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!