Everyone has heard the word, and -- whether live or on television -- we have all seen a drag show. But there are many things about Drag you might not know, so in honor of Drag History Month (January) here are some tidbits of info.
Everyone, it seems, has heard the word Drag. And even though the words ‘Drag Queen’ only seemed to first appear in print in the 1940’s, the term either originated in gay or theatre slang as far back as the 1870s; the official long-established theatre term for "cross-dressing" on-stage however was the French word, ‘travesti’.
The meanings of words can shift over time. Just like in the 1950s the media referred to Coccinelle (the famous French post op transsexual cabaret performer) as a She-Male, the word Drag and Drag Queen have changed over time as well.
Drag in the broadest sense of the word actually refers to any clothing one wears; the traditional use of the term however is for any costume or outfit that carries symbolic significance. So while one can say “let me get out of this drag, “in reference to taking off a costume, the more common use these days refers to being dressed in the clothing associated with the opposite gender, while “drab “refers to dressing in the clothes of your own gender.
Drag has a long and varied history in theater and cross-dressing elements of performance traditions are a widespread cultural phenomena. Kabuki, the traditional theatre of Japan, has always featured drag. Originally kabuki troupes were all female; now they are all male, and female roles are played by Onnagata, actors who specialize in playing female roles. The Takarazuka Revue is a popular all-female troupe that specializes in putting on romantic plays where all the male roles are played by young women.
Earlier, in England, actors in Shakespearean plays and indeed in all Elizabethan theatre -- tragedy as well as comedy -- were all male; female parts were played by young men in drag. Shakespeare used the conventions to enrich the gender confusions of As You Like It and the plot device of the film Shakespeare in Love (1998) turns upon this Elizabethan convention. By the reign of Charles I, actresses were allowed on the London stage in the French fashion, and serious travesti roles disappeared.
Throughout history there have also been those that cross-dressed in drag outside the realm of theater. Charles d'Eon de Beaumont (1728-1810) cross-dressed and had everyone so confused that the public didn’t know whether he was actually a woman that started dressing in boy clothes at an early age, who then became a good girl and dressed appropriately in later life, or was actually a man that began dressing as a woman in later life.
A diplomat, writer, spy, and Freemason, a member of the elite Dragoons and one of the best swordsmen in France, his true gender was a source of speculation that provoked public bets in the late 18th century. It wasn’t until inspection of his body after his death that the controversy was eventually put to rest.
And in 1702 Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, a cousin of Queen Anne of England, was governor of the territory encompassing New York and New Jersey that had recently been wrested from Dutch control, was firmly convinced that he looked better in queenly get-ups than his cousin did. And, he was not shy about making his case before his constituents: a portrait of him still hangs in the New York Historical Society.
Within the dramatic fiction of theater a double standard historically affected the uses of drag. In male-dominated societies where active roles were reserved to men, a woman might dress as a man under the pressures of her dramatic predicament. A man's position was above a woman’s; causing a rising action that suited itself to tragedy, sentimental melodrama and comedies of manners that involved confused identities. A man dressed as a woman was thought to be a falling action only suited to broad low comedy and burlesque.
These conventions were unbroken before the 20th century, when rigid gender roles were undermined and begun to dissolve. This evolving changed drag in the last decades of the 20th century, which are still now unfolding.
During the 1960s the term Drag and Drag Queen came into fashion, although many of the ‘Drag Queens’ were actually gay transvestites. When interviewed several years ago y Brianna Austin, Mother Flawless Sabrina [who launched the first national transgender beauty pageant], said that “you could be arrested just for walking down the street dressed in Drag. So we had to call the pageants Miss Chicago, or Miss New York, never Miss Drag Chicago etc. “
So things have indeed changed over the decades since then; the transvestites and drag queens of the 60s were the force behind the Riot at Compton and Stonewall, which was the start of the rebellious gay rights movement during the mid and late 1960s. So while many transsexuals and cross-dressers have made statements denouncing Drag Queens, it was their (the Drag queens) bravely and tenacity that paved the way today for all the freedoms that cross dressers enjoy today.
In recent years Drag is now considered a performance art, as is a ‘female impersonator.’ The former tends to be an over-the-top glitz and glamour caricature, while the later attempts to an impersonation with more realism. Randi Roberts or Richard Skipper, for example are female impersonators, while Lady Bunny, Hedda Lettuce and RuPaul are Drag Queens.
And their counterparts, woman who dress on stage as men, are referred to as Drag Kings.
Drag According To The Performer:
Cassandra Fever: "I've been working as a female impersonator in the entertainment business for many years, and there has never been a moment when I did not absolutely love what I do. It's more than just a gig or a job, it's about sharing a moment of magic on stage with my audience, and doing my best to capture and thoroughly entertain them. I enjoy the challenge and the process that comes with creating and presenting these characters that I temporarily embody. I love creating that moment of fantasy turned reality. That's what inspires me - if you can dream it, you can be it. It truly is a historical art form and there's a certain mystery to it that's unique. I feel lucky to have a niche in that history."
“Drag, has basically made me the person I am today. I never knew how much drag has influenced my life till I had to set down and write this piece. I am twenty-eight years old now and I started professionally doing drag at the age of eighteen. That has been over ten years in the world of drag. So many people think drag is a bad thing or gay men think it’s a cop out for men, etc. But I truly feel that is a dying art form here in America and I am so glad to see it being celebrated! Also, with the hope of Rupaul’s new show on LOGO Channel, Drag Races, it will inspire others.”
Back before the term Transgendered was coined, and before we actually knew what a transsexual was, anyone that was dressing in clothing of the opposite sex was considered a DQ, or as we know a “drag queen.” DQ’s – and transvestites -- were a driving force behind the gay rights movement. They took no shit from any one, and they lived their lives the way they wanted to. I remember in the first years of my performance career I met a drag queen/transgendered lady who would come to our show. We became really close as friends and I remember her telling me stories about walking out of the bars in the sixties in women’s clothes hoping to get arrested. She knew the cops were out there waiting for her and her other DQ friends to bust them if they were in women’s clothes. I was amazed by the stories she told me and it really made me appreciate drag so much more!
Throughout my journey from boy to woman, I have been in drag all the way through it. I even took a break to live a normal life and came back because I missed it. Drag is something that the gay and trans community need to embrace. There are so many different kinds of drag queens out there and I am just proud to be one of them. I am so proud of it that I have started a music career much after the legendary Rupaul, hoping to change people’s views on the trans and gay community. So I think everyone should take in one drag show in the near future and see what it’s all about and enjoy it! I know I have!
“Drag has been special to me because of its transformable powers. You don't fit in with the other kids at school? Sneak out and do Rocky Horror Picture Show. Struggling as an actor in NYC & not making enough money doing extra work? Put on a dress and watch your rates go from standard $100 for 8 hours to $250 for 8 hours. No one wants to take your picture on the red carpet? Lie down and act like you're dying of beautifulness. Yes. I know that Beautifulness is not a word. But don't correct my grammar. I got a blade and I will cut you. (Also, free blade with purchase of first wig. WELCOME TO DRAG!)
To Be Continued…