What you need to know
As Taiwan gears up for referendum questions covering marriage equality and gender equity education in schools, Taipei’s only out drag couple to talk about their experiences growing up in New Taipei and Wisconsin.
There is only one drag couple, Yolanda Milan and Elja Heights, who are a real-life item and occasionally perform together in Taipei. Outside of their drag life, Yolanda (Tenny Li, 李繼堯, 25) works as a makeup artist while Elja (Ellery Prescott, 29) is an indie musician.
Ellery moved to Taipei in 2012 and has made a name for himself on the acoustic scene. His latest single, “We’ll Keep on Fighting,” is an anthem for gay rights and has been released to coincide with the upcoming referendums. The News Lens caught up with the pair to talk about being openly gay in Taipei, drag as self-expression, their experiences growing up on either side of the Atlantic, and coming out to family.
TNL: How do you feel about the upcoming referendum questions on marriage equality and gender equity education?
Ellery: I’m frankly not very optimistic. I passed out pro-LGBT lit with a group of activists last Sunday at the Longshan Temple area night market. It was fairly disheartening. There were a lot of people who just didn’t care, and many more who were angry with us and threw the lit on the floor. There are some people we did reach, who knew of the referendum but had no idea how to vote on it. I don’t think there is enough action. It will probably be a really big blow to the LGBT community in Taiwan when the results come in. I hope I’m wrong though.
Tenny: No matter if it’s successful or not, we’re on our way to equality. If we win or not is really hard to know. What is more important is how many signatures we managed to collect for the referendum. That’s already a huge success in my eyes.
The News Lens: Ellery and Tenny, you’re Taipei’s only drag couple. How long have you been performing?
Ellery: I’ve been doing drag since 2014 but didn’t meet Yolanda until early last year . We’ve only performed on stage together as a duo a couple of times, each of which was a total blast. Drag duets are always great because you get to play off of one another’s energy. When we first met we were back stage at the Create Ur Mmmagic (C.U.M.) party.
Tenny: I’ve been doing drag for two years. The organizer for C.U.M., Alvin Chang, found me in the ballroom scene at a vogue ball. He came to the annual Kick Ass Ball and saw me walking on the runway. Afterward, he asked me if I wanted to perform drag at C.U.M. I thought, oh, that would be fun, sure! My first drag performance was the C.U.M. pride party in 2016.
TNL: How do your drag personas overlap with your non-performance personas?
Ellery: I grew up playing music including guitar and writing songs from the age of 10. I’ve always put myself on stage so drag came very naturally to me. I grew up prancing around and singing and lip syncing alone in my room to Cher, Aretha Franklin, Cyndi Lauper, Tina Turner and all the rest. I remember doing a lip sync performance to Christina Aguilera’s “Come On Over” for my parents at the age of eight. I’ve always said they knew I was gay before I did.
Anyone who does drag has conquered that fear and is living life to the fullest. — Ellery Prescott
Shortly after starting doing drag I was back in the U.S. for a visit. I went on a long walk with my mom she asked me why I do drag and why it has to be dressing up as a woman. I remember her saying “Why do you have to dress up as a woman though? Why don’t you guys do Michael Jackson or Elvis Presley?” At the time the question kind of stumped me. I just said that that’s not very interesting or fun, which isn’t a terrible answer, but the better answer is that gender is on a spectrum and we all fall on it somewhere. For me, as a gay man, there is a strong feminine being that needs to come out and play and be embraced. The only thing that holds us back from embracing it is fear. Anyone who does drag has conquered that fear and is living life to the fullest.
My music making and song-writing is the more serious side of me. It’s where I get to say what really matters to me, but still in an original and artistic way. That’s perhaps why my songs are more often than not downers, while drag is always loud, joyful, or sometimes dirty or goofy.
Tenny: In personality, Tenny and Yolanda are totally different. Yolanda is fierce, confident, and not afraid of what anyone thinks. But Tenny is much more insecure, shy, and not very social. Drag is really special to me because when I put on my makeup and think about how I’m going to perform, Yolanda comes out of me naturally.
I am a makeup artist for MAC cosmetics. So obviously that affects my drag tremendously because makeup skills are very important to drag queens. The most important element of drag I would say is the look and the makeup. I majored in fashion design and independently studied makeup with a specialized teacher.
Although makeup and doing a fabulous look that makes you feel really good is really important, it’s not the core of drag. What’s most important is the connection and energy you create between the performer and the audience. I really love getting ready for the show: the rehearsals, making the choreography, practicing the lip sync, learning the words, editing the music – all of it. Then after all the work, you get to enjoy the three or four minutes of stage time and it makes me truly happy.
When I first started dancing I learnt voguing and waacking [see below] both of which come from the LGBT and drag community in the U.S. In these dance forms there’s the energy of drag. For example, poses, emotions, and facial expressions.
TNL: You grew up in very different cultures some 7,000 miles apart– Tenny in New Taipei City and Ellery in Madison, Wisconsin. How were your experiences going through school?
Ellery: I came out really early at the age of 12. My whole middle school knew I was gay overnight. I was lucky enough to be born in one of the most liberal cities in the United States, growing up going to United Church of Christ, a church so liberal it literally had out gay couples. There was a whole section of lesbian couples that all sat together. My parents were the original hippies. I knew I was ultimately going to be accepted so as soon as I accepted myself, the rest came fairly easily. You always had the odd jerk who would mutter something homophobic, but you grow a pretty thick skin really quickly.
Tenny: Taiwanese don’t really accept men being soft and feminine, and don’t really accept LGBT people on a whole. Nor do they know anything about drag culture.
Before high school, I always fought the feminine part of myself. I was verbally bullied in elementary school. They’d say I’m like a girl, or too girly. I even had a teacher who said, “How are you so much like a girl?” Some teachers even said I’m not allowed to be so feminine. But once I got to high school and learned about fashion design and other things I was interested in, I realized this feminine part of me gave me inspiration. I started to accept myself more in high school and many of my classmates and friends all encouraged me to be myself. But even in high school there were still lots of people who made fun of me or bullied me but I stopped being afraid of what they thought.
TNL: Was gender equity taught in your schools?
Tenny: There were sex ed classes in middle school and high school, starting in the seventh grade. We learned about anatomy and women’s periods and how men ejaculate, etc. There was hardly any discussion of LGBT issues. The teacher went over it really quickly. There were counselors I could see in middle school and high school, but I never took advantage of it. I’m just not the kind of person who would feel comfortable doing that. But the counselors were always very accepting.
Ellery: I actually had a similar experience. I had a sex ed class in seventh and 10th grade. LGBT topics were discussed for no more than five minutes in a whole semester. I’m from a very liberal city in Wisconsin (Madison), so that’s pretty sad, really. You’d think it would’ve been better but ultimately the teacher decides how much of what to cover and both of my health teachers were quite conservative.
TNL: Taiwan has a reputation for being very LGBT-friendly as can been seen by the huge turnouts each year for Taipei Pride Parade. You both took part this year. How was the experience?
Tenny: This year was my third year participating. It’s so moving to see so many people in such a conservative country come together, not afraid to be themselves. I think the fact that it beats its record every year is a testament to how our society is getting more and more accepting. Every time I attend pride I feel, safe, joyful, and warm. I’m very proud of Taipei pride.
Ellery: I’ve gone to Taipei pride every year since 2012. Pride is far and away my favorite day of the year. It is absolutely the most joyful thing to walk with fellow LGBT people and allies and sing and dance down the street for two hours straight in the sunshine. I always do the most extravagant look I can possibly come up with. This year, being almost naked, was probably the most outrageous thing I’ve ever worn in public. Pride is so important for our community. It’s a time to come together and remind ourselves that Gay Is Good, as they said back in the 1960s. We are together in our fight for equality and freedom worldwide and we’re not going away.
TNL: You just released a song about that…
Ellery: Yes, the single “We’ll Keep on Fighting” is an anthem for LGBT rights, and in general for anyone fighting for freedom. I wrote it with Taiwan’s same-sex marriage fight in mind. No matter how long it takes, we’re going to keep on going until everyone is equal. This is a worldwide gay liberation movement that’s no longer in its infancy. We’re winning and will continue to win.
TNL: As adults who are openly gay how do you feel you are treated in Taipei?
Ellery: I’ve had virtually no problems being out in Taipei. It’s one of the best cities in the world to be openly gay. I’m grateful every day that there is virtually no Taiwanese machismo. And if there is, it’s really so limited it hardly exists for the average person. I mean, you see straight guys holding their girlfriends’ purses. You would absolutely never see that in the U.S. I’m out everywhere. I left the closet a long time ago and have no interest in going back in.
The gay liberation movement was founded on the principle of come out, and come out NOW. It’s the only reason the gay liberation movement was successful in the U.S. I’ve always said filial piety is the enemy of gay liberation in Taiwan. People have to come out if they want to see society change. When people meet gay people, they slowly begin to unlearn their prejudice. But if they never meet LGBT people, the burden of ignorance can never be lifted. I don’t think LGBT Taiwanese people give their family enough credit. More often than not they will come around and accept you. But you have to give them the chance. If you never do that, it is a great disservice to not just your relationship but to the entire fight for equal rights.
Tenny: Most Taiwanese people are very reasonable. Even though there are some people who are against LGBT people, but I think despite that one day everyone will be equal in Taiwan. As for daily life, being gay at my work is not hard in the slightest. Almost all of the male makeup artists at MAC are gay.
My dad is very conservative and misogynistic. I’m not out to him. My mom on the other hand is very open-minded. She accepted me being gay when I came out to her last year and is even very supportive of my doing drag. My mom even came out for me to my grandma and it was pretty miraculous – even though she’s over 80, she totally accepted it.
TNL: Have you ever approached or worked with any LGBT-rights support groups? Are there any activists in Taiwan that you have particular respect for or who have influenced you in some way?
Ellery: My biggest inspiration is Gina Chen (陳嘉君) a straight woman who is a huge advocate for LGBT rights. Most people know her from the viral video 難得的對話 on YouTube and facebook, a 10-minute video where she uses reasoning and logic to convince an anti-gay protestor to change her view. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Gina personally. She’s so articulate and smart. I really admire her and I hope to be more like her.
Tenny: I have to say, Ellery. He’s the most passionate person I’ve ever met about human rights, and he really puts it into action. There are a lot of people who have lots of thoughts about activism, or opinions about politics, but not many people then get out there and do something. Ellery always does, even if there aren’t many people doing it with him.
Ellery’s single “We’ll Keep on Fighting” is available from his Facebook page, where you can also find information on upcoming performances.
You can follow Ellery on Facebook at www.facebook.com/3llery or Instagram: e.ll.e.r.y
You can follow Tenny on Facebook by searching “Yolanda愛美妝” or instagram: jiyao_aka_yolanda