Writing Drag

Writing Drag

Welcome back to Queering the Narrative!

This week, instead of discussing a specific identity, I wanted to touch on a particular aspect of queer culture: Drag.

Drag is an artform in which performers satirize or epitomize gender roles and stereotypes by assuming costumes, mannerisms, and personas associated with those gendered stereotypes. You’re probably most familiar with Drag Queens, possibly through RuPaul’s Drag Race, which familiarized the genre with the broader (cishet) public. However, there’s a lot about Drag that you wouldn’t understand just by watching Drag Race, or even necessarily by attending a drag show.

So today, I wanted to do a brief overview of some important notes on writing drag in fiction featuring queer characters — especially gender expansive folx.

Not All Drag is Queens

Drag Kings exist, and are awesome!photo of a drag king wearing a black top hat, tuxedo, and black bowtie. The performer has applied make-up to suggest the appearance of facial hair in the form of a goatee and exaggerated side burns

Though they aren’t quite as well-known, Drag Kings have existed at least as long as Drag Queens, performing in gay clubs and caberets. Drag kings have previously been called “male impersonators” (as Drag Queens were once billed as “female impersonators”), but all that lingo is pretty outdated unless you’re writing something pre-1970s

Drag Kings, like Queens, are performers of gender roles. They simply take on the performance of masculinity. Most Drag Kings are AFAB, just as most Drag Queens are AMAB, and many are cis. However, with both Kings and Queens, neither of those are hard-and-fast rules. Trans, nonbinary, and “bio” Drag artists (those whose assigned gender match the roles they’re performing) all also exist!

Drag Kings have the same breadth of artistic expression, satire, and performance as Drag Queens — even if they haven’t been given the same spotlight Queens have in recent times. When writing Drag, bear in mind that many Drag shows are likely to have at least one or two Kings in their rotation!

Drag Isn’t Just Crossdressing

Drag isn’t just people trying to “look like” another gender. In fact, looking like “actual” men or women is usually far outside the true goal of Drag.

Drag is an artform in which self-expression is tantamount, and can also act as celebration or criticism of mainstream or binary gender expression and gender roles. Drag is often a form of satire, utilizing overblown, overdramatic, and tastefully tacky “camp” to drive the message or criticism inherent in their performance home.

It’s also just a ton of fun. Drag has no real hard and fast rules, which makes it a limitless space for self-expression — and for many, who feel oppressed or shamed in their everyday life, their drag “personas” are the only places where they can really have that wild, fun, and free expression of their inner selves.

When writing Drag, bear in mind that it’s far more than a fun performance or a bunch of gay dudes done up in dresses and make-up. There’s a long history there (which I’ll touch on more in a moment!), including a rich artistic foundation.

Drag Was Invented by Black and Latinx Queer Folx

sepia toned image of William Dorsey Swann, a Black man in a white ruffled floor-length long-sleeved gown, wearing a dramatic feathered headpiece
William Dorsey Swann

This is immeasurably important to understand, especially as Drag moves into the mainstream and inevitably becomes warped by our white-centric Western culture.

Drag originated in “Ballroom Culture,” underground counterculture competitions which sought to epitomize and/or satirize gender and class roles. The first ever self-identified Drag Queen was William Dorsey Swann, a formerly enslaved gay Black man who held “balls” for other formerly enslaved men in which dressing in Drag was part of the event. The culture spread from there to underground celebrations in Black and Latinx communities in New York, San Francisco, and other large cities until eventually becoming cemented in the broader queer culture. This was especially notable in Brooklyn, with drag ball culture there being the primary focus of the show Pose.

When writing Drag, this is essential history to bear in mind. Drag as an artform arose from intersectionality oppressed peoples, a counterculture driven by necessity, and has taken shape as a criticism of the broader societal constructs that continue to alienate and oppress so many. It’s important to understand that this incredible, freeing, and fun artform was pioneered by racialized and disadvantaged people long before it broke into the mainstream!

Not All Drag Artists are Trans (Or Cis!)

Not all Drag Queens are trans women, and not all Drag Kings are trans men! Furthermore, not all trans folx are interested in or find validation in Drag. In fact, many Drag performers — possibly even a majority — are cis gay men or cis lesbians.

Drag, of course, is an incredibly amazing place to explore your gender identity, and one in which many trans and nonbinary folx find beautifully expressive freedom. Drag shows can provide a safe space for trans men and women to explore aspects of their gender identity, and access parts of themselves that they might feel cut off from in their day-to-day lives. Drag can also be incredible places for genderfluid, bigender, multigender, or otherwise nonbinary folx to explore and express disparate aspects of their identity.

This means that there’s a lot of overlap between trans people and Drag — but that does not mean that every Drag Queen is a closeted trans woman! Plenty of Drag performers are cis, and consider that identity integral to their sense of self, even if they spend one night a week in a drag persona.

And that’s okay! These are artists, performers, people doing things for the purpose of self-exploration and entertainment! The roles actors or musicians play onstage don’t define their identities offstage. The same is true when the thing someone is “performing” is gender expression!

When writing Drag, I think the important takeaway here is nuance. A closeted trans person may be made uncomfortable by Drag (though that’s probably due more to internalized gender roles and transphobia than anything else). A Drag artist may in fact be trans, but their identity may be informed or complicated by the sort of Drag they do. 

Sometimes Drag artists stop doing Drag once they come out and transition — it no longer has the same sort of freeing fun when it did when they were closeted or had trouble “passing.” For others, though, Drag may be an essential part of their identity! It may be the only way they have to express an essential aspect of themself, and their Drag persona becomes as essential to them as any other expression of their gender.

Also, not all Drag artists are necessarily sympathetic to trans folx. RuPaul has said some pretty transphobic things, which seem to fundamentally misunderstand the nuances of trans identity, transition, and the social construct of gender. This, unfortunately, is an attitude other Drag performers might hold — and so a trans or nonbinary Drag artist might face unexpected backlash, discrimination, or transphobia even from their fellow performers.

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