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Audrey Gillespie
photography Audrey Gillespie

Exploring drag as an intimate, freeing outlet for women

Northern Irish photographer Audrey Gillespie captures the performance of gender and sexuality in a place where queer culture is stifled by society

The art of drag can be as much about escaping as it can ruthlessly carving your own space; debuting a once hidden part of yourself to the world on a stage, or losing yourself to queerness in a dreamscape of your own making.

“It’s a blank canvas, an empty box, a freeing space, it’s a base for me to act as feminine, or masculine, or both in all the blurry and mixed ways that gender should be,” says Audrey Gillespie, a photographer from Derry, Northern Ireland. “It’s a space for performing – or just living – outside of the realm that consistently tells you all the things you should and shouldn’t be.”

Gillespie’s Not Drag project thrives in these in-between spaces, a growing photography collection that explores gender, sexuality, and personal expression in a region where modern queer scenes are in their infancy or stalled by political division. In Northern Ireland, one of the most powerful political parties, the DUP, upholds anti-LGBTQ policies and has fought against marriage equality. But while Stormont, Northern Ireland’s parliament, has sat empty for over two years, the country’s youth have continued to shape their own queer, resisting, future-facing subcultures, from its powerful pro-choice movement to burgeoning drag scenes and thriving collectives of musicians, designers, and artists. “I began questioning and examining queerness around me within the small circles of youth in my hometown,” she says.

The images that make up the Not Drag series feature Gillespie, her friends, other local artists, and queer kids – they’re soft focus and saturated, dreamy yet intimate. Gillespie’s work revolves around her own experiences of coming out and grappling with her own gender “facade and masquerade”. “It’s deeply rooted in being, perhaps, so overly self aware that everything in my life seems like performance, just as drag is,” says Gillespie. Photographs traverse the boundaries of gender, heightening femininity with intense makeup, neon lighting, and close-up body shots, before pulling it back to exposed, intimate pictures in crisp daylight.

“Indulging in female drag as a woman was interesting, to heighten my femaleness to cartoonish levels hit home with how much effort I was putting into being female even on a daily basis,” she explains. “It made me look at the ‘normal’ standards of how women and men are asked to perform their gender.”

Northern Ireland’s lack of a functioning government is a feminist issue, a queer issue, and a gender issue. The country’s lawmaking remains stagnant – as the rest of the UK becomes more progressive with growing support for domestic violence laws that protect survivors, steps to stop period poverty, and more LGBTQ+ education systems being implemented, NI feels like it’s being left in stasis. Not Drag reflects a youth generation’s fighting spirit for change and fervent persistence in cultivating identity and their own spaces outside mainstream culture. Gillespie’s work is one such space in which women and queer people can exult and nurture themselves.

Gillespie has recently moved to Belfast, a city with an LGBTQ+ scene that continues to beat back against the waves of political and fragmented societal disdain. The Not Drag project continues to be influenced by the new arenas and experiences Gillespie finds herself in. “Drag for me is a way of unfolding the creases that society has pressed on myself, and surely, other people,” she says. “It’s been a tool in unlearning lots of behaviour I never knew I didn’t need and makes me review my own actions specifically in how I live as a gay woman – it allows me to explore uncharted areas of my own personality, free of preconceived ideas of how I’m supposed to act and live, as well as documenting and exploring how friends and mutual’s express these motives too.”

Audrey Gillespie was the winner of AVA Festival’s visual artist competition in collaboration with Dazed