From Fanny and Stella to Ru Paul’s Drag Race: a short history of drag

As the reality TV phenomenon RuPaul’s Drag Race continues in the UK, Vincent Chabany-Douarre shares milestones in the history of drag in America and beyond…

RuPaul – who produces and presents the reality TV show bearing his name – performs during a Gay Rights March in Washington, DC, April 1993. Over 500,000 LGBTQ+ activists and allies participated in a gathering organised to end discrimination. (Photo by Porter Gifford/Liaison)

There is nothing like watching Tandi Iman Dupree drop from the ceiling.

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The first notes of Bonnie Tyler’s ‘I Need A Hero’ pound through the nightclub. A muscular Superman crosses the stage, scrutinising the crowd. The song builds. Suddenly, there is a downwards flash. Out of nowhere, Tandi has dived from the ceiling, and landed into perfect splits. She effortlessly pounces into an energetic dance routine, strutting in her slinky Wonder Woman outfit.

Even though the footage (from a Miss Gay Black America pageant in 2001) is grainy, the feeling that this performance conjures – of prideful elation, of absolute awe – pierces through. It is quintessentially drag.

The meteoric rise of RuPaul’s Drag Race, a televised drag queen competition in which queens lip synch, death-drop, and stomp the runway, has allowed millions to bask in this feeling. RuPaul’s Drag Race has become a bona fide phenomenon and it arrived in the UK on Thursday 3 October.

But this success has been hard-earned: the story of drag, especially in America, is not a brief one. It is a history of the city, of queer cowardice and courage, of racism and resistance, of marginalisation and community.

The deep roots of drag

The practice of female impersonation has deep roots on the stage. Before women were allowed to act, men cross-dressed to perform their roles. The Japanese onnagata, the Chinese tan, or Shakespeare’s female characters are all incarnations of this practice.

Dressing as a woman, however, does not a drag queen make. Artists we would now call drag queens were chiefly forged in the 18th and 19th century when, as gender roles became increasingly rigid, cross-dressing started acquiring a distinctly provocative identity, moving from a game of dress-up to a cutting commentary on the constructs of gender and sexuality. Stella Clinton and Fanny Park, for example, shocked Victorian England by dressing as women at parties or in the streets, leading to a well-publicised 1871 trial in which nebulous charges of conspiracy were levelled against them. Though the charges were dropped, cross-dressing clearly started striking some nerves.

Unlike common knowledge could suggest, American drag queens were not born out of the 1960s cobblestones of Stonewall [the 1969 riots which are a key milestone in the US movement for gay rights]. Rather, New York City and San Francisco had popular drag scenes as early as the late 19th century. In New York, when prohibition banned the sale of alcohol during the 1920s, an inherent sense of transgression suffused nightlife, and the semi-hidden space of clubs and bars became ideal spaces for social norms to waver. Combined with New York Mayor Jimmy Walker’s laissez-faire attitude towards vice, drag flourished in Madison Square Garden, Greenwich Village, and at its most vibrant, in Harlem, where the Hamilton Lodge Ball drawing crowds of thousands to marvel at drag queens.

Three drag queens pose for a photo at a ball in New York City, c1991. (Photo by Catherine McGann/Getty Images)
Three drag queens pose for a photo at a ball in New York City,  c1991. (Photo by Catherine McGann/Getty Images)

By the mid-1930s, moralist Fiorello La Guardia had dislodged Walker as mayor, prohibition had been repealed, and the spaces in which queer life thrived became increasingly policed and stigmatised. In a final turn of the screw, in 1935, New York City banned female impersonation.

But all was not lost: there was still San Francisco. California was lackadaisical in enforcing the same liquor control laws which had militarised New York’s backlash. This meant that San Francisco’s urban authorities all but shrugged off the small, illegal nightclubs that mushroomed in the Bay Area during the 1930s and 1940s, with drag bars like Finocchio’s receiving the patronage of high-profile movie stars such as Frank Sinatra, Bette Davis, and Tallulah Bankhead.

An All-American backlash

The backlash would come at its strongest in the postwar era, when a family-centric, starkly heterosexual culture intensely stigmatised queer Americans and their spaces. As a response, the gay community rallied in the homophile movement of the late 1950s –an overwhelmingly white and middle-class group that lobbied for gay rights. Its main strategy was respectability politics, meaning the belief that if homosexuals behaved more like ‘respectable’ straight individuals – abandoning excess, rebellion, and sexual experimentation – then straight America would embrace them as fellow citizens. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this meant disowning groups including working-class queers, the transgender community, and drag queens.

Later militant queer factions of the 1960s, meanwhile, wanted straight Americans to understand that homosexuals were no sissies, and rather a virile, potent, force that was muscular enough to topple the established order. This was a forceful stance that meant distancing themselves from gender-bending queers in the process.

In this context, cooperation between these gay movements and drag queens became anecdotal, if not rare, shoving queens to the fringes of the queer struggle, and turning a blind eye to their role as activists. When a series of riots sizzled through 1960s America – in Lexington, San Francisco, Philadelphia, or Los Angeles, and most famously, the Stonewall Inn in New York in 1969 – that protested the continued stigmatisation of queer Americans, it was drag queens and aforementioned ‘sissies’ who threw stones, ashtrays, or coffee cups.

Drag, race and the fight for survival

Though they faced tremendous external pressures, drag queens were hardly immune from internal conflicts: the fault line of racism deeply cleaves through drag’s history. In 1967, when a major drag beauty pageant (immortalised in the 1968 documentary The Queen), passed over African-American Crystal LaBeija for coquettish white blonde Harlow, LaBeija stormed offstage and passionately denounced the drag scene’s perverse habit of rewarding white queens at the expense of queens of colour.

This was not a new accusation. In 1932, black queen Bonnie Clark had decried the Hamilton Lodge Ball for the same reasons, but more than 35 years later, it was clear that little had changed. In 1977, dejected by white-centred balls and pageants, LaBeija threw a ball for queer people of colour, and formed the first ‘house’ of the ball scene, the House of LaBeija.

Houses were families where legendary matriarchal queens protected, nurtured, and cared for young queens. Houses would compete in balls, where queers and queens strutted, danced, and marched down a runway to the hisses or cheers of a fickle crowd of onlookers, reinterpreting the codes of mainstream society as they embodied assigned categories such as “executive realness”. An art form chiefly created by and for black and Latin queer Americans, balls were not just about escapism: they were a powerful way to use imaginary and performance to fundamentally recreate their social position.

Balls and houses were especially crucial to the gay struggle during the Aids crisis. During the 1980s, gay Americans started getting sick, and dying. Spread in many cases through unprotected sex, Aids ravaged the gay community. Public health agencies’ responses to Aids were fraught with homophobic and racist assumptions about queer sexual behaviour, and did more to increase stigma around homosexuality than to stymie the Aids crisis. In turn, some houses organised as ‘prevention houses’, whose house mothers educated their offspring about safe sex and provided healing for the deep emotional trauma of those living with Aids. Some also threw prevention balls, such as the House of Latex Ball in New York City, where a Q&A portion educated the audience about HIV risks and prevention. Drag queens and queer spaces provided to the queer community what straight society would not: protection, love, and care.

c1981: Drag queens pose in elaborate costumes at the reopening of Studio 54, New York City. (Photo by Tom Gates/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
1981: Drag queens pose in elaborate costumes at the reopening of Studio 54, New York City. The club had been shut down the previous year amidst tax evasion allegations. (Photo by Tom Gates/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, drag queens were still fighting to express their art. Clubs such as Studio 54 and the Pyramid Club – and, starting in 1985, the event Wigstock – all became vibrant locations for queer expression. By 1993, RuPaul’s pre-Drag Race success on MTV as a singer and performer inspired drag queens worldwide, from Brazil to Berlin.

Ru Paul’s Drag Race and beyond

Today, it is safe to say that drag has gone mainstream. It’s not just RuPaul’s Drag Race. In 2018, the critically acclaimed drama series Pose took the ballroom culture of the 1980s and early 90s drag scene to the world, and the delightful competition reality show Dragula emerged as RuPaul’s first major competitor by celebrating, filthy, gory drag. Queens are taking over Youtube and Instagram, and getting Netflix specials. But some of the past’s ills have survived: some commentators have decried how queens of colour on Drag Race receive little praise compared to their white counterparts, as well as the way in which a number of contestants have been disproportionately targeted by internet trolls due to their ethnicity.

Given gay rights’ complex history of assimilation and marginalisation, the question remains: is drag’s unprecedented visibility and acceptance a good thing, or does it defang the potential radicalism of its gender and sexual politics? The answer should remain ambivalent. In many ways, RuPaul’s Drag Race can be seen to have severely reduced the scope of what drag queens can do and be, by overwhelmingly rewarding queens with a daintily feminine aesthetic. It is legitimate to fear this is the only type of drag that will be allowed to survive in the mainstream, heralding a noxious sanitisation of drag for straight audiences and corporate sponsors (Drag Race UK contestant Crystal, for example, used to perform under the name Crystal Beth before being cast on the show).

November c1992: Drag queen RuPaul poses for a portrait in Times Square, New York. (Photo by Catherine McGann/Getty Images).
November c1992: Drag queen RuPaul poses for a portrait in Times Square, New York. (Photo by Catherine McGann/Getty Images).

And yet, witnessing successful Drag Race alumni – such as Sasha Velour, Bianca Del Rio, or Trixie Mattel and acolyte Katya Zamolodchikova – flourish in artistic performances, stand-up, or absurdist comedy, could not be more exhilarating. Haranguing these queens as sell-outs reveals a tendency, noted by queer critic Yasmin Nair, for thoughtful skewers of the intersection of capitalism and queerness to be muddled and appropriated by observers who have no intention of actually nurturing radical alternatives. These hand-wringers should be reminded that there is nothing forward-thinking about romanticising danger and marginalisation.

Drag Race should drive us to recommit to queerness, both in what the show’s success includes and excludes. We should remain uncompromisingly devoted to the queer struggle, and its interlocked causes of racial, gender, and class justice. With this squarely in mind, we can recuperate something deeply meaningful in today’s drag’s sparkle and sequins: a profound spectacle of joy. Combined, we find queerness at its most defiant: a passionate celebration of our pleasure and our rage. The world is filled with the rigid and deeply unsatisfying games of marriage, heterosexuality, and gender. One way to win is to laugh at them. Tandi falls from the ceiling, and the world shrieks with delight. She owns everything, and so do we. This is drag.

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Vincent Chabany-Douarre is a doctoral candidate at King’s College London’s history department, researching racial segregation in midcentury Los Angeles. You can find him on Twitter @ChabanyDouarre.