Exploring the 2,500 Year History of Drag

Last time we spoke to Dorian Electra, we quizzed her on her infamous Clitopia video, an exploration of the history of the clitoris accompanied by the greatest use of neon visuals we’ve ever seen. In celebration of 2000 Years Of Drag, we invited Dorian to run through each of the featured drag queens from history within her latest video.

“Behind all the sparkle and glamour is a long and fascinating history of drag being used as cultural tool for self-expression and fighting oppression,” says Dorian. “Especially now, as we face the future of a Trump presidency and a dangerous world for queer, trans, and people of colour, the power of drag is just as politically relevant today as ever. I collaborated with Chicago drag queens Imp Queen, Lucy Stoole, The Vixen, Eva Young, and trans rapper London Jade to create 2000 Years of Drag, a music video that covers six powerful snapshots of the fabulous history of drag.”

You can follow Dorian on Instagram here.

Ancient Greece (c. 400 BC)

Model: Imp Queen

In ancient Greece, women were not allowed to perform in theatre because the stage was deemed too “dangerous” for them, so male actors wore masks and performed both men’s and women’s roles.*

Shakespearean Theatre, The Globe Theatre (c. 1600 AD)

Model: Lucy Stoole

In Shakespeare’s time, theatre was considered a low form of entertainment. It was crass and lewd and thought to be no place for a lady. Young boys would be cast in women’s roles and more often than not, would be paid less than their male-role-playing coworkers.

Chinese Opera, Beijing Opera House (c. 1880)

Model: Eva Young

In China, women were banned from the stage in 1772, but that didn’t stop men from taking on iconic female characters themselves. Actors playing these roles were held in high esteem, as their positions were known to require great skill and talent. Mei Lanfang is the most internationally famous “Dan” (male-playing-female role) performer, who popularised Peking opera outside of China and in the U.S.

Victorian Freak Show (c. 1900)

Model: Dorian Electra

In the Victorian era, drag performances became a popular family event, where children and parents or giggly couples would attend comedic “freak show” performances, usually consisting of trans, queer, or otherwise gender nonconforming people who would perform as bearded ladies, half-men-half-women, or other “freaks of nature.” Despite the spreading popularity of sideshow drag performances, men found in women’s clothes outside of these venues would be arrested for “the abominable crime of buggery” or prostitution.

New York “Pansy Craze” (c. 1930)

Model: The Vixen

During the age of the Prohibition, mafia-owned speakeasies began to pop up to serve steaming heaps of illegal activities including but not limited to: drinking, prostitution, gambling, and, you guessed it, homosexuality. Drag was pushed underground along with these crimes as illicit gay bars hosted drag shows alongside strong cocktails. Despite the crime associated, these spaces provided queer, trans, and gender-nonconforming musicians and performers with a safe haven to be their colourful selves and to flourish in an otherwise sterile society.

Stonewall Riots, Greenwich Village (1969)

Models: Trans women, left to right: Imp Queen, Darling Squire, London Jade (center), Faeline Sharrieff, Mané

The 1950s and 60s brought about a cultural shift for drag. In the years prior, more men had begun to come out as gay, creating a tie in the minds of the public between homosexuality and drag performance. In response the mainstream media began ramping up its anti-gay propaganda, portraying homosexuality, transness, and any form of gender nonconformance, as a “perversion” or “disease.” Police went into full force enforcing anti-crossdressing laws that required an individual to be wearing at least three pieces of clothing “appropriate” to their sex assigned at birth. Cops would stop people on the street and raid queer bars to fine or arrest drag queens, kings, and trans women and men all in violation of these laws. The famous Stonewall Riots began during a regular police raid one night at the Stonewall Inn bar in Greenwich Village when the patrons decided to fight back. These riots marked the beginning of the LGBT rights movement, and were led by trans women of colour, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera who have often been erased from the history books.

Drag has always been so much more than cross-dressing—not just “a man in a dress.” Drag, in addition to being an art form, has been an indispensable outlet for trans and gender nonconforming people to resist oppressive powers and celebrate new forms of self expression. Drag is a powerful and entertaining vehicle for helping us continue to challenge the gender binary. By providing a safe space for people to experiment and explore, drag can help create a world in which all identities are welcomed, accepted and celebrated.

NOTE:

*When we say “men played women’s role,” etc. in actuality, it’s very likely that some of these people would have identified as transgender, genderqueer, etc. if they had the understanding and language of today’s culture.

Photos: Greg Reigh

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