For many, Halloween provides a welcome opportunity to let their hair down (or often, put it up). This often means false lashes, lots of makeup, sequenced dresses and hairy chests a go-go, as the holiday appears to have become amateur drag night for both gay and straight men everywhere. It’s a sort of taboo-free night for busting out alter egos without the consequences such behaviour might normally elicit. What better time to talk about those mythical larger-than-life entertainers, such as Mado Lamotte, RuPaul, Michel Dorion, and Dame Edna Everage, that don those fake boobs, dresses, and lipstick each and every night to entertain us.
Now you may love them, you may have an extreme dislike for them, but you can never ignore drag queens. They are first class entertainers who play a vital role in a multi-sexual, multi-cultural, society where everyone desperately longs to escape from the rising violence that taints our troubled world.
Often misunderstood, rarely acknowledged, and always criticised, drag queens transcend the ordinary and embody the bizarre, where fantasy and fun hijack the mundane.
A drag queen, according to Wikipedia, is a person who performs in drag (a costume of extremely gaudy dresses and shoes, large wigs, etc.), or that imitates famous female film and music stars. They should not be confused with transvestites (men who wear women’s clothes for emotional gain) or transsexuals (where a male feels he is really female and vice versa). A number of lesbians have created an inverse style, called “drag kings,” who use hilariously exaggerated macho attitudes and characters.
Contrary to popular belief, drag queens in general do not do drag for reasons of sexual pleasure but rather for entertainment purposes. Furthermore, most transvestites are heterosexual men, whereas most drag queens are gay or transgendered (although there is a small community of straight men and women drag queens).
The drag aesthetic is based on clown-like values like exaggeration, satire, dirty jokes, and so forth. The idea of camp is a must. Yet drag can best be thought of as a hobby, profession, or art form rather than as a gender identity or sexual orientation.
According to Daniel Dercksen, drag queens originated in the days of Shakespeare when women were not allowed to take part in stage productions and the boys had to wear the frocks. The elaborate and cumbersome dresses were dragged onto the stage and the boys became known as ‘drag artists’, later evolving hysterically into fully fledged Drag Queens to pay homage to womankind.
This homage ranges from the ridiculously absurd, to emotionally compelling, and dramatically theatrical inventions. We see women through the heavy mascara eyes of men, who give us their interpretation of the power of women.
It was in 1969, when New York drag queens fought in the Stonewall riots (an action that elevated the Queer Rights movement to a new level) that drag queens themselves were elevated to a new level. And in the intervening years, the role of drag queens in the gay community has not lessened one bit. They are still as colourful, as flamboyant, as energetic, as ever. More importantly, they are still active in many aspects of community organizations and development.
It’s not a gimmicky ‘gay’ thing, but an artistic and challenging retrospect that reflects the influence women have on the world of music, theatre, politics and art. This manifestation is dolled up in glitter and sequence, and brought to life in a supercamp style. They are fully licensed to ridicule, mock, lash out, scrutinise and pay tribute to the divas who have become their muses.
And yet, perhaps no one subgroup of the Queer community receives as much criticism as those larger-than-life Queens. They’re too “in-your-face”, they’re too “stereotypical”, and they’re just too “girly”. How many times have you heard someone say, “if I wanted to date a woman, I’d be straight”? Well, when it comes to sexual or romantic interest, not ‘going for’ drag queens is not really any different than preferring blondes or big forearms.
Drag queens are an integral part of the gay community. Yes they’re flamboyant and yes they’re noticeable. But they’re dynamic and exciting and in a way could be considered vital to the ongoing evolution of Queer culture. You might not like the fact that the media camera seems to focus on them, but surely, if you spent as much money and effort getting all frocked up as they do, you’d invite that attention yourself.
Halloween is liberating because it allows people to adopt identities that are usually off-limits, especially in terms of gender and sexuality. It’s also the one night when you’d think real drag queens take a holiday from pantyhose and coifed ‘dos (they usually don’t).
So whatever the motivation behind some of the not-so-pretty gender bending that occurs every October 31st, and regardless of how many six packs it takes to slip into that plus-size evening gown, it’s impressive that many men take the risk, because whether it’s intentional or not, they’re paying tribute to those glamorous, and at times campy, Queens of the stage.