When Jemma Lovell’s eldest child Oz walked in on his mum watching RuPaul’s Drag Race, he finally found something he could relate to.
After hearing some of the conversations about sexuality and gender, the youngster turned to her and said: "I understand how they feel. I don’t feel like a boy, Mummy."
Oz, now 11, has always been a curious child and has experimented with make-up since the age of eight, and last year came out as non-binary – the umbrella term for a person who does not feel their gender fits with either male or female.
Now preferring to be called ‘they’ and ‘them’ rather than ‘he,’ Oz has even created a drag alter-ego – Ben TrulyOutrageous – but sadly, Jemma, who also has a daughter, Willow, five, with her husband Richard, 39, a chef, has faced criticism from people who think the world of drag is too sexualised.
She explained: “People tend to automatically sexualise drag, assuming Oz will come out dressed in hip pads and fake breasts, but we carefully vet everything to make sure that nothing is age-inappropriate. We make it clear Oz is still a child, no matter how high the heels or big the wig.
“When Oz puts on that dress and becomes Ben, it’s awe-inspiring to watch. I can see our child visibly glowing. It’s like they’re free, almost a heightened version of themselves.
“As parents, we don’t want Oz to be stigmatised for feeling different. Even if this is just a phase, we have allowed them to explore those feelings.”
Looking back to when Oz was tiny, Jemma said that, despite being born male, her child looked very feminine and was often mistaken for a girl by strangers.
Keen to raise her children in an open environment where they feel comfortable asking questions, she was pleased when she soon spotted a curious streak in her eldest.
And it was that inquisitive nature that first led Oz and Jemma to have a chat about the world of drag.
She added: “Richard and I have tried to raise the children to know that they can always ask us questions.
“If something isn’t age-appropriate, we’ll explain that and let them know it’s something to revisit when the time is right.
“When Oz was tiny, I’d watch RuPaul at home, and they’d catch little snippets. They found it fascinating, and it opened up all these discussions about sexuality, gender and being who you are.
“As I have some non-binary and trans friends, too, I could link it all in with people we knew in the real world rather than just on TV.”
Aged eight, Oz began to take musical theatre lessons outside of school and was immediately enchanted by the world of colours, cosmetics and costumes.
Jemma continued: “It was like they were suddenly seeing the world in colour, seeing people put make-up on and perform.
“They were in their element. They started to say to me that they understood how the people on RuPaul felt, and that they didn’t feel like a boy.”
Eventually, in April 2018, aged 10, Oz asked Jemma for a dress to wear day-to-day.
So, the pair went shopping and picked out a t-shirt style frock.
“As soon as Oz tried the dress on, they just looked so comfortable. I’ve never seen a smile like it,” she said.
From there, Oz began to wear more feminine clothes, usually either dresses or leggings and t-shirts.
And, a couple of months later in August 2018, the family went along to Chester Pride celebrations, where the then 10-year-old had an epiphany.
“We were in one of the tents, and Oz spent ages reading over posters that had all the different explanations of gender,” Jemma recalled.
“Eventually, they came and got me and pointed to one about being non-binary, telling me they didn’t feel like a boy or a girl and didn't want to be a ‘he’ anymore, but rather a ‘they.’
“It’s never been an issue in the family. We don’t know what’s going on in Oz’s head, but we want them to feel free to explore who they are.”
Oz coming out to the family and asking to be referred to using gender-neutral pronouns was not the only memorable event of the day.
Clearly amazed by the drag queens who had been taking part in the parade, back home, the youngster also began to experiment with make-up and wigs, eventually putting on little shows for the family.
Keen to show support, Jemma started looking into the world of drag kids – and found scores of pint-sized queens making waves all over the world.
“Realising there were other kids out there doing drag almost unlocked this competitive edge in Oz,” said Jemma.
Together, Oz and Jemma came up with a drag name, and at the end of last summer, Ben TrulyOutrageous was born.
The name blends nods to Oz’s favourite RuPaul queen, BenDeLaCreme, and Jem TrulyOutrageous, one of Jemma’s favourite TV programmes when she was little.
By the time Oz returned to school to start year five in September last year, they were no longer willing to dress in male clothing.
So, Jemma contacted teachers, explaining how Oz had come out as non-binary – and the response was amazing.
She explained: “I told them that Oz had been wearing feminine clothes and would like to do so at school.
“Not only were they fine with that, but they also put staff members on training courses about non-gender conforming people, printed off books to put in the libraries so other children could read about what it means to be non-binary and even asked Oz what bathroom they’d like to use.”
Since then, Oz has been perfecting their Ben TrulyOutrageous act.
So far, because there is not much available in the way of a local drag scene, the performances have mostly been at general talent shows or to family and friends.
Jemma is also helping Oz build up an online presence and connect with other mini queens from around the globe.
But while Oz, who mostly sources costumes online, on the high street, or through family friends who work in design, has the unwavering support of family, sadly not everyone has been as encouraging.
Jemma said: “I have had some negativity. People have said I’m pushing Oz to grow up too quickly, and even threatened to call social services.
“But we are so careful that lines aren’t crossed. All costumes are chosen really carefully, and if there was any hint of any sexualisation whatsoever, we wouldn’t let it happen.
“We want it to be clear on stage that Oz is still a child. Some people may look at the costumes and say that the make-up makes them seem older – but confidence does that too.”
Another thing that people tend to struggle with is the correct pronouns to use when talking to Oz.
“People can be wobbly on the pronouns, and I do understand that using they and them isn’t the way you’d naturally refer to a person,” said Jemma. “It can feel strange when you first start to use them – especially to those that have known Oz since birth and as a ‘he’ for years.
“It is a lot to get your head around – the idea that someone feels so different to you that they use completely different pronouns.
“But it’s okay as long as it’s clear people are trying. It’s when they deliberately get it wrong that I can see Oz visibly cringe.
“There’s a big difference between somebody genuinely trying but just struggling with the syntax, and somebody shaming my child for being different and expressing themselves.”
As far as the future is concerned, Jemma will continue helping Oz to craft Ben TrulyOutrageous’ character, and hopes to find other families like hers, so she can start a local night for child drag queens.
Although she candidly admits that she does worry about bullying in the future, especially when Oz hits puberty and becomes more obviously biologically male, but she will also be forever grateful for the wonders that drag has done for her first born’s confidence.
She concluded: “It’s absolutely remarkable seeing Oz as Ben TrulyOutrageous.
“I know people’s reactions are likely to get more difficult as Oz gets older, but I hope I’ve instilled enough confidence in them that they know they aren’t the problem or the one at fault – it’s the person belittling a child that’s uneducated.
“At the end of the day, Oz is still Oz, no matter who they are and what they wear. They may be in leggings and a jumper, they may be in a dress – they are still the same person inside.”
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