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Life's a Drag
Have you ever wondered about the history of drag culture and entertainment, or why it’s even called “drag”? Well, allow me to give you a brief overview of what I’ve recently learned!
The history of drag queens can be traced back to theatre culture in Shakespearean times (as early as the late 16th century), which makes complete sense now that I know. I guess I hadn’t really thought about the origin and evolution of drag until now, despite being a fan of modern drag entertainment. So, what does drag have to do with theatre culture? Well, for many centuries, women were not allowed to take part in acting of any form — not in church performances, and not even when theatre eventually transitioned away from religious spaces. This didn’t mean that there were no female characters in the plays though, it meant that males acted out these roles. It is said that the slang term “drag” was made common at this time, because when men played these female characters they talked about how their costume dresses would “drag” across the floor. This then evolved into phrases like “we shall come in drag,” meaning men wearing female costumes.
However, it seems that it wasn’t until the 1920s that the term “drag” was being used by and linked with the LGBTQ+ community. A common theory for this linkage is that it was used in the “underground” language called “Polari”, which drew on theatre slang and was developed in England at the time that homosexuality was illegal and thus wasn’t safe to openly talk about.
This also happened to be during the Prohibition Era in the United States, a period of time when making and drinking alcohol was illegal. Because of this, a bustling underground scene was developing and the LGBTQ+ community were forming their own underground bars and clubs. Drag performances became a regular part of the entertainment at these hide outs, and soon drag balls (pageant-style competitions where drag queens would compete on stage for prizes) became popular events. Drag became an act of resistance against gender and sexuality norms, during a time when it was also against the law to wear clothes of the “opposite” gender. At the same time, it was a fun way for gay men to connect with one another and form a sense of community. The drag ball culture soon became a scene where black queer people, who had largely been excluded from the LGBTQ+ community at this time, would flourish. In fact, Madonna’s “Vogue” was inspired by the “vogue” dance style that evolved in LGBTQ+ communities of colour and was a vital part of drag ball culture.
By the 1950’s, drag became established as a “gay” art form (rather than its use in popular culture, which had just been straight men impersonating women for comedic purposes) that was being highlighted in the growing amount of gay bars. Drag became even more prominent within the gay communities during the sexual revolution of the late 1960’s and 70’s, and drag queens played a significant role as activists in the gay liberation movement. In the ever-growing LGBTQ+ community in the 80’s, drag was reclaimed as an eccentric and expressive art form not just for gay men, but also trans folks, queer women, and beyond. As the visibility of drag expanded, it found its way back into popular culture in an authentic way. With the 1990 documentary, Paris is Burning, the public started to grow more aware of the distinctions between being gay, trans, and doing drag. Almost two decades later, the reality TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race aired in 2009, and without a doubt launched drag into the mainstream media. With millions of viewers and fans, the show has continued for 11 seasons and counting. Many credit RuPaul as the greatest Drag Queen of our time, and are thankful for the way they have brought drag culture into the spotlight. If you haven’t already, consider checking the show out (it’s on TV and Netflix), or some of the other video and article references attached below. In the meantime, “slay, Queens”!
POSE : “Pose is a drama spotlighting the legends, icons and ferocious house mothers of New York’s underground [drag] ball culture, a movement that first gained notice in the 1980s.”
Wig: “Spotlighting the art of drag, and centered on the New York staple Wigstock, Wig showcases the personalities and performances that inform the ways we understand queerness, art and identity today.”
Trixie Mattel Explains the History of the Word 'Drag' | InQueery | them.
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Scarlett has been volunteering with mindyourmind since 2012 and has been a member of the staff team since 2016. As a Psychology graduate from King's University College at Western, she is passionate about all things related to the subject and is a proud mental health advocate with lived experience.
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