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What's the deal with drag?

Dear Alice,

I have a friend who recently came out of the closet, and now he's very involved in his college GLSBT (not sure if I have the letters right) community. My question is this: He has now, as a matter of pride and fun, I think, become involved in drag shows. He looks pretty good as a woman, if I do say so, but I just don't get it. What's the point of drag? Why do gay men do it? It's especially confusing for me because I don't hear of lesbian women dressing up as men, or at least not as much, and it's not a "spectacle" like drag shows are. I'm just confused — what exactly is drag FOR?

Wondering

Dear Wondering, 

For centuries, people participated in drag, an entertainment style that involves dressing up in clothes stereotypically worn by another gender. Drag queens (like your friend) often perform in historically feminine clothing and mannerisms while drag kings often perform in historically masculine clothing and mannerisms. While people within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQ+) communities may have more representation in the drag community, people may dress as drag kings or queens regardless of their sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation. Drag may be done for a variety of reasons including to make a political statement on gender roles, to feel free and confident in another persona, to entertain themselves and an audience, to find community, and more. 

It can be important when talking about drag to make the distinction between cross-dressing and drag. While the origin of the term “drag” is unclear, it may have been inspired by the heavy dresses that people once wore at cross-dressing balls that dragged across the floor. Cross-dressing and drag both involve people wearing clothes stereotypically worn by another gender and can be forms of gender expression. Drag, however, is often more exaggerated and done in an entertainment setting like a club or theater. Cross-dressing balls became popular in Germany in the mid-1800s and made their way to the United States (US) in the late 1800s. Drag culture, which grew out of cross-dressing culture continued to grow throughout the Harlem Renaissance in the early 1900s with figures like the first self-proclaimed American drag queen, William Dorsey Swann, and singer, Gladys Bentley. These days, figures like RuPaul Andre Charles, have continued bringing attention to drag culture through TV, social media, and entertainment. 

Drag, cross-dressing, and gender impersonation have long been tools used to challenge social norms. William Shakespeare and other playwrights would often use men dressed as women in their plays—both to create humor and because women weren’t allowed to participate in performances. Women would also often cross-dress to "disguise" themselves as men in order to reach male-only opportunities (e.g., military service, attending medical school, etc.). 

Many of the first drag balls were the target of police raids which led to most attendees being arrested and prosecuted for what was considered "immoral" behavior. Unfortunately, discrimination against the drag and LGBTQ+ communities continues today. In the US, many anti-discrimination laws don't fully protect people when it comes to gender expression discrimination in jobs, housing, education, and even within families. It can be important to note that people with multiple identities (e.g., race, ethnicity, religion, financial status, disability, age, etc.) may face additional layers of discrimination. 

If you’re looking to further support your friend, some things you may choose to do include: 

  • Being aware of your assumptions. Are you making any assumptions about who drag performers are? Do you have assumptions about why your friend does drag? It can be important to keep in mind that the act of performing drag doesn’t indicate sexual orientation or gender identity, and your friend may have their own ideas and reasons for participating. 
  • Using the names and pronouns your friend prefers. Like actors, drag queens and kings have a separate persona when performing and may take on different names and pronouns both in and out of drag. If you’re unsure about your friend’s preferences, just ask! 
  • Continuing to communicate. You mention that you think your friend looks good in drag. Perhaps you could tell them that and see if they're open to talking about it—it could lead to a conversation where you learn more about your friend and yourself. It also may just be nice for your friend to hear a positive comment about how they look given that drag performers often put a significant amount of time and effort into their appearance. 
  • Seeking support in processing your feelings. It can take some time to adjust to seeing someone you know well doing or participating in something you’re not used to. You might consider reaching out to friends or family, finding a mental health professional, or seeking out a support group to help process what you're feeling and or provide you with helpful resources. 

Keeping an open mind and continuing to communicate with your friend can be great ways for you to understand their unique drag journey. Who knows? Maybe you'll both find yourselves auditioning for RuPaul’s Drag Race together one day! 

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Last updated Jun 30, 2023
Originally published Nov 05, 2004

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