Fall 2016 Cover Story: Sequins in the City of Same

Photo by Vanessa Feng
Photo by Vanessa Feng

There’s comfort in being one of a large group and fitting right in. But to Michael (Jazzmint Dash) Grasso, true strength and confidence lie within taking control and ownership of an identity that isn’t duplicated in a crowd.

 “You ready for this?” Michael says as we stare at our fresh complexions in the mirror.

We are tucked away in a little desk space in the Visual Arts Building, blasting Sissy That Walk by RuPaul surrounded by suitcases full of makeup and fake lashes.

I tie my hair back in bun, bracing myself for our two-hour transformation.

“Let’s do this.”

We take our Elmer’s glue stick in one hand, and our new Jeffree Star Liquid Lipstick in the other, Virginity for him, 714 for me.

“Remember,” he says smoothing out his brows. “They’re not twins. They’re sisters.” And with that, Jazzmint Dash is out to play.

Michael radiates this confidence and self-love that so many of us greatly desire to have, but it wasn’t always this easy for him. There were years of confusion and doubt surrounding his identity, but after spending time exploring his gender as a construct rather than a concrete binary we all operate within, he was able to find a freeness to push the boundaries of who he is and how he presents himself.

As I watched and listened to Michael share his story with me for the first time, I realized a few things. One, he has ridiculously perfect bone structure and two, that I had never met anyone else in my life that was so confident and in control of their identity, individuality and desires. I sat there, Michael dressed as Jazzmint Dash, his drag queen persona, wrapped head to toe in faux fur, and I knew he had to be on the cover. Valley needed Michael. Penn State needed Michael. And honestly, I needed Michael too.

Michael and Jazzmint are both a product of creation, curiosity and art, and whether Michael is in a button down and jeans, or a sequin dress and pumps, he is an incredibly profound human being who isn’t afraid to challenge society’s expectations and norms. Not only is that greatly admirable, but it is something this campus, and it’s students, so desperately need to learn and love.

 

A Whole New World

Michael is a Penn Stater through and through. His parents, Eric and Jennifer, were students at the University when they had Michael and together they lived in Graduate Circle on campus, which at the time was young family housing, for the first year of Michael’s life.

“My mom tells me about how she used to carry me in a little baby backpack to the library to pick up her books,” Michael laughs at the thought of him all swaddle up in the stacks.

Michael loved living in State College, and it wasn’t just because he was a young boy in a fun and eclectic town. He loved it because at a young age he was able to experience such a diverse community full of students, teachers and people of all different levels of education, ethnicity and socioeconomic status, which he says gave him a true sense of acceptance and safety.

“You are really exposed to any type of person you can imagine and that was normal for the first half of my childhood. But then I moved to Elkton, Maryland, and it was the exact opposite,” says Michael, “It was the first time I had any realization that I wasn’t “normal.”

From first day Michael got on the school bus in 5th grade in Elkton, his world changed forever.

“The first thing that was ever said to me was, ‘You’re gay!’ I didn’t even know what gay was.”

Being only 11 years old at the time, Michael had never even thought about gender or sexual exploration before, but regardless, from that moment on, the rest of Michael’s time in that community throughout middle school and into high school was a constant onslaught of bullying and aggression for being “gay.”

“People would call me gay every single day and use it as an insult, but I never even had a boyfriend. So for a long time when I first started being called gay, I compared myself to something that was ugly. I thought of myself as this deplorable, and this untouchable,” say Michael.

His classmates would abuse him at school, calling him a girl and bullying him in the locker rooms. Kids would egg his house, throw milkshakes on his car, follow him home to taunt him and they would even send him anonymous death threats on Twitter.

“It was the most traumatic experience of my life. I wouldn’t wish that kind of stuff on my worst enemies,” says Michael.

Michael officially came out as gay his sophomore year of high school, after years of being bullied about an identity he wasn’t even sure he fit into yet. But even when he could comfortably accept his sexual preferences, he still never had a boyfriend. The conflation between people using what he was as an insult, with him not even truly belonging to that group and identity left him really confused.

“It was almost like I was a nothing. I was alone and that was really hard,” says Michael.

As time went on and Michael grew to better understand himself and where he fit in society, he slowly started to accept that people are all products of their environment and that there is a much bigger word outside the confines of Elkton, Maryland.

“There was a long time where I really hated myself, but I am glad at the young age I was I was forced to take people for what they were. Because now I know what I am and I know that I am happy, and that’s okay. ”

 

The Birth of Jazzmint

After graduating high school, Michael started at Penn State, and right away he knew everything was going to be different. He started his freshman year as an international politics major, but after taking a sculpture class to fill a general education credit, he realized The School of Visual Arts was where he had to be.

“I just thought, I have to switch into this major or I’m not going to graduate,” says Michael.

Michael became a BFA in sculpture and as he grew as an artist, his work started to reflect his personal curiosities and questions with gender and societal roles. Most of his work became a metaphor for queerness and heteronormative culture, and his experimentation with sculpture and art, quickly became a large part of his exploration with his own identity.

“I was interested in questioning what relationship I had with breaking away from a concrete binary, and at that time there were a lot of different aspects that synchronized to make me start thinking of drag as a potential,” says Michael.

One day in studio, a friend gave Michael a Disney Princess Jasmine Doll that he started to take care of. He would wash her hair and make her outfits, and then he started to think how absurd it was that those outfits were meant to go on such a hypersexualized body.

“Then I thought, what if I start putting those types of outfits on me? What if I was forcing myself to perform the same way as the doll is being expected to perform as an object,” says Michael.

Around the same time Michael was experimenting with the doll, he met his current boyfriend, Michael Duschl, who happened to have a successful drag identity named Diana Dash.

“Everything collided and I decided I wanted to explore drag. Then I thought I should assign the dolls identity to myself,” says Michael.

Michael switched the ‘s” and the ‘e,” and with a little creativity and flare, Jazzmint was born.

 

Sign Me Up For RuPaul

April 22, 2016, Michael’s boyfriend was scheduled to perform at a drag show at Chronic Town. Michael’s experimentation with Jazzzmint had been limited to a classroom setting at time, but he decided this night would be the first he’d wear drag out in public.

“It was the first time I had worn heels anywhere that wasn’t on campus. I remember walking down the steps to Chronic Town and being like, ‘oh my god I don’t want to fall, it’s my first time in drag, I don’t want to fall,’” says Michael.

Everything about the experience felt unfamiliar and overstimulating at first, but what really caught Michael off guard was the large straight community in the audience.

“I was expecting the crowd of people to be people I already knew from the LGBTQA+ community. It was the most vulnerable I had ever been with my sexual orientation and there were all these strangers cheering us on, I just remember it being such new territory,” says Michael.

It was a lot for Michael to take in, but once his boyfriend, Diana Dash, took the stage singing his original songs and a cover of Bust Your Windows by Jasmine Sullivan, Michael knew he was where he belonged.

“I was honestly so proud,” Michael says smiling wide. “Right then, I was just like wow, that’s going to be me someday.”

 

Taking A Pass On The Privilege

After some more experience with drag and learning from Diana Dash, Michael realized it was time to invest in better make up and other prosthesis to develop Jazzmint’s aesthetic.

“At first, I had like one eye shadow palette with six colors and an eyeliner. It was like having a sharpie and six crayons and being like, “Make me Picasso!’ I’ve come a long way since then, so that’s why for the first three weeks of the semester I forced myself to wear makeup everyday.”

Michael has learned everything from the importance of lighting, to how to work with the typography of his face, but the biggest thing he’s realized from choosing to wear makeup, is just how easy he had it being a boy up until now.

“Getting into drag made me really check my male privilege for sure and recognize that I do this because it is fun and because I enjoy it. But a lot of girls do it because they feel like they have no other option,” says Michael.

Michael started to think a lot about the roll makeup plays in a girl’s life and how at a young age, girls feel like they have to change the raw version of themselves in fear of judgment from the world. Becoming so invested in drag has showed Michael how similar the challenges faced by the people in the LGBTQA+ community and by people in different racial communities are to those challenges of womanhood.

“In the same way a woman might feel like she has to wear heels to a bar to get a guy to like her, I feel sometimes I have to talk a certain way to someone to get them to feel comfortable enough to be real with me. It’s a fake persona I put out there to be comfortable and I think that is something woman always have to do,” says Michael.

It took Michael putting on heels and makeup to realize just how far out of the loop communities of men are in the discussion of feminism. “I wear heels and I realize oh my gosh some women feel like they have to do this all the time, and it is not fun all the time. It’s f*cking absurd,” says Michael. “As a man you are never privy to that information.”

 

The City of Same

There is something powerful about taking control of the way you present your image and your identity, and for Michael, drag is a way to do that.

“I find drag especially important in this type of community because there is a lot of sameness. There is a lot of comfort in being one of a large group and being able to fit right in,” says Michael.

As a senior graduating in the spring, something Michael thinks a lot about is his personal definition of success.

“I define success to myself as laying down a set of foundation of what I am willingly to concede as an adult, especially in terms of my identity. What am I willingly to give up to go with the flow and get a job, and what am I not willingly to do to live my life to the truest version of myself every single day?”

There is so much pressure from the University to check all the boxes and fulfill certain requirements to get a job to be successful, and that is why Michael thinks students get so comfortable in doing what everyone else around them does. It becomes really easy to play the role of a PSU student.

“I think that other people adopting a mindset of questioning how they are presenting themselves and really taking ownership of what is a successful representation of their identity could really do wonders for this community in more ways than just making everyone feel prettier and more confident,” says Michael. “I think it could breach a lot of barriers in terms of prejudices, discrimination, racism and sexism. I think there are a lot of different ways that people can come together through more critically questioning who they are versus who they want to be.”

For you, the answer might not lie in faux fur and sequins. But if there is anything Michael has taught us, it’s that you’ll never know until you step out of that comfort zone.