly City, and, as a young boy, he remembers feeling isolated and lonely. Comic books were how he discovered himself and his queerness. "Daly City was never an understanding place for me," he says.
"Besides them being hella colorful, it's a civil rights allegory," he continues. "Professor X is supposed to be kind of like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Magneto is supposed to be kind of like Malcolm X. Basically, it's about not being treated as well just because you're born different. That was relatable content for me."
Another way Gomez coped with his surroundings was by making art of his own. "When the kids didn't want to play with me because I was gay, I would just draw and paint. I still escape into drawing and painting constantly."
As he tells me this, his hands are feverishly at work, painting a cardboard mask for an upcoming performance. (Outside of drag, Gomez is a freelance designer and illustrator, and teaches fashion illustration at San Francisco City College.)
After years of drawing and painting, Gomez turned his brush away from the canvas and toward his own face. When he moved to San Francisco and saw a few drag shows, he decided to try it out. "For some reason, I thought it would be easy, but no, not so much," he says. "A lot of people looked a mess, but it wasn't even easy to attain that mess for me. Some people are pretty twinks, and they're like, 'Ooh! Lip gloss! Look, I'm a female!' It wasn't that way for me."
Gomez took a few wobbly drag baby steps, first dressing up as Princess Lollipop at a Candy Land-themed house party, then as a rollerblading swan-dress-wearing Björk at a tribute dance party, and then, at his first real gig, as a Budweiser can with rolled up socks for breasts, a child's Halloween tutu around his waist and a braid he found in the street attached to his head.
Somewhere along the way, Trangela was born. (No one said coming into this world was pretty.) And she's come a long way over the last eight years. Want proof? Look no further than Instagram. If you search "drag" in its GIFs, the first result is a glam version of Donald Trump that none of us asked for, followed by one of the most famous girls to come out of Drag Race, Trixie Mattel. Then there's Trangela Lansbury, wearing a gold tinsel wig, shaking with anxiety.
"How did that even happen?!" Gomez asks himself while showing me the GIF search results on his phone. He's incredulous, but pleased with what he feels is an accurate representation of his true essence.
"If I had a drag persona, it would basically be this," he says. "But this is my guy persona too. The worried face—it's kind of how I feel all the time." As I take another sip of my anxiety-fighting lavender lemonade, I tell him he's a relatable queen and a champion for anxious people everywhere.
While drag queens with beards are uncommon (and there's a stereotype that they don't take the art form seriously), Gomez embraces his beard as something that makes him stand out. With the huge success of Drag Race and the advent of YouTube makeup tutorials, there are more resources that save new queens years of trial and error (and looking like a hot mess). But that has its drawbacks.
"Everyone has turned into the same drag queen, pretty much," Gomez says. "In a way, it's nice because we've all found out what works to cancel out masculine features. Everyone is a lot more polished. But there are still some people that aren't polished, and I actually prefer that."
Even as Drag Race gets more popular, the underground drag community Gomez is a part of still gets overlooked. Local queens don't get the same rabid applause or fatty paychecks as the personalities we've seen on TV. But Gomez is still in love with the intimacy of watching a queen do her thing in a small club like the Stud, where he hosts his cosplay-themed drag party, BoobTube.
"I don't like stadium-style drag," he says. "I like to be right in the queen's face, seeing her sweat drop."
So what inspires Diego to keep transforming into Trangela's many incarnations? "It's just something that's in me that I have to do. I can't help myself," he says. "If I was already seeing someone doing exactly what I needed, maybe I wouldn't have started. Now I'm addicted and can't stop. It's too late to get out."
Gomez takes a long pause, and even stops painting, as he decides on his final answer to my question of why he keeps doing drag. A smile creeps on his face. "Because the world needs me, that's why!"
Trangela Lansbury performs on the main stage of San Francisco Pride on June 23. Details here.