Meet Sen Riot, Vietnam’s star nonbinary drag queen and regular performer at Saigon’s biggest drag show, GenderFunk.
Identifying as nonbinary is a term many have not heard of or understand fully. Despite systemic progress being made for LGBTQIA+ communities worldwide, including in Asia, as well as the prevalence of queer media, including the rising popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race, what does it mean to be a nonbinary drag queen?
The idea that people may switch between genders or not identify with any gender at all may be difficult to understand for those raised within the binary, and in a predominantly heteronormative society, and Sen Riot, a nonbinary drag queen in Vietnam, is creating significant social change in Vietnam and transforming the local drag scene.
In Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s largest city and the nation’s economic lifeblood, there is quite an accepting attitude towards the LGBTQ+ community. While queer people do not have the right to marry and adopt children in Vietnam, they still have a strong presence in society. One of Vietnam’s biggest pop stars is transgender and there are is a lot of gay representation and characters in local feature films.
One of the joys of living in Ho Chi Minh city is its small but lively drag scene. One popular event is called GenderFunk, which holds drag shows at different venues around the city. The shows are inclusive and include gay, nonbinary, and straight performers. Each show is a life-affirming display of gender euphoria.
Sen Riot is a drag queen and event organiser at GenderFunk. Sen identifies as nonbinary, and their name expresses their non-binary identity: ‘Sen’ is the Vietnamese word for lotus and symbolises the feminine side of their nature, while ‘Riot’ has connotations of male aggression.
Sen shares about their definition of nonbinary: “For me, nonbinary is a general term for people whose gender identity is a spectrum. For some people, their gender identity stays fixed to a certain area in the spectrum, and for some (like me) it is more flexible. I move around the spectrum of gender identity on daily basis,”
Sen’s understanding of gender is informed by Eastern sentiment. “I believe that everyone possesses both male and female traits and personality. Like Ying and Yang, it’s a symbol of masculinity and femininity, positive and negative, etc. I am the most balanced when I acknowledge there’s masculinity and femininity inside of me, and instead of repressing either of them I accept them and let them live in harmony.”
The freedom that being non-binary provides them sounds appealing. At work they wear a suit, while in the evenings they wear something more feminine or a hybrid. “There are days when I feel like a man, so I go to my male closet, and there are days when I feel like a woman, so I go to my female closet. Who knows what the future has in store for me, I might decide to settle my place somewhere in the spectrum or not.”
Being a drag queen has helped Sen to explore and define their gender identity. Sen states that drag is a nonbinary art form in which you can be whoever you want. “Through drag, I have managed to slowly unlearn all the social constructs about gender and sexuality and discover new things about myself.” By watching their act, you can identify with Sen as they explore their gender and experience feelings of gender euphoria.
Quite shy in person, and at the start of their performance Sen might even appear nervous. But when momentum builds, and they transform into an over-the-top drag queen, it is like seeing a butterfly burst from the chrysalis. As a member of the audience, you feel as liberated as Sen does.
As an event organiser, Sen performs a valuable role for the community. GenderFunk shows are both for entertainment and social activism. They act as a safe space for performers to experiment with their gender identity. Many expats have tried drag for the first time since arriving in Vietnam at GenderFunk. Being in an alien country gives them the chance to play with their identity, and the drag scene in Vietnam is still growing and not too competitive, so it is more accessible.
Sen recognises that it is difficult for people to leave their comfort zone and understand nonbinary people. However, nonbinary people are forced to go out of their comfort zone every day when they face discrimination and violence. “I don’t expect people to fully understand what being nonbinary is, but they should know that we exist and respect our rights to live as humans. That is the least they could do.”
Sen’s work both organising and performing at GenderFunk is a labour of love. They do not make any profit from it, as appearance fees are outweighed by the cost of makeup and costumes. “This (societal) change is too early for me. I won’t benefit from all the work I do. I don’t make any money, but I want to set the stage for future generations of Vietnamese.”