Drag queens are performance artists, almost always male, who dress in women's clothing and often act with exaggerated femininity and in feminine gender roles with a primarily entertaining purpose. They often exaggerate make-up such as eyelashes for dramatic, comedic or satirical effect. Drag queens are closely associated with gay men and gay culture, but can be of any sexual orientation or gender identity. They vary widely by class, culture, and dedication, from professionals who star in films to people who try drag very occasionally.
The origin of the term is uncertain; the first recorded use of drag in reference to actors dressed in women's clothing is from 1870. Drag queens are typically gay men, but there are drag queens of all different sexual orientations and genders. Trans women who perform as drag queens,sometimes termed trans queens, include such persons as Monica Beverly Hillz and Agnes Moore, known by her stage name Peppermint. Cisgender women who engage in drag are often termed faux queens. Drag queens' counterparts are drag kings, women who dress in exaggeratedly masculine clothing; men who dress like drag kings are sometimes termed faux kings.
Another term for a drag queen is female impersonator. Female impersonation has been and continues to be illegal in some places, which inspired the drag queen José Sarria to hand out labels to his friends reading, "I am a boy", so he could not be accused of female impersonation. American drag queen RuPaul once said, "I do not impersonate females! How many women do you know who wear seven-inch heels, four-foot wigs, and skintight dresses?" He also said, "I don't dress like a woman; I dress like a drag queen!".
Some drag queens may prefer to be referred to as "she" while in drag and desire to stay completely in character. Other drag performers, like RuPaul, seem to be completely indifferent to which pronoun is used to refer to them. In his words, "You can call me he. You can call me she. You can call me Regis and Kathie Lee; I don't care! Just so long as you call me."
Drag queens are sometimes called transvestites, although that term also has many other connotations than the term drag queen and is not much favored by many drag queens themselves. The term tranny has been adopted by some drag performers, notably RuPaul, and the gay male community in the United States, but it is considered offensive to most transgender and transsexual people.
Many drag performers refer to themselves as drag artists, as opposed to drag queens, as contemporary forms of drag have become nonbinary.
In the drag queen world today, there is an ongoing debate about whether transgender drag queens are actually considered "Drag Queens". This subject is argued because Drag Queens are defined as a man portraying a woman. Since transgender queens are women, many people do not consider them drag queens because they are not men dressing as women. Drag Kings are biological females who assume a masculine aesthetic. However this is not always the case, because there are also biokings, bio-queens, and faux queens, which are people who perform their own biological sex through a heightened or exaggerated gender presentation.
History of drag
In the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, pantomime dames became a popular form of female impersonation in Europe. This was the first era of female impersonation in Europe to use comedy as part of the performance, contrasting with the serious Shakespearean tragedies and Italian operas. The dame became a stock character with a range of attitudes from "charwoman" to "grande dame" that mainly was used for improvisation. The most famous and successful pantomime dame was Dan Leno. After World War I and World War II, the theatre and movie scenes were changing, and the use of pantomime dames declined.
Eugene d'Ameli, a white man, dressed in blackface as an African American woman for a minstrel show in the late 19th century
Development of the drag queen in the United States started with the development of the blackfaceminstrel show. Originally the performers would only mock African American men, but as time went on they found it amusing to mock African American femininity as well. They performed in comedic skits, dances, and "wench" songs. These minstrel shows and their "wench players" were used by white men to both mock and oppress women and African Americans.
Vaudeville and female impersonators
Julian Eltinge as a female impersonator in the Fascinating Widow early-1910s
The broad comedic stylings of the minstrel shows helped develop the vaudeville shows of the late 1800s to the early 1900s. With this shift, the "wench players" became "prima donnas", and became more elegant and refined, while still retaining their comedic elements. While the "wenches" were purely American creations, the "prima donnas" were inspired by both America and European cross-dressing shows, like Shakespearean actors and castrati. With the United States shifting demographics, including the shift from farms to cities, Great Migration of African Americans, and an influx of immigrants, vaudeville's broad comedy and music expanded the audience from minstrelsy. With vaudeville becoming more popular, it allowed female impersonators to become popular as well. Many female impersonators started with low comedy in vaudeville and worked their way up to perform as the prima donna. Famous female impersonator Julian Eltinge found success in this and eventually made his way to the broadway stage performing as a woman. At this time being a female impersonator was seen as something for the straight white male, and any deviation was punished. Connection with sex work and homosexuality eventually lead to the decline of vaudeville during the Progressive Era. Both the minstrelsy and vaudeville eras of female impersonation led to an association with music, dance, and comedy that still lasts today.
In the early to mid-1900s, female impersonation had become tied to the LGBT community[dubious – discuss] and thus criminality, so it had to change forms and locations. It moved from being popular mainstream entertainment to something done only at night in disreputable areas, such as San Francisco's Tenderloin. Here female impersonation started to evolve into what we today know as drag and drag queens. Drag queens such as José Sarria and Aleshia Brevard first came to prominence in these clubs. People went to these nightclubs to play with the boundaries of gender and sexuality and it became a place for the LBGT community, especially gay men, to feel accepted. As LGBT culture has slowly become more accepted in American society, drag has also become more, though not totally, acceptable in today's society.
On March 17, 1968, in Los Angeles, to protest entrapment and harassment by the LAPD, two drag queens known as "The Princess" and "The Duchess" held a St. Patrick's Day party at Griffith Park, a popular cruising spot and a frequent target of police activity. More than 200 gay men socialized through the day.
During the summer of 1976, a restaurant in Fire Island Pines, New York, denied entry to a visitor in drag named Terry Warren. When Warren's friends in Cherry Grove heard what had happened, they dressed up in drag, and, on July 4, 1976, sailed to the Pines by water taxi. This turned into a yearly event where drag queens go to the Pines, called the Invasion of the Pines.
A drag queen may either pick or be given a drag name by a friend, sometimes called a "drag mother", the so named thus becoming known as a "drag daughter". Drag mothers and drag daughters have a mentor-apprentice relationship. Drag families are a part of ball culture and drag 'houses'’.
The process of getting into drag or into character can take hours. A drag queen may aim for a certain style, celebrity impression, or message with their look. Hair, make-up, and costumes are the most important essentials for drag queens. Drag queens tend to go for a more exaggerated look with a lot more makeup than a typical feminine woman would wear.
Some people do drag simply as a means of self-expression, but often drag queens (once they have completed a look) will go out to clubs and bars and perform in a "drag show." Many drag queens do dress up for money by doing different shows, but there are also drag queens that have full-time jobs but still enjoy dressing up in drag as a hobby.
Many parts of the drag show, and of the drag queens' other intellectual properties, cannot be protected by intellectual property law. To substitute the lack of legal protection, drag queens revert to social norms in order to protect their intellectual property.
A drag show is an entertainment consisting of a variety of songs, monologues or skits featuring either single performers or groups of performers in drag meant to entertain an audience. They range from amateur performances at small bars to elaborately staged theatrical presentations. Many drag shows feature performers singing or lip-synching to songs while performing a pre-planned pantomime, or dancing. The performers often don elaborate costumes and makeup, and sometimes dress to imitate various famous female singers or personalities. Some events are centered around drag, such as Southern Decadence where the majority of festivities are led by the Grand Marshals, who are traditionally drag queens.
1979 – The Rose starring Bette Midler, notable for a scene in which Midler's character Mary Rose Foster performs a duet on stage in a drag club with a drag queen (played by Kenny Sacha) who is impersonating Midler as Foster.
1990 – Paris Is Burning a documentary film directed by Jennie Livingston. It chronicles the ball culture of New York City and the gay and transgender community involved in it. It centers around African American and Latino drag culture surrounding communities such as Harlem in the 80s.
While some male music celebrities wear exaggerated feminine clothing as part of their show, they are not necessarily drag queens. For example, Boy George wears drag queen style clothes and cosmetics but he once stated he was not a drag queen. However, RuPaul is a professional drag queen performer and singer.
Examples of songs where lyrics refer to drag queens:
While drag queens have a prevalent status as entertainers, they play a role in educating people on gender roles and stereotyping. Professor Stephen Schacht of Plattsburgh State University of New York began introducing his and his students' experiences of attending a drag show to his gender/sexualities class to challenge his students' ideas of dichotomy. Over time he began inviting students to attend with him. He gathered from his students that after attending the drag show they had a new appreciation for gender and sexuality and often become very vocal about their new experiences in the classroom.
Drag has come to be a celebrated aspect of modern gay life. Many gay bars and clubs around the world hold drag shows as special parties. Several "International Drag Day" holidays have been started over the years to promote the shows. In the U.S. Drag Day is typically celebrated in early March.