Drag is Resistance: Celebrating Seattle’s Queens with Issa Man

In a time of incredible unrest, a civil rights movement and racial awakening like America has never seen before, it is important to acknowledge and celebrate Black excellence and Black joy. This Pride month we may not be able to march next to one another at a parade but we can march next to one another to defend and support ALL Black Lives, with the same energy of our Black and Latinx trans sisters who led the charge during the Stonewall Riots. Pride has always been a protest.

This is exactly why this Pride month we are highlighting some very talented, very fabulous Queens who have taken drag to another level. At a time when resistance is paramount and ALL Black Lives are still in need of support, drag reminds us all where we came from and give us the strength to continue our fight for equality. Arts are a form of resistance. Creativity is a form of resistance.  Resistance to oppression. Resistance to suppression. It is a form of healing.

Their creative drag videos during COVID-19 social distancing are sexy, inventive and artistic. For the second installment of this video and interview series we spoke with Issa Man. Read the Q&A below and think about opening your purse and supporting this incredible Queen.

 

RIZE: Let’s start by introducing yourself to the world.

Issa Man: Hello! My government name is Varian A. Oatman but you can just call me Issa Man. I was born in a small military town in Germany and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. I recently relocated to Seattle, almost two years ago, and I’ve been doing drag for about three years!

RIZE: How did you get your start doing drag?

Issa: Every year on Halloween, my hometown puts on a production of The Rocky Horror Show at one of the only local gay bars in town. For context, Rocky Horror Picture Show was one of my all time favorite musicals growing up and basically the film that helped usher in my queer awakening. I knew I needed to be in that show no matter what! However, I was only twenty years old at the time of auditions but my birthday was in early October before what would be the actual premiere of the show. So, I convinced the director to let me audition with one of my parents as a chaperone and I landed the lead role of Dr. Frank N Furter, this gender queer alien cross dresser from outer space. It was my first time in drag in any capacity but the local queens from that bar liked my performance so much they eventually took me under their wing and the rest is history! 

 RIZE: You moved here from Alaska? Considering Alaska is predominately white and Indigenous, was being a Black queen difficult for you there?

Issa: Growing up in Alaska, and having no one who looks like or really experiences life like you, you kinda grow up without the verbiage to really acknowledge or address micro-aggressions and racism when they occur. You just kinda assume that being the butt of every joke is the norm. You don’t really question tokenism when it’s all you’ve really known. I’ve had to unlearn and unpack a lot of anti-Black behavior I was exposed to because the Black population that exists in Seattle is the largest amount of Black people I’ve ever been exposed to in my life. There was a small population of Black kids who grew up alongside me in Anchorage but I was honestly a little too gay for them and they didn’t know what to make of how I dressed, how I spoke, how I carried myself day to day. So for the most part they kinda just left me to the wolves so to speak! I’m very lucky to have discovered the Alaskan drag scene when I did, it’s actually shockingly diverse, inclusive and very queer family orientated. That drag scene was definitely my safe haven. 

RIZE: When did you start your work in the drag scene here in Seattle?

Issa: Almost immediately, I think I had my first gig a couple hours after I landed. At this point, I’d already been working as a queen for a year, so I already  knew how to network and perform and make things happen for myself and my career. 

RIZE: You recently worked with Justin Ortiz and created videos that were used for LASHES. Can you tell me about this project and how it all came to fruition? 

Issa: Justin and I are roommates and when quarantine happened we had nothing but free time. We both have a huge interest in cinematography, they needed a physical muse and creative outlet and I was more than happy to fill that role!

RIZE: How did you approach choreographing your performances?

Issa: For the most part my numbers are improvised live but I like to follow the rule of three when I’m performing. I look at every performance as a story I’m physically telling, even if that story is just me walking around collecting singles. I like to make sure there is a beginning moment, middle moment, and end moment that everyone in the audience can point to and say, “Wow” when they look back and remember the performance. Something the girls from back home taught me and something every queen should know!

RIZE: You won CUT’s Drag Queens Decide Who Wins $1000. During the filming of this Mark, “Mom” Finley came across really entitled. Is this common for white queens in Seattle or have you been pretty pleased with your experience/acceptance into the local drag scene?

Issa: Without burning any bridges, I will say anywhere you go in the drag scene in America you’re going to meet entitled white drag queens. That’s just the T. I don’t think most queens really process how Black queens genuinely have to work twice as hard to get half as much as our white counterparts and were really not even allowed to complain about it. When you’re a white passing drag queen, it’s enough to just be pretty. If you’re light skin and pretty you will be fine. You will get booked consistently, no matter your attitude. That isn’t me being bitter either, it’s a transaction I watch happen backstage all the time. I know I’m pretty, but I’m also so acutely aware that that’s not enough for me. Black queens are expected to be great dancers, singers, comedians and nothing less than happy-go-lucky backstage just so we can get that token Black queen booking.  

RIZE: There is no one specific way for drag to manifest. Every city has its own drag families, its own drag culture, and its own drag history. How would you define Seattle’s drag culture?

Issa: The queens here love to make a mess and they love a good prop. I would describe the drag here as pretty punk rock. The word grunge comes to mind.

RIZE: Modern Drag has always been a form of resistance towards racism, homophobia and bigotry. This PRIDE Month falls during a pandemic and the largest civil rights movement this country has ever seen. What are your thoughts about this resistance and how can folks support you and your work right now?

Issa: This resistance scares me because it’s been brewing for years. This resistance scares me because now that thin illusion of a post racial society has been broken, going back to any former iteration of “normal” is terrifying and would require a level of complacency I no longer have the energy or patience for. I’ve kinda been on this rollercoaster of emotions the past few months because the older I get the more I think I have somewhat of a grasp on systematic racism and its effects on me and my community, and everyday I would have the rug pulled from under me with another headline telling me I don’t know shit!

I’m hopeful that with everything going on, in regards to this revolution of sorts, that education is happening daily! So, the information that took me years to learn, is ready and accessible for those who had no idea they had more to learn.

If people want to support black people during this time, donations are extremely helpful, and I mean it. At the end of the day we still live in a capitalist society. If you really wanna help though, educate yourself and stop expecting black people to have all the answers. It’s not our job to end racism.  

RIZE: As a drag queen, you’re an entertainer, but you’re also a MAJOR influence in the LGBTQ+ community. Do you feel like you have responsibilities to the public/LQBTQ+ community more so right now? If so what kind of activism/advocacy have you been engaged in? 

Issa: If you’re a drag queen and you’re not using your platform to speak on the issues that our community has been facing for generations, not just now, I need you to hang it up. Being an entertainer is only one part of the job, the other parts are defender and educator. I firmly believe almost every right we have today as queer people is because of Black trans women and the drag queens who came before me. There’s this intersectionality of some queer people being white and cis or cis passing or even just the token, making it into positions of power in the mainstream. I think it’s our job to remind those queers with power to remember to speak up for their brothers and sisters who can’t speak for themselves. 

RIZE: Favorite Drag Queen Past or Present? 

Issa: Naomi Smalls. Naomi Smalls has always just done it for me.

RIZE: Favorite song to perform in drag?

Issa: Anything by ChloexHalle, Sza, Janelle Monae, Solange or Victoria Monet. Anything sultry, femme and Black. 

RIZE: Where can people catch your next performance?

Issa: I’m gonna keep posting visuals on my Instagram @IssaManOfficial but as of right now, if i’m being totally honest, I don’t know where yet! My focus is on my community right now. My focus is on using my platform to obtain some form of justice. Stay tuned otherwise. 

Whoa by Snow Alegra. Performed by Issa Man. Shot and edited by Justin Ortiz.

Follow Issa on IG at @IssaManOfficial

Support her on Venmo/Cashapp @/$ IssaManOfficial

 

Luna Reyna

Luna Reyna (she/ella) is the founder of RIZE Entertainment. She has worked in radio, in print for multiple magazines and with too many digital media platforms to count. She is deeply invested in shifting power structures and centering the work and voices of marginalized communities within the industry.