Author: Ali Lehman - March 2021
GOD SAVE THE QUEENS
“We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.” - RuPaul
This phrase might be familiar to you. Maybe you watch RuPaul’s Drag Race. But to say drag is mainstream is to liken Barack Obama’s presidency to the end of racism, or Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign to the end of homophobia.
Straight white women saying “Yas, QUEEN!” does not make drag mainstream.
They probably don’t realize they’re stealing from queer black drag culture in the first place. Drag used to represent the art of female impersonation. The origin of the term ‘drag’ began before women were allowed to participate in theater, with men playing female roles. Their long dresses would ‘drag’ across the stage.
Today, people of all gender and sexual identities participate in drag. This new, more inclusive version of drag is its own punk resurgence. It’s a Fuck You to the culture that says ‘women have to look this way,’ so ‘drag has to look that way.’
As women face increasingly less pressure to present as feminine, drag queens are evolving too, with many pushing the boundaries of the art form.
But to be transgressive is to violate accepted or imposed boundaries relating to society. As long as LGBT+ people are discriminated against in America, drag itself will always be an act of defiance.
The spirits of punk and drag culture have long intersected because a ‘fuck your norms’ attitude exists within the two.
I asked the opinion of Nashville drag queen Ivy St. James, who said, “To an extent punk and drag go hand in hand. There are some entertainers who specifically perform numbers to give a more ‘fuck you attitude’ to different mainstream topics or against social norms.”
St. James grew up highly involved in the church. “I had to have my own journey to be confident against those in the world that judge me for how I walk, how I talk or how I dress.”
She says, “Drag itself is an obstacle.”
Through the 1960s, to wear less than three items of clothing specific to your gender was a crime punishable by jail time.
Jayne County, a major figure in both punk and LGBT+ history, was a major player in the riots
at Stonewall Inn in 1969, arguably the start of the LGBT+ rights movement. She is known as the first transgender punk performer, influencing David Bowie, the Ramones, Patti Smith and Lou Reed.
Since then, queer culture has dipped in and out of fashion among mainstream audiences.
By the 1990s, drag was closer to becoming mainstream.
The documentary Paris is Burning revealed the glamour and heartache of Harlem’s predominantly African American trans and drag ball culture. It introduced “voguing,” which Madonna featured in the video for her hit “Vogue.”
RuPaul Charles, arguably America’s most famous drag queen, is credited with bringing drag into pop culture. The popularity of his hit song “Supermodel (You Better Work)” in 1993 gave him the opportunity to have his own talk/variety show on VH1, running for 100 episodes. Ru was even signed by MAC as the first male face of the brand.
Despite the popularity of RuPaul, and a more mainstream appreciate for drag culture, many queer Americans were still living in the shadows. Bill Clinton signed "Don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) in 1994 and the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996.
Federal hate crimes legislation wasn’t extended to protect gay people until 2009. That same year, RuPaul created the competition reality show “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” The show, which has won multiple Emmy awards, created such an impact that it caused a shift in local drag culture.
For example, when drag is trendy, audiences at local shows change. According to St. James, “People fall in love with the glorified version of drag instead of coming to the club and falling in love with a queen you meet or a performance you watch.”
Furthermore, “Audiences like to treat the show more like a concert than a drag show. The audience is missing the sense of respect that queer people teach the younger generation or to their friends who are allies.”
At the end of the day, the drag community exists as a safe space for queer people to express themselves. Civil rights need to catch up with the mainstream appreciation for queer culture.
As St. James sees it, “The most important thing to me is the sense of community that the entertainers have.”
Nashville has something really special; we have a venue that is well known around the U.S. with some of the best shows in the business. We have a scene of up and coming girls that really enjoy helping and getting to know each other. We genuinely like to spend time with one another.”
We’re all looking for self-acceptance.
According to St. James, “We use drag to pass on a message by performing, and some, like myself, choose to bring positive upbeat songs and messages to help those that are going through something.”
She says that the “first challenge in doing drag is confidence. I’ll say for my personal journey I had to become comfortable in my own skin.”
As RuPaul says at the end of every episode of “Drag Race,” “If you don‘t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”
Illustration by Hunter Long
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