Drag is a term in the LGBTQ community that refers to dressing up and behaving in a manner that is transformative and defines a particular identity within a Gay-related frame. Most often, “drag” means to present oneself with visual, spoken and behavioral gender cues that are not consistent with one’s everyday gendered identity. As such, drag is often identified with hilarious and carnivalesque behavior as well as the serious performance of glamour. Drag is not synonymous with cross-dressing, which may be done for non-festive political, religious, and erotic reasons as well as for self-protection.
Although drag in the LGBTQ community originally meant secular cross-dressing and was limited for the most part to people taking on the gender not consistent with their assumed biological sex (as in female-to-masculine drag kings and male-to-feminine drag queens), it has since expanded and can mean any identity that one adopts by means of clothing, body adornment, grooming, and behavior. What differentiates drag from costume in general is that drag is interpreted from a Gay-related perspective concerning the triple spectra of gender, orientation, and sexual physiology. The term “drag” some cases is meant to cast the appearance in a negative frame and render it an object of ridicule.
The exact origin in history and geography of drag is difficult to ascertain. The term “drag” was current among British speakers of polari, cryptic urban folk speech used by effeminate homosexual men in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In the United States, the term had become almost commonplace in major urban centers during the first part of the twentieth century to the point where extravagant debutante parties for homosexual men presenting themselves as glamorous women were known as drag balls. Another term used in British polari that was also current in the USA was camp, exaggerated behavior most often associated with humorous performance in drag.
Shows in which men would appear as women for the amusement of an audience were not limited to Gay venues or even Gay performers. The US and Canadian militaries would sponsor entertainment for soldiers and sailors that included servicemen in drag. This tradition is an important part of King Neptune rituals to change polywogs (the uninitiated) into shellbacks (trustworthy initiated seamen) on ships when crossing the equator. In high school sports and the Boy Scouts during latter half of the twentieth century, it was not unusual for young men to put on drag and act in an effeminate manner as part of hilarious community performance.
Nevertheless, drag performed by homosexual folks and transpeople was considered highly transgressive, and was made illegal in the 1930s when drag shows became too visible to the public eye. When actress and playwright Mae West tried to bring her stage show The Drag (as well as another show called Sex) to Broadway, the production was raided before it could debut in Manhattan. For her part in Sex, West was charged, tried, found guilty of immoral behavior, and spent nine days in jail. The raids and arrests appear to be a coordinated effort, most likely since West was the author of The Drag and starred in Sex.
Drag would continue to be a risky performance genre that could bring business to a bar, but also get an establishment raided by the police. This changed with the Stonewall Uprising, which the media oversimplified and portrayed as a comic showdown between men in drag and men in police uniforms, leaving out the participation of Gay men who were not in drag, women who were in men’s drag, and Straight allies. Even so, credible reports of drag queen chorus lines taunting riot police have become an integral part of the Stonewall myth.
Drag Queen, Drag King, Genderfuck, and Skag Drag
The two basic types of staged drag performance are drag kings and drag queens, with the implicit understanding that the king is anatomically female and the queen is anatomically male (although this is not always the case). Most drag kings/queens sing or lip-sync songs as part of their performance.
There are, however, drag performers who choose to sing rather than lip-sync.
The normalization of drag queens and kings, however, has led drag artists to find other ways of being transgressive, including shifts of identity or blending gender codes that have been given a genre of their own as genderfuck.
There is also skag drag, most often applied to men whose adaptation of feminine markers results in absurd and sometimes grotesque parody.
The origins of skag drag go back to the late 1970s and perhaps before then. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an international Gay male and transwoman order of drag activists founded in 1979, incorporate elements of skag drag and glamorous drag in their performance of humorous spiritual activism for various LGBTQ causes.
It is also possible for women to become drag queens, such as the 1994 Homecoming Queen for Cherry Grove, Fire Island, named Scarlet Oh! (Joan Van Ness), and for men to perform as drag kings. The crucial feature of the performance would be the revelation at some point that the performer was taking on an alternate gendered identity, even if it were the performance of a woman acting like a man acting like a woman, as is the case of Scarlett Oh! and the drag queen-king Luster/Lustivious de la Virgion.
Ballroom/Runway, the Circuit, and Tranny Fierceness
The greatest variety of drag genres can be found in the Ballroom (or Ball) scene found among predominantly Black and Hispanic communities in major American urban centers. Members of the Ball community compete with each other on improvised or actual fashion runways in a vast array of categories, with as many forms of drag as contestants care to invent and judges are willing to judge, including military, femme queen, and bizarre. These categories are performed on the runway by contestants who identify in an ever-growing range of gender- and orientation-based identities. The goal of a runway performance is realness, the successful presentation of self in a chosen persona.
Within the Circuit community, there are professional performers, heavily influenced by the Ball scene, who dance and lip-sync while presenting themselves in a blend of masculine and feminine markers. The goal of these performers is fierceness, aggressive and glamorous self-confidence. These artists (often African American men with shaved heads and faces made up in theatrical drag) call themselves performance artists. But not all performance artists are African American or male, such as Lena Love of Toronto (who is biologically female) and Flava from Los Angeles.
A further iteration of drag is for transwomen who may or may not remain biologically males. Their performance of their chosen gender has taken on a certain glamour and given rise to the phrase “tranny fierce” near the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, which was used in both hilarious and complimentary contexts. An example of a transwoman who acknowledged tranny fierceness drag was Gia of Toronto, who openly acknowledged her feminine identity while retaining her male genitalia. By 2011, however, the term “tranny” was considered by the greater LGBTQ community to be derogatory, and was not acceptable in every context well before then. “Tranny fierce” had thus fallen out of vogue.
Within the drag community, there are often lineages established along family lines. Drag queens especially may have drag mothers, those who introduce them to the drag community and encourage them as they develop their drag personae. Within the drag king community, there are kings who are considered to be father figures, such as Carlos Las Vegas of Winnipeg, Canada. The Ballroom community, with its runway competitions that feature drag-influenced performances, is even more structurally familial, with mothers and fathers of each house.
Resistance to Being Labeled “Drag”
For transmen and studs (biologically female and masculine-identified), however, the importance of being accepted as men may preclude calling their performance of identity a type of drag, or even calling it a performance at all. The same sentiment is present in the Gay male Leather community. Despite the often elaborate costuming associated with staged Leather contests and the awarding of broad leather sashes to winners, Leathermen often dismiss the notion of their Leather identity as drag. Many people in the Leather community (which includes women and transpeople) do not see their outfits as costumes but rather as second skins that reveal who they truly are, a sentiment concerning true identity that can be found among some drag queens, kings, and genderfuck artists as well.
International Court System
In 1965, activist and drag queen José Sarria declared himself Empress José I, the Widow Norton after the eccentric nineteenth century San Francisco personality, Joshua Norton, who had declared himself Norton I, Emperor of North America and Protector of Mexico. Sarria and his fellow drag queens created the Imperial Court System (precursor to the International Court System) as a charitable organization for drag queen royalty. Masculine titles of royalty were added so that the queens could have Gay men as consorts, and over time the organization opened its doors to the possibility of titles and coronations for people of all orientations and gender expressions. Royalty may include drag kings, Ballroom children (participants), and Straight people.
The ICS has chapters in the USA, Canada, and Mexico. It is invested in camp festive expression as well as raising money for charities. The Imperial Court of New York, for example, participates every year in New York City’s Easter Parade, bringing visibility to both the Court, the charities the Court supports, and to the LGBTQ community.
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Suárez, Juan Antonio. Bike Boys, Drag Queens and Superstars: Avant-Garde, Mass Culture, and Gay Identities in the 1960s Underground Cinema. Bloomington. IN: Indiana University, 1996.