The Politics of Drag
June 25, 1979
Most people feel awkward around drags — uneasy, even frightened. So many of our social responses are dictated by our recognition of someone’s gender, which we generally assume coincides with his or her sex. Confronting a man dressed as a woman jams our social signals and frustrates our habitual social responses. If we can be temporarily alarmed by a foreigner who swoops down to kiss our hand or who ceremoniously makes a rude noise to indicate his appreciation of dinner, then small wonder we are even more dismayed by someone whom we don’t know whether to call “he” or “she.”
But mere social discomfort is the least of our problems. Far more significant is the threat posed by the drag queen to our sense of identity. It has become fashionable to say that a man secure in his masculinity will not object to transvestism, but even that hypothetical creature may find drag queens unnerving. The sources of this queasiness, I’d submit, are historical and cognitive. Historically, gay men have been branded as effeminate. Since 1969 and the birth of gay liberation, however, homosexual men have rigorously rejected the effeminate label — and, if seen in the correct light, this redefinition can only be commended. Social labels have a nasty way of defining behavior, and homosexuals, like other minority groups that have had a taste of freedom and self-respect, have rejected the demeaning stereotypes imposed on them. Gay men today are assuming the most blatant badges of manliness, which in America is always associated with the working class.
The drag queen appears all the more isolated and fragile among so many burly men. I am not referring to heterosexual transvestites, since their fear of being unmasked usually makes them inconspicuous, even invisible. I am speaking of gays, whether they be show drags (those who dress up only to perform in clubs or at contests) or street drags (those who live their whole lives in women’s clothes). The gay drag is also more despised than ever because she reminds the new macho gays of what they once were, or might have been. At the very time when many homosexual men are learning that they can be both gay and butch, along comes this bizarre specter, teetering on spike heels under pounds of lacquered hair, her face painted and powdered above her prominent Adam’s apple, her clothes a fantasy of outdated frills and finery.
Historically, then, the drag queen stands as a unpleasant reminder of discarded effeminacy. But I have also said that she makes us uneasy on a cognitive level. Cognitive psychologists would say that, despite surface variations, there appear to be abiding categories of thought wired into our brains. For instance, there seems to be a basic human urge to analyze experience through pairs of opposites. The exact contents of the categories may differ, but the drive to make such distinctions prevails. Some that spring to mind are pure and defiled, ours and theirs, taboo and permitted. Surely one of the most universal of these dichotomies is male and female — or rather, since we are speaking of gender rather than sex, masculine and feminine. In almost every group of people, a great deal of effort is expended to make these distinctions as sharp as possible — differences in dress, vocabulary, manners, attitudes. Since gender differences are also reinforced by economics — the sexual division of labor — they are all the more difficult to eradicate.
Even when gender is systematically de-emphasized, the separation between masculine and feminine continues: for example, a group of feminist teachers worked with kindergartners in an environment where boys and girls were encouraged to dress, speak, and play alike and where all gender differences were discouraged. Despite such efforts, the children remained acutely aware of gender distinctions and could be overheard saying, “Boys don’t to that,” or “That’s only for girls,” and so on. These mental habits persisted even when the gender-identified behavior was precisely the opposite of what society at large regards as proper masculine and feminine behavior. Thus a boy might be heard saying to a girl, “Don’t touch my doll. Dolls are for boys, not girls.” These ideas are discussed more fully in Psychology of Sex Differences by Eleanor Maccoby and Carol Jacklin.
In studying other cultures, anthropologists have found that people tend to be suspicious of anything that falls between two categories. The Hebrew taboo against eating lobsters, for instance, may arise from the fact that they are interstitial animals. Sea-dwelling animals, fish, have flippers and swim; land-dwelling animals have legs and walk. The lobster, however, inhabits the sea but has legs. It falls between two categories and is therefore taboo.
Not surprisingly, the drag queen, occupying the interstice between masculine and feminine, is troublesome. Interstitial entities are usually handled in one of two ways — they are either despised or revered. Interestingly, there are many cases, especially among black Americans, of drags being revered. When I was in my teens the Prophet Jones in Detroit was the leader of a popular religious cult; he wore make-up, articles of feminine attire and a full ermine coat, presented to him by his devotees. Little Richard, with his lipstick, high heels, satins, and bouffant hairdo was another such shaman. But if a misfit is not revered he is despised, and this is the position of the drag queen in both homosexual and heterosexual white society in America.
In recent years the drag queen has been attacked by another group — lesbian feminists. Some Lesbians perceive drags as mocking women, all the more so because the drags so often get themselves up in the very guises that liberated women have been at such pains to discard — show girls, sex kittens, fashion models. As far as I can make out, lesbian feminists think that drags (1) mock women by imitating them and (2) doubly insult them by imitating unliberated women.
Not all feminists have subscribed to this view. As long ago as 1970, Kate Millett in Sexual Politics saw the drag as a useful subversion: “…as she minces along a street in the Village, the storm of outrage an insouciant queen drag may call down is due to the fact that she is both masculine and feminine at once — or male, but feminine. She has made gender identity more than frighteningly easy to lose; she has questioned its reality at a time when it has attained the status of a moral absolute and a social imperative. She has defied it and actually suggested its negation. She has dared obloquy, and in doing so has challenged more than the taboo on homosexuality, she has uncovered what the source of this contempt implies — the fact that sex role is sex rank.”
I think the feminists’ discussion of drag has been muddied by a failure to distinguish between the intentions of the queen and the effects of her behavior on others. Many of the drags I have interviewed across the country seem to have rather modest ambitions — to be “glamorous,” to be “stars,” to amuse audiences and to convince unsuspecting straights that they are “real women.” They generally look confused and bewildered when they are accused of mocking women; quite the contrary, many of them wish to be women. The effect of their behavior can be diverse — lesbian feminists consider it offensive; straight audiences at a nightclub find it entertaining; many gay men find it threatening.
Disdain for drag is, I would contend, often concealed snobbism. Most gay transvestites especially street drags, are from the working class and many drags are either black or Puerto Rican. Discrimination against them may be both elitist and racist. The greatest irony, of course, is that the Stonewall Resistance itself and many of the other early gay street actions were led by transvestites.
As for why drag queens have singled out prostitutes and show girls to imitate, the explanation may be at least partially historical. Certainly gay men have seldom impersonated middle-class housewives or aristocratic hostesses. The gay hissing and bitch sessions, the vulgar put-downs and the half-funny, half-serious rivalries parallel the catty remarks of whores and chorus-line gypsies. In Jonathan Katz’s Gay American History one discovers several clues. A cited article published in 1896 about the “faeries” of New York states: “They are fond of the actor’s life, and particularly that of the comedian requiring the dressing in female attire, and singing in imitation of a female voice, in which they often excel.” Testimony given to the New York police in 1899 has this to say of male prostitutes: “These men that conduct themselves there — well, they act effeminately; most of them are painted and powdered; they are called Princess this and Lady So and So and the Duchess of Marlboro, and get up and sing as women, and dance; ape the female character; call each other sisters and take people out for immoral purposes.” In 1893 a medical journal published a note about a black drag ball in Washington, D.C.: “In this sable performance of sexual perversion all of these men are lasciviously dressed in womanly attire, short sleeves, low-necked dresses and the usual ballroom decorations and ornaments of women, feathered and ribboned head-dresses, garters, frills, flowers, ruffles, etc., and deport themselves as women.”
Obviously, then, many of the early drag queens actually were prostitutes. Others, such as the black queens in Washington, may have found that the worlds of the theatre and prostitution were the only ones where overt homosexuals were welcome. Most likely is the hypothesis that homosexuality in all its forms was so forbidden that only in the permissive world of prostitution could it be mentioned at all. Closeted homosexuals were speechless; only those who had entered a milieu of prostitution and show biz could discuss their sexuality. As a result, even today a small but essential gay male vocabulary can be traced back to whores’ slang, including trick, box, trade, number, hustle, score, and so on. Modern homosexuality arises with the growth of industry and big cities; once men could become self-sufficient (if alienated) laborers, they could reject family life and live as bachelors. But even so, only the most oppressed outcasts of gay life — the drag queens — dared to speak openly of their sexuality. Contemporary drag is a reminder of our beginnings.
I have tried to touch upon the most confusing and complex issues that swirl around the question of drag. But I would be evading my responsibilities if I did not state that I believe transvestites have been treated very unfairly by lesbians and gay men and that they must be fully accepted into our ranks (scattered and in disarray as those ranks may be). Recently, some gay strategists have taken a stand against all forms of eccentricity in gays, and especially against transvestitism, on the grounds that unusual dress and behavior can only hurt the cause of homosexuals in general. As long as drags, leather men, radicals and “media freaks” are unmuzzled and conspicuous, or so the theory goes, then straight society will continue to frown on all gays and deny us our rights.
Interestingly, the National Organization of Women was faced with an analogous problem a few years ago — whether to accept or reject its lesbian contingent. Those feminists who opposed the lesbians did so because they feared that if NOW were linked to lesbianism in the public mind, then the entire organization would be branded and dismissed as suspect by non-lesbian women. Those who endorsed the lesbians argued that if lesbians have traditionally been singled out as scapegoats, then they can just as easily serve as leaders and symbols of feminist solidarity. The decision to stand behind lesbians won out.
I think that lesbians and gays should take a similar stand on drags. To accept transvestites is not only humane but also tactically wise. All of the objections that straights and gays might have to drags are merely condensed and heightened objections to male homosexuality. A survey of straights published in the Journal of Homosexuality revealed that most straight people do not object to sex between two adult men. What they dislike is self-definition as homosexual. Coming out of the closet is what riles straight people; you will recall that even Anita Bryant does not object to teachers being gay, she simply does not want them to announce they are gay. Once someone comes out of the closet, once a gay man defines himself socially as gay, then he becomes disturbing. Avowedly gay men, as the survey revealed, are perceived by straight society as women. The anger against gay men (and it is much stronger than that against gay women) arises from the fact that gay men are seen as deliberately and perversely renouncing their prerogatives as men and accepting the lower status of women. Because gay men are perceived as choosing to be women — that is, inferior — they arouse scorn, fear, and confusion.
These are the same feelings that drags awaken in everyone, of course. Drags have become the new “queers” of gay life. For that reason, our reactions to them are a sure index of our own homophobia. By embracing drags, lesbians, and especially gay men will take a step towards self-acceptance. By placing drags in a respected position within the movement, gays will have elevated and defended what straight society most despises in all homosexuals. ■
Edmund White’s next book will be States of Desire: Travels in Gay America. He has written two novels, Forgetting Elena and Nocturne for the King of Naples. He authored The Joy of Gay Sex with Charles Silverstein.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 4, 2019