drag . a herstory

From Gottmik to Kim Chi, Bimini to Yvie, modern drag has been monumental in shaping both cishet and queer lives. But where did drag stem from? Shakespeare, obviously.

At a time of witches and tulle, the Globe reproduced early manifestations of drag. With theatres governed by the influence of the Church, patriarchy was rife. And as the stage was a male-only zone, female roles in plays were occupied by cross-dressing men. Incidentally, the term drag references how dresses worn by men would drag along the floor. Characterised by the creation of a persona. Exaggeration.

From this emerged Drag Kings, a less discussed but ever-present counterpart. These were women who dressed as men and performed in London’s scene. Their under-acknowledgement a product of reverse-patriarchy. After all, public attention is liable to scrutinise exaggerated femininity, not the other way around.

With homosexuality criminal in much of the West prior to the 1970s, drag served to enable deviance, with individuality developing over time to reinforce flamboyancy and competition. Public astonishment to staged gender reveals transitioned into reactionary climates against lesbian, gay and trans folk alike, some of these drag artists, that catalysed riots, persecution and further criminalisation of those living their lives. Not forgetting that drag queens of colour were disproportionally affected by these implications, for instance, Marsha P Johnson, as within intersections of prejudice. All this simultaneous to New York Drag Balls (where drag artists competed), the development of drag families and the Gay Liberation Front. An era of intense social change that ended in mass policy and legislative changes.

So now we reach the present day. RuPaul. Drag bars across the globe. International competition. Drag artists within the precariat, where some rise to untold fame and riches and others float. A highly saturated market of talent, that thanks to capitalism, benefits a thin minority, whether performers based in present-day London, San Francisco or Bangkok. Capitalism enables some and hinders the rest.

With the mainstream generating pages of terminology that appears on the Twitter trending tab each day a new episode of Drag Race airs, bystanders are quick to throw shade, comment on whose runway has the most realness or watch the artists spill tea on the screen. I should know, discussing each week’s runway looks with my best friend over Snapchat. For some, drag provides entertainment and a distraction from reality. For others, fashion inspiration or queer role models. Me, I root for the trans drag artists on each season. And those who appear as authentically nice people. Not the arrogant ones, then.

Which begs some distinctions to be established. Some artists are look queens and others comedy, with the most successful often those who can utilise both. Moreover, while white, gay men dominate the drag mainstream, people of colour exist too. As do trans and non-binary folk. Bringing me to the next topic of discussion.

Conceptual drag. An art form that I adore, and one that is often practiced by non-binary folk. One example that is strong in my mind was from one of the later series of American drag race, where Yvie Oddly walked the walk as a bacterium. One of the most memorable looks since the show began fifteen-or-so years ago. I love the experimental, dynamic nature of conceptual drag. The way that styles morph, shift and contract with one another. Similar to the way that gender can be subverted and transformed.

One last thing. Drag is futuristic yet timeless, yes, but will it thrive in years to come? A breach from cis- and heteronormativity in many countries remains illegal. Historic laws imposed by colonialists on the global south persevere today and are likely to remain for a while yet. And though some parts of the globe can freely express themselves through drag, others could be sentenced to death for it. Progress can be reversed with a signature, so it is critical to advocate for freedom of expression regardless of which country you reside in. While we can.

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