A drag queen is typically a Gay man who dresses as a woman, performs on stage, and engages in humorous effeminate behavior called camp. Drag queens are frequently present at LGBTQ venues such as bars, festivals, and parades. Although usually Gay men, any person of any gender, sex, or orientation can be a queen.
Drag queens tend to disrupt social stratification wherever they go. Famous for sarcasm and transgressive humor, drag queens can ridicule attendees of an event with impunity. By dressing and acting in ways that could bring them disdain and even violence in the outside world, drag queens flaunt their supposed deviance and thus claim the power to undermine the social barriers that separate people at an event because, except for their wit, they have placed themselves in a position of vulnerability.
Big hair and extravagant dresses are standard fare for drag queens. They lip-syncs songs recorded by popular female vocalists (although some queens actually sing) and accept money offered by fans who come up to the edge of the stage. Because of the nature of their art, drag queens are often confused with transwomen or transvestites, which may or may not be the case with a particular performer. Anyone who identifies as a drag queen (in other words, as a Gay man dressed as a woman) may perform at drag shows, so there is overlap (see article: Scarlet Oh!). It is rare, however, that Straight men will identify as drag queens. Most queens prefer to be addressed as women when in drag.
Traditions involving men dressing as women go back thousands of years. But “cross-dresser” is not synonymous with “drag queen.” In ancient Mesopotamia, castrated men who dressed as women could achieve high office in the administration of government, but there is no evidence that ancient Mesopotamians had males whose purpose was to entertain an audience while dressed in women’s clothing.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the earliest drag queens first performed because of the lack of records indicating when males who cross-dressed were also males who performed camp. One of the earliest queens on record was Bert Savoy (1888-1923), who dressed extravagantly and engaged in outrageous speech full of double-entendres while performing onstage with Jay Brennan, Savoy’s “Straight” straight man. Before Savoy became popular, most cross-dressing male performers in the public eye considered themselves to be “female illusionists.” They would often stress to their audience that their attire and feminine behavior was a mask worn by a virile Straight man. Savoy subverted that model by presenting himself as a campy queen onstage rather than the illusion of a real woman, and he behaved as an effeminate Gay man when offstage.
In the 1930s, pansy shows (drag revues) were popular in Manhattan and San Francisco, and drag balls were held in major American cities, the most notable being the Harlem drag balls. These balls were spectacles for the heterosexual community to come and watch. For the Gay community, however, these events were prestigious debutante parties for young queens as well as drag competitions.
The scene went underground in most cities in the mid-1930s, but was still somewhat open in San Francisco, where police harassment was lessened through bribes, and was challenged by prominent drag queens such as José Sarria (the Empress José I of the Imperial Court, also known as the Widow Norton). From coast to coast in places like Seattle and Manhattan, bribes given to police kept many of the more low-key bars open. Drag queens and male impersonators continued to produce cabaret shows and ignore laws that criminalized cross-dressing.
Drag queens played an important role in the Stonewall Uprising (June 1969) in New York City. A group of queens gained national notoriety as they harassed the riot police by forming a line and dancing a Rockettes-style can-can, singing:
We are the Stonewall Girls
We wear our hair in curls
We wear no underwear
We show our pubic hair
Being a queen was not always a title cross-dressing male performers wanted. Up until the twenty-first century, some still preferred to be called female impersonators. A common complaint among them was that “Gay men don’t want us because we look real, and Straight men don’t want us because we aren’t real.”
Drag Queens and Popular Music
In the 1970s, male glam rock musicians began incorporating elements from drag queen camp into their performance repertoires. Male performers and groups such as David Bowie, Queen, T.Rex, Sweet, Jobriath (the earliest openly Gay rock star), Mott the Hoople, and the New York Dolls used makeup, camp, and feminine clothing to give their stage appearances shock value. Those who were more obviously queens in their self-representation were David Bowie, Jobriath (Bruce Wayne Campbell, 1946-1983), and Freddie Mercury (1946-1991) of Queen. Although Bowie and Mercury were not always forthcoming about their orientations (often characterized as “bisexual”), Bowie would use feminine makeup and occasionally dress in feminine clothing, while Mercury (who named his group “Queen”) was notoriously campy onstage, and is famous for saying the following in 1974: “I am as gay as a daffodil, my dear!”
Disco music also had its own drag star. Sylvester, the Queen of Disco, released major dance music hits in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He regularly performed in drag and, when told to dress in a more masculine fashion by people in the music industry, attended business meetings in drag as well. Sylvester died from AIDS complications in 1988, the same syndrome that killed Jobriath (1983) and Mercury (1991).
Later on in the 1980s, other rock groups would incorporate makeup and big hair, such as Poison, Stryper, Cinderella, and Twisted Sister. As sexually ambiguous as these latter performers may have appeared, they were doing it to get attention, not to represent themselves as queens. Other groups and artists such as Boy George, Dead or Alive, and Nirvana either represented themselves as queen-like or queen-friendly, and were open about how they were influenced by the convergence of drag queen and rock music sensibilities. In one memorable video of her dance music remake of “Everlasting Love” (1994), Cuban-American pop star Gloria Estefan appeared in a video with several drag queens dressed up as Gloria Estefan in a production that made it difficult at times to determine which was the real Gloria. Israel also has its own drag queen pop star, Dana International, a transwoman who started out doing drag while still a teenager. Since 1992, she has since made several hit songs that were popular in Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and Greece. She won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1988 with her song “Diva.”
Among various ethnic groups in several countries, drag queens have become the most visible representatives of the LGBTQ community and transwoman-related identities within their own cultures. The muxes in Oaxaca, Mexico include a number of drag queen activists in their number who sponsor pageants in various locales. kathoey (or “ladyboys”) in Thailand have a number of beauty pageants throughout the country, as have hijras representing many ethnicities in South Asia. Crystal Love from the Tiwi Islands in Australia has become a drag queen celebrity and spokeswoman for LGBTQ Aboriginal rights (especially the rights of sistagirls, born-males who dress and behave as women), and Hinaleimoana, a Hawaiian sovereignty activist and LGBTQ spokesperson, claims mahuwahine identity.
Drag Queens and the Circuit
Drag queens have made their mark in the Gay men’s dance Circuit as performers, and further as DJs such as Connie Casserole, porn mistress Chi Chi LaRue, and Circuit Mom. The influence of queens in Circuit performance led to the creation of a new genre of fierce drag incorporating both masculine and feminine characteristics, often with shaved head and muscular physique, known by the ambiguous name of performance artistry. Kitty Meow, Power Infiniti, Kevin Aviance, Shokra, Flava, Sofonda Cox, and Lena Love (who is biologically female) are all in the category of performance artists whose legacy comes from working the Circuit.
Drag Queen Pageants
Today, there are drag pageants held in every nation that does not criminalize Gay folklife. Some of the better-known drag pageants In the USA are the Miss Gay America and Miss Continental. In the case of the Miss Gay America pageant, contestants are judged on evening gown, talent, solo talent, and two interviews–one as a queen and the other as a man.
Sometimes, a third sex tradition (in which effeminate men are given a separate identity category apart from male and female) within a culture will merge with the now-global Gay culture. As mentioned earlier, the kathoey of Thailand have their own pageants, such as Miss Alcazar and Miss Tiffany’s Universe, both held in the coastal resort city of Pattaya. The muxe of Juchitán in Oaxaca, Mexico have a pageant that mixes elements of a vela (a traditional neighborhood party with a religious service and procession, then food, drinking, and dancing) with runway competition to determine the Queen of La Vela de la Intrepidas Buscadores del Peligro (the Festival of the Intrepid [feminine] Danger-Seekers).
Drag Queen Names
Drag queens typically have attention-grabbing names. For example, a drag name could be a play on words such as “Juanna Mann,” “Patty O’Furniture,” Kitty Littre” (Pronounced “La Trey”), and “Miss Understood.” Some names signify elegance such as “Divine” or “Belle Star.” Others are outrageously sexual, such as “Sandy Vagina” and “Sofonda Cox.” On many occasions, the names are simple and can have deeper meaning to the queen herself, such as “RuPaul,” “Pearl Moon” or “Daisy Buckett.” There are drag Houses with a drag mother who assigns a name or gives her children her last name. Though some queens follow this tradition, others will take a name and step onto the stage by themselves.
Drag queens come in various types. There are the traditional drag queens who wear especially outlandish dresses with sequins, feathers, glitter, or any other material they have on hand. Campy drag queens will wear very heavy makeup of garish color. Glamour queens are the nearest thing to female illusionists. They strive to be as realistically feminine as possible, often imitating real-life iconic female stars. Madonna, Cher, Beyoncé, Diana Ross, Marilyn Monroe, and Mae West are among the favorite icons. Skag drag queens purposefully try to look as unglamorous as possible, with unshaven faces, hairy bodies, and hideous makeup. Genderfuck queens mix up the dress and grooming codes of men and women to create new aesthetic forms that are not necessarily skag. Then there are the trans queens, both pre- and post-operation, but usually with breast implants or hormone-induced breasts. Born-women who dress up as traditional campy drag queens or glamor queens are sometimes called faux queens.
Drag Queens and Fundraising
Drag queens often perform at benefits to raise funding for AIDS research, or for any other event that supports the LGBTQ community. One international drag queen organization that raises money for charity is the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (founded in San Francisco), an order of drag queen nuns (with and without facial hair) who wear distinctive white-face makeup, head gear more or less reminiscent of nuns’ habits. The Sisters also use outrageous names, such as “Sister Rhoda Kill,” “Sister Barbi Mitzvah,” and “Sister Chastity Boner.” Another organization is the International Court System, which includes queens, kings, emperors, empresses, and a range of titles taken from nobility (José Sarria was its first empress). Indianapolis has the Bag Ladies, which began about 1982 as a Halloween bar crawl for an AIDS fundraiser. It eventually became a huge “garage party” held in a parking garage.
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Goodwin, Joseph P. More Man Than You’ll Ever Be: Gay Folklore and Acculturation in Middle America. Bloomington: Indiana University, 1989.
Newton, Esther. Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1979.