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07 September 2015

Drag Queenery on the Road to Womanhood

Dolly Parton: “It’s a good thing I was born a girl … otherwise I’d be a drag queen.”

Mae West: “Camp is the kinda comedy where they imitate me.

Leslie Feinberg: "I've heard women criticize drag queens for 'mocking women's oppression' by imitating femininity to an extreme, just as I've been told that I am imitating men. Feminists are justifiably angry at women's oppression – so am I! I believe, however, that those who denounce drag queens aim their criticism at the wrong people. This misunderstanding doesn't take gender oppression into account. … There is a difference between the drag population and masculine men doing cruel female impersonations. The Bohemian Grove, for example, is an elite United States club for wealthy powerful men that features comedy cross-dressing performances. Many times the burlesque comedy of cross-dressed masculine men is as anti-drag as it is anti-woman. In fact it's really only drag performance when it's transgender people who are facing the footlights. Many times drag performance calls for skilled impersonations of a famous individual like Diana Ross or Judy Garland, but the essence of drag performance is not impersonation of the opposite sex. It is the cultural presentation of an oppressed gender expression."

There is a lot of nonsense being spread around about drag queenery. That all drag queens are gay; that it is only performance; that drag queens do not become women; that transsexuals and drag queens have little in common.  None of these claims are true when they are examined.

First of all – what does 'drag queen' mean. There have been three major usages:

a) theatrical performance as the other gender.

Such people were previously referred to as female impersonators or female mimics. Some female impersonators complete the journey to womanhood with surgery, others live full-time. Some of these transition while still performing the same act, others go on to acting, being restaurateurs, etc. Certainly as an occupational group, they have an extremely high transition rate.

F=Finocchio's, J=Jewel Box Review, C=Le Carrousel, G=Garden of Allah

FG   Liz Lyons (191? - ?)
G     Hotcha Hinton (1915 – 1983)
       Jeanette Schmid (1924 - 2005)
       Ginza Rose (192? - ?)
       Minette (1928 - 2001)
C    Jacqueline Charlotte Dufresnoy/Coccinelle (1931 - 2006)
C    Marie-Pierre Pruvot/Bambi (1935 - )
C    April Ashley (1935 - )
J    Terry Noel (1936 - )
F   Aleshia Brevard (1937 - )
F   Katherine Marlowe (193? - )
J    Angie Stardust (1940 – 2007)
     Karūseru Maki (1942 - )
C   Yeda Brown (194? - )
      Carlotta (1943 -)
C   Rogeria (1943 - )
C   Amanda Lear (1946 - )
      Holly Woodlawn (1946 - )
      Marie-France Garcia (1946 - )
      Rachel Harlow (1948 - )
      Nanjo Masami (194? - )
      Ajita Wilson (1950 -1987)
      Candis Cayne (1971 - )

If these women are not trans, then we really do not have much history

b) cross-dressers or transvestites who like attention, who like to be read, who exaggerate their femininity, while other transvestites prefer to pass.

This of course is also a type of performance, except that it takes place on the street, in restaurants, on public transport etc. Of course cis women also like to get in on this act, Mae West and Dolly Parton (who once failed to win in a Dolly-Parton lookalike contest) quickly come to mind.

This was a common usage when I was transitioning in the 1980s, but I get the feeling that the expression is less used these days. I am seeing 'attention junkie' or 'attention whore' more frequently, which disassociates the attitude from the cross-dressing.

c) street queens.

When Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson are described as 'drag queens' it is not because they were stage performers (although Marsha was for a while in Hot Peaches) but because they were 'street queens', that is they lived on the margins without a job or any reliable source of income and either they were without a steady place to live or lived in a commune of similar persons. Several of the voguing ball people such as Angie Xtravaganza lived similar lives. This is the classic life style for trans women found in India (hijras), Thailand (kathoay) Philipines, Brazil etc. The classic study is Frederick Whitam's Male Homosexuality in Four Societies: Brazil, Guatemala, the Philippines, and the United States. 

Most of these women fail to complete the journey to womanhood because they lived too soon for hormones and surgery to be available and/or they don't have the money to acquire them.   That does not make them less trans and it does not make them less of a woman.

This was the dominant way of living for trans women in the pre-modern world. Those who claim that drag queens are not trans are cutting us off from our past.

"If there is any one lesson to be learned from studying this field it is that the individual is individual. People define themselves and the self-definition must always takes priority over the received wisdom. I have met self-defined drag queens whom others would describe as TV either because they enjoy 'passing'; or because they 'dress' so often that it could be seen as a compulsion; or because they wear lingerie, either to turn men on or to make themselves feel sensuous. I have met drag performers who have grown to dislike drag, and men who insist on being called 'cross-dressers' because they dislike what the word 'drag' stands for, and men who wear part-drag in order to create confusion and doubt amongst others, but who would never wear full drag because that would defeat their object. I know self-defined TVs who are gay or bisexual or oscillating, some of them having learned to cross this sexuality barrier through their cross-dressing. I have met TVs who dress like drag queens and drag queens who dress like TVs, and TVs whose cross-dressing has encouraged them to question their 'male role', which in turn has made them examine their idea of 'femininity'. And perhaps most important of all, I have learned how marshy a terrain is the middle ground between our earlier clear-cut distinction between transvestites and transexuals." - Kris Kirk. Men in Frocks, 1984: 74.


  1. Personally I think you're confusing two different types of performance: traditional female impersonation (Euro-influenced showgirls and old school glam) and drag queens (raunchy comedy). In the 40s - 70s these were very distinct forms of performance, presentation and identity. It's overwhelmingly in the female impersonation segment where the trans-directed woman tended to temporarily park themselves (even if, at places like Finocchio's, they had both kinds of performers). At some point around the 80s, the two camps (not a pun) seemed to become fused, and female impersonation (with an emphasis on 'realness') mostly faded out. Instead, perhaps influenced by Divine, New York's Wigstock and the scene at the Pyramid Club, drag queens became even more theatrical, and outrageous. While there were still a few 'realness queens' (like Candice Cayne, Calpernia, Mimi Marks and Erica Andrews) did they identify as drag queens? More often they just called themselves show/pageant girls or joined the Miss Continental, Miss Gay USA circuit (mostly in the south).

  2. Nobody was more raunchy than Liz Lyons who did have surgery. Jayne County also but she settled for the non-op solution. I would propose that the biggest change in female impersonation/drag happened in the 1960s when own-voice performers who went home dressed as men were replaced by lip-synching artists who took hormones and went home as women.

    Given that your analysis is right (and I notice that all your examples are in the US) in what way that that affect my point that to segregate drag from trans is to severely damage our history?

    It is bad enough that 'tranny' has been demonized. Some want to do away with 'drag' as a part of the trans experience. We are in danger of losing much of our history and having a 1984-style depleted jargon.

  3. I completely concur with you Zagria. In fact if we've learnt anything over the last number of decades its that there is a wide spectrum of identity out there both sexual and gender identity. That mish mash can be confusing but then so is life itself. To say that we can put people into neat little boxes would be to ignore all of the histories you have so painstakingly put together here. Reading them makes me realize just how unique each of us is!

  4. My problem isn't so much with your essay (you always do a wonderful job) as it is with how you've titled it. Referring to all those people as drag queens is just disrespectful to many of them since that's not how many of them identified themselves and I suspect many of them would have a visceral reaction to being called as such (the only one I somewhat know is Aleisha Brevard, and I know she's wouldn't like it). No, I'm not just referring to US performers. If you look at who performed at Le Carrousel or Madame Arthurs or with Romy Haag, you'd see much the same differentiation. Okay, yes, Liz Lyons was raunchy, but did she therefore identify herself as a drag queen? Interesting how Calpernia Addams made a huge stink that another trans woman dared refer to her as a drag queen (or at least involved in drag performance) and Calpernia was one of the people who made a big deal about supporting the term "tranny."

    I do believe "drag queen" has very specific connotations and is not an okay blanket term for cross gendered performance... use of it in that way is absolutely a recent phenomena. (and I've read British trans women in the 1970s-80s who resented being compared to Danny LaRue... this is not a recent issue). There are a few trans woman (like International Chrysis who I was slightly acquainted with) who used the term drag queen, but that was more for theatrical effect and impact. Off stage I never heard her refer to herself as other than a woman. (again, I was only slightly acquainted with her from the Pyramid Club). I feel as if your statement is exploiting these women's identities to make a political statement.

    As to the word "tranny" there's a big difference between wanting to ban all conceivable use of the word, even within the community (which I don't hear calls for) and understanding how using it on tv for a laugh or throwing it around to refer to the trans community or as cheap shade is hurtful to many people (which I do hear from trans people objecting to the word). If you don't differentiate between the two reactions to it you're oversimplifying the issue IMO. That it's not just an innocent, fun way of saying transgender or transsexual and that it has a strong degree of put down built into it. "Historical" terms are fine as history. I'm Jewish and even though the term "sheeny" or "yid" were routinely used (both within the community and certainly outside it... and frequently in Vaudeville) that doesn't mean I'd want some entertainer on tv throwing them around for an easy laugh.


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