Six non-binary artists on queering their craft

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These non-binary artists are queering their craft and creating transformative experiences. Photos courtesy of the subjects.

Although the concept has existed for hundreds of years and appeared across different cultures, the term non-binary only found its way into the general lexicon in the ‘90s. It’s a reference to the gender binary but also a means to refuse it. And as people are learning and identifying as non-binary, they’re developing their own definitions. It is in this site that gender and labels are queered.

READ: What does it mean to be ‘gender non-conforming’?

The word queer was first used as a weapon, an adjective denoting weirdness and perversion, a derogatory label for a homosexual. But as the gay rights movement in the West gained momentum, the term was adopted and reclaimed. Soon, queer became a verb, a means to interrogate dominant heteronormative discourse, a way to look hegemony in the eye and give it the finger.

Here, we asked six non-binary artists about the works they’re most proud of — from giant squids delaying government projects to photographs capturing the plight of queer indigenous peoples — and in the process, talk about how they’ve queered their craft to create transformative experiences.

Myx Chanel, They/Them, drag artist

For Myx Chanel, drag was a New Year’s resolution. “It was back in December 2019 when I saw my first Drag Cartel at Nectar,” the drag artist and co-host of the BEKENEMEN podcast says. “I remember going like, ‘I can see myself doing that. In 2020, I’m gonna take drag seriously and join that competition.’”

Those were the hopeful words of someone who was about to witness a global pandemic bring the drag industry to a dip. But you can’t keep a good drag artist down. Armed with nothing but a sewing machine, stable internet connection, and a two-month paid break from work, the trained theater actor and makeup artist ruled over the livestream. A year after they made their New Year’s resolution, Myx Chanel was crowned Spaces MNL’s first drag superstar. However, a performance they’ll always be proud of would be their tribute to Jennifer Laude for Bahaghari’s “Para Kay Ganda” online drag show. “Sometimes figures like Jennifer Laude get reduced to a name, reduced to a news article, reduced to facts. [That performance] was a call for a bit more empathy towards transwomen and femme nonbinary people.”

These performances are ultimately an extension of Myx Chanel’s lived reality. “As a non-binary person, I live out my day to day life a bit more conventionally — in air quotes — masculine. And then when I do drag, I get to channel all of the feminine energy that I don’t get to put out on a day to day basis.” As the boundaries of drag and gender are continuously pushed, the art form is no longer limited to comic relief and female impersonation. “I don’t see my drag character as a separate entity, a separate person. It’s still very much me. It’s just a very different expression of it.”

Now that they’re finally out of their screen, Myx Chanel is doing more with their drag. Their pandemic podcast with Baus Rufo has been dolled up into a “Ru Paul’s Drag Race” viewing party and a safe space for queer folks. “The queer community is gonna need as many safe spaces as we can get, especially in this last month before the start of a Marcos regime,” Myx Chanel says. For them, more safe spaces means access for different demographics and backgrounds, and most importanly, more jobs for queer people.

Rienne, They/Them, singer-songwriter and producer

For the longest time, heteronormative desire was at the front and center of mainstream media. Betty and Veronica fought over Archie. Taylor sang about the love story of Romeo and Juliet. Queer kids had to settle for crumbs of queerness. That look that Veronica gave Betty lingered a little too long while Taylor sang about a Betty. Subtext fed us well.

Rienne (stylized as “rienne”) is one of the new voices from the next generation that’s making the implicit explicit while celebrating queer desire in all of its glory. “People are being more comfortable in their own skin and their identity, all that’s needed is proper representation and more acceptance from the community,” the US-based singer-songwriter says.

For queer people, unrequited love can leave a bitter aftertaste — but not for Rienne. In their latest single “honey,” the musician walks us through the push and pull of queer pining. With lines like “I’m into you” and “I shouldn’t say that” all uttered in the same breath, the song captures both the panic and the sweet, sweet joy that comes with queer young love.

Still reeling from the alcohol and the presence of a cute girl, Rienne wrote “honey” as a way to remember and process their first college party. “I feel like my ideas transformed into more personal art the more I felt comfortable with myself,” they explain. These indiepop anthems for the lovelorn youth find their rhythm in rienne’s honesty, even if it gets difficult at times. “I also like to remind myself that even when it feels a little weird to be writing about things that are uncomfortable, it helps me with my growth and confidence as a singer-songwriter.”

Sonchauni, They/Them, freelance creative

On the Philippine map, Los Baños can be found in the south of Luzon and Binangonan in the east. On Sonchauni’s (stylized as sonchauni) body, they’re on their toes and their hand, respectively. “I was looking up locations on Google Maps and had the idea of pinpointing these sites that highlighted my queerness, then laying my body on the map because my body would not be in this state if these areas and experiences were not present.” With the prompt of queerspirations and the itch to reminisce, the multihyphenate maps out how a queer body becomes through a cartography of their memories.

On the side of their torso is a miniscule green dot for the coordinates G2W8+7H, the location of XX XX and the home of Elephant, a safe space created by queer people for queer people. “I was only 17 when I first went to XX XX, and I can still remember how that place made me feel so welcomed and extra-seen,” Sonchauni says. In this space, community, liberation, and all things queer and fabulous can be found.

Elephant provided Sonchauni with the perfect environment to grow. From assisting with production design to designing posters, they are now part of the team that’s conceptualizing Elephant’s parties for the next few months. “They allow me the creative freedom to work, and in return I do my best to emanate Elephant’s energy through the output that I make.”

All of this is a part of Sonchauni’s process of unlearning and relearning. As an art school graduate, they spent years having institutional standards and structures ingrained in them. “Being queer, we always find a way to challenge the status quo,” the multidisciplinary artist says when asked about the development of their craft. “Now [that] I’m reclaiming my identity, I’m gravitating more toward my feelings and sensibilities in my art-making process.” With a stronger sense of self, they are now queering their creative practice one party at a time.

Mich Cervantes, They/Them, illustrator and DJ

In true Taurean fashion, Mich Cervantes started a yearly tradition of making art for Taurus season. These illustrations function as emotional signposts, each piece, a snapshot of their current headspace. For the 2022 iteration, there’s more color, more depth, and a little bit more tension.

Labor and leisure, that’s what the season of the Bull represents for the award-winning illustrator. “Things were extra tough for me this Taurus season — hence the bottom half of the illustration (Laughs). But it’s so important for me to make time to enjoy myself despite [some] setbacks,” Cervantes says. It’s a sensibility they worked hard on to develop.

Coming of age can be a turbulent time, especially for the queer youth. “When I was younger, I wrote a lot about womanhood and female sexuality as a woman coming to terms with those things,” they say when asked about how their craft has changed. “At this point, I think I’ve explored these things deeply enough to have realized that I’m not actually a woman. It’s hard to explain right now, but I hope that maturity reflects in the work I release in the future.”

When asked about how being non-binary shaped their art, Cervantes says, “I found myself drawing less humans and more foreign, alien-like characters with no particular gender.” A genderless alien with a sharp bowl cut actually crashed into their room and found a home in their closet. The two have been making music together ever since. BEDSPACER was a project born out of the illustrator’s growing interest in music.

Now that Cervantes is done with their self-actualization, they’re finding the time for some self-care. For this year’s Pride, illustrator-cum-DJ is working on a comic again. It’s going to be a personal coming out piece that’s set to be released in the next few months. And while Taurus season may be over, they’re making sure that there’s leisure with their labor. “I’m working hard, relaxing harder, and taking no shit from anybody!”

Elle Shivers, They/Them, illustrator and comic artist

What would happen if a giant extinct squid resurfaced in the middle of the West Philippine Sea? What would happen if said squid blocked off electromagnetic waves delaying a government development project? What would happen if a newly rekindled relationship got sucked into all of this? This is the premise of Elle Shivers’ queer magical realism story, "The Sucker". It’s their longest one-shot comic to date and it’s the work that they’re most proud of.

Shivers’ style traces back to their childhood fighting in the streets of Shibuya on their Nintendo DS and watching mechas break free from their subterranean villages. A quick look at their portfolio would be a testament to that. However, in their more recent works, the comic artist is beginning to trade in style for substance. “Ever since I’ve started identifying as non-binary/trans/queer (I use those three terms interchangably for myself), I've found that I spend a lot of time contemplating meaning and subtext more, rather than outward visuals.” In “The Sucker,” there’s more softness in the lines. But what stands out is how the colors are substituted for texture. The silence in the visuals amplifies the commentary of the comic.

Shivers is also sinking their teeth into new genres. Drawing some inspiration from their Pride month read, Tom Roach’s "Friendship as a Way of Life", and its analysis of Foucault’s work on “the radical possibilities of friendship,” their next project features vampires. “It's a a queer erotica story about womanhood, its contradictions and changing rules, as well as different ways of contemplating eternity,” Shivers says. “I've been wanting to delve into doing horror comics for awhile now.” On top of this, the illustrator is also planning to play around with form as they incorporate web design into the comic.

While there’s definitely no fixed point in Shivers’ craft, what remains constant is the crux of their creative philosophy. “Art is definitely not just limited to being a means to produce beautiful end products, but it's more of a vehicle to challenge and prepare its audience to consider that things can be otherwise,” the comic artist says. While art, as Shivers acknowledges, may not be able to change the world. It will always be political. “Art is just one of the many prongs of a multi-pronged approach that allows for conversations that are simultaneously about aesthetics, the political, and the personal, that can lead towards a more democratic and horizontal society.”

Pau Villanueva, He/Him, documentary photographer

Pau Villanueva is currently in the process of becoming more vulnerable. For him, photography was always simple: think of a question, point the camera to the answer, and click. “I find it hard as a documentary photographer to turn the camera to myself,” the National Geographic Explorer shares. “Ngayon, gusto ko iexplore maging personal and document my own story.”

Before considering his own, Villanueva had already documented the stories of dozens of others. One story in particular left a mark on him and later inspired his project with National Geographic—the story of Dats Anne, the queer Lumad community leader from Bukidnon. “Napakaorganic nung nangyari. Basically, I asked the question, ‘Is there anyone from the Lumad community that’s like me? Meron bang tulad ko na part ng LGBT community?’” What started as an NGO commissioned project on indigenous agriculture grew into a long-lasting friendship with the queer Lumad.

The answer to the question opened up a bigger conversation on intersectionality for Villanueva. “Meron tayong automatic assumptions. Parang akala mo pare-parehas yung paradigm na pinanggagalingan natin lahat. For example, we’ve learned so much about the LGBT Western paradigm being in Manila. Pero when we take into consideration kung ano din yung pinagdadaanan ng mga kapatid nating IPs, it’s a whole different story.”

As these two queer individuals from different walks of life shared their stories, Villanueva learned that Dats Anne’s struggle didn’t end with her identity. In addition to the discrimination, the Lumad community leader also suffers from the threat of displacement and the loss of their ancestral land. Their realization here was that liberation can mean different things for a queer middle-class Manileño and a queer indigenous farmer. And the fight for liberation has to cover the struggles of both.

Villanueva’s project of documenting the experiences of the othered eventually became an invitation to take a closer look at the self. “Recently lang ako naging confident to say my pronouns, that I prefer them to be he and him. And parang nagsabay din yung bloom for me when I was documenting these narratives.” The documentary photographer is also testing out other media as he gets comfortable telling his own story. “I realized na proseso talaga yung pagkilala sa sarili. And in order to know where you stand, kailangan mo rin malaman kung sino ka sa sarili mo.”