Man finds comfort in exploration of gender identity

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He usually shaves his eyebrows and facial hair, uses a credit card to better blend in the makeup and powder blush that highlight his cheekbones.

While he puts his flashy eye makeup on he pauses, squints and purses his red lips. He likes to try different poses, like popping out his hip or flirtatiously putting his fingertips on his rosy cheek.

The process is therapeutic to him. He likes to take his time and closely observe himself. With a makeup brush, he traces the lines of his skinny face, his prominent nose and his pouty lips.

When he is done, Brandon Shuford has transformed himself into India Mirage, his sparkling drag queen persona.

As a child, Shuford, 23, thought he was a girl. He would wear dresses and put on makeup.

“I always felt like I was different,” Shuford said. “In middle school, I was called gay, but I didn’t really know what that meant.”

When he turned 15, he planned to transition from male to female.

“I was going through a gender identity crisis for a while,” he said after a long pause. “I just really wanted to be a girl.”

By nature, Shuford has a slender, petite figure. His skinny stature shows features more often associated with women than with men. His hips are slim, he is small in height and his chest and shoulders are narrow.

“I am not what most people are looking for in a man,” he said. “They are looking for muscles and a thin and toned body, and I am none of that.”

Instead of transitioning, Shuford discovered drag shows when he was 17 years old. He started putting on makeup and began working together with drag queens. For the following four years, he worked as a drag queen three nights a week at a bar in his hometown, Hickory, North Carolina.

“I am naturally very feminine,” Shuford said. “Performing as a drag queen helped me express who I really am.”

Drag is an acronym for “dressed as girl.” Men performing as drag queens usually do not want to permanently live as the opposite sex. These men like to portray women for show purposes, often in an exaggerated and mocking manner.

“Gender is what you are comfortable living with,” Shuford said. “There are men, there are women, and then, there is an in-between. I feel like I’m in between.”

When India Mirage steps on the stage of the Sun on the Beach Club in Kissimmee, all eyes are on her. Lady Gaga’s “Applause” sounds loudly from the speakers, and India Mirage struts across the stage in her high heels.

“The queen of all queens,” said Angel Garcia, a friend of Shuford. “She’s like a rare bird whose flight is meant to be seen by the world.”

Her sequined dress sparkles in the spotlight of the otherwise dark club. A flashy brooch holds her hair pinned up in a big quaff together. Her eyes with long, fake lashes are heavily framed with eyeliner and purple eye shadow. Every male feature is carefully hidden or covered up.

“I live for the applause, applause,” India lip-syncs her favorite song while shaking her hips. “Live for the way that you cheer and scream for me.”

“Brandon is more reserved,” Shuford said about himself, staring into space. “He is this shy, little gay person.”

When Shuford used to go out to clubs, he sat by himself while everybody else was socializing and dancing.

“I never fit into any of the gay stereotypes,” he said. “I would often feel alone.”

When Shuford started transforming into India Mirage, he became more outgoing.

“India is edgy, creative and glamorous,” Shuford described his alter ego, laughing. “She can do anything she wants, and she is always in the spotlight.”

As India Mirage, Shuford approaches and flirts with men and is very outspoken. She is sassy and does not know any boundaries. As India he rises like a phoenix, says Garcia.

“India can do things that would be very uncomfortable for Brandon,” Shuford said.

Shuford met his boyfriend of two years, Peter Hartin, 24, while they both performed as drag queens.

“India is like a curtain over Brandon that protects him in case somebody judges him,” Hartin said. “As India, he can showcase himself better in a way that he couldn’t as a regular person.”

Hartin quit drag shows, but he has accompanied Shuford to all of his shows and beauty pageants to support him.

“India gives Brandon the opportunity to express himself and see how people react,” Hartin said. “People today just judge everywhere.”

Shuford won Miss North Carolina Unlimited, a drag queen beauty pageant, when he was 21. The pageant title and the attention that came with it gave him a boost in confidence. But India Mirage started to overshadow Brandon.

“I’ve started noticing that everybody wanted to talk to India,” Shuford said. “Guys wanted her more than they wanted Brandon because they thought she was sexy.”

“I have came to the conclusion that I need to take a break from pageants and the lifestyle of the famous to focus on Brandon’s (myself) health. I will be doing shows every now and then. But I need to really get my health and my future together… Love u all,” Shuford wrote in December 2012 on his India Mirage Facebook profile.

Shuford moved to Orlando in 2013 together with his boyfriend. He decided that he needed a fresh start after he had lost a beauty pageant and his social support system in the drag queen community had decreased.

“As I get older, I more and more realize that you only live once,” he said. “I am more accepting of who I am, and India has helped me to get to this point.”

When he performs as India Mirage now, he tries to focus on the art of transforming into a drag queen.

“What he does with drag is something he enjoys doing,” Hartin said. “It gives him the possibility to bring out his creative side.”

Shuford also likes to dress up as India Mirage in his daily life or wear makeup when he works as a barista at Starbucks. He cannot fully shake off his internal struggle.

“If you talk to Brandon in person, his personality is bubbly and friendly, and he comes across as being very comfortable with himself,” Delaney Page, one of his coworkers, said. “However, if you get to know him better and read his Facebook posts, it’s obvious that he battles depression and feels bad about himself a majority of the time.”

Shuford still performs on stage, although less often now. It is a relief from work for him and an escape from the daily grind.