Untucking My Status: Testament of a Costa Rican Drag Queen

Untucking My Status: Testament of a Costa Rican Drag Queen

Story by Felipe Zarate / Photography by Yousef Babb / Styling by Mauricio Cruz

If your sole existence defies patriarchal paradigms, you should live as loudly as possible — and that's exactly what I did. As a young, queer man in conservative Costa Rica, that's a radical proposition. When I found out I was HIV positive, I never questioned whether I was going to share my status publicly or not. Rather, how was I going to do it? And when? I didn't come out of one closet just to go back into another one.

First I told my closest friends and then my family. They took it well. My dad's best friend had passed away from AIDS in the early '90s, so my parents were up to date on the current implications of a positive diagnosis: that Undetectable = Untransmittable, the efficacy of antiretroviral drugs (ARVs), etc. Nevertheless, they advised me to keep it private, not because they were personally ashamed of me, but because they were worried about how others would react.

For context, I was born into a conservative, Neo-Pentecostal Costa Rican family on August 4, 1996. Evangelical Christianity has become a growing presence in Latin America, bringing with it some very conservative political views. Just three years ago, the National Restoration Party (Partido Restauracion Nacional) became a big contendor in the national elections with a campaign that gained popularity primarily because of its opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion. I grew up going to the same church as the party's leader: Fabricio Alvarado, part time Christian singer and undergraduate journalist. I was clearly not raised to expect easy acceptance of my identity.

By the time I was 13 I had told my parents I liked boys. That was followed by my nightmarish teenage years of concealed sexual orientation and eventually by 18 I ended up in conversion therapy. After a full year of trying to be my best straight self, I came out to my parents once again. They accepted it, but asked me to keep it private: "Don't be too flashy, please" they said. My parents weren't being harsh, they were just reflecting a society that really held no place for people like me.

Historically, Costa Rica took a different path from the United States, and there's a direct correlation between public policy and serophobia. In America, the first antiretroviral treatment for HIV was approved by the FDA by 1987, and by 1990 patients had access to experimental treatments and clinical trials. Meanwhile in Costa Rica, my dad's best friend got sent home by doctors after being diagnosed in 1993 — no treatment, no palliative care, nothing. I recall my dad telling me about visiting his friend at the hospital; as they greeted each other with a big hug, the nurses frantically ran up to my dad, scolding him for touching an "HIV positive untouchable."

Dress: Mauricio Cruz Studio

It wasn't until 1998 that Costa Rica's first law regarding HIV/ AIDS passed, and finally in 2015 the HIV-CR Project was launched and funded by the the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. But because of the shameful, continued serophobia of the director of Costa Rica's Institute for the Defense of Human Rights, support was pulled for the project this year. Fear, misinformation and stigma are still a monumental challenge for our community.

Despite the cultural hurdles, I lived a typically fabulous gay childhood when my parents weren't looking. I was lucky to have access to cable television and internet from a very young age, something not all queer kids my age had. I didn't quite understand it all, but I didn't need to. One of my earliest memories of seeing LGTBQ+ folks in mainstream media was on Season 1 of RuPaul's Drag Race; I would also sit on the computer and listen to Champion by RuPaul for hours on end. As years passed, I started going out to gay bars and was fascinated by the queens. There was a sense of liberty I felt when I watched them perform, which I craved so badly.

In recent years, drag has become a staple of Costa Rican gay culture, thanks in part to Drag Race, but also from government recognition. Last year, the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports (Ministerio de Cultura, Juventud y Deporte) presented Scarlette Fiore, veteran comedy and theater queen, with the highest award an actor can receive in Costa Rica: the National Award of Acting (Premio Nacional de Actuación). The 2020 edition of GUIA ORGULLO, an annual publication that compiles LGBTQI+ history in Costa Rica and the region, was awarded the National Prize of Cultural Communication (Premio Nacional de Comunicación Cultural), the top honor concerning communication of culture. There have always been drag queens in Costa Rica, but now we don't have to live in the shadows.

I had told my parents I was going to keep my status a secret until I was on treatment. On March 18 of this year, thanks to universal healthcare and the advances we've had regarding HIV treatment in Costa Rica, I got my first bottle of ARVs just three months after getting diagnosed. I was unsure whether I wanted to come out on Instagram, tweet it or if I was feeling vintage, maybe even a Facebook post would do. None of these options felt right; they weren't liberated enough.

Around the same time, I was planning my drag debut and had so many ideas for my first lip sync song. Britney Spears' "S&M Remix" was an obvious choice, followed by Lil Nas X's "Call Me By Your Name." Then, I had an idea that terrified me, but oddly felt right. That night, I would tell the world — or the 40 people who were going to be at that gay bar — about my status.

Dress: Mauricio Cruz Studio

On April 17, the second edition of GENDERFUCK, a party I had produced before the pandemic hit, was planned to take place. It was only natural to make my debut at an event my friends at NEON, one of the most popular queer spaces in the city, and I had envisioned as a safe haven for those who want to disrupt the gender binary and spend one night away from those who won't understand. I chose my drag name as a reference to Imperator Furiosa, the Mad Max character. Much like me, she's tough yet unafraid to express her most intense emotions, and that makes her vulnerable too.

"And now, please help me introduce Furiosa," the host, Amaya La Draga, announced. The time had finally come. I could see in the crowd the faces of queens who had inspired me and paved the way for this moment: My drag mother, Ari Moore; Ry Rox, the gorgeous runway diva; and my fellow baby queen, Sue Shi. I whipped my wig, rolled on the floor and busted out my worst dance moves as everyone cheered for me. After the first two songs, the music stopped and I told the room I had something to say. I took my pill right in front of everyone and confessed: "For the past few months I've been living with a secret and I don't want it to be a secret anymore. I'm HIV positive." Then, "Till It Happens To You" by Lady Gaga started playing.

The song came to an end and I received a standing ovation, something I didn't expect. I'd like to believe they felt the same liberty I sensed at the first drag shows I attended. After the show, partygoers came up to me and thanked me for speaking up, some even letting me know they're positive, too. The following days I also got words of encouragement from people like Kay Kills and Chantal Olsen, two legendary queens I still very much cherish to this day.

I don't remember much of the performance, but I do recall running straight to the dressing room right after and sobbing uncontrollably. Keeping my mouth shut about something that was so ever-present on my mind felt reminiscent of all those years I hid my sexual orientation out of fear of being ostracized. Finally letting my truth out, I felt what I had seen drag give to so many other queens: freedom.

My status is no longer a source of shame and silence. Instead, it's become my power and voice. Even in a country where defying the patriarchy through radical expression is so rare, I own my status. It is mine, and it's my decision when and how to talk about it, even if it's in heels, with a full face of makeup, a 36-inch ponytail and an outfit so tight I can barely breathe. Sometimes pain is beauty and freedom ain't free. My truth is the one thing I'll always keep untucked.

Model: Felipe Zarate
Photography: Yousef Babb
Styling: Mauricio Cruz