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Centre for Stories

Justin Tan

"I was done being scared of life. I didn’t want to waste any more time. I wanted to find my freedom and finally choose who I wanted to be."

Reflecting on the past decade, Now You See Us is a collection of stories told by members of Boorloo’s diverse LGBTQ+ community. This series of interviews features an exploration of palpable cultural change, memories of love, life, acceptance, and fear.

Justin Tan is a leading figure in Western Australia’s ballroom community. Dancing and performing in the traditionally LGBTQ+ vogue, Justin’s House of Reign has taken the Boorloo performance scene by storm. In this interview, Justin recounts his experience as a queer person over the past decade.

Ronin Thomson (RT): Take us back to 2013. What did life look like before the glitz and glamour of ballroom?

Justin Tan (JT): 2013 was my last year of high school at a catholic college. I wasn’t really doing much because there wasn’t much to do. Social media was relatively new and Facebook was still popular. Everyone was focused on studying for their exams to get into uni. I knew I was attracted to guys, but it was never something I thought much about. Maybe I was still in denial, maybe it was my upbringing, or maybe it was the influence of my religion and culture. All I could think was that I was graduating that year and would finally know what it’s like to have just a taste of freedom. Know what it’s like to not be confined to the four walls of school that I’d spent most of my life in.

After graduation, most of that freedom and choice I’d had vanished while I completed two years of mandatory military service back in Singapore. It was tough. I had so many lows, but so many highs. I grew fast, gained so many friends, and a whole new perspective on life. Not many people experience what’s it like to have your freedom ripped away like that. It makes you appreciate the little things in life; makes you understand the way the simplest choices can completely change you.

When I came back, I was a different person. That new confidence allowed me to accept who I was and am. I was done being scared of life. I didn’t want to waste any more time. I wanted to find my freedom and finally choose who I wanted to be.

RT: For any queer person, adolescence and young adulthood are experiences rife with confusion and self-questioning – finding that confidence you described can be an incredibly difficult process. Did the rampant social change of the past decade influence your relationship to that budding identity? Is it easier now than it was then?

JT: Society has slowly but surely become more accepting of queer identities – some more than others – but, nonetheless, it’s better than it was a decade ago. I was only 21 when same-sex marriage was legalised in Australia. I’d already found that confidence, and had never once felt threatened. But maybe that was because of the journey I’d had up until that point. Had I not gone through that, I think those social changes would’ve guided that process – especially increasing media representation.

The representation of queer lives and stories in media will always have significant impact, alongside socio-political changes in the right direction too. But, ultimately, it comes down to those around you. The friends I had that accepted me for who I am and made me feel okay with my identity. A strong support system that loves you for who you are is really what makes all the difference, regardless of what the world says.

RT: You’re now an active member of Boorloo’s ballroom scene, how did you find your way there?

JT: My first introduction to ballroom culture was through the TV series Pose. It focuses on the lives of ‘femqueens,’ the black and latinx transwomen that formed the very basis of the ballroom world in New York City. At the end of 2020, my House mother, Santana Reign, returned to Perth from Brisbane in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, she was a member of the House of Alexander, created by Mother Ella Alexander and Father Josh Alexander. A friend of mine attended one of their kikis (a casual function that mashes ballroom categories together) and was desperate for me to tag along. I was reluctant at first, only because I associated voguing strictly with ballroom and wasn’t sure I could move like that. But I quickly changed my mind after seeing the stories and lives depicted on Pose. Funnily enough, I met Santana and Toru for the first time at Northbridge’s Brass Monkey, right near Centre for Stories. I joined my first kiki soon after, and I haven’t looked back since!

RT: You mentioned the importance of friends as a queer person. Ballroom is well known for being a tight-knit and inclusive community, filling an absence so many queer people experience after coming out. Has the House of Reign become a second family for you?

JT: The House of Reign and ballroom culture has really helped me find my identity as a gay man. They’re certainly a second family to me. I love my House siblings, father, and mother dearly. They were the first people to teach me how to be comfortable in expressing myself; to be in tune with who I am by giving me the opportunity to thrive in a space that is accepting of every part of me. Santana and Toru have seen a side of me that has this House’s best interest in mind, and I guess it was from this that they decided to award me the privilege and honour to be titled as godfather of the House. I’ve always felt like somewhat of an older brother to my House siblings, and it means a lot to have this recognition from Santana, Toru, and the wider ballroom community. Our community here in Boorloo is one I see as one big, happy family. It’s such a privilege to be looked up to like an older brother by so many people. It’s something I’ve always wanted to be. Even if they do drive me crazy sometimes, the love I have for all of them is unconditional. My mother, Santana, has especially taught me so much about strength, how to carry myself in this world, and how to embrace my identity. It is her story and existence, alongside so many of my fem queen sisters, that I am inspired daily.

RT: Has dance, or performance for that matter, become an extension of your queer identity?

JT: It certainly has, especially vogue fem. It’s not only a form of self-expression, but a protest. When the category was first starting out, it received its original name ‘fem queen performance,’ from the drag artists and trans women that gave it its feminine styling. Later on, when ‘butch queens’ or gay men started performing, the name changed while still honouring its history. Everything about ballroom is a protest and defiance of the culture that decides what we can or can’t be. It’s counter-culture. Embracing femininity is powerful – to vogue fem is to be free in femininity, accept what is within us, and demonstrate the uniqueness that defines each of us.

RT: Do you have a specific memory of the past decade you’d like to share with our readers?

JT: The first thing that popped into my head was something that happened earlier this year – and will continue to forever be the greatest blessing of my life. I had my first ever (ballroom) kid. The relationship I have with him is so special to me, and the love I feel is truly unconditional. I have always wanted my own family, my own children. For queer people it’s something a lot of us view as unobtainable, and for a period of time I let go of the desire to experience such a relationship. As much as I’ve been the one to guide and teach him in and out of the ballroom space, he has taught me so much about myself. He drives me to be better. I am so, so blessed to have my relationship with him. Sunny, if you’re reading this, just know that I love you very, very much kiddo.

Discovering the ballroom community has been the greatest blessing of my life. 10 years ago, I graduated high school to a great, big world, unsure of who I was or where I was going. Now, I’m able to understand parts of myself I might otherwise have never explored. A queer identity is so much more than anyone could ever realise, because of the deep and complex history that exists alongside it. It’s daunting to navigate that on your own, and ballroom has given me so many connections and relationships with people to be inspired by and look up to. I am who I am because of it. When I’m at work and supposed to be the ‘little guy,’ the strength my sisters give me reminds me to act as an equal. To believe that I deserve to be there, and here, too.

Justin Tan is a member of Boorloo’s blossoming House of Reign. As a newly formed kiki house, they’ve swiftly established themselves as the House to watch in the Australian ballroom scene. Follow their instagram at @__houseofreign for more information about upcoming performances, balls, and workshops.

Ronin Thomson is currently studying a double major of Professional Writing and Publishing and Creative Writing at Curtin University. Interning with Centre for Stories, this interview collection marks his first publication.

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