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2013/06/25

Acquired Tastes, XXXXIII: Drag Queens

We are the Stonewall girls,
We wear our hair in curls,
We don’t wear underwear,
We show our pubic hairs!

- to the tune of the ‘Howdy Doody’ theme, as sung by kick lines taunting police during the Stonewall Riots, June 28, 1969

Introduction:

Since this month is LGBT Pride Month, I thought it only fitting to take a look at some of the gay nation’s most colorful and iconic ambassadors.  Who’s the leader of the pack?  Most pride parades may typically be kicked-off featuring a group of leather-clad motorcycle enthusiasts, followed by the official grand marshal, but I guarantee that right behind them will be a float full of brilliantly festooned queens bringing their A-game to one of their most treasured traditions. 

Now, in the past, I may have beefed about the media’s preoccupation with these flamboyant representatives, for they do tend to hog most of the visual space provided in the tiny sound-bites regarding local pride events on the evening news (which says more about the media than it does the queens), but there is a historical significance for their prominence.  Hey, you got to give these ladies their due! 

Why?

Well, as it turns out, they were on the front-lines of gay liberation, playing a significant role in the Compton Cafeteria riot of 1966 and the 1969 Stonewall riots.

That’s right, kids… it’s not all been glitter and rouge.  There once was a time when a queen had to get mean…

“In 1966, drag queens, hustlers, and transvestites were sitting in Compton's Cafeteria in San Francisco when the police arrived to arrest men dressed as women. A riot ensued, with the patrons of the cafeteria slinging cups, plates, and saucers, and breaking the plate glass windows in the front of the restaurant, and returning several days later to smash the windows again after they were replaced.” - Wikipedia

“…"flame queens", hustlers, and gay "street kids"—the most outcast people in the gay community—were responsible for the first volley of projectiles, as well as the uprooting of a parking meter used as a battering ram on the doors of the Stonewall Inn. - Wikipedia

And just why were those queens upset?

“During a typical raid, the lights were turned on, and customers were lined up and their identification cards checked. Those without identification or dressed in full drag were arrested; others were allowed to leave. Some of the men, including those in drag, used their draft cards as identification. Women were required to wear three pieces of feminine clothing, and would be arrested if found not wearing them.” - Wikipedia

In the years before Stonewall?  On a whole, gay men in drag were marginalized by even their own community.  Oh, sure, there were the occasional ‘artistes’ who managed to break through to the mainstream under the guise of being a female impersonator, but for your average, street corner, steal-Mom’s-dress drag queen of old, their presence was not looked upon as something acceptable - even to the larger gay community – a community who knew only too well the sting of being ostracized. 

That’s right, honey.  Back in the bad old days?  Life was frequently… a real drag.

But their roles as ambassadors didn’t end in the early heady days of gay lib. Some twenty-five years later, they would once again let their colors blaze in the wake of yet another cause.

The other day, I was stuck at home and started watching ‘The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’ (1994).  I thought back to when it first came out and the impact it had.  It even had its own American spin off/rip off (sort of), in the form of ‘To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar’ (1995).  And then, in 1996, came an American adaptation of ‘La Cage aux Folles’, titled ‘The Birdcage’.  They sort of served as a reintroduction, for both gay and straight America, to the fun side of being gay – an antithesis, if you will, to all those dreary AIDS movies/plays that we had to endure throughout the crisis (yes, they served a purpose, but boy… on the whole, boy, were they dreadful to sit through).

Watching these three drag films now, I don’t think any of them necessarily raised the bar in terms of artistic achievement, but when placed in the perspective of their historical significance (the times they came out in) their impact was nothing short of remarkable.  In a post-AIDS crisis world, they not only reminded gay males that life could be good (and colorful), but, they actually helped gay people regain a foothold in the national social dialogue; one not based on HIV status and death.

Yes, gay people were fun again!  We were people who did something more than just mourn and die. 
This foothold got straight people talking, and laughing, and viewing gay men as something more than a disease.  I think it served as the kick-off for many of the strides we are currently gaining/enjoying in the realm of civil rights.

And we have our drag sisters to thank for it.

So, to honor them, let’s roll up our fishnets, pull on our fur coats, and slip into a pair of our best ruby reds in order to sneak a peek behind the glam-infested, bejeweled-chested, feather-crested, melt-down tested world of….

Drag Queens

Scope of Activity:
For the sake of this post, I will be looking at only those drag artists that are created by gay males.

The Official Line:

From Wikipedia
A drag queen is a man who dresses, and often acts like a caricature of a woman, often for the purpose of entertaining. There are many kinds of drag artists and they vary greatly, from professionals who have starred in films to people who just try it once. Drag queens also vary by class and culture and can vary even within the same cities. There are drag artists of all genders and sexualities who do drag for various reasons or purposes.

Generally drag queens are males who dress and act in a female gender role, often exaggerating certain characteristics (such as make-up and eyelashes) for comic, dramatic or satirical effect. Other drag performers include drag kings, who are women who perform in male roles, faux queens, who are women who dress in an exaggerated style to emulate drag queens, and faux kings, who are men who dress to impersonate drag kings.

The term drag queen usually refers to people who dress in drag for the purpose of performing, whether singing or lip-synching, dancing, participating in events such as gay pride parades, drag pageants, or at venues such as cabarets and discotheques. Many drag queens engage in "mix-and-mingle" or hosting work at night clubs or at private parties and events. Drag is a part of Western gay culture.

Drag has come to be a celebrated aspect of modern gay life. Many gay bars and clubs around the world hold drag shows as special parties. Several "International Drag Day" holidays have been started over the years to promote the shows. Typically, in the U.S. drag is celebrated in early March.

However, within the larger lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) communities drag queens are sometimes criticized for their participation in pride parades and other public events, believing that this projects a limited and harmful image of gay people and impedes a broader social acceptance. In more recent years drag queens have been prominently featured at these same events. A common criticism of drag queens is that they promote harmful stereotypes of women, comparable to blackface portrayal of African-Americans by white performers that was popular in the early 20th century.

Drag queens are sometimes criticized by members of the transgender community — especially, but not exclusively, by many trans-women — because of fears that they themselves may be stereotyped as drag queens. Other trans-women reject those fears in the broader context that drag queens, many of whom are gender-variant and sexuality minorities are more of an ally than a threat.

Psychological Aspects:

Dare we?

I must admit, I used to have some pre-conceived/ill-advised ideas of where drag queens came from.  I used to think they were frustrated actors who were jealous that all the most interesting roles went to women.  I used to think they were transgender individuals looking for a means of expression.  I used to believe that they were beings that suffered from an external locus of identity, unable to accept themselves as they were, and in need of a certain kind of validation, so, in order to achieve that validation, they created an alter-ego and unleashed their anger on the world.  I used to see them as sad/scary alcoholic clowns.

Yes, every misconceived notion about what a gay man is (drug/alcohol addicted, depressed, neurotic, femmy, lonely), are the same tired clichés that drag queens must endure.  Fact is – yes, there are those that suffer from all those ailments, be they gay, straight, or indifferent; in or out of drag.  But, hey!  Generalizations simply don’t cut it these days, so I’m going to save my breath and myself the embarrassment of coming up with some two-bit theory of what makes a queen.

For some, it is a lifestyle and a means of creating family.  For some, it is a means of performance and expression and a way to make a living.  A given queen’s motivation and inspiration is as individual as a snowflake or a fingerprint.

As for how we enjoy them?  That varies a lot, too.  Some followers are obsessed.  Some live vicariously.  Some enjoy ironically.  Again… there are as many ways to appreciate these visions in sequins and tights dancing in the lights as there are queens to appreciate.

Suggestions/Advice

Fake it, until you make it.

And never try to share a mirror with a drag queen (see below).

My Experience:

My experience in drag is quite limited. 

My life in drag…

There are some grainy 8mm reels rotting in a basement in Austin, MN of me donning a wig, dress, and a pair of cat-eye glasses, improvising a monologue about I-remember-not, while popping chalky dinner mints into my lipstick-stained mug.  It was at the request of a local budding filmmaker.  I was eighteen years old.  I’d like to remember this as one of those ‘Andy Warhol’ moments, but I think I was much less interesting than that.

I also put on a red fright wig as part of an improv for an acting class that took place in an abandoned building on Block-E, just before the wrecking ball was to hit.  A former best friend insisted I take acting classes from this women who was squatting there.  As for my performance, I was told I was a dead ringer for Bette Midler (if Bette was 6’1” and had no talent).

My last stab at drag?  Halloween, (of course).  I had just waged battle with the managing director of a small community theatre.  My reward?  The undying respect of all the actors who frequented said community theatre and hated the managing director.  

So, I threw a huge party.  I lived in an empty three-story house on Park Avenue at the time: decorated the place with swooping dead brides, a baby stuck in a well, and a chainsaw wielding maniac.  I dressed up as the much unloved managing director and dubbed myself ‘Mad Millie’.  Sporting a fuchsia polyester pant suit stuffed with pillow fluff, I gave myself thunder thighs, giant tits, and a butt to rival Kim Kardashian’s.  Into my fright wig I’d sewn two stuffed opera gloves, giving onlookers the impression that I was always at my wits end.  Add to that, a face full of make-up that made Faye Dunaway’s Joan Crawford look subtle and, well, you get the idea.  I was a big hit.  Especially when I began frottaging an aged Bette Davis look-a-like a la ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane’ in the middle of one of the rooms. We garnered quite a crowd.  Ah, youth…

As for working with drag queens:

I participated in a fundraiser in 1987 at the infamous Gay Nineties, here in Minneapolis.  It featured a bunch of drag queens.  It was NOT PRETTY.  In fact, backstage, it was the ugliest scene I have ever witnessed.  Those bitches were mean.  And rather handsy.  But mostly mean (and inebriated). 

Lesson learned?  Before going onstage, never lean over a queen to check your make-up in their mirror!  That’s THEIR mirror, bitch!

Of course, all those queens were drinking really heavily preshow, during and between shows, and by the second show, the claws were out; items started sailing through the air, insults were exchanged onstage, while I and the other dancers were relegated to a tiny corner in the far right rear of the actual stage, behind a couple of palm tree cut-outs (where we trembled in fear between numbers).

As an audience member:

My early exposure to drag shows?  Tragic.  Alcoholic queens with melting faces badly lip syncing Liza and the like.  The only thing worse than the songs? The insults hurled at the audience by the emcee (a Mr. Ron, if I remember correctly) in an attempt to endear themselves.

When I returned to the Twin Cities in 1998, drag at the Gay Nineties had definitely taken a turn for the better.  Lots of Hip Hop.  Lots of sexy girls showing lots of flesh.  Red hot choreography.  It was breathtaking.  Exhilarating.  A rebirth.

Recently?  The show was sort of moving back to the days of Mr. Ron: big girls hobbling around in bad dresses lip syncing songs that no one need ever hear again… sigh.

As a sexual/romantic partner:

I have slept with only one drag queen.  I was in Iowa at the time.  She came to town to do a show at the only bar in Waterloo.  I won’t share her name.  She was based out of Chicago.  Her show was a one-woman/person extravaganza featuring Pee Wee Herman, Barbara Streisand, and a host of others… bing, bang, boom… all well-choreographed, and expertly executed.  Scene changes took place at a speed I could not believe, mainly because, the whole thing was all – as in only… her, doing everything: changing sets, costumes, make-up, wigs, props – in amazingly clever ways. 

We were smitten with one another, and wanted to shag that night, but I begged off.  I was ambivalent about sleeping with a drag queen and I’d also had a bit too much to drink.  Using the latter as an excuse I told her she was welcome to stay at my place anytime her tour brought her through my neck of the woods. 

Three weeks later?  I’m walking him around town, showing him the ‘Our Town’ nightmare I was stuck in for that year.  We went to a park and played on the swings.  I showed him the rope bridge.  The deco movie theatre… it was boring, but it was my life at the time.  That night we got naked, but rather than fuck him he just rubbed his hole on my dick until I came.  It was sort of hot.  

We stayed in touch, but the next time (and last time) I saw him, was a year later in St. Paul and I was with my then-partner.  His act hadn’t changed much, but mine had.  He was/is the nicest guy. And extremely talented.

Ah, RuPaul:

Yes, I have watched episodes of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’. 

No, I do not like the show. 

I do not consider it a real competition.  I do not enjoy watching people under-fire struggle to be creative with ridiculous time and resource constraints and demands. That is not art - that is crisis management.  I do not enjoy watching people dealing with pressure and stress having their personal lives, family history, or emotional wounds poked at and exposed. That is not entertainment - that is torture.  Emotionally water-boarding drag queens?  Not my idea of a good time, Ru.

While I applaud the show for the attention it has garnered for both the individuals involved and the art form, and while I love RuPaul (a national treasure), I find the show’s definition of a winning drag queen quite limited.  I am dismayed that none of the larger-figured queens have ever made it into the top three (Latrice Royale could lip sync the paint off a hitching post) (And is what world is Roxxy considered ‘big’).  I find the show is somewhat ageist, with a focus on younger, less seasoned and talented queens (When Tyra Sanchez beat out a field of much more talented queens?  I smelled a rat and gave up on the whole franchise.  And that whole Phi Phi O'Hara nightmare?  Where’s a wire hanger when you need one?).

In my humble opinion, drag is an art that is honed in private, with each performance being nurtured and allowed to bloom.  It’s not just about a bunch of hot-glued honeys furiously lathering make-up on their faces while learning choreography.  It’s a fucking art form!  It deserves respect! 

P.S. - Sharon Needles is a step in the right direction.  The legacy and influence of  Leigh Bowery is everywhere.

My current favorite drag queen:
 

Tammie Brown.  Nuttier than a Snickers bar, more creative than a schoolroom full of kindergarteners, classical in approach, profane with an arch-type, and  classier than all those other bitches combined.  She’s the queen for me. (And I bet she is insane in the boudoir, as well. He’s a cute little guy!).  I saw her on the first episode of ‘Drag Race’ and said to the gentlemen watching it with me, “That’s a real talent… and she’ll be the first one to go!”  Jealous bitches.

My Conclusion:

“Applause, applause.
Give the singer a chance.
Treat her right.  Be polite.
And maybe she will dance.” 
– ‘Applause’ by Janis Ian

Hats off to these brave ambassadors!  I have not always appreciated their talents, but I certainly bow to their historical significance.  We owe them big time.  So, go ahead and let them hog those evening news highlights – they deserve it.  They can represent me, any time and I would be honored to march in their parade.

Oh!  I forgot my favorite part…the names!  I love the names. 

Please use the comment section and share your thoughts, experiences, etc.  But mainly?  Be sure to include your drag name!

I think mine would have been Vanilla Puddin'pop…

Or Hagatha Fistmee…

Or Linda Lubengo.

What’s yours?









































4 comments:

Stan said...

Great Post. We often forget our own history especially the youngsters now coming up. I don't like RuPaul's drag race show either. I used to see him do shows back in Atlanta. Drag just isn't my bag. Have nothing against it though.

Ray's Cowboy said...

I have to say my ex, Jon, who has passed away, was a Drag Queen. He did it to help raise money for charity; not for profit. I have to say I love Drag Queens. They helped us out at Stone Wall, they help raise money when we need them, the can be very protective as well. And they are most of all FUN to be around.

Love your post today.

Hugs
Ray

whkattk said...

Drag Queens are a hoot. Female impersonators have been around for a long, long time. Jim Bailey brought them to the mainstream years and years ago with a national television special - before cable TV.

BlkJack said...

I am and always will be, Sister Mary. Not really into drag but i do love RuPaul. My favorites are Latrice & Jinkx. Wouldn't miss an episode. Thanks!
BlkJack