Monday, 10 August 2015

Divine Rebellion: The History of Drag Queens

Harry S Franklyn, 1920s Drag Queen
(The scene: a hot summer day at my favourite beverage place, the Hop and Brew.)
Me: I'm writing an article on the history of Drag Queens.

Marc, my buddy from Seattle: Sounds cool. And I don't know anything about them. As a people or performers outside Priscilla, Hedwig...etc.

Me: I know some history but not outside of North America. My ignorance and your ignorance are perfectly matched.

Marc: (Laughs) That's the first I've hear that being dumb is good.

Me: Well, let's start off with your questions, then I'll use this as the base for the article.

Marc: Sure! And our reward for such an endeavor...more beer?

Me: Done!

What is a  Drag Queen?
Eltinge with and without his dress - 1920s

To get all technical on you all, a drag queen is usually a male of any ethnicity who dresses as a woman (in drag) with exaggerated femine traits for performance and entertainment in some capacity. Meriam-Webster dictionary online has the incorrect definition, that it's a homosexual man only. That's not the modern or current usage, as any performer can identify with any gender and sexual orientation. It does not mean the person also is a Transgender as well, which is when a person born with one gender transitions to the opposite gender, or none at all. But the line has always been blurry: the early 20th century American vaudeville and film performer Julian Eltinge is called the greatest female impersonator in theatrical history. His hyper-masculinity off the stage, and his very ambiguous sexuality is still up for debate.

Do they exist all over the world and for how long? 

Heck yes!  Men dressing as women in performance was very common in the European theatre world: you see it a lot in Shakespearean theatre even today. In Asia, Chinese and Japanese theatre, men would play the parts of women because women were not allowed on stage. I'll focus more on Chinese performers here, as gender in Chinese history was more my area of study in University. Men performing in drag were not the modern concept of drag queens: their actions cannot be divorced from the cultural context surrounding them. In an article by Dawei Ji,  he states that in 20th century literature they were viewed as undesirables:

... I name them "performers of the paternal past" where the word perform references both theatrical art and speech act theory. Often paired with paternal figures, they dramatize and visualize the past as if it were a theatrical play, but they also operate and sustain the past, as if it were a wristwatch that needed winding up. Furthermore, with their androgynous bodies, these ambiguously gendered characters represent trauma in China's history. Drawing on Julia Kristeva's explication of the abject in Powers of Horror, I argue that both female impersonators and the Chinese past exemplify abjection in these novels. The abject, like bodily excreta, is both filthy and indispensable for the subject. It lingers on the subject's borders, at once repudiated and retained. In the works that I discuss, the past is abjected by the present, and female impersonators, who seem to be detained in the past, are abjected by normatively gendered characters.
One of the modern performers is Li Yugang (李玉刚) who really blurs gender lines and sexuality normative with his videos and work in opera. On his facebook page it states "A charming woman on stage, a man in real life", because the whole thing could be a bit blurry...

She is all man...and can wear a dress better than me.

How about just in North America?

The term Drag Queen first appears in 1870s, and is a popular item on the vaudeville stages pre and post WWI. However, after WWII there was a big backlash against anything seen as counter-culture or not hetero-normative. Being a homosexual was never 100 percent legal, but now after 1945 in Canada, Mexico and the US the government and police actively persecuted all LGTBQ people. The wearing of opposite gender clothes were banned, and people were often publicly humiliated, harassed, fired from jobs, jailed or placed in mental institutions.

And then came Silvia...

The suppression could not continue: The growing gay rights movement in 1950s and 60s America really exploded in the 1969 Stonewall Riots, started at the legendary bar in New York. It was the only gay bar in New York at that time and was raided on June 28th, 1969. Many lesbians and drag queens began to fight back, including the drag queen Sylvia Rivera, who threw pennies and quarters at police. Three nights of riots ensued, where other drag queens like Marsha P. Johnson smashed a police car window with her hand bag. (You kick ass girl!)

Because of these early fighters, people began to embrace again the drag queens, and it came out of the closet as more performances and careers were launched. One famous drag queen who gained international fame was Logan Carter who rose to fame in the early 1970s. My personal favourite, Travis Shaw has been better known as Foxy De-Rossi, a biracial diva from Prince George who has been an great advocate for human rights.

Is it a derogatory term?

No it's not but it's up to the individual to what they would like to be refered to as. Drag queens in North America do not like the term Transvestite being used for them, as they are not Trans people. Others, however, have no problem with being called Tranny as they want to take back the term, just like the old slur "Fag" meaning gay man. It's up to the person: so ask! Or how about just calling them by their name, that works too.

OK - Divine and other extreme drag queens kind of freak me out...

She's fierce to me but I can't stand her music really....

...and that's ok, but understand that your reaction to another human being is important. Divine was Harris Glenn Milstead, (October 19, 1945 – March 7, 1988), an American actor, singer and Drag Queen best know for his work with filmmaker John Waters. He personally did not identify as Transgender, but male and gay, which flies in the face of many stereotypes of what a drag queen should be. He was, however, as Divine, very edgy and in your face. Who can forget his great comedic timing and slapstick act in Hairspray? So next time you're freaked out, understand not everyone has to like everyone's performances, but that Divine was just expressing herself and we should honour that.

Me: (After I give this to Mark) So beers next week? Are you buying?

Mark: Yep, and after all this, I might just throw in the pizza too.

Me: Thank you, Saint Divine...

For more info, ask a local drag troupe. Or do some reading and watching:

Around the World in 80 Drag Queens

I am Divine: A New Documentary

The Imperial Court

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