By Stephanie Swensrude
Green-haired, French-speaking, trans tattoo artist Aberdeen Hill works downtown as an assistant to a 70-year-old woman. But come Sunday night, you can find them as Gemma Nye in local gay bar Evolution, performing to Carly Rae Jepson under pulsing neon lights.
The name is indeed a play on the infamously dyadic zodiac sign, calling to mind images of a multifaceted personality.
Gemma’s yellow-Starburst-hued wig, overdrawn green lips, and inch-long eyelashes could catch your eye from a mile away. Their clown-inspired get up could be considered classically “drag,” yet the trans performer under the makeup is anything but.
“A lot of people have this preconceived notion of drag queens, that they are all cis gay men,” Hill said.
When Hill’s fellow close friend and trans guy Levi started doing drag years ago, they were confused at first.
“You wanna be a boy, you’re dressing as a girl, I just don’t get it.”
It was when Hill got into the hit show RuPaul’s Drag Race that he started to catch a glimpse of what drag could mean for trans and non-binary folks. Hill really connected with the characters on the show that are more gender non-conforming.
However, it was a breakup that pushed Gemma Nye into the spotlight for the first time.
“When I was in this relationship, I very much took on this masculine role, because it was with a woman. [I thought,] she’s super femme, and I’m gonna be super masc, and then we’ll be this perfect couple,” Hill said.
“When you’re trans, there’s so much pressure to look a certain way, and I am not masculine at all. Like, I am such a fag.”
After the breakup, Hill started to do some things they never felt they could in the relationship. They started experimenting with makeup and embracing their feminine side.
Gemma Nye’s debut was nearly on a whim – they were invited to perform at a “trans and non-binary only” show. It was a hodgepodge of pop music, trashy eye makeup and a dress from Value Village purchased the day before. After the performance, they were asked to perform at another show.
“It was just a downward spiral from there,” Hill said with a smile.
Maybe Hill got lucky, or perhaps they have some special spark that says: ‘hey, look at me’. Their popularity as a drag performer sky-rocketed, and within months Hill had carved out their own corner of the Edmonton drag scene.
Yet something was wrong. Fast forward a year or so, and Hill was in a new relationship with a guy who couldn’t care less about Hill’s passion.
“Drag ruined the best relationship I ever had,” Hill said. “I’m, like, only going to date drag queens now,” they half-laughed. Over the year-and-a-half-long relationship, their ex had only gone to one of his shows.
“He didn’t know how much it meant to me. My friends all hated him, so he thought the drag scene was all negative,” they said. Daydreams of the boyfriend coming to see his drag shows would make Hill cry. They said the last straw was when one of their best friends didn’t even know that he had a boyfriend.
“I was like, I have to dump this dude.”
Four months later, Hill has been pouring everything into drag, and it’s paying off. However, these glittery, gaudy shows can occasionally foster an unnerving environment.
“[Drag] really does affect your relationships and how people see you sexually,” Hill said.
They describe drunk dudes approaching him and commenting on their tuck, or telling them that he looks like a biological woman.
“Cis gay men give me attention in drag that they will never give me out of drag because they assume [I’m] also a cis gay man.”
Hill says it can be hard to know a person’s intentions when they approach you.
“Do you think I’m a girl, do you think I’m a boy? That’s where the insecurity lies.”
Hill has come to peace with the fact that not everyone is going to understand where they sit amongst this sometimes-confusing concept of gender.
“This is how I look if you look at me and think ‘she,’ that’s how you have interpreted me,” Hill said. “I’m not gonna try and act differently to influence your opinion.”
Like the name Gemma Nye suggests, Hill can’t be put into any defined category. They wouldn’t have it any other way.