With drag’s increasing popularity in mainstream media, Dylan O’Neill looks at the journey of drag queens from the fringes to politics.
In the 2015 documentary Drag Becomes Him, Jerick Hoffer (also known as celebrity queen Jinkx Monsoon) describes drag as an art-form that allows for self-expression and commentary on topics that would not typically be in the foreground of conversation. While its current level of popularity in the mainstream media is only a recent phenomenon, drag has been around for many years.
As far back as the Middle Ages, within the works of Shakespeare and Italian operas, female impersonators have graced the stage. It was actually Shakespeare who first coined the term “drag” to refer to cross-dressing actors in the theatre. This practice was not considered as revolutionary or gender-defying as it is today. At the time, female actors would have been considered scandalous and inappropriate. Men playing feminine roles onstage set the groundwork for variations on this art form across Europe, such as the pantomime dame – a tradition that is still upheld to this day. The practice wouldn’t be associated with the LGBT+ community until the mid-twentieth century.
“As far back as the Middle Ages, within the works of Shakespeare and Italian operas, female impersonators have graced the stage.
Drag first appeared in North America in minstrel shows, which mocked African-American men and women. Straight white men would perform comedic sketches, dances and songs as women in blackface. Nowadays, this is largely seen as an oppressive act on the African-American community and remains a low point in the history of drag. Even though minstrel shows had a rapid decline across America, their use of dark humour and camp style is visible in many drag shows today.
From these somewhat shaky beginnings, drag queens increased in popularity with the introduction of vaudeville shows in the late 1800s. Developing from the European cross-dressing shows, drag moved away from the minstrel shows and adopted a hyper-feminine style of female impersonation. Parodies of female gay icons, such as Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, eventually became a staple in drag shows. It was during this time that drag became associated with LGBT+ culture.
At the same time, drag queens and transgender women were being subjected to severe discrimination outside the LGBT+ community. In 1969, the Stonewall riots began in New York, in response to the frequent arrests of people dressed in clothes that did not match their legal gender. This protest paved the way for international Pride parades, which celebrate and fight for the rights of the LGBT+ community.
Drag gradually moved from the stage to the big screen with films such as Pink Flamingos and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. At the same time, “Ball” culture was beginning to flourish. This was an underground subculture of the LGBT+ community in which young queens would compete in different categories that judged their costumes, dance abilities and attitude. Paris is Burning, a 1990 documentary, showcased the Ball culture of Harlem, New York following the lives of young, queer people of colour. Aspects of Ball culture began to spill into the more mainstream gay culture, with music, dance (especially voguing) and slang terms being used more and more by many gay men.
In underground nightclubs, there rose a cultural subversion, in which drag queens, such as Leigh Bowery and James St. James, would dress in outrageous costumes that deviated from the typical hyper-feminine looks were prominent in the ballroom. This was to draw focus on the art of drag by using their bodies as a canvas, and is continued today by queens like Sharon Needles and Sasha Velour, who subvert our expectations, making us question our views on sex and politics.
Of course, a history of drag would be incomplete without mentioning the career of iconic queen Rupaul. From appearing in the music video for The B-52’s ‘Love Shack’ to receiving an Emmy as host of Rupaul’s Drag Race, Rupaul has commercialized drag culture and “launched the careers” of many of her drag sisters. However, she is not the only one to make money out of drag. Drag pageantry has been a prevalent aspect of the LGBT+ community since the 1970s, and has in recent years been used to raise awareness of important issues such as HIV/AIDS. Having expanded across to Europe and parts of Asia, drag has promoted the visibility of the trans community across the world.
“Drag pageantry has been a prevalent aspect of the LGBT+ community since the 1970s, and has in recent years been used to raise awareness of important issues such as HIV/AIDS.”
One notable example of queens involved with politics is Ireland’s very own Panti Bliss, who publicly spoke out against homophobia in the Irish media despite facing censorship and legal action. Bliss was also a vocal advocate for marriage equality in Ireland ahead of the marriage 2015 marriage equality referendum and remains supportive of those seeking marriage equality in Northern Ireland and Australia.
Over the centuries, drag has evolved from a method to exclude women and mock marginalized groups, to an art form that represents them, providing a forum for discussions on the society we all live in.