Drag is art, and it’s important to queer history

It doesn’t begin or end with RuPaul’s Drag Race

We should appreciate queer art for its complexity and rich history. PHOTO: Greta Hoffman / Pexels

by Alex Masse, Peak Associate

It’s LGBT History Month. For many, the history of the queer community is marked by a small number of major events, like the Stonewall riots, the AIDS epidemic, and the legalization of gay marriage in America and Canada. But queer history is much more expansive than that, and continues to grow. Few touchstones of queer culture seem as controversial as drag even in our own community. Somehow, the art form is simultaneously alive and well, yet horribly misunderstood by most of the cisgender heterosexual population, and even some queer folks themselves, because they only know it as a homophobic or transphobic punchline. 

When most people conjure up a mental image of drag, it’s pretty specific: a cis queer man dolled up in an exaggerated caricature of a woman, with six-inch heels and eyeliner that could cut you in half. Besides that, they’ll probably think of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the hit reality competition TV series. While there’s no doubt Drag Race is revolutionary in some ways, it’s not without its flaws. This show has led to drag itself being scapegoated. People see Drag Race and assume the whole art form begins and ends with cis men, as if drag isn’t a complex spectrum of gender performance.  

But drag has a long and diverse history — one which is often overlooked. If we go back to Stonewall, drag can be seen in its key figures. Drag is in Marsha P. Johnson, a trans woman who also identified as a drag queen, and in Stormé DeLarverie, a “male impersonator,” or more accurately, a 20th century drag king. At the time, identities were more fluid, and while some of the language is antiquated, the fact is gender as performance has always been alive and well, and not just for cis men. 

Much of drag’s diverse and storied history has been recorded, especially through film. The Queen, for example, is a documentary covering a 1967 drag pageant. It’s a gem in its own right for existing as a pre-Stonewall and pre-AIDS snapshot of queer life. 

While pageant culture was not without flaws — most notably favouritism for white competitors — it laid the foundation for drag culture, where queer people of colour made their own safe space. This is where much of drag as we know it today was born, and where a certain RuPaul Charles got his start

Another great film is 1990’s Paris is Burning, which shows the true complexity of drag as a performance, and how diverse it can really be, with many of the leading figures in the documentary being trans women. It also focused on the struggle of being queer and in poverty at the peak of the AIDS crisis. 

Finally, though in no small part thanks to these shows, drag is being recognized as queer art. Many would describe it as elaborate or exaggerated gender expression, and what’s queerer than making gender itself your plaything? You can be a boy dressed as a girl, or a girl dressed as a boy, or a boy dressed like a girl dressed as a boy, or be genderless and wear multiple genders at once. 

And that’s not even getting into the effort that goes into drag. You need clothes, you need makeup, you often need wigs, and you also need to perform — be that singing, dancing, or even stand-up comedy. Denying it as an art form is like denying makeup or fashion design as a part of the  performing arts. 

If this is all news to you, maybe you should explore drag a bit. Look into the films and TV shows mentioned, catch a local performance in Vancouver’s drag scene (one that’s socially distanced, of course), and maybe even give it a shot yourself. With everything it’s done for the community, drag deserves to be given an open-minded approach. Rather than dismissing what you’ve been exposed to, dive into the colourful art and honour its queer history. You never know — you might love it!