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The Significance of Drag in Gay Culture: A Celebration of Art, Activism, and Identity

Updated: Jun 4


As we celebrate Pride Month, it's important to recognize and honor the diverse facets of LGBTQ+ culture that have contributed to our community's vibrancy and resilience. One such facet is the rich and dynamic world of drag. Drag holds significant cultural and historical importance in the LGBTQ+ community, particularly within gay culture. Let’s look at the history of drag, and why drag is so essential and cherished.

Historical Roots

The practice of drag, in the sense of men performing as women, has a long history that extends back to classical antiquity. These early examples of drag not only provided entertainment but also highlighted the constructed nature of gender roles. This historical context enriches our understanding of drag as a form of artistic expression that challenges and redefines societal norms around gender and identity.

The term "drag" itself has a fascinating history. It is believed to have originated in the 19th century theater scene, referring to the long skirts and dresses worn by actors portraying female characters. These garments would "drag" along the floor, leading to the slang term "drag" being used to describe the act of men dressing in women's clothing. Over time, the term evolved to encompass the broader art of gender performance and has become synonymous with the vibrant and diverse world of drag culture.


Classical Age through the Renaissance

In ancient Greek and Roman theater, all roles, including female characters, were performed by men. This practice was largely due to societal norms that prohibited women from acting on stage. Male actors would don elaborate costumes and masks to portray female characters, employing exaggerated gestures and voices to distinguish these roles. This early form of drag highlighted the performative nature of gender and laid the groundwork for future theatrical traditions.

This practice extended through Medieval times and the Renaissance, as societal norms still restricted women from participating in theatrical activities. Women were not allowed to perform on stage until the late 17th century. Thus, all female roles in plays by William Shakespeare and his contemporaries were performed by young boys or men. This practice continued to emphasize the fluidity of gender roles in performance.


18th Century: Princess Seraphina

One of the earliest documented drag queens was Princess Seraphina, a prominent figure in London's molly house culture in the 18th century. Molly houses were social clubs where men could meet and express themselves freely, often through drag. Princess Seraphina, also known as John Cooper, was a well-known drag performer who exemplified the blending of gender roles long before the modern LGBTQ+ movement.


Early 20th Century

Vaudeville and Theater

In the early 20th century, vaudeville and theater were significant platforms for drag performances. Vaudeville, a genre of variety entertainment, featured many female impersonators who became stars in their own right. Julian Eltinge was one of the most famous drag performers of this era, known for his convincing female impersonations. His success demonstrated early public fascination with gender performance.


The Pansy Craze and the Harlem Drag Ball Scene (1920s-1930s)

The 1920s and 1930s saw the rise of the Pansy Craze, a period when drag performers gained popularity in speakeasies and nightclubs, particularly in major cities like New York and Berlin. Drag queens and gender-bending performers like Jean Malin and Ray Bourbon entertained audiences with their charisma and talent. This era was marked by a temporary relaxation of gender norms, and drag performers became stars in their own right.


The Harlem drag ball scene began to emerge as a significant cultural phenomenon during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s. These drag balls were extravagant events where participants competed in various categories, showcasing their fashion, performance skills, and charisma. Organized primarily by the Black LGBTQ+ community, these balls provided a safe haven for individuals to express their identities and celebrate their culture.


Drag balls became popular events that drew large audiences, both LGBTQ+ and straight, who were fascinated by the elaborate costumes, innovative dance styles, and bold expressions of gender fluidity. Categories for competition included Best Dressed, Butch Queen, Femme Queen, and Realness, among others, each requiring participants to display specific styles and attitudes.


Prominent figures in the Harlem drag ball scene included performers such as Phil Black and the legendary "Mother" Crystal LaBeija, who later founded the House of LaBeija. These events were not only about fashion and performance but also served as a form of resistance against the pervasive racism and homophobia of the time, providing a supportive community and a platform for artistic expression.


The Harlem drag ball scene's significance extended beyond entertainment. It was a vital cultural and social institution that allowed marginalized individuals to find a sense of belonging and validation. The balls celebrated Black culture and queer identity, blending elements of traditional African American aesthetics with avant-garde fashion and performance art. This fusion created a unique cultural space where participants could explore and express their identities freely.


Mid-20th Century

Post-War Era and Underground Drag

After World War II, societal attitudes towards gender and sexuality became more conservative, pushing drag back underground. However, drag culture continued to thrive in secret clubs and bars. In the 1950s, drag performers like Charles Pierce and José Sarria (the first openly gay candidate for public office in the U.S.) kept the art form alive through their performances and activism.


Stonewall Riots (1969)

The Stonewall Riots in 1969 marked a significant turning point for LGBTQ+ rights and visibility. Drag queens, including Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, played crucial roles in the uprising against police raids at the Stonewall Inn in New York City. The riots sparked the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement and brought greater visibility to drag culture.


Late 20th Century to Early 21st Century

The Rise of Drag Balls and House Culture (1980s)

The Harlem drag ball scene began to emerge as a significant cultural phenomenon in the 1920s and 1930s during the Harlem Renaissance, but it saw a resurgence and significant evolution in the 1980s. The drag balls were extravagant events where participants competed in various categories, showcasing their fashion, performance skills, and charisma. These balls were havens for the Black and Latinx LGBTQ+ communities, providing a space to celebrate and express their identities freely.


During the 1980s, these balls evolved into what is now known as house culture. Houses, which are chosen families led by house "mothers" or "fathers," provided support and a sense of belonging for individuals who often faced rejection from their biological families due to their gender identity or sexual orientation. Houses like the House of LaBeija, House of Xtravaganza, and House of Ninja became renowned for their performances at balls, where they competed in categories ranging from voguing to high fashion. This culture, highlighted in the documentary "Paris Is Burning" (1990) and the television series “Pose!”, continues to influence contemporary drag and LGBTQ+ culture, emphasizing the importance of community, resilience, and creative expression.


The Advent of Television and Film

Television and film began to feature drag more prominently. "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" (1975) became a cult classic with Tim Curry's iconic performance as Dr. Frank-N-Furter. In 1983, "Victor/Victoria" starring Julie Andrews, showcased drag in a mainstream film, challenging gender norms and promoting acceptance. RuPaul's rise to fame in the 1990s with hits like "Supermodel (You Better Work)" brought drag into the music scene and pop culture.


RuPaul and "RuPaul's Drag Race"

RuPaul Charles became a central figure in modern drag culture with the creation of "RuPaul's Drag Race" in 2009. The reality competition show brought drag into the mainstream, celebrating its artistry and empowering countless performers. "RuPaul's Drag Race" has won multiple awards and has had a significant impact on popular culture, promoting acceptance and visibility for the LGBTQ+ community.

Drag as Artistic Expression

Drag is a vibrant form of artistic expression that combines elements of fashion, performance art, theater, and comedy. Drag performers, often referred to as drag queens or drag kings, use elaborate costumes, makeup, and personas to create captivating performances that entertain and provoke thought. The creativity and talent displayed in drag performances highlight the artistic genius within our community.


Fashion

Drag fashion is characterized by its boldness, extravagance, and creativity. Performers often create or customize their costumes, blending various styles and influences to produce unique and eye-catching outfits. The use of makeup in drag is also an art form in itself, with performers employing advanced techniques to transform their appearance dramatically. Iconic drag fashion moments, such as those seen on "RuPaul's Drag Race," have influenced mainstream fashion and inspired designers around the world.


Performance Art

Drag performances encompass a wide range of styles and genres, from lip-syncing and live singing to dance and comedy. Performers often craft elaborate routines that tell a story or convey a powerful message. The theatricality of drag allows performers to explore different facets of their personalities and push the boundaries of traditional performance art. Legendary drag artists like Divine and contemporary stars like Sasha Velour have demonstrated the profound emotional and intellectual impact of drag performances.


Theater and Comedy

Drag is deeply rooted in theatrical traditions, with many performers drawing inspiration from classic and contemporary theater. The use of humor and satire is prevalent in drag, allowing performers to comment on social and political issues in a way that is both entertaining and thought-provoking. Drag comedy can range from campy and over-the-top to subtle and sophisticated, showcasing the versatility and talent of drag artists.


Visual Art

Some drag artists incorporate visual art into their performances, using multimedia elements such as video projections, elaborate set designs, and interactive installations. This interdisciplinary approach allows drag to intersect with other art forms, creating immersive and innovative experiences for audiences. Artists like Sasha Velour have pioneered this blend of drag and visual art, pushing the boundaries of what drag can be.


Impact of Famous Entertainers

Many famous entertainers have also contributed to the visibility and acceptance of drag by performing in roles that involve cross-dressing or gender-bending. Milton Berle, known as "Uncle Miltie," was one of the first television stars to regularly perform in drag on his show in the 1950s, bringing drag into American living rooms. Flip Wilson's character "Geraldine Jones" became a beloved part of his comedy routines, challenging gender norms with humor and charm. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye donned drag for comedic effect in the film "White Christmas," while Julie Andrews famously played a woman pretending to be a man impersonating a woman in "Victor/Victoria."


Tilda Swinton is known for her androgynous roles, such as her portrayal of the title character in "Orlando," a film about a gender-switching immortal. Glenn Close famously played a woman passing as a man in "Albert Nobbs," showcasing the challenges and complexities of gender identity. Cate Blanchett's portrayal of Bob Dylan in "I'm Not There" further blurred gender lines, demonstrating the fluidity and spectrum of gender in performance. These performances by mainstream entertainers helped to normalize drag and gender fluidity, paving the way for greater acceptance and understanding.


There are also some very well-known roles that are played by opposite gender actors/actresses.  Mary Martin, for example, premiered the role of Peter Pan on Broadway in 1954, as a young boy played by a famous Broadway actress.  While other women played Peter Pan in previous productions (as early as 1906), Mary Martin made the role famous, and many more women followed her performance, including Cathy Rigby, Sandy Duncan, and Mia Farrow, to name a few.  While the role of Edna Turnblat in John Waters’ original movie “Hairspray” was played by a then lesser known, but already famous on the drag scene, Divine, the Broadway musical featured Harvey Fierstein as Tracey’s mom.   Later, in the blockbuster movie, Ms. Turnblad was played by John Travolta.  This tradition continued in the traveling “Hairspray” productions, with the likes of the late comedian John Pinette and RuPaul Drag Race queen Nina West in the role. 


Cultural Impact

The influence of drag culture extends beyond the LGBTQ+ community, permeating mainstream entertainment and pop culture, including music, television, film, fashion, and slang. Shows like "RuPaul's Drag Race" have brought drag into the global spotlight, celebrating its artistry and empowering a new generation of performers and fans. This cultural impact has helped to normalize LGBTQ+ identities and promote acceptance.


Influence on Music

Drag culture has significantly influenced the music industry. From glam rock in the 1970s, with artists like David Bowie and Freddie Mercury adopting androgynous and flamboyant styles, to modern pop icons like Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj, who draw heavily on drag aesthetics, drag has continuously shaped musical trends. Songs from drag performances often become anthems within the LGBTQ+ community, resonating with themes of self-empowerment and resilience.


Television and Film

Television and film have also embraced drag culture, bringing it to a broader audience. Shows like "RuPaul's Drag Race" and "Pose" have been groundbreaking in their portrayal of drag and LGBTQ+ lives. Documentaries such as "Paris Is Burning" and "The Queen" have provided in-depth looks into the drag scene, highlighting its cultural significance and the challenges faced by its community. These media representations have played a crucial role in demystifying drag and fostering acceptance.


But the genderbending isn’t just for shows about drag.  Recall Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as female musicians in “Some Like it Hot.”  The movie was said to be an inspiration for the early 1980’s sitcom “Bosom Buddies” starring Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari as working “girls” who room in a boarding house for women only, so their characters dressed as women every day to come and go.  There are many other such examples.  The comedy troupes “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and “The Kids in the Hall” were all-male comedy sketch groups who played all of the female parts as well.  Famous roles such as Robin Williams’ Mrs. Doubfire, Dustin Hoffman’s Tootsie, and Tyler Perry’s Madea have all captivated us from the silver screen.


Fashion and Design

The fashion industry has long been influenced by drag culture. Designers like Thierry Mugler, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Alexander McQueen have drawn inspiration from drag's bold and avant-garde aesthetics. Drag queens have walked runways, appeared in high-fashion campaigns, and even inspired entire collections. This symbiotic relationship has allowed for a greater exploration of gender fluidity and non-conformity in fashion.


Language and Vernacular

Drag culture has also contributed significantly to the modern vernacular, with phrases and expressions originating from the drag scene becoming commonplace. Terms like "shade," "read," "slay," and "yas queen" have transcended the LGBTQ+ community and entered mainstream usage, often popularized through shows like "RuPaul's Drag Race." This linguistic influence reflects the broader cultural impact of drag.


Political and Social Commentary

Drag often incorporates political and social commentary, using humor and satire to address pressing issues. Drag performers have historically been at the forefront of LGBTQ+ activism, using their platforms to advocate for equality, justice, and human rights. Their performances can be powerful tools for change, shedding light on injustices and inspiring action.


Visibility and Representation

Drag has played a crucial role in increasing visibility and representation for the LGBTQ+ community. Through drag shows, parades, and media appearances, drag performers have brought LGBTQ+ issues into the public eye, fostering greater understanding and acceptance. Icons like RuPaul have made significant strides in mainstreaming drag, making it an integral part of popular culture.


Community Building

Drag culture fosters a sense of community and belonging. Drag shows and events provide safe spaces for LGBTQ+ individuals to gather, celebrate their identities, and support one another. These spaces have historically been sanctuaries for those who faced discrimination and ostracism in mainstream society. By coming together, we strengthen our bonds and uplift each other.


Political Influence

Drag has also made its mark on politics, with drag queens using their platforms to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and social justice. Events like Drag Queen Story Hour, where drag queens read to children in libraries and schools, aim to promote inclusivity and acceptance from a young age. Drag performers have participated in protests, campaigns, and community organizing, demonstrating the powerful intersection of art and activism. For example, José Sarria, a pioneering drag performer, ran for public office in San Francisco in 1961, becoming the first openly gay candidate to do so in the United States. His campaign slogan was "United We Stand, Divided They Catch Us One by One."


Personal Empowerment

For many individuals, drag is a means of personal empowerment and self-discovery. It allows people to explore different aspects of their identity, challenge gender norms, and gain confidence. The transformative power of drag can be profoundly liberating and affirming, helping individuals to embrace their true selves.


Social Media and Digital Platforms

In the digital age, social media has become a powerful platform for drag artists to showcase their talents and reach global audiences. Platforms like Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok have allowed drag performers to connect with fans, share their art, and build personal brands. This accessibility has democratized drag, enabling more people to participate in and appreciate this vibrant art form.

 

Notable Figures in Drag History

The history of drag is rich with iconic figures who have shaped and defined this vibrant art form. These trailblazers have not only entertained audiences but also advanced LGBTQ+ visibility, challenged societal norms, and paved the way for future generations of drag performers. From early pioneers who brought drag into the public eye to contemporary icons who have made drag a global phenomenon, these notable figures have left an indelible mark on both the LGBTQ+ community and mainstream culture. Here are some of the most influential and celebrated individuals in drag history.


1. Marsha P. Johnson 

Marsha P. Johnson was a trailblazing drag queen and activist who played a pivotal role in the Stonewall Riots of 1969, which ignited the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement. Johnson co-founded the Gay Liberation Front and the advocacy organization STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), which supported homeless transgender youth.


2. Divine 

Harris Glenn Milstead, better known as Divine, was an iconic drag performer and actor who rose to fame in the 1970s and 1980s. Divine was a muse for filmmaker John Waters and starred in cult classics such as "Pink Flamingos" and "Hairspray," challenging societal norms and redefining beauty standards.


3. RuPaul Charles 

RuPaul Charles is arguably the most famous drag queen in the world. As the creator and host of "RuPaul's Drag Race," RuPaul has brought drag culture into the mainstream, celebrating its artistry and empowering countless performers. RuPaul's influence has been instrumental in promoting LGBTQ+ visibility and acceptance.


4. Lady Bunny 

Lady Bunny is a renowned drag queen, DJ, and founder of Wigstock, an annual drag festival that began in the 1980s. Lady Bunny's humor, activism, and contributions to drag culture have left a lasting impact on the LGBTQ+ community.


5. Sylvester 

Sylvester James, known simply as Sylvester, was a gender non-conforming drag performer and disco singer in the 1970s and 1980s. With hits like "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)," Sylvester broke barriers in the music industry and became a beloved figure in both the LGBTQ+ and broader musical communities.


6. Julian Eltinge 

Julian Eltinge was one of the most famous drag performers of the early 20th century. A vaudeville star, Eltinge was celebrated for his convincing female impersonations and was one of the highest-paid performers of his time. His success demonstrated the early fascination and appreciation for drag performances long before the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement.


7. José Sarria 

José Sarria was a pioneering drag performer and activist who ran for public office in San Francisco in 1961, becoming the first openly gay candidate to do so in the United States. Known as "The Widow Norton," Sarria's courageous visibility and activism laid the groundwork for future LGBTQ+ political and social advancements.


8. Conchita Wurst 

Conchita Wurst, the alter ego of Austrian singer Thomas Neuwirth, is famous for winning the Eurovision Song Contest in 2014. Conchita's striking appearance, characterized by a full beard paired with glamorous dresses, challenged conventional notions of beauty and gender, bringing drag to a new international audience.


Conclusion

Drag is a multifaceted and dynamic element of gay culture that transcends mere entertainment, embodying the resilience, creativity, and diversity of the LGBTQ+ community. From its historical roots in Elizabethan England and the Pansy Craze to the vibrant Harlem drag ball scene and the influence of vaudeville, drag has continually challenged and redefined gender norms. Its rich tradition of artistic expression spans fashion, performance art, theater, and visual art, showcasing the immense talent and creativity within our community.


Drag has played a crucial role in increasing visibility and representation, fostering a sense of community, and providing a powerful platform for political and social commentary. The cultural impact of drag is evident in its influence on music, television, film, fashion, and everyday vernacular, demonstrating its pervasive and transformative power.


The evolution of drag balls into house culture further highlights the adaptability and enduring relevance of drag, emphasizing the importance of community, resilience, and creative expression. Notable figures such as Marsha P. Johnson, Divine, RuPaul Charles, Lady Bunny, Sylvester, Julian Eltinge, and José Sarria have paved the way for future generations, using their artistry and activism to advocate for equality and acceptance.


As we celebrate Pride Month, let us honor and celebrate the art of drag and the incredible contributions of drag performers who continue to inspire and shape the fight for LGBTQ+ rights and visibility.

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