I recently started watching RuPaul’s Drag Race, and was so inspired by the drag queens on that show that I felt compelled to write what is essentially a love letter to drag queens for the Collegian.
Drag queens, for anyone who is not aware, are men (typically gay men, but not always) who dress up and perform in hyper-feminine, campy, over-the-top attire. Generally they have their character and their self; their self is a “he” and their character is a “she.” Drag queens are known for raunchy humor, lip synching and larger-than-life personalities.
From a sociocultural standpoint, drag is fascinating. It is the ultimate act of rebellion. Culturally, the United States is very attached to “traditional” gender roles: women cook and clean and men don’t cry.
Traditional gender roles for women are rough, because they do not allow for freedom or independence and they often require the presence of a man (problematic for me as a free, independent lesbian). That being said, women, as a collective, have made great strides toward finding a more equal footing with men, at least in the US. Traditional gender roles for men, however, remain rigid.
Modern masculinity is so strict, and so harmful, that in academic circles it is often called “toxic masculinity.” This damage occurs since misogyny is so rampant and widespread that anything a man might do that can be perceived as feminine (like having emotions, for instance) is ridiculed or is grounds for ostracism, even violence.
Toxic masculinity and misogyny are part of what makes homophobia and transphobia so rampant. Men who are attracted to men are experiencing what women are supposed to feel. Male-bodied persons who are transgender women are literally women, which is not how a male-bodied person is supposed to be.
Even for men and boys who are cisgender or trans men, this notion of masculinity causes tremendous distress. It is a tiny little box of manliness, and if a man chooses to leave this box, he is taking on a tremendous amount of risk.
It is the rigidity of masculinity, the unwavering “toughness” and the constant stony-faced machismo that makes drag so spectacular.
In the face of “toxic masculinity” drag queens exist as men who are more than happy to get in touch with their feminine side. They are men who will do things typically reserved for women.
In the United States, men have historically been required to be “tough”—they were the breadwinners, they had to have a family and feed that family. Masculinity is also associated with heterosexuality. In order to be a man you have be virile and sexually attracted to women.
Drag queens say “fuck it” to toxic masculinity. Drag queens exist as they are and as they want to.
Drag culture has an interesting history. If we look at the 1980s, for instance, drag was used, sometimes, as an escape for transgender women.
Because they were unable to be “transgender” because that terminology and any semblance of acceptance did not exist, some transgender women would do drag as a way of easing their dysphoria at being a woman with a male body.
Gay men, again in the 1980s, would be connected to the drag world because they were left out of the heterosexual world. They were not given access to the same social resources as heterosexual people, so they withdrew from heteronormative society completely. These men competed in “balls”—big drag competitions—with other drag queens.
They had “houses” or “families” with different last names and a defined familial structure. Such families, which still exist today, include one queen who is the mother, her children and, of course, whatever other roles the family creates.
These men and transwomen literally created families for themselves because their biological families rejected them. As gay men and transwomen were forced out of their homes, and out of straight society, they found new homes and families in the drag world.
In modern parlance, drag exists as an entirely separate entity from someone being transgender. Transgender people are literally a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth, while drag queens are performers who largely identify as men except when they are in drag.
They are men who refuse to conform to what society requires of them. They are men who laugh in the face of toxic masculinity and who are reinventing what it means to be a man.
Drag exists because a group of people who were wholly ostracized by the rest of the United States chose to form their own society. Drag exists because the queens were told they were not supposed to exist, but they chose to do so anyway. Drag exists because these people would not give up their identities, even when threatened with poverty, ostracism and violence.