A drag king is a performance artist who makes a show out of performing masculinity. Most drag king acts are performed by Lesbians or transmen, but the genre is not limited to any gender/orientation configuration.
Drag kings cultivate characters based on male stereotypes (greaser, lady’s man, hip hop artist) and perform to music by lip-synching and dancing, often incorporating humor, and occasionally presenting original music or live performance. They are associated with Lesbian folklife.
Throughout history, women have taken on male appearances in order to participate in activities that were available only to men, such as serving in the army or to gain access to jobs during times of financial hardship. Women may also dress as men for fun. However, these women are rarely considered drag kings because their appearance as men is not intended as a performance of masculinity within a Lesbian-oriented frame.
The modern drag king did not begin to emerge until the 1980s. The precursor to the drag king was the male impersonator in the first half of the twentieth century who often performed in theaters for heterosexual audiences. This included music/theater performances by butch (masculine) Lesbians such as African-American blues singer Gladys Bentley, who appeared in men’s clothing while parodying popular tunes in gay speakeasies. Bentley is known to have performed with other male impersonators, such as Miss Jimmy Reynard, in establishments such as Mona’s 440 Club, an early Lesbian bar in San Francisco.
Performance Within Performance
While some drag kings also call themselves male impersonators today, these early performances did not always center on the performance of masculinity but rather on some other aspect such as theater, comedy, or music (Gladys Bentley is known primarily as a jazz-blues singer). Self-declared masculine-drag performances began to emerge in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The first WOW (Women’s One World) Festival, a Lesbian-oriented international women’s theater festival in New York City in 1980, featured Jordy Mark and Annie Toone in their rock revue Sex, Drag & Rock ‘n’ Roll.
In 1989, Leigh Crow made her first appearance as Elvis Herselvis at the San Francisco club, Dyke Trouble. In this same year, Diane Torr began Drag King Workshops (also known as “Man for a Day Workshop”), which helped participants to develop male characters and adroitly apply make-up and facial hair. The workshops ended with a visit to a local bar or club where participants could act out their new personae in a public space. In 1999, Torr was dubbed the “Drag King Ambassador to the World” for her contributions to developing the art of kinging (performing as a drag king).
In the 1990s, drag kings increased in popularity, and drag king troupes formed, such as H.I.S. Kings, founded in 1996 in Columbus, Ohio. Troupes and solo performers have since become a staple of many larger cities in North America. Many establishments maintain regular weekly or monthly events, especially to draw in crowds on what are normally slow nights. For example, Crews and Tango, a popular nightspot on Toronto’s Church Street, featured two stages with drag queen and drag king events.
Drag king competitions are judged by a panel or by audience applause. While inspired by the drag queen pageants, drag king competitions are more closely modeled on song competitions. Each year, San Francisco hosts a large international competition, the SF Drag King Contest, that began in 1994. Drag king competitions have become popular around the world, particularly in Western European countries such as Britain, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden.
Personifying Masculine Stereotypes
Compared to drag queens, who are known for their colorful and campy performances, drag kings may seem less dramatic. This is due in part to the stereotypes society holds about men and women: women are seen as more emotional, artificial in appearance, and elaborately dressed than men, who are aggressive, emotionally stunted and care little about their physical appearance. Drag king personae often play with these stereotypes, creating hyper-masculine characters such as rock stars, uniformed characters (police officer, fireman, security guard), cowboys, ladies’ men, and varieties of vulgar or misogynist “everyday men.” Some drag kings also perform in period costumes, as crooners, or de-masculinize their characters by taking on nerdy or inept qualities. This process accomplishes both a performance and critique of what is thought to be natural about masculinity, revealing details of how a masculine personality is constructed.
Any variety of stereotypically masculine attire may be used as costumes for drag kings. Some common examples include leather jackets, ties, mesh shirts, suits, vests, large belt buckles, vintage men’s clothing, men’s hats, sport shirts, baggy clothing, suspenders, glasses, and men’s uniforms.
Kings will often bind their breasts to give the appearance of a male chest, and stuff their pants with packers to give the appearance of male genitalia beneath pants or underwear. Many drag kings apply facial hair, either hair trimmed from the head and applied with spirit gum/liquid latex/gelatin or varieties of fake hair.
Kings may also thicken their eyebrows, underline their eyes, and apply foundations and/or color to sharpen the jaw line, give the appearance of a 5 o’clock shadow, or change the shape of cheekbones. It is a common misconception that drag kings wear very little makeup, supposedly unlike the flamboyant and hyper-feminized appearance of drag queens.
Iconic Figures and Suggestive Names
While kings are not known for imitating famous real-life people, some iconic characters have been popular, especially Elvis Presley and John Travolta. Kings typically develop their own characters through experimentation, and choose witty or suggestive names for them. Some examples of drag king names are: Buck Naked, Mo B. Dick, Murray Hill, Buster Hymen, Willy Rider, Rusty Hips, Reese Ryder, Fudgie Frottage, Pete Sake, Luster/Lustivious de la Virgion, Monsieur Bernerd Incrediballs, and Justin Case.
Drag kings usually perform in troupes, which are sometimes called drag families or simply performance groups. Troupes coordinate solo performances into theme nights or present choreographed multi-performer acts. The performance is usually mediated by a host, who is often a member of the troupe or a drag queen. Some troupes found in North America are 5 O’Clock Shadow (Victoria, British Columbia), DC Kings (Washington, DC), TheUnderGrounDKingZ (New York, NY), Rocky Mountain Oysters (Boulder, CO), Casanova Kings (Muncie, IN), San Diego Kings Club (San Diego, CA), Bender Boys (comprised of only Transmen, Toronto, Ontario), H.I.S. Kings, and the Royal Renegades (Columbus, OH).
H.I.S. Kings founded the IDKE (International Drag KingCommunity Extravaganza) in 1999 in Columbus, Ohio. Since then, IDKE takes place in a different city each year. IDKE’s first event featured academic panels and a showcase performance of 25 kings from across North America. Since it began, the organization expanded to include more than 20 board members, nearly the number of showcase performers in its first year. The activities of H.I.S. Kings and IDKE have helped Columbus, Ohio achieve its unofficial status as the drag king capital of the United States.
Ferris, Lesley. Crossing the Stage: Controversies on Cross-Dressing. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Halberstam, Judith “Jack” and Del LaGrace Volcano. The Drag King Book. London: Serpent’s Tail, 1999.
Toone, Anderson. 2009. “The Drag King Timeline.” www.andersontoone.com
Troka, Donna et. al. The Drag King Anthology. New York: Harrington Park, 2003.
Baur, Gabriel. 2002. Venus Boyz. DVD. Clockwise Productions.