A Brief History of Drag (Part 1)

Mark Howe Drag Shot
Photo Courtesy of Mark Howe – http://www.markhowephoto.co.uk/

Here at The Queer Sphere we’re interested in all aspects of gay culture so inspired by the BettaKultcha presentation by Martin Carter (or Maria Millionaire if you prefer, the brunette, right) we thought we’d ask him to take us through the history of drag as well as put the spotlight on some of the drag queens that inspired him. So, let’s handover to Martin:

A drag queen is usually explained as a man (usually gay) impersonating a women, or several women, for the purpose of entertainment or performance. They can range from those who do it as a job to those who do it as a form of artistic expression.

Drag shouldn’t be confused with transvestism, which is very similar, in the sense that involves cross dressing and switching gender roles. Most transvestites do not cross dress to be seen, as drag queens are, but to feel like a woman. Transvestism can also be a sexual fetish, whereas drag rarely is. There are, however, some men, and women, who like to sleep with drag queens.

Men dressing as women in performance has always been around. In Shakespearean and classical Chinese theatre men would play the parts of women as women would not be permitted to appear on stage. We can see early forms of traditional drag appearing towards the late 1800s and early 20th century. Julian Eltinge began performing in Broadway shows from the age of 10, appearing as a girl, and by 1910 reached the height of his fame going on a national tour of America and even producing his own magazine.

After the two world wars, under Joseph McCartney, national paranoia in America was rife. Anything deemed ‘subversive’ (communist parties, for example) was also deemed a national risk. In the 1950s the US State Department decided that homosexuals were part of these ‘subversive’ groups. The FBI and police kept records of ‘known homosexuals’, and printed their photographs in local papers. Cities performed sweeps of bars and nightclubs to ‘rid’ neighbourhoods of gay people. The wearing of opposite gender clothes were banned, and gay men and women were often publically humiliated, harassed, fired from jobs, jailed or institutionalised in mental hospitals.


Small pockets of activism grew throughout the 1950s and 60s, however the gay rights movement is often though to have begun in 1969 at the Stonewall Bar in New York. It was the only gay bar in New York at that time. It was owned by the Mafia and on June 28th, 1969, the police conducted one of their raids. Raids were common at the time, and if a (gay) women wasn’t wearing at least three items of ‘feminine clothing’, they were arrested. Those in gender opposite clothing were submitted to humiliating ‘gender checking’ and arrested.

This raid, however, did not go as planned, and many, particularly the lesbians and drag queens, began to fit back. Many believe riots were instigated after drag queen Sylvia Rivera threw pennies and quarters at police. Three nights of riots ensued, which included another drag queen, Marsha P. Johnson smashing a police car window with her hand bag.

It was the first time gay people had come together as a community, and the events at Stonewall ignited widespread, worldwide LGBT activism. In 1970 the first ever gay Pride happened. It’s because of these drag queens, and these people, that we have many of the freedoms we enjoy today.

Part 2, looking at some famous drag queens coming soon.

You can find Martin on Twitter at – @martinloves give him a tweet!


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  4. Ryan

    Just a few quick spelling corrections. It was Joseph McCarthy not Joseph McCartny, and I believe you meant in your seventh paragraph “fight back” not “fit back”. I hope you know I am only trying to be helpful. Also, I have just found a painting from 1976 of a drag queen named Marisha. She is painted in front of a city scape that shows two theaters, the Graystone and the Vanity, with a small detail in the lower right hand corner that says KC Jollywood, UXA. Any ideas? Thank you for this His/Herstory of the wondeful world that is drag.

  5. jack

    I respect any one’s right to dress. love and modify their bodies as they please. But given that the origin of “drag” is due to women not allowed to perform on stage why isn’t “drag” catogorize and as such criciticized the same as “black face”? Personally, I would prefer that if a role calls for a “woman” that a woman is actually cast for it. Why not? Why still use men dressed as women? Some justify it as “artistic expression”? Would we feel the same way when a Christian mimics a Jew or a white person impersonates someone hispanic or black, etc…? I say you again that anyone is free to dress as they please and that gender is not a color or outfit choice. I ask that we do not refer men dressed as women as “she”. To me, they do not represent women as they often portray a CHARACATURE of what a woman is expected to look like. Plus they get to take the make up off and still relish in the privilege that is afforded men. There is much more to being a woman than just make up and a dress. In other words, they do NOT represent me (female born), so don’t label yourself the same as me.

  6. Dis Charge

    Jack, your interpretation of drag here is way off sorry. Drag does not attempt to satirise women but in fact attempts to uphold an image of femininity that is empowering. When a queen adopts the clothing, makeup etc associated with drag they are not, in any way trying to ridicule those of another gender, though adding variation and exploiting the narrow and confining gender binary through drag king and queen culture actually does help to break into the discourse that informs our image of these restrictive social constructs. I am a drag queen and as such know whole heartedly that my inspiration actually comes from a desire to erode the notion of femininity/masculinity that society at large uses to exploit and demean us. Also, you talk of make privilege which indeed, is a troubling and very real problem, but, as a male who dares to cross the incredibly strict code of exactly what is believed to be acceptable in terms of our gendered position I can vouch for the fact, that when we don’t our maquillage we are taking a tremendous risk. We act as a beacon of gendered difference and freedom of expression. Drag seeks to liberate the male and female body and mind from the prison of gender in abandoned flamouyant behaviours and aesthetics. Your adherence to biological privilege is disturbing and regressive, when I see biologically indentified women enjoying a typically ‘masculine’ image I am wholly encouraged to continue my pursuit of drag because it adds to the colourful world of gender and sexuality. Embrace the freedom that drag has to offer and please try not to focus on the, frankly, outdated idea that biological gender truly means that you are less than and that male indentified persons or female identified persons who walk in the shoes of those who are considered other or apposite to your world view are less than or somehow harmful. We are not the problem, society is the problem, so keep your biological image of privilege to yourself and don’t tell me or anyone else for that matter what clothing or imagery to adopt especially when it adds credence to a fundamental discourse.

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