What a drag, Part II

In Part I, a history of drag up through the 90s. Now, an explanation on why your author does not relate to this world.

Act IV

Basically, I enjoy being a man. Okay, I’m not the butchest knife in the drawer, but I do tend to be one of those “Surprise Fags” to people who only know me casually and, yes, say one of the other things you should never say to gay people. “Really? But you seem so straight.”

“Really? And you seemed like so not an asshole.”

And as a more masculine-presenting example of gayness, this is kind of where I start to resent drag, because it sets a weird bar that we have to deal with. Put that big ol’ public face of “Yo, fags in dresses, all y’all!” then it really screws with people’s heads when they run across, y’know… “fags who can change your oil, do your taxes, and fix your plumbing, all y’all.”

So I’m in this really ambivalent position. For most of our history, it’s been the drag queens and transgender people doing the heavy lifting. But when it comes to the gay cis-men who are obsessed with drag… honey, I don’t fucking get you, and I don’t feel like I’m on your team at all.

Way back when I was a baby gay in the late 90s, I went to a place in Studio City called “The Queen Mary” to see a drag show, and my main reaction was, basically, sadness. The whole atmosphere — at a time when celebs were coming out right and left — felt like an intentional throwback to a closeted era and, in fact, other than myself and the two friends who’d talked me into going, everyone else in the place was clearly a straight tourist couple from somewhere in the Midwest.

So… there was an awkward nod-nod wink-wink to the “Hey, maybe they’re gay!” thing, almost immediately undercut by some sort of “Does his wife know he does this?” comment, i.e., instant erasure. “Hey, ladies, you think his girlfriend taught him how to do his make-up?”

Oh, please.

It was like being slingshot into the ‘50s, and it sucked. In fact, I can’t think of very many shows that have made me so angry, but this one did and, ironically, it did it by being an allegedly gay show that really wasn’t.

Oh, it was apparently groundbreaking in being the first drag club to open in L.A. back in the early 60s, although the place was founded by straight people and the front room appealed more to the “let’s gawk at the freaks” tourist crowd even then. To their credit, the back room (“The King’s Den”) was a safe haven for gay men. Still, the atmosphere of the show never came out of the closet despite the world around it doing so.

Eventually, that back room became a safe haven for transvestites and transgender people, especially “non-passing” transwomen, which maybe redeemed it a little, but the place abruptly shut down without explanation in 2017, and I don’t think that a single gay man under 50 would have missed it.

Act V

I’ve done drag exactly once, and it was mostly as an experiment because I was given the opportunity. I discuss the event where it occured in Chapter Five of the book that was the impetus for this website, although it doesn’t come up in that extract. Basically, after my whole flirtation with mortality, I wound up going to a weekend men’s camp up in the woods near Big Bear in California, and one of the events was a Saturday night drag dance party.

So I thought, okay. I’ve never done this before, let’s give it a shot, and actually managed to pull something together fairly cheaply via two thrift shops (clothes and accessories), a local party store (wig), the drugstore (nail polish and make-up), and Amazon (shoes). The shoes were actually the hardest part to find because the necessary size-adjustment from men’s to women’s means that finding those size 15s limits the options.

While I didn’t go terribly campy, the end result worked, although the heels on the boots I’d bought made me NBA pro height, somewhere around 6’7”. But other people at the party said that I looked like a lesbian English teacher at a liberal arts college in a small town.

I take that as a complement. I suppose, ultimately, I landed more in Dame Edna territory than I did in RuPaul. I named the character Betty Duzzet, trotted her out one time only, and while the schmatta and all is still hanging in my closet, I doubt that I’ll bring her back unless it’s Halloween.

What I did find educational about the experience was this. Women’s clothes suck, especially for women. They’re thin and generally unlined, they do nothing to stop the cold (especially skirts and dresses); they have hardly any pockets, necessitating those cumbersome purses that are only good for putting down somewhere and hoping they don’t get stolen or foisting on the BF/husband; make-up and nails take for-fucking ever; and walking in heels without falling over or breaking your ankles is an Olympics-worthy challenge — bad enough on pavement or floors, but particularly difficult on uneven ground. And don’t even bring up dancing in them, although I actually managed to do that without killing myself.

I didn’t even strap anything onto my chest or stuff my top, so I missed out on what it’s like to haul around a couple of funbags that can wind up weighing a lot, with or without support, constantly worried that one of them may do a Janet Jackson, or that the underwire and bra strap are really, really going to hurt. And, obviously, I didn’t have to worry about paying exorbitant prices for tampons or pads or worry about the need to use them.

My one experience with drag, I think, made me a better man, because it made me take a step back and think, “Whoa. This is what women have to deal with every single day? And why?”

When I get up in the morning, all I basically have to do is shower, maybe shave depending on how scruffy I am that morning, brush my teeth, and throw on clothes. I don’t have to worry about make-up, I don’t have to deal with extra wardrobe decisions — like bra or no, hose or not, dress or separates, etc. — and my hair takes a lot less time because it’s short enough that it generally dries into what it needs to be by the time I get to the office.

And I realize that the entire reason women have to do all of this is in order to make the men happy, and it’s such a conditioned thing. But here’s an idea. What if… give up the make-up and nails and the trying to dress to impress, and go utilitarian, at least in your daily working life. You shouldn’t be trying to impress anyone there with your looks, right? Only your abilities. Save the fancy stuff for Tinder dates and the like. But, even then, think of this.

If you showed up without make-up and dressed in your casual comfort stuff and the guy didn’t seem to mind, what would that tell you? I think that the word “keeper” is quite appropriate.

Anyone who’d say no to the real you is a shallow bastard not worth pursuing.

And now we’ve come full circle, from me bitching about men doing camp drag in order to… whatever… to me offering advice to straight women on how to plain up in order to find Mr.  Right. Yeah. I think there was some kind of symmetry there, but I’m not sure.

All I’m really sure of is that sex, gender, and orientation are social constructs and labels we really might not need anymore. But really campy drag still annoys me and feels like a relic we don’t need to keep trotting out anymore.

Epilogue

If this blog post has offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but misread here
What was written by this queer
Just a weak and idle meme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
If you pardon, I will mend:
And, as I am an honest fuck,
If I have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
I will make amends ere long;
Else this fuck a liar call;
So, good day unto you all.
Comment below, if we be friends,
And thus I  shall restore amends.

(With apologies to William Shakespeare.)

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

Our best weapon against AI is humor

My day job revolves around health insurance and, because of HIPPA regulations, the office has landlines. We can’t do VOIP because it’s not as secure. The theater I work at some evenings uses nothing but VOIP. I’m sure that the main consequence of this is that the theater never gets robo or sales calls, while the office gets them constantly.

Fortunately, I have absolutely no obligation to be nice to robo-callers or even to listen to their pitches. I’ve hung up on them in mid-sentence. To make it more confusing for them, I’ve hung up in the middle of my sentence. Sometimes, if they’re trying to pitch a service that the boss already has and I know that he did meticulous research before he obtained it or has a personal relationship with the provider, I’ll respond with a terse, “Thanks, but we’re happy with what we have,” and then hang up.

The fun ones are when we get calls trying to sell Medicare insurance. They start out just talking about Medicare Supplement plans, and those are perfectly legal to advertise. Why? Because no matter the provider, each particular plan has the same premium, determined by age, and has the same basic benefits.

These are the plans that cover deductibles, copays, and coinsurance not covered by other plans or Medicare itself. Where they differ is in the extras they toss on. Some of them provide gym benefits, others provide personal emergency systems — i.e. the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” necklace, others provide free over-the-counter stuff, like vitamins and cold remedies, by mail. It’s a mix-and-match, and what it’s really doing is providing people to decide what they prefer among plans that are otherwise identical.

So far, so good. If it’s a slow day and I get one of these calls, I will always push the button for more info, which connects me to a live operator. This is where it gets fun, because it is illegal to cold-call someone to try to sell them Medicare Advantage or Medicare Prescription Drug Plans.

Don’t worry if you don’t know what all those terms mean. I didn’t either six months ago. The gist of it is that selling these in the same way is illegal because their costs and coverages vary wildly, and it all depends upon the person being insured, and which medications they’re taking.

For somebody taking no drugs or with one or two common and cheap generics, Coverage X may only cost $13 a month. For someone with a lot of prescriptions, especially if one or more only come in a brand instead of a generic, Coverage X may cost hundreds or thousands of dollars a year. And for each of them, the price of Coverage X, Coverage Y, and Coverage Z may also vary widely, also depending on whether they have a preferred pharmacy or not, and whether that pharmacy is in or out of network for the provider.

In other words… this is something people need to discuss with a professional who can look at their specific needs, analyze the options, and give the best and cheapest advice. That cold caller is probably only calling for a small number of (or even only one) providers, so they don’t care what your situation is going to cost. They only want to get you to buy what you’re selling.

And that is a big part of why these kinds of calls are so illegal.

Now, when I get a person doing one of these calls on the line, they will usually launch into a fast-talking spiel about how they can save me and my family money on all of our health insurance needs, including Medicare Advantage or Drug Plans, and what would I like to sign up for today?

My reply is always, “Hey, you sell Medicare insurance, too? So do we. My boss is an insurance broker.”

Analogy time: This would be the equivalent of somebody robo-dialing in order to hire a hitman to take out a rival, giving the fully incriminating pitch to whomever answers, and then finding out they’d called the FBI.

When I say this, I can hear the sudden confusion in the silence and the unstated “Oh, shit.” It takes a second or two, but then I hear them hang up on me, and that is the Holy Grail of dealing with these unethical idiots: making them end the call.

Some of them must be paying attention, though, because the other day I got one of these calls during a slow late afternoon, hit 1 to talk to a rep and then instead of immediately being put through, got some hold music, and then after about ten seconds, the call disconnected.

So, other Holy Grail. I think I actually got our office number blocked by a spamming, illegal robo-caller. That’s really satisfying.

However, there’s another trend in these robo-calls that’s somewhat more disturbing on a couple of fronts. First is that it could actually put people out of jobs. And yes, while we all hate these kinds of calls, I still get that for some people, these jobs are their tenuous lifelines. I blame the companies behind them, not the people who have no options other than to work for them.

Second is that this trend is using AI, and it’s getting a lot better. When you get a call that has a voice announcement or is reading off a recorded message, it’s pretty obvious what it is. Beyond the robotic cadence or the message outright stating that it’s a recording, there’s also just a huge difference in sound quality between a recording or digital audio and a live speaker.

Why is this? Simple. Digital or analog audio goes direct through an input line to the headset speaker in your phone. Spoken voice has to take the extra step or traversing a few millimeters of open air between the speaker’s mouth and their microphone, and this creates a completely different quality. You don’t even have to be an audiophile to pick up on it. It’s something we just automatically sense. “Recording” and “Real Person” appear as different from each other as “Mannequin” and “Human Being.”

But then they tweaked the technology, and now I’ve met a couple of AI robo-callers that were obviously filtered to sound like real people with that atmospheric connection. I don’t doubt that this is now a trivial process to add via computer, although to be honest, it could be done really low-tech and in cheap analog by setting up a speaker playing the voice next to a handset picking it up. Either way… these couple of calls got me at first.

Call number one, it was easy to spot after the initial two exchanges, because the voice launched into the uninterruptable spiel so, despite the sound quality, I got it and hung up.

The second and, so far, last time, it was a bit harder. The very human sounding voice started out with, “Hello, how are you today?” I replied, “Fine, and you?” It replied. “Great, thanks for asking. Can I ask you some questions about your family’s shopping habits?” “Sure,” I said, waiting for an opportunity to mess with them, but then also noticed that there seemed to be slightly too long of a pause between their question and my response. Also, every response started with a filler word. And the next response nailed it for me.

“That’s great. Are you responsible for the grocery shopping in your household.”

Trivial thing, but just like we can detect by hearing whether a voice is recorded or on the phone, our brains are also wired to detect whether we’re talking to a human, and this was the point that the bot failed the Turing Test. The responses were a bit mechanical and not keying into my tone at all. So I decided to give it a real test and replied, “I only pay for it, but everyone else decides what they want.”

The pause was slightly longer, and then came the reply, “I’m sorry. I don’t understand. Can you repeat that?” Of course, the human response would have been a laugh at a thing that AI hasn’t mastered yet: A joke.

Bingo, busted bot. So lots of points for the realism of the voice, delivery, and sound quality, but there’s still a long way to go on making it believable, and this is a very, very good thing, indeed. If you think it’s a bot, engage it with non-sequiturs and humor, and see how fast it falls apart.


Image: Alan Turing Memotial by Bernt Rostad, (cc BY 2.0).