What’s one to do when she moves to a new town and realizes there’s no drag scene? If you’re like Dharma Mirza, you make one. She could have moved somewhere like Portland where drag is prevalent and performers make more money, but here she could create a new platform for artists and for those who are marginalized.
“There’s something different about doing it in a small town… These people hardly ever get to see femme bodies that way,” she said. “They get to see queer people in such a personal way, in a place close to them, somewhere they would actually go in there day-to-day.”
Here she could make a difference. And she has.
Growing Up in Utah Identifying as a transgender, biracial woman of color, Mirza says life in Utah was not easy. Throw in a conservative Muslim family and it sounds nearly impossible. She saw very strict gender roles enforced and in order to cope, Mirza adapted to these norms.
“I was super misogynistic; I was terrible toward other women because of my own internalized discomfort about it, my own internalized patriarchy,” she said. “It was the complete opposite of what I am now.”
Some things didn’t change. Mirza says she was always involved in performing arts as a child, and the first time she realized she liked drag was putting on makeup for a middle school musical. Like many drag queens, the first time Mirza really dressed like a woman was for Halloween. Even that was strange in Utah, seeing a small muscly boy dressed as a girl.
“I liked the edginess of it, I liked how fucking with gender made people feel and react,” she said, thinking back on her humble drag beginnings. “I thought that was interesting and artistic. I think that’s what really struck me.”
She also still identifies as a Sufi Muslim and says she will always practice Islam.
“I think often people believe that Islam and queerness are mutually exclusive and they’re definitely not,” Mirza said. “I think a lot of Muslims and queer Muslims are trying to push the narrative and say hey, we exist, we’ve always existed, and assert ourselves in a time that’s kind of harrowing. It’s hard to be a Muslim person right now in America, it’s hard to be a queer person, a trans person—to be both is even harder. It’s so isolating.”
Many family members disapprove of what she does, but others are more supportive because in South Asia transness is seen differently. Despite facing their share of discrimination, for centuries the Hijra community—a group of transgender individuals who were assigned male at birth—have often been regarded as holy, being sought for blessings and ceremonies. This idea resonated with Mirza whose name means the principal of cosmic order in Hinduism and is the teaching of the Buddha. She sees drag as a spiritual experience and a way to connect with her ancestors.
“There’s this whole culture behind gender-variant people. Different indigenous people all across the globe and Hijras kind of fit in with that narrative,” Mirza said.
And for those who disapprove, Mirza doesn’t care anymore. She has started her own family here in Oregon, bringing people together through the Haus of Dharma so they can feel a little less alone. The house has about ten people from all over the valley and their membership is growing.
Drag Mother, Social Activist When Mirza graduated from high school, she started seeing RuPaul on TV.
“It was so awesome that there was this queer art form. Immediately I was like I have to do this, this has to be me,” she said.
She was also inspired by learning about ball culture, an LGBTQ subculture that originated as early as the 1930s, but was popularized in 1980s New York. Participants from different houses get judged on walking, costumes, appearance, and attitude.It’s where Madonna got her inspiration for “Vogue” and where many LGBTQ individuals and people of color found a safe space to be the type of artists they wanted to be, to try on different drag identities and to even perform different social classes.
“A mixed-race person of color connecting with a queer art form that came out of communities of color was important to me. I think that was really alluring,” Mirza said.
Never having a drag mother, Mirza taught herself how to be a queen and created her drag identity: Miss Dharma Prada MacPherson. She was already an artist and didn’t worry about looking like the other queens; she just wanted to build community and found the support she needed here in Corvallis.
In 2013, she and Sativa De Lux started talking about how people wanted to do this art, they wanted to see this art form, but they weren’t seeing it here. Oregon State University already hosted a drag show, but they wanted so much more. Since they started the house, they have won Beaver royalty three times. The first time Mirza won the crown she did a piece on self-harm in the trans community. While she enjoys performing at Dam Right Drag Night, a monthly event hosted by the Dam, and meeting people from the community at Rainbow in the Clouds, a monthly queer dance party hosted by the Salty Dog— at her core, Mirza is a social activist.
“Drag queens have always been at the front of leading social causes for the queer community and the trans community,” Mirza said.
The Haus of Dharma is always available by email for anonymous service referrals for HIV service, STI testing, drug and alcohol recovery, sexual assault, and transgender-specific services. They’ll help you even if you’re outside the service area.
“The visibility that we have, I think it came from a young radical queer who was willing to stand up and say we have space here,” she said. “I think one of the most important things is that we’re building not only a drag house, but a family. We’re looking out for each other, supporting each other, loving each other unabashedly. Loving each other is the key to making anything successful.”
The Future of Haus of Dharma While she’s felt supported here, Mirza would like to see Corvallis’ concept of drag expand. Not just queer pop dance parties, but queer rock shows and events in spaces that aren’t substance-driven. She would like to engage the whole community, including queer youth, trans youth, and youth of color.
She also wants to combat this idea that drag queens need to look a certain way. Mainstreaming drag culture on shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race has been a mixed bag.
“I really appreciate RuPaul for bringing visibility to drag and making it more profitable for performers and entertainers. At the same time though, it’s being really harmful to the narratives of a lot of drag queens who don’t fit into that binary femme model of fishy drag queens,” Mirza said. (For the laymen out there, fishy is a term used to describe a queen who looks extremely feminine. I may or may not watch the show religiously.)
“You have to kind of stay in the closet to be on the show and to do really well. Or you have to be a certain kind of transgender. I’m a hairy-ass trans woman. I could probably never go on RuPaul’s Drag Race and do well,” she said.
She doesn’t want the performers in the Haus of Dharma to feel like they need to fit anyone else’s idea of what drag should be. They have performers of all aesthetics, including drag kings, femme-presenting performers, and those who like to gender-fuck, which really just means bending this idea of what each gender should look like. You can go out in a beard and still be femme.
When you join the house, Mirza makes it very clear that she’s there to help and give people opportunities, but everyone’s experience there will be what they make of it. Some people join because they want to start doing drag; others join because they just want to make friends. Whatever the reason, everyone is greeted with open arms.
“Even if people aren’t doing anything, I’ve offered this space for people to be fabulous and queer and trans. It’s great,” Mirza said.
Recently, she had the opportunity to lecture in an ethnic studies class at OSU. With fellow drag performer, Lucielle S. Balls, Mirza got to show the class what it means to be gender non-conforming, and she’d like the opportunity to deliver more lectures and workshops in the future.
Her goal is to continue educating people about gender-performativity by using drag, and she’ll use this experience in the fall as she enters an undergraduate program at OSU, majoring in Women, Gender, and Sexuality, and minoring in Queer Studies. As a drag mother and social activist, Mirza will continue sharing queer history and shaping the queer narrative, in the classroom, on the stage, and out in the community.