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.
- J. Nelson Aviance. "The Problem With Automatically Labeling Drag Queens as Cisgender Gay Men". HuffPost, 4/29/2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/j-nelson-aviance/post_7434_b_5233848.html?utm_hp_ref=gay-voices.
- Andrea James. “I F*cking Hate @RuPaul”. Boingboing, 2014/04/04. http://boingboing.net/2014/04/04/rupaul.html.
- Hannah Elyse Simpson. "Why This Trans Woman Doesn't Want to Ban Drag, But Say 'Thank You' ". Advocate, July 31 2015. www.advocate.com/commentary/2015/07/31/op-ed-why-trans-woman-doesnt-want-ban-drag-say-thank-you.