Let's Talk: Female Drag
Posted on 1 Feb 2019

Here we are again, having to debate the validity of people’s art. Over it yet? I know I am!

Most of us love drag in all its forms, from huge-haired sequin-adorned gown queens to the weird and wonderful Club Kids. Creativity and humour mashed together to create, essentially, fun! We’re all born naked, and the rest is drag, right? Unfortunately, not always and not for everyone.

Over my years of performing as a drag artist, I’ve come to find that, as consumers of drag (ie the audience), we can be really obsessed with gender. What makes a woman? What makes a man? Why are we so obsessed?! Do we need these anatomical and behavioural constraints to help us understand? I mean, we all seem to feel more comfortable with labels; it helps us define things into neat groups. But what if some of these labels are actually doing more harm than good?

Picture this. I’m sipping my cheap vodka, trying to catch my breath from dancing and realising that, yes, I am, in fact, very unfit and no longer a spring chicken (dammit). I’m approached by a drunk customer who can’t even stand, complete with makeup everywhere but on their face. Slurringly, they ask, “Are you a man or a woman? You're a woman; I can tell by your boobs.” They then proceed to grab aforementioned boobies. In the past I would have smiled sweetly and responded, confused as to why they were asking me quite a weird question. Now, after many years of drag service, it takes every inch of grace not to Jackie Chan their arse.

And this narrative happens every time I'm in drag, either working or drunkenly playing. I began to delve into these questions around labelling and concluded that the hideous source was… wait for it… RuPaul’s Drag Race (insert rakakaka shady rattlesnake sound). Now, I will admit that I do watch the show - it’s so bad it’s good! - but where were the women like me on there? Then came the quotes from RuPaul that he would ‘probably not’ allow a transgender woman to perform on the show, and that ‘drag loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once it’s not men doing it’. The nail in the coffin was his response to a fan asking him when we would see a female drag queen on the programme, to which he responded, ‘That show already exists. Its called Miss Universe’ (insert rakakaka shady rattlesnake sound again). Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure drag performers and pageant contestants are ‘universes’ apart… Miss America would be horrified if I turned up with this draggy mug!

Nevertheless, you carry on being a queen because you love it and it makes you happy, but you never feel quite accepted. It’s like you're hiding a dirty secret between your legs. So I did my research. Surely there had to be women back in the day who did drag -  and if so, why is it still a taboo today? Well, plainly and simply, misogyny doesn't stop at the borders of sexuality; it is in our community too, and has affected both our women and our representation of drag for years.

Join me now on a brief journey through our queer history, focusing on some of the women and movements that have shaped it...
In 1955, lesbian couple Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon form The Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian sociopolitical rights organisation providing support for women too afraid to come out. It went on to become an educational resource for lesbians and gay men. You go, girls!


Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin

Fast forward to one of the most famous LGBTQ+ events - the Stonewall Riots of 1969. The Stonewall Inn was home to the more-marginalised people in the LGBTQ+ community, including drag queens, transgender people, effeminate men and masc lesbians. After one raid too many, the community had had enough and rebelled, causing riots which lasted for two days. Amongst the instigators were Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two transgender women and self-described drag queens, as well as lesbian drag king Storme DeLarverie. These three ladies were responsible for what became our Pride festivals - and they were drag performers!


Storme DeLarverie, Marsha P Johnson, Sylvia Rivera (left to right).

As well as the men who shaped history through activism and drag performing, the women have also been there, just as strong. However, we've allowed the negative societal perception of women to infiltrate our community. It has erased and discredited our women to the point where we’re now telling women their drag art is not as legitimate as that of their male peers. For many generations, that’s how it’s been. I understand that change can be hard, especially when ‘the way things are’ is all you know. However, these women fighting alongside the men have always been there. We are all fighting for the same thing - to be treated equally and with respect.

When I first started drag in Birmingham, there were no actively working female drag performers to look up to; I didn't know I had permission. Fast forward to now, when we have a drag community of members of different ages, genders, sexualities and races. This is the same around the country, with most cities and towns boasting bubbling creative scenes full of all different types of people, including female drag performers. Let’s listen to what’s happening in these communities and try to accept all genders of drag as just drag!

Drag is an artistic performance that challenges gender stereotypes and should be based on talent, not genitalia.


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