“Ego loves identity.
Drag mocks identity.
Ego hates drag.”
As the tumultuous second season of RuPaul’s Drag Race AllStars draws to a close, I have a confession to make. I love drag, and I’m sick of feeling like that’s a statement that needs to be followed with an apology.
There are many people with negative or mixed views on drag as an art form and component of identity, and they will happily articulate those views. I’m not here to do that. I own three pairs of seven-inch heels and a red sequined gown and I’m not afraid to use them. I can lipsync anybody from Amy Winehouse to Nina Hagen. I love every death-dropping, tongue-popping minute of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
My drag career began the first time I costumed myself in a femininity that wasn’t mine, at 16, when I put on lipgloss and a skirt with a nipped-in waist and went to Thanksgiving dinner with my mother’s extended family. All my skills of gender manipulation — proportions, hair, makeup and posture — were honed on the things I had to do to continue providing the service of being a sweet niece and granddaughter.
I’m quite skilled at what I now call “grandparents drag”: a graceful, highlighted brow, subtle smokey eye, nude lip, heavy foundation, blush and bronzer and a lot of mascara. It’s a mask I can put on to maintain connections with my older family members. To me, it looks like “young Winona Ryder” cosplay, but it seems to do the trick.
I can slip into masculinity just as easily by flattening my chest with a sports bra, wearing oxfords with three-inch lifts in them, and dusting the lower half of my face with a lavender five o’clock eyeshadow. And it feels every bit as artificial to me.
The language and techniques of drag filled my gender toolbox. I learned to manipulate and gender my bone structure by studying feminizing contour and color correction techniques. If I’m somewhere with gendered bathrooms I can modulate the way I walk to suddenly read as female. I can turn a pair of socks into a packer. I know how to pad a bra and I can teach you to walk in heels.
Femininity used to be something that was socially imposed on me. Drag has allowed me to engage with it on my own terms. It reminds me how much control I have over how others perceive me. I may be slight-framed, but I have serious man face. I pare down my jaw and overdraw my lips and round out my cheeks as much as any other queen.
Drag has also served as a marker of my queer maleness. It apparently takes a wig and a gown and an inch of makeup for strangers to read me as a man. I exaggerate and layer femininity like paint on a canvas until my signs and signifiers become legibly fabulous.
Drag presents a serious challenge to gender authenticity. The idea of “performing” gender makes a lot of trans people uncomfortable. But that’s exactly what’s so powerful about it — it reminds us that all gender is self-defined, enacted and costumed. Every gendered persona from Lady Gaga to James Bond is drag.
Mainstream trans movements are so uncomfortable with drag that when Laverne Cox was cast as Dr. Frank-n-furter in the Rocky Horror Picture Show remake, everyone was too busy being shocked that she’d associate herself with drag to recognize that reclaiming this role for trans people is politically interesting on its own terms, or that Laverne Cox can do whatever the fuck she wants.
This art form has an incredible history, from the Elizabethan stage to Stonewall to the birth of punk rock to AIDS activism. And it’s so much more complicated and interesting than cis people playing dress up.
Many drag performers identify as trans or gender non-conforming. Drag Race season seven winner Violet Chachki is cinched-waist deep in identity politics, identifying as non-binary and using her spotlight to uplift the tragedies and triumphs of other trans youth.
I take immense comfort in the role that drag has played in LGBT rights movements and visibility. I love that gender transgression plays a significant force in our modern pop cultural landscape. I don’t take my presentation so seriously as to feel threatened by big hair and sequins and Beyonce medleys. And I’ll be watching when Ru crowns the next All-Star (#TeamKatya, if you’re asking).
So raise a glass to Candy Darling and Jayne County. To Joan of Arc’s armor and Hatshepsut’s false beard. To the reduction of gender to its plastic qualities.
Long live the queens.