Not all students imagine confetti-shooting cannons as they arrive on a plane for their first year at college. For Antonio Watson ’12, those cannons also contained sunshine and glitter. Watson lives his life with the goal to explore his authentic identity. The Alaska-raised Bowdoin alumnus has flourished in the American drag scene since he first caught the sparkle his senior year at the College. Since then he has grown with the art form, as it makes its way into a changing mainstream society that is moving away from heteronormativity and cisgenderism.
“Drag is wiggling—or shimmying—its way in to the country and the world and being introduced to this visual transformation,” said Watson in a phone interview with the Orient. “It’s encouraging people to question what it means to play with what you can be while still staying true to your inner self.”
This change in culture is exactly what Watson has been working towards his entire life. Inclusion has always been integral to his worldview. From the cold depths of Alaska to the (still chilly) pines of Bowdoin and beyond, Watson focuses on authentically establishing himself in society and helping others to do the same.
Moving out of Alaska and to an elite New England college proved to be a culture shock for Watson.
“People don’t think of Alaska as racially diverse but it really is. My high school was much more diverse than Bowdoin,” he said. “Being a first-generation student of color and having worked so hard to get into the schools I did, I wanted to go some place fancy. There was something really appealing about those wealthy, ultra-connected institutions. My high school, community and parents were phenomenal, but I wanted to explore this thing I had worked hard to have the capability to be a part of.”
The racial homogeneity of Bowdoin proved to be the first hurdle in Watson’s experience at the College.
“I’m half black, a quarter Iñupiat Eskimo and a quarter white. For my first year my racial identity was really important to me. I really wanted to hold onto it in such a white space like Bowdoin,” Watson said.
However, after coming out as gay to his family, Watson found his sexual orientation came to the forefront of his identity.
“I came out to most of my family first-year summer and then was outed to my dad the beginning of my sophomore year so I went through quite the transitional phase. I had been out on campus this entire time but it still was a big deal,” he said. “And after that it then felt like the identity that I wanted to explore was my gay identity.”
And explore it he did.
“I got off that plane in Maine with confetti cannons blasting out with glitter and sunshine and I decided to be me in whatever way I was comfortable,” he said. “I then went to work creating spaces for people to also explore identity with me.”
Along with chairing the Entertainment Board, working on Peer Health, programming for Quinby House and helping African American Society, Watson was heavily involved with the Bowdoin Queer-Straight Alliance (BQSA). Watson believes creating communities for queer students is important to their happiness. Recognizing that a small campus makes for a small queer population, he partnered with other colleges to build queer connections.
In his senior year, while president of the BQSA, Watson petitioned for and helped Bowdoin host the third annual New England Small College Queer Summit.
“The theme for that summit was sex and sexuality. So we had a gay porn star as our keynote speaker,” Watson said. “That’s still one of my favorite things to say, that I got the College to fund a gay porn star to speak on campus.”
Along with college-led programming, Watson also helped create less formal queer-friendly spaces under the College’s radar.
“We had a ton of secret underground queer parties off campus. We really tried a couple times a year to get those parties on campus,” he said. “I wanted students to be able to see themselves on campus and feel safe to be themselves on campus. The hardest part of Bowdoin can be feeling alone, but if you find the right people at Bowdoin you can find space for yourselves.”
Watson was introduced to drag during his senior year, when he and other students organized a drag show in the Jack Magee’s Pub and Grill. With a tutorial on makeup from a professional drag queen, Watson and friends pioneered the art on Bowdoin’s campus. It was at that event that he fell in love with the transformative aspect of makeup.
After Bowdoin, Watson returned to his roots, moving back to Alaska. There, he practiced the art form for months before moving to Philadelphia and pursuing it further. For Watson, the expression of his identity that takes shape when on stage as Aurora Whorealis is just an extension of his authentic self.
“Some people draw a bold distinction from what we call their ‘muggle selves’ and their drag selves. Some people put on a huge character. To me, I don’t want to come off as an inauthentic me. There isn’t a line between Antonio and Aurora,” he said. “I’m in six pounds of makeup and a wig but I’m the same person I am when I get out of the shower.”
To Watson, that’s the beauty of drag. Its power comes not from creating a new identity but exploring the ways in which we can express our identity. To him, identities aren’t rigid. They are a complex and multifaceted asset that each individual has and can play with.
“I think one of my favorite things about drag is that it’s not that serious; it’s about having a good time and showcasing yourself in new and fun ways—even if that means wearing a full face of glitter and heels,” he said.
Today, Watson still contributes to the Bowdoin community through work on the Alumni Council.
While Watson has started a career in higher education in admissions at Drexel University, he still performs regularly in drag—though not quite as often as he used to.
Although Aurora Whorealis’s Instagram states that she is an Alaskan drag queen living in Philadelphia, this small liberal arts college in Maine played an unmistakable role in shaping the path of her story.