PRIDE Committee Q&A: History of Drag

For the past year, drag has been at the center of a massive campaign of anger, hatred, and disinformation. Libraries, schools, restaurants, and theaters have been the targets of threats or acts of violence around hosting drag events, and, at time of submission, at least eight states are considering or have passed legislation to ban Drag and Trans people from public performance. Drag has been a very powerful and important part of queer history and culture, and therefore has always been at the center of queerphobic violence. However, since there is so much disinformation currently being spread, this article is about what drag is, isn’t and a small portion of the history of drag. Beth Neer and Juli Owen PRIDE Committee Co-Chairs

What is drag

Drag is a kind of performance art, where gender roles, expression and expectations are played up to a beyond extreme degree. Think of houses that are absolutely covered in Christmas lights and decorations, so many it’s hard to see the lawn or furniture. Drag follows that same kind of decorative, over the top attitude, except instead of holiday aesthetics, drag uses the aesthetics tied to gender expression (makeup, dresses, suits, beards, etc.) This exaggeration is mostly done for comedy but is also a form of personal fun and self-expression for the performers, a kind of dress up or pretend play.

Most commonly, drag show involve singing, stand-up comedy acts, and lip sync performances that involve dancing or pantomime. Of most note in the news lately are Drag Story Hours, which involve a drag performer reading a children’s picture book to the audience. These also might include the performer leading sing-alongs, dancing, or telling kids goofy knock-knock jokes or puns. Drag performances are also very often charity fundraisers, raising money for both causes related to the LGTBQ+ community (AIDS research, community outreach, housing insecurity/homelessness, etc.) or causes related to the local community (paying for neighbors’ rents, funerary costs, medical bills or simply to donate to local charities and places)

Also, for future reference in this article: Drag Queens are about femininity and are often cis men who perform femininity. However, there are also commonly trans women, as well as cis women drag queens. Drag Kings are about masculinity and are often cis women who perform masculinity. However, there are also very commonly trans men and nonbinary drag kings. There are also many forms of nonbinary drag, and there are many nonbinary drag performers who may use Queen, King or other language to describe their acts.

What isn’t drag

Just like how music has a very wide range of different genres, Drag has many different styles, all of which have different looks, rules, and applications. While there are kinds of burlesque and cabaret drag styles, there are also many kinds of drag that do not involve innuendo or stripping. In fact, your average drag queen or king probably wears more layers of fabric and clothing than any random person on the sidewalk, which would make stripping very cumbersome to say the least.

Regardless of content, shows held at bars don’t allow minors in due to the presence of alcohol. Queer bars are strict in terms of checking people’s ID at the door and turning away visible children due to the history of police raids and public scrutiny of gay bars and clubs. The shows and events then that do allow children in have performers and performances that tone back any language, dances or stage acts in order to accommodate the younger audience.

Also, drag is not just being transgender. Drag is a form of performance art, a costume and stage persona/performance that is specifically a comment on gender roles and aesthetics, that can be taken off at the end of a show. Being transgender is not a performance, it is an inherent aspect of oneself. It is an inherent sense and aspect of self, just as being cis is. Drag is not a gender, trans people are not by default drag performers. However, anti-drag laws are written in ways that also ban trans people from public speaking venues, claiming that it is also a ‘form of drag’.

History of drag

Cross dressing for entertainment has been around for literal centuries, since the times of ancient Greece. Several cultural traditions prohibited women from performing on stage, most famously Japanese Kabuki and England in Shakespeare’s time. In these practices, boys and men would dress up in makeup and costume and perform the parts of all the women characters. Inversely, 16th and 17th century Spain had a popular theater style of all women performing, including dressing for male roles. This of course led to the idea of performance that played around with gender expectations.

However, the first known instances of the phrase “Drag Queen” was in the 1880s, with William Dorsey Swann, a queer, black, formerly enslaved man who hosted dinners and dances for fellow queer, black, and formerly enslaved men, wearing fancy dresses and getups. Many parts of these events have stuck around in modern drag culture. These were the first known instances of drag events and queer specific gatherings in the United States, although underground queer gatherings involving cross-dressing were also known throughout Europe at the time.*

*Content warning: slurs and harsh language historically used in the Wikipedia timeline’s examples

Drag became more popular, especially the idea of Drag Kings, in the 1920s, with queer, female jazz and blues singers in Harlem dressing as men and playing around with masculine and personal gender expression in their acts.

Essentially, the idea of cross-dressing, drag, and performative gender has been around for an extremely long time as a way for queer people to express themselves, find community with each other, and reach out to other people. Drag is not, and has never been, about child abuse, human trafficking, or indoctrination. It’s a public form of artistic expression, just like any other performance art.