Aja Isn't Afraid to Call Out Discrimination Within the Queer Community
The famously fierce "Rupaul's Drag Race" contestant opens up about being a bruja and standing up against TERFs.
Aja. All Images courtesy of the artist.
No cat has got Aja’s tongue. Whether by loudly mocking the endless praise received by fellow Drag Race contestant Valentina or calling out injustice online, you can always trust Aja to speak their mind.
The 24-year-old artist and drag performer identifies as non-binary, Black, and Middle Eastern and was raised by adoptive Latino parents. They started doing drag at 16, won the Brooklyn Nightlife Award for best drag queen at 22, went on to compete in Rupaul’s Drag Race Season Nine in 2017 and in All Stars Season Three the next year.
Since first appearing on Drag Race, Aja proved to be one of the show’s most feisty and outspoken performers. But the Aja that returned for All Stars had polished and stepped up their game—in fact, all the way to the top of a platform from which they memorably and gracefully dove, causing everyone to gag. Pastel-monster-Brooklyn-anime-realness was back with a vengeance.
Even though Aja didn’t win All Stars, they remain one of the most relevant Rugirls. They are releasing singles and videos, touring the world, and standing up for equality and diversity all at the same time. When we meet Aja on their trip to Buenos Aires, they are in full drag, covered in feathers, frills, ruffles, and sequins. They look amazing. They stand tall and move their long-nailed hands as they speak. They are calm and collected, even though it’s nearly 5 AM (drag shows in Argentina tend to begin and end late) and they have just finished their first number and will soon go back onstage to perform original songs “Brujeria” and “Finish Her.”
BROADLY: The song “Brujeria” is about magic. What your relationship with witchcraft?
AJA: I am an active practitioner of Palo Mayombe and Santeria. At this point, it’s just a daily ritual. I guess it’s a place to look for light in a time of need. Positivity.
You’ve mentioned suffering from anxiety. How do you deal with it nowadays?
This sounds really insane, but to get over my anxiety, I had to get over my fear of dying. I would be like, “Oh my God, what if I die?” and I realized I was scared to die because I felt like I hadn’t lived. But now I feel like if I die tomorrow, I’ve lived my life. I’m happy and I’d love to be here for millions of years and be an ancient fucking dinosaur and do the most and annoy everyone. But death is inevitable. Part of anxiety is the thought that one day everything will be over.
In an interview with Mic once you said, "The majority of Drag Race fans are people who are hurt, and hurt people tend to hurt other people." Why do you think that is?
There's such a sense of vulnerability that goes into drag and being able to express yourself. There’s also a side of it that’s about hiding yourself. I think the fanbase relates to both sides. Who doesn’t want to be open about their feelings? But I think a lot of them get hurt in their daily life and then they hurt other fans or girls from the show. They say mean things about them for no reason. … When people do that, it’s because they have a problem with themselves. Every time I’ve had a problem with someone else it’s because I had a problem with myself. I think many fans of the show mean well and want to do better but they get too cunty sometimes. Trust me, I’m not afraid to say something bad. People always ask why I bother to respond to the fans online. I do it because these kids want to be heard. Whether what they have to say is nice or mean, if at least they’re being heard, maybe they’ll change. Hopefully. Now some bitches will just be bitches.
Do you feel like the show creates a sort of mold the queens have to fit into?
I think it’s the fans that create the mold. It’s really the fandom who takes to liking a certain type of queens. Back in Season One, queens from later seasons like Pearl wouldn’t have been as widely loved because the idea of drag among the fans was so different. As the show progressed and expanded, the idea of liking different drag came into play. I feel like then, people started to develop favorite kinds of drag. People may not realize, but there is sort of… not a template, but there is kind of a mini list of rules that gets checked off. A lot of times the ones on the show that become the most popular are the skinny, white queens or the really funny and successful comedy queens. It’s never a really serious queen of color, for example. Not to say that the popular queens don’t break the mold, but there are so many others that could break the mold even further.
How do you feel about trans and cis women doing drag?
Oh, I love trans drag so much. Trans queens have paved the way so much for drag queens today. And if a cis woman wants to do drag, let her! Who cares? The point of drag is to blur gender and let you question gender presentation. To me, drag is like a fantasy or an illusion, and anybody can do that.
There are Drag Race fans who don’t acknowledge trans people's identities as valid. What’s your position regarding these “fans”?
I identify as non-binary and that falls under the trans umbrella. So, if you don’t acknowledge trans or non-binary people, you don’t respect me as an artist. Don’t come to my shows, don’t buy my releases. I don’t want your money if it’s not coming from the right place. I think those people will one day die out. It just doesn’t make sense to not let someone be themselves. When I see these people, I think: “Bitch who took a shit in your cereal this morning that you are so sour?” A person’s gender is nobody’s business but their own. People should acknowledge that. If someone doesn’t want to be a male or female, they don’t have to. If somebody feels trans then let them live their life.
What are your thoughts concerning discrimination within the LGBQT community?
There’s a lot of it. Without a doubt, trans people face so much discrimination from other groups within the community. Recently, I discovered what trans-exclusionary radical feminists were. TERFS. There are also gay people who don’t recognize trans people, gay people who hate lesbians, lesbians who hate gay people. Jesus Christ, we’re all oppressed! Yes, there’s different forms of privilege underneath. But there should be more of an understanding. We have nothing to prove to each other. The real oppressor is obviously the rich Anglo-Saxon white man. That’s who we have to prove something to. Instead of fighting amongst ourselves, we should be getting together and making a statement that we do not live under the system, we live above the system.
What's the last thing you want to leave people with?
Everyone deserves to live their truth. People can say your identity doesn’t exist, that you’re stupid, you’re crazy, you have a mental illness. But that won’t change the way you feel. If you identify as whatever you identify as, that’s your truth and you live it. Some people enjoy making jokes and saying, “I’m going to identify as a unicorn, I’m going to identify as a tree,” and they think they’re funny. But in reality, it’s a struggle they’ll never know. So, honestly, these people should have several fucking seats. It’s not funny. ... When people ask about my identity, I’m not gonna talk about my struggle all the time. Sometimes I wanna talk about how being a person of a different identity and different background has helped and uplifted me. I want to spread the success of who I am.