By: Harika and Sutanuka
If phrases like “yass queen’ and “werk it” have crept into your everyday language, it means two things: a) you’re up-to-date with urban slang, and b) you’re influenced by drag culture, knowingly or unknowingly. For many, the history of the queer community is marked by a small number of major events, like the Stonewall riots, the AIDS epidemic, and the legalization of gay marriage in USA and Canada. But queer history is much more expansive than that and continues to grow. Few touchstones of queer culture seem as controversial as drag — even in the queer community. Somehow, the art form of drag is simultaneously alive and well, yet horribly misunderstood by most of the cisgender heterosexual population, and even some queer folks themselves, because they only know it as a homophobic or transphobic punchline. The mainstream media may be shining the spotlight on this vibrant, creative, and tenacious community of drag now more than ever (thanks to shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, the hit reality competition TV series), however, the drag community has been thriving for over two centuries – first as an underground performance act, and later, as a much larger social movement.
When most people conjure up a mental image of drag, it’s pretty specific: a cis queer man dolled up in an exaggerated caricature of a woman, with six-inch heels and eyeliner that could cut you in half. Traditionally, drag culture was simply defined as cross-dressing. But in reality, it’s so much more than that – it’s an art form that’s defiant of gender norms.
Drag’s involvement in the history of the LGBTQ+ community is one that is incredibly important yet overlooked. If we go back to Stonewall, drag can be seen in its key figures. At the time, identities were more fluid, and while some of the languages are antiquated, the fact is gender as performance has always been alive and well, and not just for cis men. Representation of drag culture in popular media is nothing new. 1990’s Paris is Burning is a film that shows the true complexity of drag as a performance, and how diverse it can really be, with many of the leading figures in the documentary being trans women. It also focused on the struggle of being queer and in poverty at the peak of the AIDS crisis.
Though in no small part thanks to these media representations, drag is being recognized as queer art, because denying it as an art form is like denying makeup or fashion design as a part of the performing arts.
Drag is where queens demonstrate their love, hate, anger, and excitement about the things in their lives, community, or country. It’s fun, it’s flashy, and it’s everything we desperately need in a world where many feel like things are black and white. For drag queens, even monochromatic ones, there is a vibrancy and color in this world that they want to be part of who they are as drag queens. Drag questions and pushes the boundaries of heteronormative & gender ideas. It challenges what it is to be a woman, to be a man, and the limitations that society has placed on those who live in it. Every costume, ever lip sync, every dramatic performance is a way of tearing down barriers that stop us and those around us from understanding that there is more to this world than the black and white heteronormative and gender ideals others would like you to believe. It’s a political statement that disrupts and draws the eye to the more of being human and being LGBTQ; the non-conforming, the non-binary, the androgynous, etc. Besides being an art form, drag is also a way of protesting, making political statements, and questioning the strange and ridiculous standards that women are held up to by men and society as a whole. Drag acts as a magnifying glass that looks at the history of what has led men, women, and everything in between to this moment of acceptance or disdain.
If there’s something that we all can understand or were taught at a young age either on purpose or by accident, it’s that being different isn’t ok. It’s best to blend, best to fade into the background, best to not stand out. Well, that doesn’t apply to drag. Drag is about being the most unapologetic version of yourself without fear of others and what they might think of this beautiful drag creation that you feel in your heart and down into your bones.
When drag queens appear on TV, in books, in movies, and everything in between, they act as lightning rods of information that help us understand the ever-evolving world around us and the people that are making it better every single day. With everything drag has done for the LGBTQ+ community, drag deserves to be given an open-minded approach.
In a country where people of the queer community are still looked down upon and romantic and sexual acts among same-sex genders are treated as a heinous sin, drag queens have started becoming an integral part of our society; they have started asking for what’s rightfully theirs and keeping a foot down when it comes to injustice and discrimination against them. While the drag culture in India is not as prominent as it is in the West, it has shattered some pretty impressive glass ceilings. It is loud, ferocious, and undeniably brave. We have Keshav Suri to thank for giving important drag queens like Violet Chaka a voice and a platform to perform. Kitty Su continues to be an unbeatable force in India – gender fluid and unbelievably fierce.
The war against drag queens has been reaching its full-blown potential with the proposed law banning drag queens in Texas. Republican state representative Bryan Slaton announced that he will propose a law aimed at protecting the State’s kids from the ‘perverted adults’ he alleged were ‘obsessed with sexualizing young children.’ This comes two weeks after the gun shooting in Uvalde, Texas where nineteen children died, insinuating that drag queens and their freedom of expression are more harmful to children than literal guns. So is it truly about protecting children or curbing even more rights of the members of the queer community?
This is a diverse tactic to take the attention away from an important topic – gun control – and bring back the limelight towards the hate and discrimination against drag queens, and by extension, other members of the LGBTQ community. In recent weeks there has been a rise in threats made against LGBTQ+ activists and advocates in order to shut down events during pride months.
Entertainment has always been an outlet, an escape route for viewers and participants alike. In the queer community, it is very important for them to disrupt the societal heteronormative norms. For a variety of reasons, drag has always been considered to be controversial. One of the key aspects of drag is that they do not try to blend in and fit inside any assigned box of gender norms as other transgenders do. A voice that interrupted the heteronormative expectations that oppressed and shamed these people were needed in the LGBTQ community. Drag queens symbolized the disruption of these ideals. This made drag an important part of the subculture of the queer community.
“Historians have noted, drag queens and ‘street queens’ participated actively in the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion in New drag queens have played a headlining role in pride parades” (Hillman, 155).
Drag queens needed to break this barrier in terms of heterosexuality because many people in the LGBTQ community did not exactly fit into the borders of feminine or masculine gender identity. Some were androgynous, some women were masculine while some men were feminine. Gender is a heteronormative construct and drag queens have been a huge part of breaking this stereotype.