Drag is nothing if not controversial. Conflicts between mainstream society and queer culture often manifest themselves in gender nonconformity, and the ways in which drag challenges these ideas of gender is often represented as the epitome of moral decrepitude within the queer community. This pamphlet looks to explore the ways in which drag is challenging to mainstream society and challenged by it, both from larger structures and from within the queer community. The complexities of the politics of drag are often difficult to understand, and hopefully this pamphlet will allow some new ways to consider these issues or explain aspects of drag that you may not have understood previously.
what IS drag?
Drag refers to dressing in the clothes and adopting the persona of a person of a different gender. People usually dress in drag when they are performing or entertaining, and the act itself is mired in controversy – many see it as a political confrontation of overly-strict gender roles while others argue that it is the commoditization of women and people who identify as genderqueer on some level. When drag is held at a venue like a club or presented as entertainment, it is common to use a stage name or impersonate celebrities. Drag is different than cross-dressing or being transgender, which is generally more closely connected to someone’s core gender identity. The word “drag” can refer to public performances commonly found in gay clubs or can refer to individual gender presentation - oftentimes, transgender individuals are referred to as “dressing in drag,” reflecting misunderstandings and specific prejudices present in viewing gender and gender nonconformists. Therefore, drag exists as both counter-cultural and functions in confirmining mainstream society’s previous prejudices about queer communities.
Gender expression perfectly demonstrates the ways in which societal conceptions of self and communities are interrupted and challenged by departures from the rigid binaries present in mainstream consciousness. Indeed, when individuals dress as the “opposite” gender, it is seen as both political and weird, and is both commoditized and suppressed by different groups. However, drag does not solely exist in extraordinary circumstances: gender and drag are performed on a daily basis by everyone within societal restrictions. This makes the performances of drag that much more significant: they both challenge our conceptions of gender on a larger level, but also demonstrate that we all perform gender on a daily basis.
& cultural representation
Drag has existed as an important part of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community for while, but it exists within many different spaces of the community. While drag and cross-dressing is often celebrated as counter-cultural and challenging to mainstream, homophobic society, it is often on the fringe of the gay community and sometimes viewed as too odd to be part of the mainstream LGBT community. Either way, the importance of the representation of gender confusion in interrupting hegemonic gender binaries and the strict enforcement of these gender roles. Indeed, perhaps the easiest way to begin looking at how the institution of drag has tested these borders of gender identity is through a historical context and where drag has fit into the gay liberation movement and mainstream’s reactions to it. For example, the confrontation that is often viewed as the “beginning” of the gay liberation movement, the riot at the Stonewall Inn in 1969, was reportedly begun by someone in drag. As Martin Duberman writes in Stonewall, which documents the lives of several queer individuals through the time before and after the riots, reports
that some insisted “that the explosive moment came when ‘a dyke dressed in men’s clothing’…started to act up as the cops moved her toward the paddy wagon,” while others report that the beginning of the altercation began with the cops beating the woman in drag. These reports are often disputed and there are many iterations of these telling, but the key point is that drag is at the epicenter of the blossoming of the gay liberation movement. Indeed, the report that someone in drag started the conflict is telling of how radical a system drag is seen as in comparison to a force like the police, and the other story of the woman in drag being beaten demonstrates how threatening many in mainstream society deem drag to be. Indeed, the deconstruction of the drag queen is often socially enforced, and results in a tension between mainstream society and the queer circles that people who practice drag travel within.
drag AS counter cultural
Obviously, drag functions differently within different communities, and while homophobic society views it solitarily as a radical transgression against gender normativity, the gay community’s commoditization of drag complicates the notion of community and how different people interact with gender. In his essay “Politics of Drag,” Jeffrey Hilbert argues that there are two distinct groups of drag performers: those who are primarily entertainers and those who view the performance of drag as a political act. He argues that after the HIV/AIDS crisis, drag became reintroduced as a political act again instead of “The Judy Garlands of the drag queen world…[who] became the unquestioned norm during the heady disco days of the seventies and eighties, when drag bars blossomed throughout the country.” The fact that drag is primarily digested by white, middleclass gay men fits it into a different type of patriarchal system that is challenging to a certain extent, but travels in communities as something
to objectify, enjoy and, essentially, take at face value. This, however, is not the only form that drag takes – as Gender, a political activist and drag queen in New York, stated in the same article, “I mean, how political can a piece of clothing be?... But then I suppose it can be. Drag queens were out there pitching rocks at Stonewall because they had the most to lose. Now there is this timely episode of activism, and since drag queens are so visual, they are out there doing.” The fact that a piece of clothing can, in fact, be political and transgressive demonstrates how challenging the existence of drag can often be – part of the issue with it is the gaze in which it exists. It is too challenging, often, to be taken seriously by mainstream society, and too commoditized to be challenging in the mainstream LGBT community. Drag kings, a generally more political and marginalized group within the drag community, demonstrate further how drag travels within different communities. Traditionally absent from mainstream drag entertainment venues, drag kings do not exist
as the same form of entertainment as drag queens for even mainstream queer audiences. Speaking from experience at bringing drag performers to campus, drag kings are not only harder to locate, but they do not ask for as much money and, additionally, appeal to different communities than drag queens. Indeed, many drag kings are more conscious of the political ramifications of their performance – as Kathryn Rosenfeld states in her piece “Drag King Magic: Performing/Becoming the Other,” drag king performances “reveal a multivalent queer female desire beneath the specious, if heretofore common, assumption that queer desire equals the eroticization of sameness. Contemporary drag king performance literally spotlights the diverse range of popcultural templates available for queergirl gender expression.” She continues to breakdown what exactly drag king performance consists of, and explains that “Some drag kings privilege realness, aiming at least temporarily to become masculine…while others deliberately emphasize a fluidity of gender, incorporating the disjunction between their female anatomies and masculine personae into their acts.”
queens AS commodities
As queens themselves report, their identity is challenging for both the LGBT community and the mainstream digestion of that community. Sylvia Riviera, an outspoken activist and transgender woman who was outspoken about both marginalized people within the LGBT rights movement and by mainstream society, was one of the characters that Duberman followed in Stonewall and is famous for her pioneering work as a transgender activist. In an autobiographical article about her life entitled “Queens in Exile, the Forgotten Ones,” she catalogues the
violence, hateful speech and intense poverty that she encountered while living as a prostitute in New York City while dressing in drag. She was also present at the Stonewall riot, and she does much to contextualize the bar: “What people fail to realize is that the Stonewall was not a drag queen bar. It was a white male bar for middle-class males to pick up young boys of different races. Very few drag queens were
allowed in there, because if they had allowed drag queens into the club, it would have brought the club down. That would have brought more problems to the club.” This not only points to the prejudice within the gay community, but the difficulty that people who performed drag had in living within society. She later states that “many of us have to live by night, because of the lack of laws or protections. A lot of transwomen are standing out on street corners or working clubs…Many of us have to survive by selling our bodies.” The marginalization present for people who exist within this world of drag is twofold, and demonstrates how even among gender nonconforming queer people, gender is still a rigid system and drag is often outside of proper morality. It is difficult for drag queen and others who violate gender norms to find a community which accepts them. Often, queer communities, which are generally seen as people who interrupt the traditional gender binary, view practitioners of drag as too far out of the ordinary. Additionally, queer communities often reinforce dichotomous gender roles in their own navigations of sex and gender. Because of all of these factors, people who do not fit within these strict codes of gender conformity are often inable to move within traditional society. Drag is clearly challenging, then: the ostracism and difficulties surrounding show this to society at large.
dos and don'ts - Tipping is necessary – especially if you’re up front. If you’re going to enjoy the performers from the “good seats,” you should probably have some ones - The show isn’t for you. Forcing yourself on stage and taking your shirt off actually isn’t funny, and it actually is extremely disrespectful to the professionals who are on stage. It’s awesome if the performers bring you on stage, and it’s really great for everyone when everyone’s having fun, but you shouldn’t take up space on their stage unless they want you to. - Moreover, be mindful of the performers and where they’re walking. It’s not easy to wear those heels, so try to stay out of their way as much as possible