Drag is an art and act of resistance that our culture largely accepts as a male donning the physical cues of a woman in order to call into question our ideas of constructed gender identity.
But in our generation who seem happier than ever to abandon binary modes of thinking about gender, it leaves us with the question is a drag performer’s ‘authentic’ gender of any bearing on their practice? Mother of the modern drag behemoth RuPaul ignited yet another discussion on female drag performers yesterday after replying to a fan question on his twitter.
That show already exists. It’s called #MissUniverse https://t.co/3iz1B09bzC— RuPaul (@RuPaul) March 31, 2016
Rupaul’s assertion that Miss Universe is already a pageant for bio queens is, to be blunt, more of his pseudo-intellectual psychobabble. It seemed to me that he was trying to pointedly critique the rather camp performativity of beauty pageants, however it’s an extremely condescending and limiting remark to make when the majority of bio queens are warping their appearances to an even greater extent than many of the queens who have featured on Rupaul’s show. Many bio queens like Cherdonna Shinatra, Boo Sutcliffe, Eppie, Amber Cadaverous, and Lacey are doing something completely cool, refreshing and absolutely valid with their drag, which certainly seems to fit the stage of a gay bar rather than beneath a pageant crown. When I asked performance shartist and sewer angel Rodent Decay for her thoughts on the potency of female drag, she responded ‘They’re drag queens. It’s ridiculous that a person’s biological sex or gender identity should prohibit or inhibit their participation in an art form that mocks gender. If you’re policing the genders of the performers you’re completely missing the point of drag.’
Which leads to the question why is the validity of bio queens consistently called into question? There is a widely-accepted belief that bio queens have it easier; they don’t have to tuck, they don’t have to pad, they don’t have to use make-up to feminise their face. But I think that excuse merely distils drag down to simple female impersonation, when drag (British drag in particular) is a vast, fluctuating organism that swallows gender, and by codifying it in this way we’re placing it within some extremely small parameters. Every drag queen is different. Some have super femme faces and only need a lash and lipgloss, some of us need to pile on paint, some queens pad, some queens don’t, some queens glue shit to their faces, some queens distort their bodies beyond anything recognisable as human, let alone female. Our drag and the tools we employ changes with our intent, and our intent is not always to use pads and wigs and paint to embody a western ideal of feminine beauty, and the point of interest shouldn’t always be ‘oh my god I can’t believe shes so beautiful shes actually a dude!’ Drag is post-gender. If your only experience of drag is that of an easily-digested gown-and-crown aesthetic, you probably shouldn’t be critiquing any drag queen, bio or not.
Another widely accepted assertion is that these women are somehow impinging on the queer scene or diluting it. No. My drag family includes bio queens, and their understanding of the nuances of gender and how to dismantle it is what makes them good queens.
Lacey, my bio drag sister and mother of genderfuck club night Glittershit commented: “I see many female queens contributing and shaping the gay communities they are part of alongside the rest. It saddens and confuses me to see the recent talks about female drag and many negative backlash.’”
I am equally upset by this backlash- When I am stood with Lacey in our home bar and an ignorant or curious bystander sidles up to ask “what are you?” and we look at each other, bemused, trying to find a way to vocalise what the big silly genderfucked hodgepodge in front of them is, I know the formula is right. We can only get rid of labels if we collectively shirk them.
I understand the initial protectiveness of this cool underground thing that queer people have made for themselves. I was initially against the idea of bio queens myself, they seemed to impinge. As with most queer people, I was bullied and belittled as a child and it took me years to reconcile with my femininity and find an outlet to empower others to feel the same. I felt that it was an integral experience of the drag queen, that women didn’t have to go through, until I realised that femininity is probably a very cruel stricture to be under for women as well. For women, if you look too ostentatious you are ironically vilified for looking “like a drag queen”, and if you choose not to adorn yourself you’re plain and boring. It must be very freeing to use make-up, clothing and all these other tools labelled ‘female’ to distort and dismantle the very concept of femininity.
Birmingham bio queen Amber Cadaverous has been using the Birmingham gay village as a stage for her strange and beautiful drag looks for a year now.
“I originally started drag as an extension of my art, and my studies in fine art led me to discover performance art, queer theory and gender politics, which is a big part of why I do my drag now. Female drag is presenting another challenge to the way we see gender and deconstructing the binary. Everybody is valid and every artist who creates and loves their craft and passion is important regardless of gender. Starting drag I have been adopted into this amazing community and family of fabulous queer people who are constantly pushing and encouraging me to grow and develop not only as a drag artist but as a person which is helping to combat my social anxiety. I consider myself very lucky to be surrounded by my family of creatives who uplift me and each other constantly.”
Women approach me all the time in bars and clubs and lament how they wish they could apply makeup like me, dress as crazily as me, be as outgoing as me, and my response is always DO IT! It seems so nasty to tell the women whose artifice and sense of beauty that I am appropriating that they can’t do it themselves? Who am I to be the gatekeeper of who can and cannot express themselves through the medium of drag?
Drag artists have always been a pillar and a voice for the queer community, and in my community I see women contributing creatively and adopting my medium of drag to better my local queer scene, and it is a medium I am happy to share. Of course, I don’t expect bio queens to be shoehorned onto RuPaul’s Drag Race season 9 at the behest of a handful of disappointed fans, nor is this piece a request to, however I do think that Ru should practice what he preaches and reread his own pull quotes on gender. If his philosophy truly is that ‘we’re all born naked and the rest is drag!’, surely he also understands the falsehood of the gender binary. That falsehood upholds the towering monolith of gender, which can only be dismantled by people of all genders using drag as a mode of self-expression and as a political tool. People of all genders should be welcome in drag, as it strengthens the collective cry of ‘fuck you’ to identity and gender, whether that is ever exemplified on Drag Race or not.
Words – China Dethcrash
Images – Antony Collins