The late 19th Century saw the rise of the underground Drag Queen. Hasty Pudding Theatricals at Harvard University, the oldest collegiate theatrical organization in the United States, popularized a yearly burlesque show in which men would perform the Can-Can in appropriate French skirts. Other Ivy League Universities such as Yale, Princeton, and UPenn followed suit.
National attention was being drawn to Drag as a form of entertainment.
At the dawn of the 20th Century, Drag made its most dramatic transformation yet. From television to music, drag performers were showing up in popular culture across the map. Though still largely underground, Drag shows grew in popularity. While the farcical “Drag” was still struggling to burst forth from the underground scene of New York City, a different form of female impersonation was flourishing in France. In the 1940’s, nightclubs and cabarets featured female impersonators who would dazzle the crowd with spectacular renditions of popular songs only to reveal their true identity at the end of the show. Drawing from this inspiration, Harlem’s Apollo Theater began performances of “49 Men & A Girl.” The audiences would, night after night, applaud the female soloist in the finale who would reveal her true identity to be the man who introduced the acts earlier in the evening. Then, in one sudden movement, Drag exploded onto the scene. That movement was disco.
For the first time, male artists not only put on female clothing for shock value, but literally embodied their new found alter-egos into fully-fledged personas to be marketed. The biggest of all these stars at the time being, Divine. Described by People magazine as the “Drag Queen of the Century,” Divine made a name for herself totally separate from Harris Glenn Milstead. Appearing in many films (as both male and female), and being the voice
behind dozens of critically acclaimed records of the 70’s and 80’s, the identity known as, Divine, redefined the term “Drag Queen.” A deifying title for a very distinguished position.
What differentiates Drag Queens from the era of “genderfuck” in music, is the full-bodied caricature of a woman. Artists who popularized “genderfuck” included David Bowie and Boy George. Both of these musicians avoided female impersonation but rather challenged the gender-norm by embodying a sense of androgyny in their performances with stylized makeup and costumes. Their performances were particularly distinct from those of Divine
in that they did not wish to create an identity separate from who they were as people.
In today’s culture, Drag has continued to push the envelope. Costumes are gaudier and flashier. Performances are far more elaborate. Hell, drag queens even have their own TV shows. However, to what extent has the term Drag separated itself from sexual identity? Is it now simply a matter of entertainment? It is important to understand the discrepancies between cross-dressing and what that means in terms of one’s sexual identity.