Drag king Dani Boi
Former banker Dani Weber was born in Melbourne to Sri Lankan parents; Dani Boi was born in San Francisco. “People go to San Francisco to be queer, to try ethical non-monogamy, to explore themselves,” they tell me as we lounge on their couch. With the suit, sneer and pocket square that Dani Boi wears, it is easy to picture a Melbourne University graduate, nine-to-five banker and business developer extraordinaire, the pride and joy of ambitious immigrant parents. It is just as easy to imagine non-binary drag king Dani Boi, who saves strands shaved off their undercut to make a beard and a moustache before stepping out to bright lights, applause and the introductory beats of a lip-sync battle. I wonder if corporate types secretly long to be drag superstars, with their love of tailoring, throwing shade and eardrum-busting posturing. Maybe the corporate rat race is a closeted genre of drag.
Four years ago, Dani was comfortable, successful even. But there are only so many chances at transcontinental adventure in one lifetime. Melbourne was my own uncharted frontier: I came here from conservative, upper-middle-class Manila, transitioned careers from sessional academic to writer to model to YouTuber without judgement, and found a new independence.
Dani’s adventure was to be in San Francisco. Their partner and fellow banker, Ben, landed a job in the Bay Area. So Dani quit a job that was going well to follow their heart – and their curiosity.
During their first week in San Francisco, Dani joined Wild SF’s Radical SF Combo walking tour of the Castro district, San Francisco’s gay village. Eyes twinkling, Dani recalls how they walked up to the owners and asked if they could be trained to run that tour – yes, even with that Australian accent. I recall my first week in Melbourne: a few days shy of the first winter of my life, I toured the outer northern suburb of Macleod in tropical-weather clothes. That is how ambitious you get the first time you’re in a new country. Then there is the high of being in not just any new city but the heartland of the American queer rights movement, one bridge away from where the Black Panthers began.
For extra cash on the side, Dani organised Tuesday night bar crawls at hostels. Aunt Charlie’s Lounge, the last stop, always ended with a drag show. With the new-city high still surging through their veins, they gave drag a go. Their first drag lip-sync performance was at a competition at the Lookout bar – and they won. I watch the video of that night on their phone and see this baby drag king with dark coif and purple lipstick, teal leggings tucked into animal print boots, a faux fur jacket that comes off by the end of the song. Another video has Dani bumping and grinding in a shimmery baby tee tucked into mini-shorts with suspenders, and a baseball cap that adds a gender-fluid hip-hop vibe. The name Dani Boi was coined by their drag mentor, who they met at the Trans March at their first San Francisco Pride.
“I embraced being non-binary when I moved to San Francisco,” Dani tells me. “Here [in Melbourne] it was hard to tell everyone about the change, especially when I wasn’t sure. In a new place, I could start fresh. I could just say, ‘Hey, I’m Dani, I’m non-binary.’ ”
Being a non-binary drag king without having seen the iconic RuPaul’s Drag Race meant Dani was free from the stereotypes of “good” drag. “RuPaul’s Drag Race reduces drag to cis gay men dressing up like women for the stage. I reject the idea of needing to convincingly ‘pass’ as the opposite gender to be a good drag king or queen. It’s a shame when drag reinforces binary sexist ideals. I’m more interested in irony, punching up to misogynistic norms.”
At the Bay Area Solidarity Summer camp, which was established to empower politically minded South Asians, Dani was encouraged to use drag not just to explore gender onstage, but also to take up space as an activist and a non-binary person of colour. “Growing up, there was no word for what I was. ‘Asian’ was for ‘East Asians’. In high school, I heard the word ‘curry’. I didn’t like that. My parents are Sri Lankan, but I don’t feel Sri Lankan. It wasn’t until that camp that I heard the word ‘South Asian’ and it felt right. We studied lobbying, direct action and protest planning. I told them about my drag practice and they told me drag was a legitimate way to enact social change, too.”
In San Francisco, Dani and Ben found a place to explore queerness and ethical non-monogamy – honest and open communication about exploring physical and emotional intimacy with multiple people. Dani first learnt about non-monogamy at Melbourne University, during the first Radical Sex and Consent Week nine years ago. But San Francisco had a more supportive community for those who were curious about non-monogamy. “The word ‘compersion’ – the joy of knowing someone you love is experiencing joy with someone else – was invented there,” says Dani.
Being a Capricorn, Dani loves schedules, spreadsheets and lists. They show me their couple calendar, where each day of the month has at least three entries. I see entries for meetings just to talk about their calendar. The Virgo in me approves.
There is a whiteboard for their relationship, with a list of boundaries they’ve negotiated with Ben, such as policies on checking in before going on dates with other people. They’ve also programmed in some “Danjamin” time. “More of this soon,” Dani says, a smile on their lips. Love, in mono or multiples, is a fine art. Like gender. Like drag.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 1, 2019 as "Fluid dynamics". Subscribe here.