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Untwist Your Knickers

As aforementioned, attitudes towards drag performers vary widely over the centuries.  In the dawn of Drag, its association with homosexuality was nil.  Today, one cannot be a drag performer without automatically being labeled a homosexual.

Eddie Izzard, stand-up comedian.

Eddie Izzard is a popular stand-up comedian.  Characterized by his flamboyant performances, he has made a name for himself as one of the most acclaimed transvestite performers of the age.  Eddie Izzard is straight.  You heard me, S-T-R-A-I-G-H-T.  Then, why the get-up? Magnus Herschfeld, the coiner of the term “transvestite” is, himself, disappointed with the phrase. He found in his studies that males who preferred to dress as females covered nearly every end of the transgender spectrum. Heterosexuals and homosexuals alike were both reported to partake in acts of transvestism. Psychological distinctions are at the root of this gray area known as Transgender. It is in these distinctions that we find the differences between the terms “Transgender” and “Transsexual.” A “Transgender” is, simply put, a person who refuses to conform to the gender binary in any amount of expressions. A “Transsexual” desires to be accepted as an alternate gender contrary to what they were born into. Izzard, for example, may fall under the umbrella term, “Transgender” for partaking in acts of “Transvestism” (e.g. cross-dressing), however, he does not lie in the category, “Transsexual,” because he sexually identifies himself as a heterosexual male.

The gaps are far and wide in the studies of Transgenderism. And there is a lot of room for misinterpretation.  It is important that we approach the world of Drag with this in mind.  A Drag Queen may or may not be a gay man.  The act of performing in drag may or may not be for personal sexual identification.  It could simply be a matter of entertainment.  Whatever the motive, Drag has found a niche in queer society.  It is a means of expression.  And no matter how that expression may come out, we, as a global audience, owe it to them to take it seriously.

Juleisy & Karla, a Drag duo from Miami, FL

Pussila, a popular Drag Queen from Miami, FL.

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The Rise of the Queen

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.

Sylvester: The "Queen" of 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

David Bowie as "Ziggy Stardust"

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

Boy George departed from the traditional "drag" performances of the era in lieu of a far more interprative style known as "genderfuck"

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.

In The Beginning…

Would you believe me if I told you that Drag has existed since Elizabethan Era, England? Probably not. And you’d be partially right. Drag, as we know it, certainly wasn’t around then. But, the act of men dressing as women was institutionalized in the 1500’s thanks to the world of theatrical arts. Up until the late 17th Century in England, women were not allowed to act on stages across the country. That’s right, the first Juliet to ever take the stage was played by a man. To be more precise: female roles (with the exception of minor, comedic relief characters such as nurses, chamber-maids, peasants, etc.) were played by young boys whose voices and bodies had yet to mature.

Edward Kynaston. One of England's last "Boy Players"

This category of actor was commonly referred to as “Boy Player.” Some of the most prominent of these players were Christopher Beeston, Nathan Field, and Edward Kynaston. Shakespeare, himself, was no stranger to gender-bending. In his acclaimed comedy, Twelfth Night , he writes about a hectic circle of love involving women dressed up as men and mistaken gender identities. This convention appears frequently in other plays of his as well.

Gweneth Paltrow as Olivia in "Shakespeare in Love"

Drag in historical theater, however, was not limited to men playing female roles.  To culturally dissect the word, “Transvestite,” leads to a classic theatrical convention, “en travestie,” or, “in trousers.”

Mary Anne Keeley, a prominent English actress, was popularized for her talents as a "Breeches Actor"

Following the legalization of women in theater resulted in a dramatic about face.  Now, women were playing male roles, or “Breeches Roles.”  This was a common convention in Opera.  Oftentimes, roles of young adolescent males were accompanied with songs written in soprano voice that could usually only be sung by women.  Popular “Breeches Roles” include Cherubim in The Marriage of Figaro and Orpheus in Orpheus and Euridice.

An interesting correlation to be noted of this period in time is the lack thereof of Drag and homosexuality.  The two were rarely, if ever, linked as topics of discussion.  There is no doubt that audiences to the Elizabethan Theater were familiar with Drag. And back then, there was a far bigger separation between Drag and homosexuality than what exists today. There is no doubt that audiences to the Elizabethan Theater were familiar with Drag. And back then, there was a far bigger separation between Drag and homosexuality than what exists today.  Today, Drag and homosexuality are practically synonymous. In Elizabethan England, however, this was not the case. Drag was simply seen as an occupational necessity. “Sodomy,” however starting in the 1530’s, was a crime punishable by death. Boy Players were never assumed to partake in sodomy simply because they dressed as women.  In this day and age, though, a drag queen is automatically expected to be gay.

As time progressed, the line between gender norms began to blur.  Clothing became less flamboyantly geared towards either gender.  Behavior and cultural attitudes towards the male/female spectrum shifted.  And Drag in theater became less of a serious requirement and more of a comedic tool.  Roles such as tavern wenches and ugly step-sisters were cast as men to add an element of levity to shows.  It is here where we can see the transformation of Drag from a traditional convention to a light-hearted parody.

Don’t Be Such A Drag

What do you think of when you think of “Drag?”

Images that likely come to mind are six foot tall glamazon men-turned-women with pounds of makeup, fake boobs, and mountains of glitter. Indeed, that is what Drag has come to mean for contemporary society. It is a performance to be reveled and taken lightly with a spirit of joviality. I challenge, however, that any performance by a drag queen is something to be taken seriously, with the utmost respect to the performer. It is with that mentality that the first audiences to Drag came. In fact, Drag (like many facets in the world of queer sexualities) is a concept that depreciated over time. From cultural acceptance to taboo, one can consider the history of Drag a DE-evolution. So, allow me to take you on the colorful journey of Drag in popular culture.

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