Where Did Drag Begin?

Pride season has started and it is a different scene than it has been in years past. This will be the first celebrations or marches in almost a year, due to the impact that Covid-19 had on the world. During Pride, it is important to remember the elders that came before us that have given us the freedoms that we enjoy today. Many of these freedoms came from the drag community and transgender people who stood up out of necessity and fought for their and our rights. As such, it is important to speak to the history of drag and showcase drag performers here in the Cleveland area.

Where did drag begin

When and where drag first started is up for debate. Many believe the beginnings of it had theatrical origins. The prevailing belief here is that during the 16th century the church had strong links to the theater and with that close relationship only men could be on stage. This leads to any feminine role being played by men. But there is also Ancient Greece where men dressed up as female gods, and other feminine roles, in their plays. But there are more histories that show this art form has spiritual ties, as well.

In Japanese culture there are two types of theater, Kabuki and Noh dramas. Both of which have men playing roles of females. Noh stems from a folk dance that was used to show human characteristics, events, supernatural worlds, gods, and spirits. Noh uses silk robes and hand painted masks for its actors. These masks often portrayed women. Kabuki is a less ritualistic dance performance that has men who carefully paint their faces, sleep in falsetto voices, and move in more feminine ways to convey their messages. Women were not permitted to be actors in either of these types until much later.

There are also documents that show how ancient ceremonies of indigenous people involved taking on the visage of female types in order to perform religious rites, invocations to gods, call up specific types of weather and even warding off evil spirits. Each of these events would require a holy person, usually a male, to dress in outfits that were not their daily wear. Taking on these appearances removed the real person from any kind of hard from those spiritual practices. 

Two Spirit Native American We'wha
Two Spirit Native American We’wha

The first drag queens

Another point that is up for debate is who would have been the first drag queen. For this we must leave the worlds of spirituality and theater and focus on the actual act in what would be day to day life. The earliest drag queen of note is Princess Seraphina. She emerged onto the stage in the 18th century at a time when cross-dressers and gay men were called mollies. The beginnings of Princess Seraphina are unknown, we do know that she was the alter-ego of John Cooper. John Cooper described himself as a gentleman’s servant and supposedly was in the employ of a retired Royal Navy captain, George Breholt. 

The first mention of Princess Seraphina was around 1728 in a confession of a thief and highwayman, James Dalton. He spoke of a marriage of two mollies where Seraphina was a bridesmaid. This probably happened around 1727. It is also noted that the first public appearance of Princess Seraphina was in 1732 at the grand re-opening of the Vauxhall Gardens. This is important as the week before Dalton had been out drinking as himself and met a man called Thomas Gordon. The events of that night are a bit sketchy but led to a trial involving both Cooper and Gordon.  The short of it is that Cooper claimed to have been robbed by Gordon. Gordon made off with Cooper’s ring and clothes, which, supposedly, Cooper was forced to swap with Gordon. After this trial, Princess Seraphina/John Cooper seemed to have disappeared from history

Princess Seraphina Courtroom Art
Princess Seraphina Courtroom Art

England wasn’t the only one with queens. In 1859, William Dorsey Swann was born as an enslaved person in Hancock, Maryland. After Swann was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, he went on to organize a series of balls in Washington D.C. Most of these events were attended by formerly enslaved men who gathered to drain in their satin and silk dresses. During these events, he proclaimed himself to be the queen of drag.  On April 12, 1888, he was the first documented person to be arrested as a female impersonator in the United States.  In 1896, he was falsely convicted and sentenced to 10 months in jail for “keeping a disorderly house,” that meant he ran a brothel. This became known as the first recorded American who pursued legal and political action to defend the LGBTQ community. This was seventy three years before the events of Stonewall. Swann was also involved with Pierce Lafayette and Felix Hall, both formerly enslaved people, and because the earliest documented male same sex relationship between enslaved Americans.

The balls that Swann held in D.C. are thought to be the earliest known version of the modern Ball community. They were known for dance contests, exaggerated gestures, and a family structure. These balls were held in secret and the only way to attend was to receive an invitation from someone inside the ball. As such, they were often raided by the D.C. police. While there is much debate on how the events of Stonewall happened, we do know that in 1888 Swann tried to stop the police from raiding one of his balls by fighting back and as such is considered the first instance of resistance in defense of LGBTQ rights.

William Dorsey Swann
William Dorsey Swann

Blurring the lines of masculinity

While drag queens tend to be the face that most people see, when it comes to drag, they are not the only ones. If you have not heard of it before, let me introduce you to drag kings. You guessed it, kings are similar to queens in that it is a person using gender stereotypes that are more masculine as their vein of performance.

The actual term Drag King was not used in print until 1972, the history of women dressing up in male attire and performing has a much more deep history. Susanna Centlivre, actress and playwright, is first noted for dressing up in breeches around 1700. In America, the first popular male impersonator was Annie Hindle. Her career as a male performer started in New York City around the late 1860s. By 1886, she married her dresser Annie Ryan. From the 1890s to 1920, both Britain and America were home to many male impersonators. 

One of the most notable male performers in America was Storme DeLarverie. Storme was born in 1920 in New Orleans, Louisiana. She was labeled as a butch lesbian. We all are familiar with Stonewall and how Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera are credited with the roles in it. What many do not know is that Storme also has ties to Stonewall. It is reported that she was the female that was arrested, placed in handcuffs, and escorted out of Stonewall. She escaped the police four times, swearing and shouting for about ten minutes. She was bleeding form a head wound as she fought back against being arrested. Her resistance is reported as the fire that sparked the crowd to fight. Her words “Why don’t you guys do something?” Was the battle cry that ignited the fires of the uprising. 

“It was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights Disobedience – it wasn’t no damn riot.) – Storme DeLarverie

Because of her words and fighting, some had deemed her the queer community’s Rosa Parks. Many of the people that state she was the one to spark the riot, like Lisa Cannistraci, a friend of Storme and owner of the Village Lesbian bad Henrietta Hudson. Storme is one of the people who says she threw the first punch, whether that is completely true, it is known that she was one of the lesbians who were there and fought back. Remember, drag kings were as instrumental to the Gay Rights Liberation as drag queens were.

Drag kings were not just centered around performing in bars. Around 1989, Diane Torr held Drag King Workshops that taught women how to pass as men. Teaching mannerisms and dress styles to be able to pass among other men. Torr went on to be featured in the 2002 film Venus Boyz, which was about the history of drag kings.

Drag kings have been about pushing boundaries more so than queens have. Many prefer to only be seen as actors. Murray Hill was quoted ads saying, “I think when people assume that somebody is queer, or different, or trans, they always want to put something before their name. And that is what drag king has been. Why can not you call me a comedian like Jerry Seinfeld is called a comedian?” Murray also calls himself the hardest working middle-aged man in show business

Drag Kings Fame

Sadly, shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race dominate the drag scene. Little to no exposure seems to happen for drag kings. The Boulet Brothers have had one king on their show. To this day, they feel to be a more underground movement which leads fewer people, not in the know, to have been exposed to them. Here are some of the famous ones.

Landon Cider

Landon is a king who is fighting for more king inclusion. He has spoken out many times on how RuPaul’s Drag Race would benefit more from the inclusion of drag kings. His career started in Southern California and he quickly became one of the more well known kings. You can find him at Hamburger Mary’s hosting the Drag King Explosion. Landon was the first drag king to appear on the Boulet Brothers’ Dragula and went on to win that season. Landon Cider’s TwitterInstaFacebook

Buck Wylde
Buck Wylde

Buck Wilde

Wylie is a king who circulates isn’t he burlesque circuit. He is known for his rockabilly look, giving you Cry Baby feels. If for no other reason be sure to check out his Facebook page because of his rocking pompadour. Buck Wylde’s TwitterInstaFacebook

Phantom doing Edward Scissorhands
Phantom doing Edward Scissorhands

Phantom

Phantom is a king that brings you a different side to drag. His looks are baked on dark and creepy performances with horror cosplay. He has been known for his Jack Skellington performance and Edward Scissorhands. Phantom was also in the documentary Making of a king with Landon Cider. Phantom TwitterInstaFacebook

It is sad that with the talent of the three listed, and so many more kings, that it is a side of drag that so few have experienced or appreciate. These trailblazers are seeking to change that mindset. Remember to check out the local kings as well as the queens.

Drag into mainstream culture

Drag has always been on the forefront of our fight for rights. In the earlier days of drag, when being gay was illegal, many performers had to fight against “gay panic” by proclaiming, upfront, that they were men wearing women’s clothes so as not to provoke straight men into aggression. If you are looking for a time where drag started to become more recognizable, you only have to look to the distant past with people like Milton Berle. Berle was famous for donning makeup and dresses. We also had Flip Wilson becoming Geraldine Jones.

RuPaul DragCon
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 07:RuPaul (C) cuts the ribbon as Michelle Visage, Jamal Sims, Mrs. Kasha Davis, Art SImone, Yvie Oddly, Brooklyn Hytes and Nina West look on during RuPaul’s DragCon 2019 at The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on September 07, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Santiago Felipe/Getty Images)

It is no secret that RuPaul was the central figure for bringing drag into the mainstream. Worth quotable lines like “if you can love yourself, how in the hell are you going to love someone else? Can I get an amen?” It is no surprise why drag can speak to so many people on so many levels. After all, it is a chance to get out of your skin, change your clothes, and be someone else for a bit. Granted many of us live those fantasies out in the short time we have in viewing a performance.

Today we see drag performers hosting events at libraries reading to children, doing brunches at local restaurants for all ages, and showing up all over various media. It seems that today you can’t turn around without bumping into a performer somewhere. Nina West has put out an EP that is designed for kids using music as a means to teach them about drag. Her mission is to teach them about “dreaming big, being kind, and being their best perfect selves.”

Impact on Society

Drag is and should be a celebrated part of the queer community. We should embrace them and recognize them for all of their contributions to our history. To understand that much of what we fought for was pushed by them and the transgender community. As we lift them up and celebrate them, we show to the world our inclusiveness and teach others the joys of being able to leave yourself behind and be someone else’s for a brief time. This homage allows us to bring the best parts of ourselves out, to showcase our strength, and to teach us how to use it in our everyday lives. 

With its acceptance into mainstream society, it allows other groups to be a part of that transformation. To open their eyes to what lies beneath their own skins and hopefully take away a more accepting mindset.

4 thoughts on “Where Did Drag Begin?

  1. Thank you for the education. I especially love learning about the deep roots of the Ball scene. There’s so much history prior to Stonewall that I’ve been ignorant about! Great, well-researched article.

    Like

    1. Thanks for the comment. There is defining a lot of LGBTQ history that many aren’t aware of. We usually see or focus on the larger things. Thanks to shows like Pose and Legendary, ballroom gets a chance to be see by more people. It’s also a way to celebrate POC and realize our history as well as our communal identity comes from contributions of POC, sadly most done realize that either.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Very true. So much of mainstream culture derives from the contributions of gay, queer and trans Black visionaries especially. It’s important to recognize even though that doesn’t make up for the exploitation and creative theft.

        Like

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