What a drag, Part I

Prologue

A note before we begin: Do not confuse the following terms, because they are very different things, and I’m really only dealing with one of them except where otherwise noted.

DRAG QUEEN: a person — originally but now not necessarily a cis-man — who dresses up as a woman in a very flamboyant and exaggerated manner, usually as part of a stage presentation or drag ball; it is a performance. In the past, usually associated with the gay male community, but in the present day, there are Drag Queens of all genders and sexualities.

CROSS-DRESSER: a person who wears the clothing of the opposite sex outside of a performance context, and may just do it for comfort or cultural reasons — for example, a lot of traditional male dress from places like Japan, Turkey, and Scotland could be considered more like women’s clothing in the west. This also covers people on Halloween who play the opposite sex — cross-dressing as costume but not performance.

TRANSVESTITE: a person who wears the clothes of the opposite sex, but usually as a sexual fetish. Perhaps surprisingly to some, the vast majority of male transvestites are straight men, but this makes sense. They dress as women because they are attracted to them.

TRANSGENDER: a person whose true gender does not align with the sex they were assigned at birth, which is usually based on the appearance of their genitals at that time. In case it’s confusing, think of it like this: sex is what’s between your legs, orientation is what’s in your heart, and gender is what’s between your ears. Sometimes they all line up and sometimes they don’t. Fortunately, we’re at a point where it’s become much easier, in some places, for science to line up the parts between the legs and ears via gender confirmation surgery — and note that very important switch in terminology from the crass and insensitive “sex change.” A transwoman, for example, doesn’t “become” female. She always was. It’s just the plumbing that had to be adjusted to fit reality.

Now that we have the definitions down, here we go, keeping in mind that I’m talking about only that first group, the campy Drag Queens. And since drag is all about performance and the theatre of Shakespeare’s day is famous for all of the boys playing women parts, I have structured this as a play of the era, with intermission.

* * *

Act I

I’ll just say it: despite being a gay man, I’m just not into drag, especially not the extremely over-the-top campy type. Oh, I can appreciate the history of it, and why it became a formative part of the community in America starting in the late 1920s. It just doesn’t appeal to me as an audience member or as a participant.

Once this kind of drag started to leak out into public after Stonewall but before RuPaul, I think it hurt more than it helped because it gave people with much more closed minds a reason to point at and mock the “sissy boys who all wanted to be women,” simultaneously driving the more masculine gays deeper into the closet and denying the validity of transgender people, especially transwomen, because it implied that the latter wanted to “become” women rather than acknowledged that they always were.

To this day, when the LGB part of the community is asked, “What are the most annoying things that straight people ask you?” the number one response is always “Which one is the man, and which one is the woman?

First of all, that’s not even the right terminology. For men, it’s top and bottom; for women, it’s butch and femme; and for bisexual people it’s either of the two depending on which configuration they’re in at the moment.

RuPaul did a lot to correct all of this just by virtue of winning over the non-LGBTQ+ public, and nowadays “Drag Queen” is not limited to cis-gender gay men. Transgender and non-binary people are doing it, and we also see Drag Kings, who are usually butch lesbians but, again, the gender lines are being erased, which is probably a good thing.

Dame Edna Everage, aka Barry Humphries, is more famous for the over-the-top Melbourne housewife he’s played for going on 65 years now. He first performed the character in 1955, when he was a mere 21 years old, and Mr. Humphries happens to be completely straight. And his also happens to be one drag act that I do enjoy, but probably because it’s not about over-the-top camp. It’s about satirizing the mindset of a certain kind of suburbanite whose opinion we are not necessarily supposed to agree with.

But I’m still not into drag, even though I can appreciate the history. To me, drag to gay men is like cursive is to a modern office: Something that was necessary for everyone to be able to do at one time, but is no longer needed and, in fact, really holds things back.

Weird flex? Maybe. But bear with me and it will make sense.

Act II

The term “drag” originated in the world of theater, with its earliest use currently being attested to 1870. It referred to men wearing women’s clothing, and the whole idea was that when they walked on stage in the period dress of the day, the whole damn thing dragged on the ground — probably because, unlike women, they weren’t wearing heels.

They did have a precedent for dressing like women, though, because that’s exactly how it was done in Shakespeare’s day. Women were not permitted on the stage while he was writing and producing because, reasons. Mostly sexist, misogynistic reasons created by men and blamed on the Bible. Plus ça change

Women were considered the weaker sex, they needed to be controlled by men, etc., etc., and it hurt my soul just having to type those words. There was also the idea that women were supposed to be pure and chaste (no such rule for men) and a female actor was considered to be lower than a prostitute.

In modern times, theater companies have played with both restoring and inverting the men-as-women practice, with productions both casting men in the women’s parts and casting women in the men’s parts.

In Shakespeare’s day, this men-only casting would lead to the reality of older male actors having to do love scenes with twinks all done up as girls, and one does have to wonder how much of it was an inside plot. Or, in other words, how much of these goings-on in Elizabethan theatre were really just a cover for the (at the time) GB community?

I have to wonder because this concept will become important later, but before we get to that, we have to skip to about a decade after the term “drag” was coined in theater in a strictly non-orientation related sense.

Enter William Dorsey Swann (the subject of the photo up top), arguably America’s first drag queen — or “queen of drag” — and in exactly those words. Interestingly enough, he exploded onto the scene more or less exactly one century before RuPaul did, doing his thing in the 1890s.

Oh. Did I mention that he was black and a former slave? And that he was hosting underground drag balls in Washington D.C. in the 1880s? And he demanded (and was refused) a pardon by President Grover Cleveland after having been arrested on false charges of “running a disorderly house,” which applied to brothels. Swann’s house was not a brothel.

Just like the raids on gay bars in the early 1960s, the raids on Swann’s parties led to men’s names being published in the papers, and lives and careers ruined.

Drag really became linked with the gay community as an identity, though, with the confluence of two things: Prohibition, and the acceptance of gay people in the bohemian communities of major cities like New York and Chicago.

It was known as the “Pansy Craze,” although it didn’t last long. The “Roaring (19)20s” were a time when the parties got a little bit wilder, and when the non-gay public came out to see the “pansies” as a novelty. Prohibition’s contribution was creating underground clubs, hidden from the police (for a while) where more and more gay men could go and be themselves, and do drag as a form of self-expression.

Unfortunately, the involvement of (in fact, creation of) organized crime that always comes along with any kind of prohibition creating a black market drew the attention of the authorities right to these places, especially the gay ones, and the harassment and raids, three decades before Stonewall, began. Popular performers and denizens began fleeing to Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, but ultimately found them equally inhospitable.

They fled to London, Berlin, and Paris, although London was about as welcoming to them as they had been to Oscar Wilde. Things were better in Paris and Berlin, although Hitler, like all authoritarians, was very anti-gay, so that party ended as he rose to power, q.v. Cabaret, the film version or the modern revival, not the original musical because, surprise, the original stage version, released pre-Stonewall, completely straight-washed the sexual orientation of the author of the story it was based on.

Act III

World War II was a big point when drag was driven underground except, ironically, as a part of that war itself. There weren’t a lot of women overseas, so when it came to staging theatrical entertainment for the boys, it was all boys, some of them playing girls. This was the Shakespeare version all over again, though, and not inherently gay, although it’s well known that the next wave of America’s gay communities that sprang up post-war all started in port towns — San Diego, Long Beach, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, Boston, New York, etc., — because those were the places soldiers were brought back to, and the ones who’d realized they were gay while on deployment chose to stay where they landed rather than to return home and face ostracism.

Life was still underground, but the anonymity of big cities, especially at the time, created a new sort of freedom. Gay men couldn’t necessarily go out to bars in drag, but they could find each other.

Then, the 60s became an era of general protest by every disenfranchised group. It saw the Civil Rights Movement against racism; the Student Movement (which encompassed various other movements of the time); The Women’s Movement (for equal rights); the Environmental Movement (sound familiar?); the Farmworkers’ Movement (for the rights of exploited immigrant workers); and the Gay Rights Movement.

I won’t get bogged down in the wins and losses of those movements, except in the current context. The Stonewall Riots marked the beginning of the modern Gay Rights Movement, and the first Gay Pride parades took place one year later (or almost fifty years ago) in 1970, to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall riots.

Cue a few decades of struggle up to June 26, 2015, two days shy of the 46th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, and the U.S. Supreme Court declares same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states.

The world does not end, people get to happily couple, and everything seems well and good until a certain ill-fated day in November 2016, and an even worse day in January 2017. So there’s no telling what reverses we may face, but never mind any of this. I was going to explain why I personally am not into drag.

INTERMISSION

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