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How a Pilipinx adoptee reconnects with their heritage through drag

G-Clef, a drag performing persona created by Durham resident Tori Grace Nichols, performs on stage at the Carolina Theatre in June 2023.
Anna Norwood Photography
Courtesy of Tori Grace Nichols
Tori Grace Nichols performed as G-Clef at the Carolina Theatre in Durham in June 2023, along with their drag family, the House of Coxx.

Durham resident Tori Grace Nichols, a non-binary, trans, queer, disabled, and a transracial adoptee from the Philippines, likes to joke that they have the "royal flush of minority cards."

But when they step on stage as their drag persona, G-Clef, Nichols brings their full, complex self into their performance.

This year, Nichols along with many queer folks across the Triangle, looked forward to Pride entering its sixth year in Durham. Even as the parade and festivities were canceled due to rain from Tropical Storm Ophelia, many still celebrated what's become an incredibly diverse queer community in North Carolina.

Nichols, who is one of a small handful of Asian American Pacific Islander drag performers in the area, spoke with WUNC's Eli Chen about how they connect to their heritage to their stage persona and what they've learned over a decade of performing drag, while advocating for space in the politically conservative American South.

This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Tori Grace Nichols: It’s been really hard to find one community that reflects all my different identities, but I will say the place I feel most at home is in queer communities because there is such a diversity and a sort of a welcoming and an all encompassing aspect to queer community where I think people are really encouraged to, to bring their whole selves. 

Talk to me about your drag persona G-Clef. Who is G-Clef, and how would you describe them?

Nichols: G-Clef was created in Georgia when I was studying music therapy at Georgia College. And I started just at the amateur show there in college in 2010. I was assigned female at birth and very far from identifying as trans at that point. Drag was a really great way for me to just do something fun with gender and express and explore different gender aspects, [it] really did help me come into my trans-ness.

How do you incorporate your Filipino heritage into your performance?

I really connected with my queer and trans identity when I learned about queer and trans people who existed in the Philippines pre-colonially. And being adopted, I didn't always feel really close to Philippine culture. One of the last numbers I did, I was able to find a really beautiful sort of star headpiece that represents... the stars on the Philippine flag. I've been learning Kali, which is a Philippine martial art with bamboo sticks. And then I did a Philippine boyband pop song. 

North Carolina's one of many states that saw a flurry of laws aimed at transgender youth this year. So as you celebrate Pride, what's your reaction to what's happened at legislatures across the country?

It's certainly been disheartening to witness the pace that anti-trans, anti-LGBT, anti-drag legislation has moved. This sort of rush of oppressive, hateful legislation is in response to, actually, our communities gaining power. So as long as we can keep our grounding and keep our perspective that we're not doing anything wrong, by existing.

Do you have any advice for your former younger self or perhaps even for younger queer Asian Americans who are also exploring their identity and struggling to find acceptance?

Even when we learn about our different identities, there are ways that we feel like we're not Asian enough, we're not queer enough, we're not this or that. But you are who you are and you get to decide what is non-binary, you get to decide what is queer and trans. You can embrace, and honor your racial and ethnic backgrounds in ways that feel meaningful to you. There's not like one way to do anything.

Eli Chen is WUNC’s afternoon digital news producer.