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Meet the Emo Drag King Who's Bending the Gender Binary

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An African-American individual faces the camera and smiles. They have a septum piercing, and they are wearing blue and pink eyeshadow.
Helixir Jynder Byntwell in drag makeup (Kane C. Andrade)

View the full episode transcript.

Born and raised in Oakland, Helixir Jynder Byntwell did drag as a hobby until August 2022. That’s when they quit their job, won the SF Drag King of the Year competition, and became a professional king, all in the span of a week. Since then, they’ve joined the Rebel Kings of Oakland, a performance troupe based at the White Horse Bar. They’ve also participated in several well-attended performances in New York and in the Bay Area, most recently at the Castro Street Fair. Byntwell’s performances are always fun, always flamboyant, and more often than not, very emo.

When asked to talk about their relationship to emo and rock music, they said, “I’ve always been, like, ostracized for being Black and also being into rock… To then be on a stage and I’m like, lip synching to “I Write Sins, Not Tragedies,” It’s like being validated and being seen. I love this music. These people love this music… I’m being celebrated in my fullness and not being made fun of.”

Helixir Byntwell wearing a performance outfit with a false chest. (Kane C. Andrade)

Of course, being a Black, trans performer doesn’t come without its hardships. Byntwell credits a lot of their success to their drag father and fellow Rebel Kings of Oakland member, Vera. As they put it, having a drag family, or even a found family in general, is often a necessary resource for queer people, especially trans people, to find love and support outside of a childhood family that may not have been as forgiving.

Byntwell, who goes by Jenji out of drag, is also a barber, specializing in gender affirming hair cuts. They guarantee their clients a welcoming and inviting space, where people don’t have to worry about being judged for a chosen style, whether or not the style fits the public perception of someone’s gender. Leaving room for self-expression without unnecessary boundaries is central to the many ways in which Helixir Jynder Byntwell fosters joy for LGBTQ+ people in their community.

They describe their perception of queer joy, and how it feels to exist uninhibited: “I feel my happiest when I’m not self-conscious about how I look, what people are thinking about me, what I’m wearing, how this is sitting. It’s like, if I can’t be myself, then what am I doing. I don’t know, queers, we just do it right… We know what the risk is, but we have to be happy.”


Episode Transcript

Helixir Byntwell, guest: My mom told me a long time ago, you’re not for everybody and everybody’s not for you. And I think that helps me, especially in my art, because I’m like… If you don’t like it and you want me to be a certain way, then it’s not for you. And I’m comfortable to walk away because I’m not about to be untrue to, like- this is my art. I’m doing it for fun! So why would I like, be put into a box? Like we’re living outside the binary. So like, why keep going back?

[Music]

Sheree Bishop, host: Hey listeners! My name is Sheree and I’m a production intern on Rightnowish. I’ll be your host for this episode.

Since I moved to San Francisco, a lot of my time has been spent seeking a sense of belonging and community. Visiting the museum in the Castro, feeling the bass under my feet at Jolene’s, and watching drag kings perform at the White Horse Bar in Oakland. 

No matter where I go, nothing creates community more than finding people who make me feel welcome.

I spoke to Helixir Jynder Byntwell, who won SF’s 2022 Drag King of the Year. Even in times like these, with lawmakers trying to ban drag performances, there are so many places filled with love and understanding, and so many people creating queer joy for themselves and for others! Helixir is one of those people.

Helixir Byntwell: I… I was doing, um, Oaklash, uh, this past May, and I was super… I was like, going through it. Life was life-ing. My situationship had ended, it was just bad. Everything was bad. And I.. I was super sad, but it was also like the best day because it was like, all my friends were here at this festival, and it’s the community celebrating drag in a time where like, we’re being attacked, you know, and we’re just being joyous and sharing our art with everyone. 

Sheree Bishop: Today, we’re bending the gender binary with Helixir Jynder Byntwell. They’re a professional drag king, queer barber, and self-proclaimed emo daddy. We’ll talk about the art of drag performance, found family, and more, right after this.

Last year you won S.F. Drag King of the Year…

Clip of Announcer: I wanna give it up, number one, this year’s drag king… Helixer!… [Crowd cheering and applause] 

Sheree Bishop: What changed for you after you won? Like, what was the turning point in that?

Helixir Byntwell: Um, It… it wasn’t even just in drag, it was also like my personal life. Like, I had quit my job two days before I won the competition, and I didn’t know what my next step was and I’m a very, like, logical person. I never make, like, rash decisions. But, I quit my job and then two days later I won the competition and it was like affirmation that I was going in the right direction.  

So, I started to move with the knowledge that I knew what was best for myself and that the confidence that I had really was self-assurance, because like, I had to believe in myself. I had to believe that it was possible for me to quit my job and then be a queer barber and a drag king.

Sheree Bishop: Your name, Helixir Jynder Byntwell, is a play on words. It literally has the word gender bent in your name.  

Helixir Byntwell: Yes! Thank you. People don’t be knowin. 

Sheree Bishop: Really?  

Helixir Byntwell: Yes. 

Sheree Bishop: Oh, that was the first thing I picked up on when I saw it.  

Helixir Byntwell: Thank you. No, I appreciate that. Yeah. So.

Sheree Bishop: Yeah. So what is it about your name and the way you express yourself that brings you joy? 

 Helixir Byntwell: So, Helixir, I wanted it to be a play on words, but also, like, clean enough to where I can, like, work anywhere. You know what I’m saying? So Helixir like, he licks her, if you nasty. Um, and then “Jynder Byntwell” I wanted people to know from my name that like… It’s not going to be like, I don’t know, like this hyper masculine drag king. It’s like I’m doing the whole gender bending thing and like, I’m doing it well. So like, gender bent well. I thought of it myself. [laughs]

Um, and, I feel like every time I perform, I stay authentic to that. So it’s like… I always blend like, you know, I have like my masculine brows, but then I’ll have my feminine eyeshadow and then I’ll have masculine contour, but then I’ll add glitter. Then I got lip gloss, but I got my mustache. 

I like getting to accentuate what I want to when I want to, and never feeling like I have to present a certain way because like, people have this expectation of like, what drag kings are. So, um, if you are more masculine leaning, you have to fight to express that masculinity. So, a lot of people think you have to dive deep and be like, I have to be like an alpha male. I got to be that guy. But I’m like, It’s okay to be a soft boy. Like, I’m sad. I cry all the time. [laughs]

When thinking about masculinity, that is not something that is allowed. You’re not allowed to be soft. You’re not allowed to be un-manly or you should be stoic. And it’s like I’m showing people you can literally do whatever you want.  Like, I look super masculine. And then when I walk to the bar, I’m like, ‘Excuse me, Sorry. Hello?’ You know, and it’s like, it’s okay. Like there are no rules. 

Sheree Bishop: What was your, like, first in-person performance and how did it feel to perform, like, for people to their faces for the first time?  

Helixir Byntwell: Okay, so my first in-person performance was November of 2020. I had just performed digitally before that. And so when you’re making a digital number, you can pause the camera, you can rerecord, you could change your outfit. But with live performance, what you see is what you get. So I was like, There is no room for error. 

I’ve since learned that like, I mean, I prefer live performance just because, like, you get to interact with the crowd and that’s where it’s at for me. Because I get people to, like, let loose and like, have a good time and like, either rock out or laugh or like, scream and it’s like… I had so much support backstage from Vera, Jota Mercury, Tyson Check-in, Luke Modelo. These are like all drag legends in the Bay Area that I didn’t even know. But, like, that was my first show and they were all just so welcoming. And when I went out there, I was doing Fall Out Boy, Where is Your Boy Tonight/Grand Theft Autumn. 

[Music]

“Where is your boy tonight, I hope he is a gentleman.”

Helixir Byntwell: …Like one of those songs where you just rock out, you let loose. There’s, like, a guitar solo, and I brought my actual guitar. I was, like, running around and, like, the strap broke. But I was like, still, like, running around holding it and like, everybody singing along because, like, everybody’s emo. And, literally, like, the wave of adrenaline that goes through one’s body, like, so many of us are, like, self-conscious. 

And we don’t want people to look at us or like, you know, like, we don’t want to become aware that we’re being observed by other people and being perceived. And so like to then put yourself on the spot when you like, you’re someone who’s socially anxious, you know, It’s like. It’s literally insane, but then you finish and you’re like woah. That was the best thing. You know what I mean? Like, it’s.. I can’t even describe like 

Sheree Bishop: I was about to ask how you would describe it. Yeah.

Helixir Byntwell: It’s like, euphoric and. Even, like right before, like a like a gig that I’m super, super nervous to do.  Right before I had to be like, look, you’re Helixir Jynder Byntwell. You know who you are. Like, don’t don’t start this. Like, you got this. I’m like, You’re that boy. Let’s go!

And then I go out there, and then I have a great time. And it’s like when people know the song and they’re singing along. Sometimes people are like, ‘Oh, my God, that was my favorite song,’ you know? And when you’re able to connect with the art that you’re watching, it makes it that much better. 

Sheree Bishop: How do you put your performances together? Like, from the outfits to the makeup to choosing the mixes… like, how does that process usually work?   

Helixir Byntwell: Usually it starts with the song, like, I’ll hear a song. And then I can, like, see the choreo in my head. And then sometimes I want, like, specific moments to happen. So, like, let’s say, um, I do this cover of “Stacy’s Mom,” 

[A jazz-style cover of Stacy’s Mom plays under the sound of cheering, and applause]

Helixir Byntwell: …and since it’s old timey, I wear like, slacks, suspenders, a dress shirt, sometimes a tie. Um, a little newspaper boy hat, like the Kangol and like, sparkly shoes. And then there’s, like, a little, like, harmonica bit. And so I have, like, a harmonica in my pocket. And I take it out during it. I, like, bounce around and stuff. Depending on what the song’s talking about, I can usually build a story. You know, um, make a man out of you from Mulan. 

Sheree Bishop: Mhmm. 

Helixir Byntwell: There’s a cover, [laughs] and it’s like a… it’s a emo cover. And that song is, like, about being in the military. So I wear, like, camo shorts, I wear the silicone chest, I wear like, a white tank top. And then I have, like, a bandana around my head. So I’m, like, walking around like a big meat head. And I’m like, being satirical about like… like the masculinity. It’s like, ‘Did they send me daughters, when I asked for sons?’ It’s like I’m really, like, showing how silly that is, you know? 

And like for the instrumental parts, I’m like, How can I fill this time? You know? ‘Cause you have to you have to do something, you can’t just stand there. Unless you want to and it’s, like, abstract. But yeah, I… like how can I feel up this time? And it’s like, I can do a back roll, I can do some push ups and like there’s like a shirt rip moment that I do because it’s like, super intense. And I try to think like, what will get like crowd reactions, you know, or what wouldn’t they expect.

Sheree Bishop: So in your instagram bio, you describe yourself as an emo daddy. [laughs]

Helixir Byntwell: [laughs]

Sheree Bishop: Tell me about your emo-ness. 

Helixir Byntwell: Okay, so um. It’s weird like, everything that my drag is, is ironically turning into everything that I am in my like, personal life. 

[Music]

Helixir Byntwell: It’s like, emo, it’s soft, it’s sensitive and… That being said, I’ve always been, like, ostracized for being Black and also being into rock. And so it’s like, being at somewhere like the Oasis and then performing for their emo nights and like, they’re booking me because, like, I have branded myself as like the emo daddy local sad boy. And it’s like to then be on a stage and I’m like, lip synching to “I write sins, not tragedies”. And everybody is cheering me on and, it’s like being validated and being seen and it’s like… I love this music. These people love this music. It’s so many people of color, so many queer people, and everyone’s like trans. And it’s like I’m being celebrated in my fullness and not being made fun of.   

So much of my drag has been healing and there’s like, photos where I’m like full emo rage, like hands on my head, like mid scream, and people are like throwing up like the rock sign and like screaming and like holding their friends. And it’s like, that is what it’s about. Like, it’s about community, it’s about feeling seen. It’s about expressing who you are.

Growing up and doing drag and finding my community. It’s like we’re all the people that were made fun of. And it’s like, yeah, like we were cool and everybody else wasn’t. And like, they couldn’t see that we were cool, but now we found each other and there’s strength in that. We’re creating art. We’re like, making it so that other, like… like youth now can see us living in our authenticity and be like, ‘That’s possible.’ 

Sheree Bishop: Speaking of just being.. being a black queer performer, how do you find that affects how you’re perceived in drag?  

Helixir Byntwell: I’m very, like, flamboyant, you know? And I feel like sometimes people don’t see that or they don’t want to see my femininity because they’re focusing on the masculinity because, like, they perceive me to be female and I guess like, assume like I’m a lesbian or assume like, well, since I’m like, not born male, I must want to be like extreme male, you know, same thing like when you’re like a lesbian and people are like, ‘Oh, uh, you want to be a man, right? So let me treat you like you’re a man.’ And it’s like I’m a drag king But I never said like, I was trying to be this, like, hyper dude, you know? 

Like so many different people who are now performers have been like, you showed me. I don’t have to be like like, I don’t have to play up toxic masculinity to be a drag king, and I thought that’s what I had to do. And I’m like, I didn’t use to perform female songs because I was afraid of like losing that, like, masculinity aspect. But it’s like, who cares?

[Music]

Sheree Bishop: Helixir is also a member of the Rebel Kings of Oakland, a drag king troupe that’s been active for a little over ten years now. Since 2010, the Rebel Kings have performed twice a month at the White Horse Bar. 

Though they welcome experienced kings and newcomers alike, the whole point of all of their performances is to show people a “gender-bending exploration through performance art.” I watched one of their shows, and at the end, all of the performers got up on stage and took this big, happy, drag family photo, with the drag parents standing in the center.

When I was looking for people to interview, someone gave me the contacts of you and two other drag kings. One of them was Lotus Boy and the other was Vera. And Vera left a note saying that their kids come first. And so I’m wondering, how did you find your drag family? What did it feel like to find them?

Helixir Byntwell: Okay, so I was a drag orphan for a long time. I didn’t have a drag parent. And so, the first day that I went out in drag in person outside of my house was March 2020. That’s when I met Vera. And so I expressed interest in, you know, performing for the Rebel Kings. And then they told me to sign up for the waitlist and then the… the shutdown happened. And so when they had their virtual show, Vera reached out to me. And so, like even my first in-person show, like Vera invited me to do so it’s like… As much as they are like, a great friend to me, like they do feel paternal.

Being queer like I said, being black, being AFAB… It’s like you don’t always find… being trans, like you don’t always find community. And especially like just being a person on earth. It’s like you don’t always get support. Like a lot of us are so isolated, especially after like, the last three years. So it’s like, when you find a complete stranger who like,. Shows up and supports you for no reason other than the fact that, like they appreciate your art and like, they literally just want to see you shine. It’s like [sighs] Oh, you know what you call it, but it’s just like it’s just love.

Sometimes, like, our own parents don’t accept us. So when you have, like, someone else who’s not even, like, your biological family being like, ‘I accept you and I love you,’ like, that can literally change, like the course of people’s whole, you know, everything. Yeah, like having a drag family’s literally better than a high paying job. [laughs] In this economy, that’s saying a lot. [laughs]

Sheree Bishop: What makes the Bay Area drag scene unique?

Helixir Byntwell: The Bay Area is very good at like, being equal, you know what I mean? So it’s like when you’re booked, you don’t feel like, ‘I shouldn’t be in the dressing room because I’m a king and I need to earn my spot.’ It’s like, I’m a person. People are saying hi to me, they’re making sure I’m taken care of. And we’re very like, nurturing like people, um, whether it’s showrunners or like the owners or like the bartenders. Everybody takes care of each other. They’re like, Do you need anything? Do you need help? Like all of us help each other backstage, like, get ready. And that’s something my mom, um, has commented on, coming to my shows with me is that when you’re backstage, everybody’s helping everybody. Nobody’s like, ‘Oh, well, you’re… you’re another performer. So, you know, I’m about my coin and I can’t help you’ cause, you know, it’s like, no…

There was a drag queen. Um, we were doing a show together. It’s Ida Knowe, and she was going to do a moment where she puts on roller skates. So she comes backstage, like during the chorus, like where it’s like, instrumental. Then me and my drag son, Fender, drop to our knees backstage, rip off her boots, put on the roller skates, tie them, and then like, send her out there. And it’s like she could have had to do that by herself. But it’s like, we are such a community out here where it’s like, we’re going to make your number as good as it can be. Like as fast as, like, efficient. Because we want your art to turn out how you want it in your head because, like, it’s your brainchild, you know? So, like, we’re really out here just trying to make it work for each other.  

Sheree Bishop: How would you describe queer joy, and what does that feel like for you?

Helixir Byntwell: Queer joy is existing, completely uninhibited, unrestricted and fully. Like before I knew just like, just how queer I was or like that I was trans. Every time I would go to the Castro and I was in a gay club, I would just feel like, so at home, so safe. Everybody just wants to have a great time. Everybody’s like checking on each other. Like, our community takes care of each other. 

[Music]

Helixir Byntwell: I feel my happiest when I’m not self-conscious about how I look, what people are thinking about me, what I’m wearing, how this is sitting. It’s like, if I can’t be myself, then what am I doing?

I don’t know, queers, we just do it right. We’re just like, we know what the risk is, but we have to be happy. And I feel like specifically queer joy is like a form of like, revolution because it’s like… The world is trying to beat us down. And like, despite that, we’re still rising and we’re still showing up and we’re still existing and, like, smiling and laughing and loving.

[Music]

Sheree Bishop: I’d like to give a big thank you to Helixir Jynder Byntwell. Your performances and your flamboyant, colorful drag is masculine, feminine, funny, and captivating all at once. They’re also a barber at Salon 3155 on Mission Street, specializing in gender affirming haircuts. You can book an appointment with them on instagram at jenjithebarber, spelled J-E-N-J-I. You can also watch them perform with Rebel Kings of Oakland, or you can check out their profile for more updates on when they’ll be performing near you.

Don’t forget to follow their main profile on instagram at Helixirdrag. That’s H-E-L-I-X-I-R D-R-A-G.

Now, I want to shoutout the people who helped make this happen. Thanks for not making me get y’all coffee. 

This Rightnowish episode was hosted by me, Sheree Bishop.

Chris Hambrick is our editor.

Christopher Beale is our engineer.  

The Rightnowish team also includes Pendarvis Harshaw, Marisol Medina Cadena, and Xorje Olivares

Additional support from Jen Chien, Katie Sprenger, Cesar Saldaña, and Holly Kernan.

Rightnowish is a KQED production.

Rightnowish is an arts and culture podcast produced at KQED. Listen to it wherever you get your podcasts or click the play button at the top of this page and subscribe to the show on NPR One, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

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