Defending Drag Queens

First published at on June 9, 2008

June brings pride parades, which brings out drag queens in bright sunlight.

I don’t envy anyone wearing pancake makeup, a wig, heels and pantyhose in 90-degree weather. I particularly don’t envy drag queens, who—like other gender non-conformists in our society—suffer more than their share of unfair criticism.

A reader named Clyde writes, “I think drag is comparable to blackface minstrelsy. Whether it’s men performing as women, or whites performing in blackface, caricaturing and making fun of groups of people perpetuates stereotypes.”

There are at least two critical claims here. One is that drag caricatures—and thus makes fun of—groups of people, and the other is that drag perpetuates stereotypes. Let’s consider each in turn.

While it’s possible for a drag performance to make fun of women, misogyny is not essential to, or even typical of, drag. True, drag often involves exaggerated personas, but the point doesn’t seem to be to mock women, but rather to revel in a particular kind of feminine glamour. For that reason, the analogy to minstrelsy falls short.

But what about the “bitchy” personalities adopted by some drag queens? Again, intentions and context matter. If the point is cruelty, then it’s wrong. But mockery, and even bitchiness, can have its place in entertainment. Unless one objects to Joan Rivers-type humor altogether, it’s difficult to make the case for objecting to it in drag performances.

The other part of Clyde’s objection is related: it’s that drag perpetuates stereotypes. There are multiple potential stereotypes at work here: that gay men are effeminate, that gay men want to be women, that gay men are bitchy, that gay men are excessively concerned about their appearance, that women are bitchy, that women are excessively concerned about their appearance, or that gay and transgender are the same thing.

A stereotype is an overgeneralization about a group. It may be negative, but it needn’t be (consider “All Asians are good at math.”)

I don’t doubt that drag contributes to stereotypes. But I don’t think the appropriate response to the problem is to reject drag queens. They’re not responsible for others’ ignorance, and in particular, for others’ tendency to generalize from a sample of drag queens to most gay men (or most women).

Certainly, it’s important to portray our community—indeed, our overlapping communities—accurately and fairly. And historically, the majority of media images portraying the GLBT community have focused on an unrepresentative minority of that community.

As someone who came out in the late 1980’s, growing up in a rather straitlaced suburb, I’m especially sensitive to that problem. At the time, there were few if any images of the GLBT community that I could relate to, and so I convinced myself that I wasn’t one of “them.”

But the way to combat this distortion is not to silence the divas among us. The way to combat it is for the rest of us “plain” homosexuals to make our presence known.

As for drag queens: if someone wants to don a sequined gown and lip-synch to “Over the Rainbow,” far be it from me to stand in her way. (I use the feminine pronoun deliberately.) If other people think that her behavior says something about me or about gays in general, it’s my job (not hers) to correct them. And I will correct those people, not because there’s something wrong with the drag queen, but because she’s who she is and I’m who I am. She speaks for herself, and I for myself.

If I were a drag queen, I might break into a La Cage aux Folles number right now. Instead, I want to conclude on a note of gratitude—to a particular drag queen whose name I’ve long forgotten.

I was quite young when I ventured into my first gay bar. I was clearly out of my element. Noticing my nervousness as I stood alone against the wall, a drag queen approached me. “How old are you, honey?”

“Nineteen,” I replied sheepishly.

“Honey, there are hairpieces in this bar that are older than that!” she quipped back.

She made me laugh, and so I began to relax. Then she introduced me to several other patrons—including other young nervous preppy boys like me. I’m sure she realized I could relate to them more easily than to her. It was a simple act of kindness, and I recall it warmly.

Ironically, it was a drag diva who helped this “plain” homosexual find his voice. Wherever you are, thanks.