Pride season has started. This Saturday June 5th, you will be able to watch Pride in the CLE on WKYC – TV3. Starting Friday June 4th at WKYC will also show the past, present, and future of Pride in NorthEast Ohio. Besure to check out the 30 minute show highlighting the sights and sounds of the LGBTQ community.
Whether it is movies or TV shows, there is no denying that drag is everywhere in modern times. RuPaul’s Drag Race has spun off shows like All Stars, Drag Race UK, and is going on to invade countries around the globe. It has also been instrumental in spinning off shows like the Boulet Brothers’ Dragula. A show that gives more exposure to drag performers that don’t tick off the normal check boxes.
Drag has always been about freedom of expression and allowing your inner self to become the person you want. It is a means of honoring the sacred feminine as well as bending gender to the whims of the performer. There is no “right” or one style of drag, it is as varied as the person performing it. It becomes an inspiration to many and a gateway to activism for a great many more.
Drag: A Myth
There is a common misconception that drag is or was only performed by gay men. That same myths says that it wasnt until modern times that we saw transgender, cisgender, and non-binary people doing drag. If you look at LGBTQ history, you can see that it is not true. In fact, it is more of straight-splaining our history. This misconception stemmed from the Vaudeville era, where men dressed up as women for their performances. This performative artform was a perfect place for gender bending performers to take off.
Why it would be shocking that this information is incorrect when it’s hard enough to understand when or where drag started. There is truth that gay men often do female impesonation, which is a form of drag. There have always been transgender people who performed some form of drag. Take for example Marsha P Johnson, labeled as a drag queen/crossdresser when she was a transgender woman.
Drag is more than a man putting on women’s clothes and it doesn’t stop with men. We have drag kings that are part of our community. The truth is that drag is a means of dressing up in clothing that is out of the ordinary for a given person, whether this be a play on gender presentation or an exaggeration of their ows or other gendera. As RuPaul says, “we’re born naked and the rest is drag.”
Drag in America
The first person to ever proclaim to be a “queen of drag” was William Dorsey Swann. Swann was born enslaved in Hancock, Maryland. By the 1880s, he was hosting drag balls in Washington D.C. His balls were often raided by the police and arrested for keeping a disorderly house. This was a euphemism for running a brothel. It was a way foe authorities to punish a gathering for gay men of color who dressed as women. Side note, this is also believed to be the beginning of ballroom culture in America.
Swann may have been the first self proclaimed Queen of Drag but he wasn’t the last.
The Vaudeville era gave rise to Julian Eltinge. Eltinge had a large fan base convinced that he was an actual woman and not a character he played on stage. Eltinge was also known for removing his wig at the end of a show to reveal his gender, much to the dismay of the crowd. While Eltinge found much success on Vaudeville stages, he would not stay there. He went on to have a very prosperous career on Broadway. He even took the spot as the highest paid actor, formerly held by Charlie Chaplin at that time.
As prohibition and religious reform swept through American, drag went underground. LGBTQ people became more persucuted and lost some of the freedoms they had enjoyed. The criminalization of drag happened once the association was cemented with LGBTQ culture. Police raided clubs where drag queens performed and arrested participants. By the mid 1900s, the center for drag had moved to San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood. Here is where it was shaped into what we know of drag and drag queens today.
By 1958, pageants celebrating drag began happening. Flawless Sabrina started them as a way to celebrate those who dressed in drag. Flawless Sabrina was an activist, actress, drag legend, and a psychic. She was a central figure in the New Your LGBTQ community. She was also featured in the documentary The Queen. She truly was a superior mother, guide, and mentor to countless New York queer youth.
The umbrella that is drag
Most of us are familiar with the term “drag queen.” But that is only scratching the surface of the many terms used to define people in the drag community. The truth is that drag comes in as many flavors as does ice cream at Baskin Robbins.
Is that a dated reference?
ome other terms used in the past are crossdresser, transvestite, or tranny. Each of these terms has specific connotations and could cause issues when referring to others. A crossdresser or transvestite is someone who dresses in clothes belonging to the opposite gender. They only refer to the act of wearing the clothes and not the person’s actions while wearing them. Tranny is a shortened version of transvestite and used as an insult for a transgender person. While these terms may be offensive to many, others like RuPaul choose the term tranny as an honorific.
Female impersonator is another term used to describe a man who dresses up and performs as a woman. This term causes a lot of contention as it’s used to refer to someone who plays the role of a woman. There are several female singers who have used drag queens as stand ins for them in concerts, this is a prime example of a female impersonator. When asked if RuPaul was a female impersonator, here is what he said.
“I do not impersonate females! How many women do you know who wear seven-inch heels, four-foot wigs, and skintight dresses?” He also said, “I don’t dress like a woman; I dress like a drag queen!”
There are other types of drag in the world. The second most common is a drag king. This is a female who dresses up as a man to perform. While it has its roots in the lesbian community, much like drag queens, it is not solely tied to them. Some of the more famous drag kings are Landon Cider, Miles Long, and Murray Hill.
More recently we have seen drag take a new turn or it’s simply been brought into the spotlight more. We have seen a growth in terms like bio-queen/king or faux queen/king and trans queen/king. These are much more derogatory terms. Both bio and faux refers to cisgender people performing in drag. Whereas, trans king/queen refers to transgender people who are performing drag. This all seems to be more of a call back to the fact that so many things need labels for people to categorize them. It is much simpler to say that each and everyone is simply a drag artist or performer. The rest isnt important, what is is the person on stage working themselves for your enjoyment.
Drag into mainstream
A small bar in the Christopher Street area of New York is the birthplace of drag being brought into mainstream culture, whether you choose to acknowledge it or not. It was the events of Stonewall that gave a stage to Marsha P. Johnson and Silva Rivera. It was at this moment that many people first got a sight of a “drag queen.” This event swung open a door on a community that had spent its time in underground bars. This paved the way for people like Sylvester and Divine to share the spotlight.
On November 17, 1960, the person who would shape and push drag into new boundaries of mainstream was born. RuPaul Charles was born in San Diego, California to Ernestine and Irvin Andrew Charles. His beginnings into gender bending performing started in Atlanta, Georgia. From there he moved on to appearing in New York where he appeared many times at Wigstock. It was his 1993 album release of Supermodel of the World that skyrocketed him into fame and became the person we now know. HIs celebrity status went on to allow him to create RuPaul’s drag race and thereby cement drag culture into the mainstream. Whether you like him or not, he is one of the cornerstones for the acceptance that drag has today.
Drag of many colors
Drag has been said to have its roots in spirituality, donning costumes and makeup to speak with the gods or spirits. It has also been some of the motivational forces that speak out in activism and has pushed our rights to new levels. With some of its earliest points in American history dating back to the early to mid 1800s, there is no denying the impact it has had on our culture, LGBTQ or otherwise. These icons of strength, beauty, and poise are there to inspire and encourage us to be our better selves and act to support our fellow people, of all walks.
We owe a debt of thanks and respect to our drag community!