GenderFunk seeks to break gender stereotypes through creativity and sheer entertainment

Saigon is burning… but in a fabulous way. The event, titled as an homage to the film Paris is Burning, was the first amateur drag battle organized by GenderFunk. Queens competed for free beer, cash, and, most coveted of all, a performance slot in the next GenderFunk drag show.

GenderFunk focuses on creating an inclusive, safe space for both performers and the audience to explore their art and themselves through freedom of expression. Oi sat down with the multititled co-founder/emcee/organizer/drag queen ESTA Ricardo and co-founder/drag queen Sen Riot to find out more about GenderFunk’s beginnings and their plans for what’s next.

Describe the birth of GenderFunk?
Ricardo: There are two layers to the birth. The concept was mine, I always wanted to have a festival crew who performed and dressed insanely and did runways with music. The music I particularly love is disco because it’s music that everyone can party to, it’s an inclusive vibe so we choose inclusive music. So, I’ve had the idea for years, but I kept all these things in my head and never let them out into the world.

I had been working in the alternative festival scene across Europe, organizing radical, expressive events, and at the heart of these events it’s about loving one another, accepting one another, working hard and volunteering. That was my life for years, working collaboratively with all these amazing artists from all over the world, making events for people to express themselves.

And then when I came here, I discovered a night called Full Disclosure, which definitely deserves a shout out. It’s an LGBT drag show founded by my friend Gavin and when he had to go home he asked us to look after it. I worked on three shows, and because I had a lot of events experience and kind of a different angle on where I was going with it, I wanted it to become more of a party and expressive space. And during it I was like, “I love this, I love Full Disclosure,” but it was someone else’s baby.

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I went to Quest Festival and saw this group of performers who did an eighties style aerobics class, they were getting people to dance with them. It was one of the most popular things. I was like, “this is what I wanted to do with GenderFunk,” and it came back into my head, so I went, “I’m going to do it, I’m going to do GenderFunk.”

I launched GenderFunk as the baby sister of Full Disclosure with a different intention, it’s still about the performance but also about the expression and parties, for everyone to explore themselves, its not exclusively LGBT. It’s an inclusive queer space for everyone. Everyone has stuff they want to express and this is the place you can come do that. That was the birth of GenderFunk, I launched it in May. The birth wouldn’t have happened without Full Disclosure, the people who have inspired me throughout my life, and those who have worked with me in Saigon.

How did you two become friends and ultimately work together on this?
Sen: Birds of a feather flock together. Ricardo and I met at one of my shows and we became friends immediately.I saw the fire and passion in him. It was such a weird feeling, but my gut told me that no matter what, I needed to introduce him to people and get him involved in the scene. That’s how it all started and less than a year later, look where we are now.

Ricardo: Sen is my best friend, there would be no Ricardo without Sen. Sen is always by my side and supports me at every event. Sen is an artist, he’s absolutely amazing at makeup and putting together performance ready looks. He helps with translation, hooking me up with other performers, encouraging the performers that we have, and always helping so much on the club nights. I have an amazing community of friends who support me and have helped me make this happen, and that’s part of the success of GenderFunk.

What else makes GenderFunk unique?
Ricardo: Being able to come to a night, especially for gay people, and you can just talk to people and the element of dressing up gives people the confidence—that mask or different character—to go up and approach different people. And the parties here weren’t as friendly or comfortable. I was like, “Where is the lightness and the fun and the expression?” I’m not here just to get wasted, I’m here to shake off all that stuff in my life that society isn’t ready for.

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So, the best way to approach that problem is to create a space for that. And it’s that chance to just come, do what you want, be who you want to be, and you can go and for the rest of your month, you literally feel better. I actually think it’s healthy partying, going out and expressing all this stuff so you can go back and deal with all the pressure in society that tells you: “You can’t do this,” or “You shouldn’t.” You can deal with it much better because you’ve had an outlet for it.

Like with my drag children, Prinz and Kem Kem, they’re incredible dancers and performers. They would say, “We never get booked because we don’t look like they want us to look.” So, I gave them a space and said, “Here’s a theme do whatever you want.” They’re showstoppers at the events now.

Eventually, the goal is the Vietnamese performers will be the ones organizing the events. I’m doing it now because I speak English and I have the skillset for it. But I’m working with them to train them; it’s their country, their people, their creativity, they need to lead it eventually, so we’re working on that.

Sen: In my opinion, what makes GenderFunk unique is the relationship we have built with the people who come to our events. Who I don’t really see as partygoers, but more like extended family and friends. We don’t just put a lot of effort into creating amazing performances, but also to socialize and make sure that everybody feels like they are included, loved and welcomed. In other words, the crowds are the main event and that’s what makes GenderFunk really unique.

What has the reaction from the community been? Have you dealt with any pushback?
Ricardo: I think at the moment it’s been totally fine. It’s been a really interesting journey. Our events are quite underground and restricted to the clubbing and party scene, it’s heavily expat. We do most of our events at club nights that usually have parties, and our club night is very, very different and people have responded very well in the clubbing community because it’s so friendly and warm. The locals who come to the nights to experience the event are blown away by it and absolutely love it. It’s been a really nice response for me. We’re in the happy phase and at some point we might get unwanted attention and we will deal with that as a community if and when it happens.

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Sen: We couldn’t be more grateful for the tremendous support and love coming from the community. They have become more and more involved and engaged with the events. People come in the most wonderful and glamorous costumes. Most importantly, constructive feedback has made our events better. It’s such a warm and supportive atmosphere at the events, always.

How many queens are members of GenderFunk and what is the process of inaugurating new queens? What are some of the different personas within the group?
Ricardo: GenderFunk has to do with  the music we play and the style of performance, and part of the core philosophy is that we’re not just drag queens, it’s anyone who wants to perform with some sort of gender bending theme to it.

We’ve had drag kings, biological queens, trans queens, performance art—just so many different styles of performers. In terms of the more traditional queens, we have the Bang Trinh Team, a troupe of local Vietnamese queens led by Trinh, the creativity that comes out of the local people is amazing.

We are just always encouraging new people. We are a space for people to come and express themselves. We are a space that’s welcome for all within reason, these drag queens have built this foundation and this is their job and they need to get paid. But, we always have new performers to spice it up and everyone usually gets paid the same regardless of who you are. It’s mostly locals, I’m the only western performer apart from our amateurs.

Speaking of queen personas, who are yours?
Ricardo: I went to this festival in Barcelona alone, the first thing I’d ever done alone. When my camp asked me for my name, I thought “well it’s Spain,” so I said, “Ricardo”. This gave me the opportunity to do things I wasn’t comfortable doing before. The moment I hit this festival, I became absorbed by this amazing community and they all knew me as Ricardo and it slowly trickled into my old life and now my friends from my old life call me Ricardo, Ricardo is me. And so, when I was thinking of a drag name I went through all these things, but you know the defining thing about my drag is I’m not trying to be a traditional drag queen, I’m not trying to be a pretty woman. For me, performing is an expression of our gender sides.

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The first place I performed publicly was in Vietnam, and its through that I discovered the femininity and the masculinity inside of me that people don’t see at first. Performing allows me to put these two parts of my identity together and when they explode it’s absolutely fabulous. It’s like the lists where you check the box they want to put you in. I don’t mess with those boxes, I’m the space between the boxes. Gender and sexuality are fluid by my perceptions and the stage allows me to be fluid. I put so much energy into my performances because I’ve had all these ideas inside me for seven years, and I didn’t do anything with them. I’m just now learning makeup and just now performing professionally and it’s not a regret, I’ve made peace with it. That’s why I’m so invested in creating this space and rather than regret it, I can do something about it and make a stage for someone else, so that when they’re my age, the world better get ready because they’ll be ready, and that’s what it is for me.

So, I kept Ricardo because people hear Ricardo and are like, “What? What kind of drag name is that?” And that’s what I want and how my drag is. So, my name is ESTA Ricardo—it is Ricardo.

Sen: Sen came to be when Nhat realized that his creativity and artistry transcend beyond gender. I could never do the things I do onstage as a man at all; however when I’m a man in a dress and with a wig on, it’s a different story. There’s always something so profound and free when you cross the gender boundary.

How can the community get involved and show their support?
Ricardo: Like the Facebook page (www.facebook.com/GenderFunk) to keep informed with the events, take the theme, have your interpretation of it. Come have fun, talk to people, and get out of it what you want to get out of it. Come be yourself and tip your local drag queens.

If people want to be involved more officially, Saigon is Burning has just launched and will be continuing every month. So, if anyone wants to try drag, we have a team who will support them and do some training and you can have fun in the most friendly competition ever.

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What’s next in the cards for GenderFunk?
Ricardo: It’s a difficult question to answer because it’s been such an explosion of opportunity, that we don’t know what path it’s going to take. Although I am the core organizer, I want it to become more collaborative and locally led.

We are committed to GenderFunk and now we have Saigon is Burning, both of which we want to become a monthly event. Then, the next step is keep training, working together and being creative. We are gearing up to do more festivals, we want to do a takeover at Quest Festival, we are going to be reaching out to international events, we’ve been doing a lot of stuff with charity—we did a charity event at Outcast for the Green Bamboo Warm Shelter, we are doing a charity event for Project Success. That’s a huge part of changing the perception of queer people. We’re here, using our art to support the community. And that’s one of the best ways to show that we’re not scary and we’re people at the end of the day. At the front of GenderFunk our message and our approach is, “come and hang out with us, look at what we’re doing for the community, see how we are expressing ourselves,” and that can change perceptions, hopefully.

Images by Vy Lam