We return with part two of What a Drag; A History of Ballroom Culture & Modern Drag. We left off at the end of the 1950’s just as a new era was dawning in the queer community. The Lavender Scare was finally starting to fade as America’s understanding around sexual orientation was VERY slowly evolving. Organizations such as The Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis had stepped away from being secret societies to standing up as open gay and lesbian organizations. The public transition of former war vet Christine Jorgenson had swept the country igniting a long debate around gender identity and gay rights. And on top of these events, the racial tensions of the era and daily feminist uprisings were preparing to explode into the revolution of the 1960s. As if waiting for an introduction, a small protest sparked the first fires of change.
In May of 1959, L.A. Police showed up to a local cafe late one evening. Coopers Do-nuts was a favorite place for drag queens and trans identifying folks. It was situated between two gay bars and the owners were friendly to those labled as cross-dressers. Plus the cafe was open all night which allowed for many people who didn’t have a bed to have a place to sit and gather with friends. However, police knew the Do-nut shop was a favorite place for cross-dressers and they routinely showed up to harass the crowd. That night two officers entered and began requesting I.D.s and rounding up anyone who’s clothing didn’t match the gender assigned on their identification. People began to protest and suddenly someone threw a donut and then coffee and plates and anything else the patrons could grab. The police fled the scene and didn’t make any arrests that night. While it certainly wasn’t a riot and was mostly ignored by the general public, the incident did not go unnoticed in the queer community.
In 1960, Ballroom re-emerged into mainstream Black culture again and Houses became common. As is often portrayed in Pose, Houses were created both as a way to foster team spirit but also for practical living conditions. It was hard for any queer person to find a job or housing during this time period and almost impossible if the person was Black or LatinX. So older and more experienced queens became ‘Mothers’ and oversaw their ‘Drag daughters’. But age was not always a factor and often a house Mother was 25 or 30 years old while her daughters were in their teens and earlier 20s. This terminology speaks directly to the culture of People of Color taking care of their own as society rejects them. It stems from oppression and should be acknowledged as such.
Six years after the Cooper Do-nut uprising another cafe found itself the center of queer resistance. This time the circumstances were very different as Dewey’s coffeehouse had decided to stop serving the LGBTQ+ population after 20 years of being a local queer hotspot. Just like Cooper’s Do-nuts, Dewey’s was popular because it was open late at night and was located in Philadelphia gay district. In April of 1965, the owner decided that any patron wearing “nonconformist clothing” would be denied service. By this time many laws around ‘masquerade dressing’ were still on the books and some states such as Michigan, California, and Florida had expressly forbid people to wear clothing of the opposite sex. Yet there was no law in place in Philadelphia, so instead the owner claimed the queers were driving away his business.
On April 25th, 150 LGBTQ+ marched to Dewey’s and demanded to be served. The owner refused and eventually all but 3 protesters left and the remaining few were arrested for disorderly conduct. Over the next week people in the community picketed the restaurant, passing out flyers and staging sit ins. Finally, on May 2nd the owner relented and queer people won the right to eat at Dewey’s. The local gay and lesbian organization known as the Janus Society wrote about the incident in their newsletter and word spread through the community again. But the biggest pre-Stonewall event was yet to come. And once again, drag queens and transgender people would be leading the way.
It is important to pause here and discuss the way trans folks and drag queens have been intertwined in queer history. Both defied the gender roles assigned to them though often for different reasons. Many drag kings and queens in history have been thought to be transgender. And many transgender people have been relegated to drag perfomers. Because of the standards and resources of the past it is hard to know how people would identify today. But this history has also conflated the art of Drag and Trans identities. People are confused by the fact that Marsha P. Johnson identified as a trans woman and a drag queen. The fact that she didn’t take off her dress after her performance has made people wonder if the two were combined. We cannot speak for Marsha, but we can say that drag and identity are separate components. Yet many trans people were often forced into drag as a way to express themselves while some did find their identity through drag. And countless more have always seen their drag as an art and not at all tied to their gender identity.
What is surprising though is that, given the history of drag and the trans community, some drag performers have been so resistant to trans people performing in the drag of their gender expression. For instance, in 2018 notorious drag queen Ru Paul stated he “probably would not include” trans performers on his show as they would have a so-called advantage. He came under heavy fire for his comments and has since retracted the statement. Yet it showed Ru’s own lack of knowledge around the history of drag.
Trans women and trans men have ALWAYS been a part of the drag scene. Former Playboy bunny Aliesha Brevard got her start as a Marilyn Monroe impersonator in the 1960s. At the time, people didn’t know she was undergoing sex affirmation surgeries with Dr. Harry Benjamin. She continued her drag work while her surgeries healed before taking a job as a stripper and later being discovered by Playboy. Though the commercial success of her career does not mirror most in the community, her journey of using drag to express and find herself mirrors many others. For instance, it seems that Brevard’s story may have more closely resembled that of Gladys Bentley’s (who we mentioned in the first episode). In that, Bentley seemed to use drag as a more affirming art form than a character expression. Like all art, drag is interpreted in various ways by various artists.
For all these many nuanced reasons, trans people and drag performers have had their histories tied closely together. That is why the Compton Cafeteria Riot of 1966 was a pivotal moment for both the trans community and the drag community. On a hot weekend night in August, San Francisco police were called to Comptons, located in the tenderloin district of the city. The cafeteria was a 24 hour joint which made it a magnet for trans folks, drag queens, and sex workers. The queens began to get rowdy and caddy and management called the cops. Police went through their regular charade of targeting those they considered cross dressers and one officer grabbed the arm of a patron. She reacted by throwing her coffee in the police man’s face causing an outburst and ensuing commotion.
Tables were flipped as plates and silverware went flying through the air, breaking windows and crashing on the ground. Officers called for backup and the paddy wagons arrived on scene. Now the queens and queers were in full fight mode as roughly 50 to 60 patrons entered hand to hand combat with the cops. High heels were used as weapons, purses were used as shields, and “general havoc was raised”. Trans historian Susan Stryker wrote in Transgender History, that eventaually the night ended with “a police car vandalized and a news stand burned to the ground”.
While Compton’s is often buried beneath the history of Stonewall, it was a huge moment in the queer community at the time. It is true that all LGBTQ+ people faced discrimination during this time. Yet, white gays and lesbians did have the relief of a closet that was often suffocating but also held many doors. Meaning, that many gay people could choose whether or not they came out at their jobs or in their communities, and many could be out to a certain degree. Drag queens, on the other hand, were harassed simply for doing their jobs, regardless of whether or not they identified as gay. And trans people often were rejected both by larger society as well as by the gay community. So together these outcasts of the outcasts formed an alliance and stood up to their biggest oppressors, the police. And in doing so they showed the greater LGBTQ+ community resistance was possible.
In 1968, the first truly modern, large scale ball was held in Washington D.C.’s Hilton. The Black Pearl International Awards was hosted by drag queen Black Pearl and would become the most popular drag even of the year. It also sparked a renewed wave of Ballroom Culture which began to grow through the 70s as more large cities created or re-built their ball scenes. By the 1980s, ballroom was thriving in cities such as Baltimore, New York City, San Francisco, Atalanta, and Philadelphia. It was in this scene that voguing began and it was from Black and Brown ballroom culture that Madonna appropriated her iconic song and dance. This atmosphere was also the home to budding stars such as RuPaul and Billy Porter.
Running parallel to this world was the white, mainstream evolution of drag. 1973 brought the first removal of cross-dressing ordinances with Chicagos repeal of a 122 year law. And while some cities followed, others cracked down harder than ever, determined to combat the exploding gay rights movment. In 1977, Texas police arrested 53 people who were breaking the 1861 law which stated:
It shall be unlawful for any person to appear on any public street, sidewalk, alley, or other public thoroughfare dressed with the designed intent to disguise his or her true sex as that of the opposite sex.”
The law would be repealed just 3 years later.
Though some states were holding tight to their anti cross-dressing stance, it still stood in stark contrast to America’s love for drag performances. Even during the ‘silent age’ of drag during the 1950s and early 60s, viewers still loved the art. Storme DeLarverie is the lesbian credited with throwing the first punch as Stonewall. But before that momentous night, she spent the two previous decades touring the country with Jewel Box Revue. A group of drag kings that were exceptionally popular during their time. Then there was the popularity of drag on television, though it didn’t mirror the drag performers onstage. Yet no matter what the platform was, the message was clear, people loved drag. So much so that in 1976 when a patron in drag was denied service at the Fire Island Pines restaurant in New York City a group of friends returned on July 4th all dressed up in Drag. Today thousands of drag queens show up to Fire Island on July 4th in what is known as Invasion of the Pines.
But nothing has shown the endearment of drag like the 20 year tradition of Wigstock. The story goes that in 1984 a group of drunk queens, one being Lady Bunny, decided to put on a show. So they went to Tompkins Park in New York City and did just that. Some have credited Wigstock for giving drag the edgy, crude comedy it is famous for today. Author Frank Decaro, who wrote Drag: Combing Through the Big Wigs of Show Business, stated: “It’s the aesthetic of Drag Race today. “They’re not really trying to be a beauty queen. It’s Varla Jean Merman saying, ‘I can sing opera, but I do it while I eat spray cheese from a can,”.
Through the years drag would evolve to the art that we see today on shows like Ru Paul or even in our local gay scene. But it was a slow evolution that happened in the 1990’s after the landmark documentary Paris is Burning. This 29 year old documentary debuted Ballroom Culture, as it truly was, to the world. However, the documentary broke a year after Madonna’s music video and never had the reach of the superstar. While it has long been triumphed in queer circles, the documentary has mostly faded from memory. Though the hit show Pose seems to be hinting that this will be part of their storyline next season.
While drag kings had never been as popular as drag queens, there really seemed to be a fad in the art between 1990 and the early 2000s. The documentary Venus Boyz featured well known king Diane Torr who also teaches the art of masculine drag. But for the most part, most people don’t even know that drag kings are a thing. Today drag is almost completely portrayed on stage and in film as drag queens. And though many people are familiar with the art of drag, most can trace their knowledge back to the hit show, Ru Pauls Drag Race.
In 2009, popular drag queen Ru Paul launched what has become a turning point around drag in television. The show was the first of its kind and one of the only shows about drag for many years. There had been a few popular movies throughout the 90s such as Robin Williams The Birdcage and Mrs. Doubtfire which did more of a disservice to drag (and the trans community) than a help. Then in 1995, To Wong Foo; Thanks for Everything Julie Newmar was released and became an instant cult favorite. And then 10 years later, in 2005, the popular Broadway play Kinky Boots was released and became a smashing success on the main stage. Still, for the most part drag was portrayed as a form of mockery and not an actual form of art. RuPauls Drag Race changed that perception.
Today, most people have a more positive way to consume the art of drag. There is a wider acceptance in the community of artists from various identities and backgrounds. And there is greater social awareness and understanding around drag. Since its debut, Rupaul’s Drag Race has been nominated for 23 Emmys and won 9. More shows have since aired and more movies and documentaries have been produced. Netflix even ran the show AJ and the Queen for one season before cancelling the show. While we still need to evolve in the community and stand against harmful stereotypes often portrayed in the past, today Drag has become an established art form in America and many parts of the world
Your recommended resources are Drag; The Complete Story by Simon Doonan. We also suggest the documentary The Making of a King available on Amazon. This documents the history and modern movement of Drag Kings in America. And of course there are countless videos on YouTube to teach you about makeup and costumes if you want to try Drag for yourself.
- BBC – https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20180810-drag-balls-the-glamorous-performances-that-mean-resistance
- HAENFLER – https://haenfler.sites.grinnell.edu/subcultures-and-scenes/underground-ball-culture/
- WIKI JULIAN – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_Eltinge
- WIKI BALL – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ball_culture
- NPR – https://www.npr.org/2019/06/27/736320026/how-drag-queens-have-sashayed-their-way-through-history
- AMERICAN HISTORY – https://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/queens-and-queers-rise-drag-ball-culture-1920s#:~:text=In%201869%2C%20within%20Harlem’s%20Hamilton,and%20immoral%20by%20mainstream%20society.
- The Black Drag Queens Who Fought Before Stonewall by Channing Gerard Joseph
- Nation (Joseph) – https://www.thenation.com/article/society/drag-queen-slave-ball/
- Garrison – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alden_Garrison
- Nazi Soldiers – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jZkzmfUjpwA
- Cross Dressing (history) – https://www.history.com/news/stonewall-riots-lgbtq-drag-three-article-rule
- Cross Dressing PBS – https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/arresting-dress-timeline-anti-cross-dressing-laws-u-s
- Transgender History: The Roots of Todays Revolution by Susan Stryker, copyright 2008, 2017, Seal Press
- The Big Sea by Langston Hughes