Drag: Culture, Community, Controversy

Edited by Tom Perpetua and Sebastian Rubino

It’s a Saturday night in late February at Bangkok Café, a Thai restaurant in New Paltz, New York, where a drag show is underway. Strobe lights are flashing, the DJ is blasting top ten tracks and drag queens are making the crowd scream, “Yasss Queen!”

One of the audience members, a transgender woman named Angela Gwen, stays silent. She isn’t buying it.

The 19-year-old college sophomore had long been wary of drag culture. She went to the show because she was curious. At first, she felt at ease among the crowd of LGBTQ people and their allies. “It was really nice. It was very gay.”

Then she watched cisgender men—the term for men who identify with the gender assigned to them at birth—grab audience member’s breasts and playfully slap their butts. Gwen thought that if anyone touched her, she would slap back in front of everyone. The scene was even worse than she’d anticipated.

Questions raced through her mind: Do they think I’m just a man cross-dressing? Do they get who I am?

“There are always two sides to any issue: what it actually does and the impression it gives to people,” Gwen said. “My biggest problem with drag is that it gives a false impression of what being trans is.”

Since the initiation four years ago of the State University of New York at New Paltz drag club, Queens and Kings of New Paltz, drag performances have become prevalent on and off campus. People flock to the restaurant for the club’s monthly show. Fans squeeze together, angling for the best picture of the performers.

The club has only grown more popular as the subculture of drag moves away from the underground to the mainstream, where RuPaul’s Drag Race has gained Middle American appeal. In the show, queens compete to win the title of “America’s next drag superstar.” But not everyone within the LGBTQ community feels comfortable at drag shows. A divide exists among the community over whether or not drag is transphobic.

Transgender… or Drag?

In recent years, people have debated whether or not drag culture creates a negative attitude surrounding transgender people.

In an article on LGBTQ Nation, transgender advocate Brynn Tannehill discussed the “longstanding tension” between the drag community and the transgender community.

She sights the inception of RuPaul’s popular show as furthering this divide. In the past, RuPaul came under fire for using offensive words like “tranny” or “shemale.”

“Only nine percent of the public knows a transgender person,” Tannehill writes. “For the other 91 percent, transgender people are defined by pathetic creatures like Rayon from Dallas Buyers Club, or the exaggerated caricature portrayed by drag.”

Tannehill argues that drag queens set a precedent for the perception of trans women. She wrote that drag is the most harmful to people who are trans because of those outside of the LGBTQ community who want to demonize trans individuals. “Drag culture in and of itself is used by the religious right as a weapon to demonize the T in LGBT when they argue against employment protections or hate-crime laws.”

The chart below demonstrates the greater risk that trans women, especially trans women of color, face compared to other members in the LGBTQ community. Drag queens have the ability to put on and take off their feminine identity while trans women cannot or would not feel authentically themselves in doing so.

Karl Bryant, an associate professor of sociology and Women’s Gender & Sexuality Studies at SUNY New Paltz, sees drag as transphobic when people who are not trans reclaim historically offensive terms like “tranny.” He pointed out that performers often refer to women’s genitalia, assuming that all women have a vagina and breasts—not necessarily the case for trans women.

According to Bryant, drag queens receive more of a criticism compared to drag kings because of their different histories. Drag kings have existed for a while, but the art form exploded in the ‘90s when drag troupes enacted a political orientation to drag. Issues such as feminism and anti-racism guided drag kings, whereas drag queens have a longer history that was originally more focused on entertainment rather than activism.

“I would never make a blanket comment about drag culture either being transphobic or misogynistic or not being those things,” he said. “There are aspects of it that certainly have been, then there are enactments of drag that are anything but that.”

In the summer of 2015, the objections of transgender people led to drag queens being banned from performing at Free Pride Glasgow, a Scottish gay pride event. According to organizers of the event, it was a preemptive measure to make sure that everyone felt comfortable at Free Pride Glasgow.

The only drag performers allowed consisted of trans identifying individuals dressing in drag to combat the aforementioned issues of cis men and women in drag. Ultimately, before the event, organizers lifted the ban because of international retaliation on social media.

RuPaul’s Drag Race judge and LGBTQ ally, Michelle Visage turned to Twitter,

 

Identity is Not Performance Art

For Gwen, the debate is not abstract. It’s her life. The conflation of trans with drag makes her feel that the identity she fights for is constantly being undermined.

When Gwen came out to her mom as transgender in high school, her mom assumed that her teenager was a drag queen. Gwen’s baby boomer mother asked, “Would it be okay if you don’t transition or wear a dress in the house?”

Hi, I’m here. I’m oppressed. Applaud me.” -Angela Gwen

In everyday situations, Gwen is always thinking about her appearance. When she is relaxing in jeans and a T-shirt, she doesn’t feel safe going to women’s restrooms or other “women only” situations.

“As a trans woman, I have to go the extra mile with everything to affirm my gender and for other people to respect it and even then there are no guarantees,” Gwen said. “I’m pre-estrogen, pre-everything, so when I’m not presenting, I look like a guy.”

She occasionally dons a pink flower crown, pink dresses, a pink purse and light pink flower earrings. She sometimes wears a blonde wig with pink highlights over her short curly brown hair. She’s demure with a shy, but bold sweetness about her. It bothered Gwen that drag queens can claim the “she” pronoun when every day she has to fight for the right to use it herself.

“It’s appropriating my identity because they think that it’s a costume and that it’s fun to do and for me, it’s my life,” Gwen said. “I can’t take it off and forget about it.”

At February’s drag show, Gwen said she found it strange that the queens could simply walk back and forth for applause.

“I was standing there the whole time confused,” she said. “To the straight women, I say, ‘Hi, I’m here. I’m oppressed. Applaud me.’”

Gwen says the educated and active members in the LGBTQ community likely understand. “It’s the cis straight people that need to understand and unless a mandated PSA runs prior to each show stating that drag is not trans, they won’t.”

She has voiced her concerns to drag performers and acknowledges that many trans women realized that they were trans through drag. She believes that most drag queens are not maliciously making fun of trans women; instead it’s ignorance of the issue and the privilege that comes with identifying as cis.

Drag: Origins

Drag queens were one of the first groups of people to experiment with the expression of gender. They fought on the frontlines of the gay rights movement.

According to Bryant, drag queens have a history focused on performance and entertainment. The basis of drag culture is centered around gay cisgender men. Usually part of their act is mocking the notion that there are only two fixed genders.

Esther Newton writes in the 1972 book Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America, “Some people sneak into the gay world; others burst in.”

Newton explains the position of a female impersonator or drag queen as consisting of two essential parts: “show business and homosexuality.” The drag queen career is, as she says, “a deviant career for out gay men.” It is based in theater because like theater, there must be a performer and an audience.

Scholars Steven P. Schacht and Lisa Underwood surmise that female impersonation started when clothing first took on a gendered meaning, which dates back to the first civilizations. Drag performers have material because of society’s rigid stance on how men and women should dress.

Female impersonators also appeared in spaces that women were not allowed, like the theater in Elizabethan England and military bases for entertainment purposes. It was not until female impersonators became linked to homosexuality that most drag troupes disbanded by the end of World War II.

The contemporary drag queen, affiliated with gay bars, is related to the Molly Houses of eighteenth century London, a meeting place for gay men, and drag balls, which emerged in the late nineteenth century. These spectacles provided opportunities for gay men to dress in drag.

Drag king performer and librarian Lydia Willoughby said that drag is playing with your identity in public. For Willoughby, it is a powerful act to celebrate your sexuality in the face of oppression.

Willoughby started performing as a drag king because she only saw gay men in drag onstage. In some gay bars she’s been to, drag queens grab at women and get paid more than their drag king counterparts. Historically, gay men had places such as the Molly Houses to secretly meet, but queer women did not.

“I’m always thinking about the club on campus and how I want to raise feminist drag queens,” Willoughby said. She occasionally participates in on campus events with the club and while doing so, tries to bring a feminist mentality to the troupe.

Performance Art as Identity

“I view gender as something that’s fluid.”

Shortly after Connor Henderson came out as a gay man, he wanted to get into drag.

On Henderson’s eighteenth birthday he performed “I Love It” by Icona Pop wearing a black sequined high-low dress, black pumps and a red wig.

His high school friends cheered him on in the cramped Binghamton gay bar. The space revolved around a dance floor and mirrors lined the walls. Lights flashed, music blared and Henderson’s pre-show jitters melted away as he gave into his stage persona, Kandyy Apple.

She got lost in the performance, dancing uncontrollably and grabbing dollars bills from enthusiastic onlookers. That night Kandyy Apple made her debut. “There’s that whole community aspect of being a drag queen at a gay bar,” Henderson said.

Kandyy formed in private with the help of a friend who gave the burgeoning queen her first outfit. She experimented with makeup and performed gender identity, a public experimentation with gender. However, her first show made her a drag performer.

“I chose the name Kandyy Apple because I wanted it to be something cute, but also kinda slutty,” Henderson said. “So I was like, ‘I’ll pick a stripper name.’ Then I threw Apple on there because it’s cute.”

Kandyy Apple strikes a pose.

The controversy surrounding drag is nothing new to Henderson. In his freshman year of college, he co-founded Queens and Kings. At the time, he was a member of the now disbanded LGBTQ organization, Queer Student Union (QSU), which considered drag queens to be transphobic.

“When we were trying to start our club, there was so much backlash from the other LGBTQ people on our campus,” Henderson said. “It almost felt like the straight people were more supportive than people in my own community.”

The drag club formed because he and a few other QSU members wanted to host a drag ball. Other members of QSU remained firmly against the idea, so a friend of Henderson’s suggested, “Maybe this should be a different thing.”

Henderson said that he’s aware some drag queens may be offensive to people in the transgender community. When performing, Henderson tries to be conscious of how his actions will impact others in terms of how he behaves during a performance.

“Overall I know that myself and other people in our club are very accepting, open-minded and aware of what we are saying,” he said.

Kandyy’s temperament is an extension of Henderson’s. They both exude sincere warmth. Kandyy is a more heightened version of Henderson, a 22-year-old college senior who majors in photography, worships Miley Cyrus and has bleached hair.

Henderson gets ready for “Face Swap” transforming into Kandyy.

Henderson says becoming Kandyy gives him confidence. “It’s the same as wearing a mask,” he said. “You have that sense of ‘I’m not me right now, I’m Kandyy Apple.’ You feel a little more able to do whatever you want.”

Kandyy is an audience favorite at Bangkok Café. At the February show, when it was her turn to strut, the crowd went wild. The congregation flooded the low stage and makeshift aisle. One audience member overheard another talking favorably about the entertainer and said, “You’re a fan of Kandyy Apple? I’m a fan of her too!”

“Face Swap” Drag Show from Jess Napp on Vimeo.

“All Gender is Performance”

Jessica Pabón, assistant professor of Women’s Gender & Sexuality Studies at SUNY New Paltz, believes it’s important to listen to both sides of the drag debate.

She wants people to value the difference between the experience of trans life and drag performance. Drag does not represent trans life. “A performance is meant to start a conversation. It’s a space for expression.”

Pabón enjoys drag king shows and says context is important.

“The destabilizing work that drag culture did allows gender non-conforming and trans-identifying individuals their day-to-day freedoms,” she said. “They were made possible because of the aesthetic intervention that happened first in drag culture.”

“All gender is performance,” she said. She pointed out that drag performers have faced plenty of oppression. Yet she acknowledges that individual performers can be problematic.

“I want the queer community to have pleasure,” she said. “I want us to not be afraid of playing with identity practices.”

SUNY New Paltz organizations affiliated with the queer community attempt to educate members on drag culture. They take steps to make sure all LGBTQ identifying people feel safe in spaces where drag is performed.

Last year, Willoughby hosted a drag show with Queens and Kings in the library. Students from the live-in LGBTQ community at SUNY New Paltz, Rivera House, participated in a Q&A session with the performers after the show.

According to Henderson, Pride Club, which replaced QSU, is generally more supportive of the drag club now. They often co-host events with Queens and Kings, especially during Pride Club’s “Pride Week” celebration that Henderson helped initiate.

Harmony Between Queens and Kings

Calyx Davis is a non-binary trans man who does not always feel completely “male,” though he associates more closely with the male end of the gender spectrum. He’s also a college freshman and a member of Queens and Kings. He performs as the drag queen Harmony Lyx.

Calyx Davis in casual attire.

“It was in the back of my mind that maybe people will think I’m not really trans because I’m presenting femininely on stage,” Davis said. “But overall I don’t care what people think. It’s a performance.”

Davis joined the club his first semester. He loved RuPaul’s show and performing in plays. He didn’t have time to commit to theater, so he tried drag.

“I like the idea of performing, especially as a character that’s completely different from who I am,” Davis said.

Davis is usually a casual dresser in a T-shirt and sweatpants. He wears glasses and round black earrings. His hair is blond and short with a dark brown undercut on the left side of his head.

One of Harmony’s getups is a cheerleader with a rubber chicken attempting to convey a ditsy, but devilish persona.

“I think sometimes Harmony and Calyx mix,” Davis said. “I go with the flow and that’s where there’s a huge similarity. I’m generally a carefree person.”

Davis is encouraged by his fellow performers and he likes playing with gender. But recently he’s become wary of the drag scene. He recognizes the transphobic controversy of drag and is affected by it himself. Lately, he attends fewer club meetings. He feels less included in the space and more dysphoric.

Gender dysphoria comes in different forms and often times this discomfort stems from societal expectations thrust upon someone who identifies differently than their perceived gender. Davis experiences dysphoria in the club because as a trans man he usually feels more pressure, compared to a cis man, to conform to masculine stereotypes.

“I think sometimes Harmony and Calyx mix.”

 

“Sometimes I can’t pull myself away from being who I am and get into character,” Davis said.

After February’s show at Bangkok, attendees approached Harmony and said, “Oh, you’re a real girl.” They—Davis’s preferred pronoun for Harmony—stayed in character and made their voice higher. But it was an uncomfortable moment.

“Drag is often offensive, which isn’t necessarily bad because it’s centered around comedy or reclaiming things that have been offensive to performers,” Davis said. “Yet, having gay cis white men being the face of the queer community can erase the other letters in the acronym.”

Davis said that a former queen in the club once complained about the struggles of trying to “pass as a woman.” A friend snapped back, “What do you think being trans is like?”

The world is slowing making space for trans people. TIME Magazine’s March 2017 cover story delved into the younger generation’s questioning of gender and sexuality conventions. Showtime’s Billions recently introduced TV’s first gender non-binary character, someone who does not feel that they are either conventionally male or female.

Queens and Kings is changing, too. More than half of the ten club members are not cis.

According to Davis, non-binary performers represent unconventional drag performances in the club. And bio queens—cis women who perform as “drag queens”—like Lady Lilith further demonstrate the diversity.

“When you have someone who’s non-binary come in and do a performance to a goofy song in a crazy costume there’s no saying what their pronouns are or how they identify,” Davis said. “It’s not necessarily playing with gender expression, it’s just expression. It’s just drag.”

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