From Stonewall To RuPaul – A History Of Drag
As Europe’s largest drag convention prepares to take over London, Andrew Nicholls looks at the history of drag and its significance in the LGBTQ+ community.
DragWorld, Europe’s largest drag convention, is returning the UK after 2017’s successful debut.
Set in London’s Olympia Convention Hall, DragWorld welcomes over 15,000 avid fans and followers from all over the globe. Between the 18th and 19th August, West Kensington will receive a full drag takeover and makeover, showcasing another international extravaganza, hosting stalls, Q&A sessions, tutorials, meet and greets, fun panels, lip-syncs and much more, including the stars of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Whilst the mainstream acceptance of drag has only become apparent fairly recently, there is a profuse history to the form within the LGBTQ+ community that goes back decades, and has been present during defining moments in our history.
My first introduction to drag was through my Grandma. We would watch her VHS tapes of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Birdcage (one of her favourite films) or have dinner with Lily Savage on Blankety Blank.
Many probably believe drag to be a man throwing a wig on his head and lip syncing to I Will Survive. And yes, this is a part of drag, but is just the tip of the iceberg. Drag encompasses a rich culture, much more than men dressing up as women. Drag breaks gender stereotypes, and is performance art within itself.
In Britain, drag perhaps has its roots in Shakespeare. Before women were allowed to appear on stage, the female roles were portrayed by men in women’s clothing. Because of this, drag in Britain has been commonplace in theatre and bars. But the connotations are different to American drag. The history in the UK feels more parodic; think of the standard dames in pantomime.
In America, however, this tradition had more of a social-political resonance. It was a reactionary statement to society’s ills, and the taboos facing the LGBTQ+ community.
In fact, the gay liberation movement in America owes a lot to drag queens. The Stonewall riots in 1969 began after the Stonewall Inn in New York was targeted for consistent raids by police. Gay establishments were not allowed, with same-sex relationships technically being illegal in New York until 1980. The law required that each person was to wear at least three items of clothing relating to your gender assigned at birth.
Raids were common at the Stonewall Inn, and many drag queens and transgender people were arrested for having a drink and a dance, and simply for existing. One particular raid, taking place on June 28th 1969, was the final straw. The community had enough of the injustice and harassment they felt by the police and society at large. Thus, the fight back began, which resulted in the first significant political LGBT activist groups being formed, campaigning and building momentum towards the gay rights movement.
A prime example of this is the late, and great, Marsha P. Johnson, arguably the Rosa Parks of the LGBT movement. A self-proclaimed drag queen, and friend of Andy Warhol, who was at the Stonewall riots and fought for LGBT rights in America. Some have suggested she threw the first brick (though this was disputed by Johnson herself).
Marsha broke gender roles. She was a visible LGBTQ+ person of colour and eventual AIDS activist. As part of the Gay Liberation Front, an activist group, Marsha took part in Christopher Street Liberation Pride rally, which was held on the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots.
Disgustingly, Marsha was later told she could not attend Pride events, as they didn’t want to be associated with drag queens. This is in spite of her helping to form the Street Transvestites Actual Revolutionaries (STAR) organisation which campaigned for transgender rights, and gave shelter to trans youth who had wound up homeless having been shunned by their families.
Marsha‘s life and controversial death is explored in the recent Netflix documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson. It comes highly recommended, regardless of your knowledge surrounding the subject – not only in regards to Marsha‘s life, but to the fight for transgender rights which is raging to this day.
Once the Marsha P. Johnson documentary has finished, you might as well move on to another Netflix film, an exploration on another drag queen (and another friend of Warhol), the iconic Divine.
Divine was known as “The Filthiest Woman Alive”. The character was shocking, a rough, disgusting vision of a female, the complete opposite to the typical beautiful, pageant queens of the States.
She was a close friend and muse of cult filmmaker John Waters, and starred in many of his films. Her most notorious character was Babs Johnson from the 1972 film Pink Flamingos. The films tagline was “an exercise in trash“, which it lives up to by showing murder, cannibalism, nudity, incest, and arguably the defining moment – Divine eating dog poo. Actual dog shit.
She starred in many more films, and also went on to release a number of disco-inspired songs. By the mid-80s she racked up a number of hits with legendary production team Stock Aiken and Waterman, the most successful British production team of their day. She even appeared on Top of the Pops in 1984 performing You Think You’re a Man, an appearance which shocked the teatime British audience and received so many complaints that she was banned from future performances.
Of note, however, it was during this promotional visit that Divine met a young man named Paul O’Grady who was just starting his drag career. She and O’Grady struck up a friendship, and Divine was able to get the young man his first US gigs with his drag character, Lily Savage.
There needs to be an honorary shout out here for the legendary Sylvester. While Gloria Gaynor‘s I Will Survive was adopted as a defining queer anthem, and disco itself took major inspiration from New York’s gay scene, Sylvester was the most obviously queer icon of the era.
A flamboyant drag queen from Los Angeles, Sylvester could not have existed at any other time before disco. He likely would have just been another suited and booted soul singer in the closet.
Despite the onset of gay liberation, most programme directors were still conservative and Sylvester had trouble gaining exposure. The flamboyance of his on stage persona wasn’t able to translate to his album covers, which adhered to this conservative thinking to please the average, uneducated listener – something Sylvester himself was reluctant to do.
He showed up for the photo shoot for his 1980 record Sell My Soul with long, effeminate hair, and took pictures in suggestive poses, including sticking a champagne bottle between his legs and popping the cork. Predictably, the record company freaked and the image was toned down considerably.
But if there is one queen who has acted as the catalyst for the mainstream acceptance of drag, it is RuPaul.
RuPaul rose to fame with the 1993 hit Supermodel (You Better Work). This lead to him becoming the face of Mac Cosmetics, and later on scored his own TV chat show on VH1. Being the first drag queen host of an American TV show, RuPaul actively spoke about social problems, such as black rights and female rights.
He has been starring in films, music videos, campaigns and radio shows since 1987, including an appearance in the video for the B-52’s 1989 megahit Love Shack, and cemented himself in LGBT history becoming a Primetime Emmy Award winner for Outstanding Host for a Reality Programme with RuPaul’s Drag Race.
This latter show began in 2009 as a competition to find “America’s Next Drag Superstar”, with RuPaul acting as host, head judge and mentor.
After nine seasons, and two All Stars seasons (with All Stars three airing in January), it has really helped push drag into the mainstream. It is no longer a niche TV show, but a bona fide phenomenon.
Unlike the most successful, bland, repetitive talent competitions out there, Drag Race gives an insight into the art form of drag. It has helped to emphasise different forms of drag, from comedy to singing, spooky queens and pageant queens. There are queens who make their own clothes, can act and even queens who can juggle and walk on stilts.
There are heartfelt moments where the queens talk about their past, including battles with mental health, drug addiction, living with HIV and serving time in prison. These never feel forced, but a true testament to the slogan “It gets better”.
The show also talks about the importance of gay pride and gives a quick insight to LGBT culture with talking about Stonewall, queer history and having challenges based on LGBT history such as John Waters. Ru’s sign off says it all; “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you gonna love somebody else“.
Drag Race coming into the mainstream in such a big way has helped to show the true talent and artistry that goes into drag. It also opens up people to learn more about their place in LGBTQ+ culture. Drag Race can help people be who they want to be, show that they can be weird, kooky and non-conforming to gender.
40 years ago, Marsha P. Johnson was shunned from Pride events. Today, drag queens are a respected tradition of LGBTQ+ culture. This is a promising movement to help the transgender cause. We are at a time where we cannot forget the “T” in our namesake. Hopefully, the breaking of gender rules in drag can help society.
If people aren’t familiar with LGBTQ+ culture and are watching Drag Race, then they are able to at least gain an insight into this world. They can see the struggles of the gay community, and with contestants coming out as trans after the show, or during the show, it can be an introduction into trans and help people to see that the battle is not over.
Events like DragWorld are new, but invigorating to the scene; a chance for people to meet queens who have become popular during their run, and impacted people’s lives in ways they couldn’t have possibly imagined. But also for people to come together and enjoy and appreciate drag together.
Drag shows can be the opportunity for people to dress up and act in a relaxed way they can’t in other places or situations – total freedom. A whole weekend event to celebrate this is more than welcome.
DragWorld UK – Europe’s largest drag convention – takes place Saturday 18th – Sunday 19th August 2018. Tickets are available now from www.dragworld.com.