I’m often asked ‘can women be drag queens?’ or ‘explain to me how you can be a female drag queen’. I must admit, these are not my favourite questions to answer. Often, the people asking look to Ru Paul’s Drag Race as their only reference point for the world of drag. This popular TV show gives a false impression that you suddenly know everything there is to know about being a drag queen. It allows people who have never been to a real-life drag show to make assumptions about gender and drag, to feel like an authority on it. So if you’ve ended up here to self-educate, then here’s a short guide to this drag(ing) debate and the question that won’t go away. The answer to which is simply:
I’m a woman. I’m a drag queen. I exist. My drag is valid. Therefore, yes. End of story. And I’m not the only woman who performs drag. Thousands of femme-bodied performers across the planet do drag, in many various forms.
Before I get onto that, let’s take a moment to talk about gender. If terms like ‘cis’ or ‘non-binary’ aren’t something you’ve come across before or you aren’t so sure you understand yet, that’s ok and I encourage you to read up on this first. I recommend Sam Dylan Finch’s Transgender 101 guide on Everyday Feminism as an excellent place to start.
I also want to point out that I can only talk about my lived experience (mixed with lashings of queer and gender theory from that dusty old degree I did nearly two decades ago). Other drag performers will have different perspectives on this debate to me.
It’s also worth noting that terms used and attitudes towards subjects like gender, drag and feminism are constantly evolving, so my current viewpoint could easily seem a little outdated in a few years. So read on with an open mind.
I feel it’s more important than ever to think about why we are asking this in the first place. Why do we always question what women can do? Especially when it comes to careers/spheres/practises/lifestyles that have traditionally been male-dominated? What is it that makes us want to limit the world of women?
Can’t the answer to these questions always simply be ‘why not?’ Why are women always being asked to justify their lives in ways men never are? Think of all the things we could accomplish if we didn’t have to address questions like this all the time…
“Let’s get one thing clear – you absolutely do not need validation from RuPaul.”
Oh, so you’re a woman, impersonating a man, impersonating a woman?
This is often a bit of rough logic thrown my way when I mention I do drag. Funnily enough, men don’t have much to with my drag queen performances. To me, drag is a hyper-performance of gender; a fun exploration of these ridiculous notions of ‘men’ and ‘women’ that society thinks we should perform in our everyday lives.
So naturally, I’ve found drag to be one of the best platforms for me to express what my experience of being a woman is. I’ve explored everything from perceptions of female arousal to the everyday acceptance of violence against women in my shows. By transforming myself, my face, my body into this extreme idea of how we think women should appear and behave gives me the chance to address what it is to be a ‘woman.’
I had an incredibly long gestational period before becoming a drag performer and a lot of time to think about why I wanted to do it and what I wanted to convey through it as a medium. TBH I suppose a lot of drag performers probably don’t think about it all quite this much. But I do take this colourful and non-conforming world very seriously: it’s a life-long passion and an important performative medium to me.
A powerful feature of drag is that it’s irreverent and joyful at the same time as being very emotional. In one sense it’s a bit of outrageous fun mixed with a whole load of make-up, wigs and interesting footwear; and in another, it’s a provocative, radical act that attempts to disrupt this binary world that we live in.
My former partner, who has been performing drag longer than I have, describes it as a superpower because it transforms you into an icon that inspires reverence. And if there’s one thing we need to be giving women, it’s more superpowers.
“15 years years ago I intended to reclaim over-the-top femininity to the female body and fuck with gender stereotypes. And my dear, I’m still here.
But sod me. Trans women, all women, everybody has the right to play. Keep trucking kids. Do you.”
A drag queen. That’s the easy bit. You’ll hear lots of terms bandied about — bio queen, faux queen, female drag queen, AFAB drag queen etc — but all these words do is separate and demean what some drag queens do and indicate that they’re not equal to other drag queens. This is despite the fact that we’re sharing the same stage, doing the same shows, all doing drag.
I (currently) like the term ‘femme-bodied drag queens’ when having a discussion that requires you to differentiate. It acknowledges that we aren’t simply working with a binary of male and female but there’s a whole big, beautiful spectrum of gender that we need to acknowledge.
“To embody a set of cultural constructs historically associated with women, a lot of the time at the comedic expense of women, while excluding women, within a sex-gender system which disproportionately causes violence towards women — especially trans, women of colour & gender-nonconforming individuals — is a perfect example of how unapologetically/self-righteously patriarchal, misogynist and even colonial attitudes are freely perpetuated within gay culture.”
One argument against women performing as drag queens makes me laugh because it sounds so familiar — just in reverse. Back when I was first introduced to the queer activist world at university (many, many moons ago), there was a lot of debate about drag queens and how they exploited the sexism in our society, copying the world of women for a cheap laugh and particularly co-opting the culture of black and Latino women.
I agree that there are some incredibly sexist and racist drag performers out there (I talk about the difference between progressive and offensive drag below) but for me, feminism was never about holding onto the social constructs that we identify as ‘female’ and not letting anyone else touch them.
If someone who doesn’t identify as a woman wants to wear make-up, dresses and heels, I’m all for it. But to then be told that me performing as a drag queen co-opts gay male culture is laughable. Exactly who were you pretending to be in the first place?
It’s also interesting that specifically the culture of gay men is apparently being co-opted. While we’ve long used the term LGBT+ to refer to the queer community, it’s always been dominated by gay men, while lesbians, bisexuals, trans people and everyone else who fits under this umbrella term were routinely sidelined.
So this is not the inclusivity and diversity of queer culture that they seek to protect but the exclusivity of the gay male community — one which is renowned for being incredibly sexist, racist, ableist and body shaming. Why in this day and age would we want to protect something that serves only cis gay men and shuts everyone else out?
“Yes, drag most definitely is a ‘fuck you’ to toxic masculinity and the male-dominated society but would you look at the gender most of us are portraying? FEMALE. What type of person inspires our characters/personas? WOMEN. To discourage women or shut them out of drag CONSCIOUSLY is backwards.”
So let’s ponder this: if drag queens are not supposed to be impersonating women, then why is there any issue with a woman performing as a drag queen? If it’s not a performance of our gender, then why can’t we participate in the ‘impersonation’ too? As with so many of these arguments, they are hollow and make no sense. What’s clear is that these arguments are mainly about shutting women up and shutting them out.
Finally, one of the other arguments against women being drag queens is that it’s not considered radical or punk enough. In an age where a mainstream TV show that exclusively shows male-bodied drag queens, this limited definition of what a drag queen can and can’t be doesn’t feel that radical either. If you want to see truly punk drag, you have to go to a venue that shows a broad spectrum of drag performers – of all genders.
By holding on tight to this restrictive idea that only men can be drag queens raises an awful lot of questions too. Is it only gay men (because there’s a long history of straight men doing drag)? Is it only cis men or can trans men be drag queens (and at what point in their transition does this suddenly become ‘acceptable’)? Are trans women allowed to perform as drag queens (because a number of contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race have transitioned since the show)? Or at what point do these arguments and restrictions fall apart and we shout WHO BLOODY CARES? Seriously. Why so much effort to shut out everyone who aren’t ‘men’?
“Ru(Paul) as a cis man having conversations about, and rule over, women’s bodies is alarmingly in line with the current swing of conservative politics. Also the public erasure of trans women from the history of drag and then the irony of Ru, a male, telling women, cis and trans, they can’t do drag because it’s not as big of a fuck you to a male-dominated world. Very controversial…”
Just as there are a whole variety of people who can and do perform as drag queens, there’s a broad range of types of drag, from progressive to incredibly bigoted. I’ve walked out of some eye-wateringly sexist and racist shows in the past two decades, where drag queens have derided vaginas or performed crude racial stereotypes for cheap laughs. This is not my drag and it shouldn’t be yours.
The future of drag is with performers who challenge rather than uphold our oppressive system and with venues that embrace a broad variety of drags performers, both kings and queens, of all gender variants.
If you’ve only ever watched RuPaul’s Drag Race and never been to a show in your local area, then it’s time to do some fieldwork in your quest for self-education. Research the performers and venues nearby. Are the shows full of predominantly white, male-bodied performers or is the line-up mixed? If you want to genuinely understand where drag is at now, you’ll find it on the stages that are shared by women and non-binary performers too.
The future of drag
It’s lovely to see how much has changed in the past couple of years. From the amazing Tete Bang showing that drag is for everyone on Channel 4’s Drag SOS to RPDR contestant Gia Gunn talking openly on All Stars season four about her struggle as a trans woman who performs drag.
We’ve also watched as Drag Race has slowly become one of the most archaic representations of drag. The show has struggled to feel fresh because its limited scope (almost exclusively focused on cis men) has meant it has an ever-shrinking pool of talent. It’s genuinely sad to see the most mainstream show about drag make itself so irrelevant. We can only hope that the producers will wake up to the rich and diverse world that exists beyond their narrow-minded view.
All of this was brought into sharp focus earlier this year for me when I performed at (AFAB)ULOUS — a night that consisted only of AFAB (assigned female at birth) performers. As I was preparing to go on stage, a woman walked past me, complimented me on my incredible outfit and asked me about my show. When I said that I was a drag queen, she looked confused and stated: “but women can’t do drag!” All I could say in response as my name was announced and I headed on stage was “drag is for everyone!” It really is.