A drag queen is a person, usually male, who uses drag clothing and makeup to imitate and often exaggerate female gender signifiers and gender roles for entertainment purposes. Historically, most drag queens have been men dressing as women. In modern times, drag queens are associated with gay men and gay culture, but they can be of any gender and sexual identity.
People partake in the activity of doing drag for reasons ranging from self-expression to mainstream performance. Drag shows frequently include lip-syncing, live singing, and dancing. They occur at events like gay pride parades and drag pageants and in venues such as cabarets and nightclubs. Drag queens vary by type, culture, and dedication, from professionals who star in films to people who do drag only occasionally.
Terminology, scope and etymology
The origin of the term drag is uncertain; the first recorded use of drag in reference to actors dressed in women's clothing is from 1870. For much of history, drag queens were men, but in more modern times, cisgender and trans women, as well as non-binary people, also perform as drag queens. In a 2018 article, Psychology Today stated that drag queens are "most typically gay cisgender men (though there are many drag queens of varying sexual orientations and gender identities)". Examples of trans female drag queens, sometimes called trans queens, include Monica Beverly Hillz and Peppermint. Cisgender female drag queens are sometimes called faux queens or bioqueens, though both terms are problematic: faux carries the connotation that the drag is fake, and the use of bioqueen exclusively for cisgender females is a misnomer since trans female queens also have female bodies. Drag queens' counterparts are drag kings: performers, usually women, who dress in exaggeratedly masculine clothing. Trans men who dress like drag kings are sometimes termed trans kings.
Another term for a drag queen is female impersonator. Female impersonation has been and continues to be illegal in some places, which inspired the drag queen José Sarria to hand out labels to his friends reading, "I am a boy", so he could not be accused of female impersonation. American drag queen RuPaul once said, "I do not impersonate females! How many women do you know who wear seven-inch heels, four-foot wigs, and skintight dresses?" He also said, "I don't dress like a woman; I dress like a drag queen!"
Some drag queens may prefer to be referred to as "she" while in drag and desire to stay completely in character. Other drag performers, like RuPaul, seem to be completely indifferent to which pronoun is used to refer to them. In his words, "You can call me he. You can call me she. You can call me Regis and Kathie Lee; I don't care! Just so long as you call me."
Drag queens are sometimes called transvestites, although that term also has many other connotations than the term drag queen and is not much favored by many drag queens themselves. The term tranny has been adopted by some drag performers, notably RuPaul, and the gay male community in the United States, but it is considered offensive to most transgender and transsexual people.
In the drag queen world today, there is an ongoing debate about whether transgender drag queens are actually considered "Drag Queens". Some argue that, because a drag queen is defined as a man portraying a woman, transgender women cannot be drag queens. Drag Kings are biological females who assume a masculine aesthetic. However this is not always the case, because there are also biokings, bio-queens, and faux queens, which are people who perform their own biological sex through a heightened or exaggerated gender presentation.
History of drag
First drag balls
The first person to describe himself as "the queen of drag" was William Dorsey Swann, born enslaved in Hancock, Maryland, who in the 1880s started also hosting drag balls in Washington, DC attended by other men who were former slaves, and often raided by the police, as documented in the newspapers. In 1896, Swann was convicted and sentenced to 10 months in jail on the false charge of "keeping a disorderly house" (euphemism for running a brothel) and demanded a pardon from the president for holding a drag ball (the demand was denied).
Development of the drag queen in the United States was influenced by the development of the blackface minstrel show. Originally the performers would only mock African American men, but as time went on they found it amusing to mock African American femininity as well. They performed in comedic skits, dances, and "wench" songs.
Vaudeville and female impersonators
The broad comedic stylings of the minstrel shows helped develop the vaudeville shows of the late 1800s to the early 1900s. With this shift, the "wench players" became "prima donnas", and became more elegant and refined, while still retaining their comedic elements. While the "wenches" were purely American creations, the "prima donnas" were inspired by both America and European cross-dressing shows, like Shakespearean actors and castrati. With the United States shifting demographics, including the shift from farms to cities, Great Migration of African Americans, and an influx of immigrants, vaudeville's broad comedy and music expanded the audience from minstrelsy.
With vaudeville becoming more popular, it allowed female impersonators to become popular as well. Many female impersonators started with low comedy in vaudeville and worked their way up to perform as the prima donna. They were known to perform song and dance routines with multiple outfit changes. In New York City, famous female impersonator Julian Eltinge found success, and he eventually made his way to the Broadway stage performing as a woman. He published a magazine, Magazine and Beauty Hints (1913), which provided beauty and fashion tips, and he posed for corset and cosmetics advertisements. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Bothwell Browne was the top female impersonator of the West Coast. He performed at the Grand Opera House and Central Theater, among other venues, went on tour with United Vaudeville, and later appeared in the film Yankee Doodle in Berlin (1919), produced by Mack Sennett.
At this time being a female impersonator was seen as something for the straight white male, and any deviation was punished. Connection with sex work and homosexuality eventually lead to the decline of vaudeville during the Progressive Era. Both the minstrelsy and vaudeville eras of female impersonation led to an association with music, dance, and comedy that still lasts today.
In the early to mid-1900s, female impersonation had become tied to the LGBT community[dubious ] and thus criminality, so it had to change forms and locations. It moved from being popular mainstream entertainment to something done only at night in disreputable areas, such as San Francisco's Tenderloin. Here female impersonation started to evolve into what we today know as drag and drag queens. Drag queens such as José Sarria and Aleshia Brevard first came to prominence in these clubs. People went to these nightclubs to play with the boundaries of gender and sexuality and it became a place for the LGBT community, especially gay men, to feel accepted. As LGBT culture has slowly become more accepted in American society, drag has also become more, though not totally, acceptable in today's society.
On March 17, 1968, in Los Angeles, to protest entrapment and harassment by the LAPD, two drag queens known as "The Princess" and "The Duchess" held a St. Patrick's Day party at Griffith Park, a popular cruising spot and a frequent target of police activity. More than 200 gay men socialized through the day.
Drag queens were also involved in the Stonewall riots, a series of spontaneous, violent demonstrations by members of the LGBT community against a police raid that took place in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn, located in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City. The riots are widely considered to be the catalyst for the gay liberation movement and the modern fight for LGBT rights in the United States.
During the summer of 1976, a restaurant in Fire Island Pines, New York, denied entry to a visitor in drag named Terry Warren. When Warren's friends in Cherry Grove heard what had happened, they dressed up in drag, and, on July 4, 1976, sailed to the Pines by water taxi. This turned into a yearly event where drag queens go to the Pines, called the Invasion of the Pines.
Story time in libraries
In December 2015, Radar Productions and Michelle Tea developed the concept of Drag Queen Story Hour. Launched at the San Francisco Public Library, Drag Queen Story Hour was adopted by the Brooklyn Public Library in the summer of 2016, and has since traveled to various libraries, museums, bookstores, and recreation centers, and parks across the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Such events sometimes prompt opposition against the libraries and organizers.
In the 1940s John Herbert, who sometimes competed in drag pageants, was the victim of an attempted robbery while he was dressed as a woman.[nb 1] His assailants falsely claimed that Herbert had solicited them for sex, and Herbert was accused and convicted of indecency under Canada's same-sex sexual activity law (which was not repealed until 1969). After being convicted, Herbert served time in a youth reformatory in Guelph, Ontario.[nb 2] Herbert later served another sentence for indecency at reformatory in Mimico. Herbert wrote Fortune and Men's Eyes in 1964 based on his time behind bars. He included the character of Queenie as an authorial self-insertion.
In 1980, for the first time, a police presence protected gay spectators and drag queens from anti-gay harassment at the annual Hallowe'en show at Toronto's St. Charles Tavern.
In the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, pantomime dames became a popular form of female impersonation in Europe. This was the first era of female impersonation in Europe to use comedy as part of the performance, contrasting with the serious Shakespearean tragedies and Italian operas. The dame became a stock character with a range of attitudes from "charwoman" to "grande dame" that mainly was used for improvisation. The most famous and successful pantomime dame was Dan Leno. After World War I and World War II, the theatre and movie scenes were changing, and the use of pantomime dames declined.
On 6 September 2018, the Supreme Court of India ruled that the application of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code to consensual homosexual sex between adults was unconstitutional, "irrational, indefensible and manifestly arbitrary". Since then, drag culture in India has been growing and becoming the mainstream art culture. The hotel chain of Lalit Groups spaced a franchise of clubs where drag performances are hosted in major cities of India such as Mumbai, Delhi and Banglore. Maya the drag queen, Rani Kohinoor (Sushant Divgikar), Lush Monsoon, Betta Naan Stop, Tropical Marca, Zeeshan Ali and Patruni Chidananda Sastry  are some of the Indian drag artists.
Drag queen names
A drag queen may either pick or be given a drag name by a friend, sometimes called a "drag mother", the so named thus becoming known as a "drag daughter". Drag mothers and drag daughters have a mentor-apprentice relationship. Drag families are a part of ball culture and drag 'houses'’.
Art of drag
The process of getting into drag or into character can take hours. A drag queen may aim for a certain style, celebrity impression, or message with their look. Hair, make-up, and costumes are the most important essentials for drag queens. Drag queens tend to go for a more exaggerated look with a lot more makeup than a typical feminine woman would wear.
Some people do drag simply as a means of self-expression, but often drag queens (once they have completed a look) will go out to clubs and bars and perform in a "drag show." Many drag queens do dress up for money by doing different shows, but there are also drag queens that have full-time jobs but still enjoy dressing up in drag as a hobby.
Many parts of the drag show, and of the drag queens' other intellectual properties, cannot be protected by intellectual property law. To substitute the lack of legal protection, drag queens revert to social norms in order to protect their intellectual property.
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Drag shows and venues
A drag show is a piece of entertainment consisting of a variety of songs, monologues or skits featuring either single performers or groups of performers in drag meant to entertain an audience. They range from amateur performances at small bars to elaborately staged theatrical presentations. Many drag shows feature performers singing or lip-synching to songs while performing a pre-planned pantomime, or dancing. The performers often don elaborate costumes and makeup, and sometimes dress to imitate various famous female singers or personalities. Some events are centered around drag, such as Southern Decadence where the majority of festivities are led by the Grand Marshals, who are traditionally drag queens.
- 1933 – Victor and Victoria, a German film about drag queens working in musical entertainment, starring Renate Müller and Hermann Thimig.
- 1933 – Arizona to Broadway, an American pre-Code film in which drag performer Gene Malin portrays Ray Best, a female impersonator and Mae West type, and performs the song "Frankie and Johnny."
- 1934 – George and Georgette, the French-language version of Victor and Victoria.
- 1935 – First a Girl, the English-language version of Victor and Victoria.
- 1937 – Upstairs (Piętro wyżej), the first Polish drag queen style movie, starring Eugeniusz Bodo.
- 1953 – Glen or Glenda, one of the most famous cult classics of Ed Wood, starring himself as Glen and Glenda.
- 1954 – White Christmas, classic of Irving Berlin, with Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby singing in "drag".
- 1957 – Victor and Victoria, a German remake of the 1933 film.
- 1959 – Some Like It Hot, starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon.
- 1967 – Thoroughly Modern Millie, an American musical starring Julie Andrews, James Fox, Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Channing, John Gavin, and Beatrice Lillie, notable where Fox's character dresses in drag in order to find out what happened to Tyler Moore's character.
- 1969 – Funeral Parade of Roses starring Peter
- 1972 – Pink Flamingos starring Divine
- 1975 – The Rocky Horror Picture Show, with Tim Curry as a cross-dressing bisexual, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick
- 1977 – Outrageous!, starring Craig Russell as a fictionalized version of himself
- 1978 – La cage aux folles a 1978 Franco-Italian film adaptation of the play of the same name starring Ugo Tognazzi and Michel Serrault.
- 1979 – The Rose starring Bette Midler, notable for a scene in which Midler's character Mary Rose Foster performs a duet on stage in a drag club with a drag queen (played by Kenny Sacha) who is impersonating Midler as Foster.
- 1982 – Tootsie starring Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, and Teri Garr
- 1982 – Victor/Victoria, an American remake of the 1933 film, starring Julie Andrews
- 1985 – Lust in the Dust starring Divine
- 1988 – Hairspray starring Divine (Remade in 2007 starring John Travolta)
- 1988 – Torch Song Trilogy starring Harvey Fierstein, Anne Bancroft and Matthew Broderick
- 1990 – Paris Is Burning a documentary film directed by Jennie Livingston. It chronicles the ball culture of New York City and the gay and transgender community involved in it. It centers around African American and Latino drag culture surrounding communities such as Harlem in the 80s.
- 1991 – Vegas in Space starring Doris Fish, Miss X, Ginger Quest, and introducing 'Tippi'
- 1993 – Mrs. Doubtfire starring Robin Williams, Sally Field, and Pierce Brosnan.
- 1994 – The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert starring Terence Stamp, Hugo Weaving, and Guy Pearce
- 1995 – To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar starring Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze, and John Leguizamo (cameo by RuPaul)
- 1995 – Wigstock: The Movie documentary film focusing on the annual drag music festival that had been held in New York City's East Village during the 1980s and 1990s. Includes appearances by Lady Bunny, Crystal Waters, Deee-Lite, Jackie Beat, Debbie Harry, Leigh Bowery, Joey Arias and the Dueling Bankheads. The film also captures a performance by RuPaul at the height of his mainstream fame during the 1990s.
- 1996 – The Birdcage starring Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest (a remake of the 1978 film La Cage aux Folles, based on the 1973 play)
- 1996 – The Nutty Professor starring Eddie Murphy.
- 1998 – Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil starring John Cusack, Kevin Spacey and starring as herself Lady Chablis
- 1999 – Flawless starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robert De Niro
- 2000 – Big Momma's House starring Martin Lawrence
- 2001 – Hedwig and the Angry Inch starring John Cameron Mitchell
- 2002 – Sorority Boys
- 2002 – Miss 501: A Portrait of Luck
- 2003 – Girls Will Be Girls directed by Richard Day, starring Miss Coco Peru (Clinton Leupp), Evie Harris (Jack Plotnick), and Varla Jean Merman (Jeffery Roberson).
- 2003 – Die, Mommie, Die! starring Charles Busch, Jason Priestley, Philip Baker Hall, and Natasha Lyonne
- 2004 – Connie and Carla starring Nia Vardalos, Toni Collette, and David Duchovny
- 2004 – White Chicks starring Shawn Wayans and Marlon Wayans
- 2005 – Kinky Boots starring Joel Edgerton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sarah-Jane Potts, and Nick Frost
- 2005 – Rent
- 2006 – The Curiosity of Chance starring Tad Hilgenbrink and Brett Chukerman
- 2007 – St. Trinian's starring Rupert Everett as Camilla Fritton, the headmistress of the school.
- 2011 – Big Mommas: Like Father Like Son starring Martin Lawrence and Brandon T. Jackson
- 2012 – Albert Nobbs starring Glenn Close and Janet McTeer
- 2015 – Dressed as a Girl starring Johnny Woo
- 2016 – Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie starring Joanna Lumley and Jennifer Saunders, featuring Jodie Harsh and La Voix amongst others
- 2016 – Iru mugan (Indian Tamil movie) starring Vikram, Nayanthara, Nithya Menen and Nasser in the lead roles.
- 2016 – Hurricane Bianca starring Bianca Del Rio, Willam Belli, Shangela Laquifa Wadley and appearances by RuPaul, Joslyn Fox and Alyssa Edwards
- 2018 – Hurricane Bianca 2: From Russia with Hate starring Bianca Del Rio, Rachel Dratch, Katya Zamolodchikova, Shangela Laquifa Wadley and appearances by Wanda Sykes, Mrs. Kasha Davis, Darienne Lake, Alaska Thunderfuck, Lady Bunny, and Alyssa Edwards
- 2019 – Drag Kids
- 2020 – Digging Up Dorothy is a short film featuring Darren Stewart-Jones as drag queen Ruby LaRue.
While some male music celebrities wear exaggerated feminine clothing as part of their show, they are not necessarily drag queens. For example, Boy George wears drag queen style clothes and cosmetics but he once stated he was not a drag queen. However, RuPaul is a professional drag queen performer and singer.
Examples of songs where lyrics refer to drag queens:
- "Lola" by The Kinks (or possibly a transgender woman)
- "Dude (Looks Like a Lady)" by Aerosmith
- "The Lady Is a Vamp" by Spice Girls
- "Ballad of Cleo and Joe" by Cyndi Lauper
- "King for a Day" by Green Day
- "Cherry Lips" by Garbage
- "Born This Way" by Lady Gaga
- "Verbatim" by Mother Mother
- "He's a Woman, She's a Man" by Scorpions
- "Pretty Lady" by Ke$ha & Detox Icunt
- "Andrew in Drag" by The Magnetic Fields
- "Rise Like a Phoenix" by Conchita Wurst (represented Austria at the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest and won)
- "Divine" by Antony and the Johnsons
- "The End." in the album The Black Parade by My Chemical Romance
- "Drag Queen" by The Strokes
- "LGBT" by cupcaKke
- "C.L.A.T" by Aja, Peppermint, Sasha Velour and Alexis Michelle
Drag queen Don McLean (drag name Lori Shannon) appeared in three episodes of the CBS sitcom All in the Family as drag queen Beverly LaSalle: "Archie the Hero" (1975), in which Archie Bunker gives her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, not realizing she is male; "Beverly Rides Again" (1976), in which Archie uses her to play a practical joke on a friend; and "Edith's Crisis of Faith, Part 1" (1977), in which her murder leads Edith Bunker to question her faith in God. The role was noteworthy for its uncommonly respectful and sympathetic treatment of Beverly as a "transvestite".
CODCO was a Canadian sketch comedy series which aired on CBC Television from 1988 to 1993; two of its actors, Tommy Sexton and Greg Malone, were especially renowned for drag-based impersonations of celebrity women such as Queen Elizabeth, Barbara Frum, Barbara Walters, Tammy Faye Bakker and Margaret Thatcher. In one famous sketch, Malone as Frum moderated a debate between Andy Jones as a gay teacher who had been fired from his job for testing HIV-positive and Sexton as Clarabelle Otterhead, the president of an anti-gay lobby group called Citizens Outraged by Weird Sex (or COWS).
In mid-2008, RuPaul began producing RuPaul's Drag Race, a reality television game show which began airing in February 2009. The premise of the program has several drag queens compete to be selected by RuPaul and a panel of judges as "America's next drag superstar". It inspired the similar spin-off shows RuPaul's Drag U and RuPaul's Drag Race: All Stars.
Dragnificent! is a television series on the American network TLC. The show started as a special branded as Drag Me Down the Aisle which aired on March 9, 2019. It features Alexis Michelle, BeBe Zahara Benet, Jujubee, and Thorgy Thor, four drag queens who are all RuPaul's Drag Race alumnae, helping an engaged woman to plan her upcoming wedding. On January 15, 2020, TLC announced that it had given a full season run to Dragnificent!, a new show to be based on the Drag Me Down the Aisle special. The series premiered on April 19, 2020.
The Netflix show AJ and the Queen, released in 2020, followed "Ruby Red, a bigger-than-life but down-on-her-luck drag queen [played by RuPaul] who travels across America from club to club in a rundown 1990’s R/V with her unlikely sidekick AJ, a recently orphaned, tough-talking, scrappy ten-year-old stowaway. As the two misfits travel from city to city, Ruby’s message of love and acceptance winds up touching people and changing their lives for the better."
While drag queens are entertainers, they play a role in educating people on gender roles and stereotyping. Professor Stephen Schacht of Plattsburgh State University of New York began introducing his and his students' experiences of attending a drag show to his gender/sexualities class to challenge his students' ideas of dichotomy. Over time he began inviting students to attend with him. He gathered from his students that after attending the drag show they had a new appreciation for gender and sexuality and often become very vocal about their new experiences in the classroom.
Nina West, Drag Race season eleven contestant and winner of Miss Congeniality, and producer of Drag Is Magic, an EP of kids music about the art form, says she hopes to inspire them to “dream big, be kind, and be their perfect selves.” West feels the art form is “an opportunity for children to get creative and think outside the boxes us silly adults have crafted for them.” Marti Gould Cummings said something similar when a video of them performing “Baby Shark” at a drag brunch event went viral. “Anyone who thinks drag isn’t for children is wrong,” said Cummings, “Drag is expression, and children are such judgment-free beings; they don’t really care what you’re wearing, just what you’re performing.” As of May 2019, the video has been viewed over 806,000 times.
West responded to critics who question if children are too young to experience drag, saying “Drag is an opportunity for anyone – including and especially children – to reconsider the masks we are all forced to wear daily.” West added, “Children are inundated with implicit imagery from media about what is ‘boy’ and what is ‘girl.’ And I believe that almost all kids are really less concerned about playing with a toy that's supposedly aligned to their gender, and more concerned with playing with toys that speak to them.”
“[Drag queens] are incredibly talented, and they are trying to live their lives, and in the process, brighten the lives of those around them. That’s the message parents should be communicating to their kids, at any age. It’s all about acceptance and being loved for who you are.”
The phenomena of drag kids is relatively recent, The New York Times notes that as of September 2019 there are over a hundred public drag kids in the U.S., with Desmond is Amazing as the one with the most followers. The mainstream access to drag queens on television exponentially increased in 2009 when RuPaul’s Drag Race started airing.
Drag has come to be a celebrated aspect of modern gay life. Many gay bars and clubs around the world hold drag shows as special parties. Several "International Drag Day" holidays have been started over the years to promote the shows. In the U.S. Drag Day is typically celebrated in early March.
A televised drag competition, RuPaul's Drag Race, is the most successful program on the Logo television network. In 2016, the show won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program. In 2018, the show became the first show to win a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program and a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program in the same year. However, its winners and contestants have yet to receive the same level of recognition as mainstream reality show contestants.
- Cover Girl
- Drag pageantry
- Faux queen
- Finocchio's Club
- Imperial Court System
- Kiki DuRane
- List of drag queens
- List of transgender-related topics
- Pansy Craze
- Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence
- The Adventures Of Priscilla: Queen Of The Desert
- The Pink Mirror, a film on Indian drag queens
- Vegas in Space
- Wanda Wisdom
- Wild Side Story
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