Identity and Revolution: The role of drag in sculpting queer identity and empowering the gay liberation movement.

Some perform drag (including my honor to portray “Prior Walter” in Angels In America, Part One: Millennium Approaches). Some write about it. Below are research-enhanced reflections about this historically powerful, and often misunderstood, social justice medium.

© Tim Garcia 2020. All Rights Reserved.
SJSU Research Competition
Representative for College of Humanities & Arts

“It’s time for you to lyp-synch for your life!” quips the feisty, titular judge on LOGO channel’s RuPaul’s Drag Race, cueing two drag contenders to take the stage in an unusually melodramatic fashion and enact impromptu performances. The concept and execution of drag has spanned over countless eras stemming from Greek theatre to present day reality shows, like the aforementioned Drag Race. When examined in a contemporary context, drag identity and performance has served, perhaps controversially, as a means of challenging the inherent stagnant rigidity of gender polarity, by unshackling the draconian chains of societal conformity. Moreover, aside from providing an outlet for sexual minorities (specifically, homosexuals, lesbians, transvestites and transgendered individuals) to protest the very same conventionally imposed gender functions and expectations, historically and effectively coercing them into the proverbial closet, it has additionally supplied, both a figurative and literal, type of armor in battling feverish forces of intolerance and prejudice. More specifically, drag has been embraced to represent and express queer identity while also agitating the consciences of society, most notably during the AIDS epidemic, and concurrently delegitimizing pervasive manifestations of militant and institutionalized homophobia and galvanizing activists in unprecedented ways through cross-dressing satirical performance and guerilla-style theatrical confrontations.

There is no doubting the impassioned gay fan base continuing to swoon over classic Hollywood female celebrities, most notably Joan Crawford, Judy Garland and Bette Davis. Although one may be presumptuously quick to assume these admirations derive solely from gay men innately longing to be women, drag performer Charles Pierce clarifies that he “extol[s] the stars he mocked as ‘a symbol of a kind of strong independence in women who are campy, glamorous and dressed up… women … from a certain era, and they’re imitable” (Senelick 386). Additionally, the common “bond of sympathy” stimulated between gay drag performers and emotionally complex female stars they were impersonating, both considered situated in an “unstable status in society,” blossomed from how both the performers and sources of emulation “‘felt cheated because no one appreciated their beautiful inner selves, and… [how they] couldn’t face living’” (Senelick 388). Essentially, we are accurate in deducing that gay drag queens are able to identify with strong-willed women embodying, on and off the screen, a transcendence of typical female vulnerability, marked by a defiant resistance toward succumbing to any traditionally deemed, exaggerated femininity, while also personifying conflicting facets of torment, angst and courage in a prevailing patriarchal world of ridicule and mistreatment. An unnamed drag performer provides a glimpse into the appeal of drag performance to LGBT individuals struggling to secure a cohesive, healthy identity while trapped in an overwhelming hotbed of incendiary homophobia, yearning to express their unique sense of self, by sharing that “A lot of queens I know come from small towns where there weren’t many options. After a lifetime of being repressed, it’s easy to understand the appeal of drag. You’ve got a dressing room, you’ve got a costume, you’ve got a stage, you’ve got an audience. You’ve got options. You can be anything you want. You can be a star” (Senelick 377).

Throughout the years transvestites, transsexuals, and any manifestation of cross-dressing within the LGBT community have endured the regrettable fate of being a stigmatized minority within a larger historically persecuted and disadvantaged minority or, in short, “the lowest caste of an underprivileged substratum” (Senelick 463). Upon the advent of the AIDS crisis, internal division within the LGBT community concerning the image injected into the mainstream media was sparked by leaders who “seemed eager to lock transvestites back in the closet lest they offend mainstream sensibilities, outrage feminists and perpetuate the impressions of homosexuals as strident freaks” (Senelick 463). This sentiment was vehemently refuted by activists who were prompt in asserting that, “many a press-on nail and spiked heel were broken so that you [the LGB community] can have the freedoms that you are taking for granted” (Senelick 463). Still, a fine line was drawn between resurrecting drag rebellion that launched the 1969 New York City Stonewall Riots, considered the official initiation of the modern day gay rights movement, and “playing into the hands of the enemy… [by inadvertently conjuring] the sissy… comic face of homosexuality in the 1920’s and 1930’s” (Senelick 471). 

Aside from the potential encumbrance of drag’s revival for LGBT activists during the AIDS crisis, those spearheading the feminist movement condemned drag personas as fundamentally misogynistic, detailing how “[drag] femininity is affected and characterized by theatrical exaggeration. It is a casual and cynical mockery of women, for whom femininity is the trappings of oppression, but it is also a kind of play, a toying with that which is taboo” (Senelick 464). Irrespective of whether or not the seemingly hostile stereotypes featured by drag performers were perpetuated or reaffirmed, those quick to condemn it fail to recognize or acknowledge the significantly critical assessment of heightened effeminate behavior at the heart of drag, operating as a way of deeply scrutinizing widespread, archaic gender roles while “gaining respect for women’s endurance through imitating their rituals of making up and adorning the body” (Senelick 464). Furthermore, in response to drag’s characterization as “malicious parody,” the Gay Liberation Front, an organization which longed to “destroy… compartmented gender,” defended cross-dressing “[which] disintegrated stereotypical gender roles,” reminding skeptics that, “wearing a skirt and high heels did indeed repudiate ‘male priviledge,’ to the greater good” (Senelick 464).

Soon, drag was embraced in wake of the AIDS crisis by “reactive movements” including, but not limited to, ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), Queer Nation and The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. These groups “reclaimed and rehabilitated” drag as symbol of pride or “a defiant emblem of selfhood,” in effect eroding “the stereotypes of burn-out and suicidal transsexuals” (Senelick 464). In particular drag proved to be “a prime weapon in… [ACT UP’s] arsenal,” most notably when activist Terence Smith crashed the 1992 Democratic convention in his drag persona Joan Jett Blakk. According to Smith, drag and the “guerrilla theatre tactics were a bid not just for visibility, but for visibility of queers,” reinforcing that, “I’m not trying to be a girl, but I do like the in-your-faceness of being a man in a dress, stomping on that line between male and female and erasing it” (Senelick 470).

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, originally a Bay Area traveling theatre troupe called Sugar Plum Faeries, gained prominence as cross-dressing men who, while donning nuns habits and “rosaries flying in the wind,” “chivvied evangelist proselytizers away from Castro Street [the gay district of San Francisco]” (Senelick 467). The ensemble group of about fifteen members performed “‘gay theatrical manoeuvres’… but [in a] politically responsible way,” espousing the motto “Give Up the Guilt” (Senelick 467). Early on in the AIDS crisis, as “the heavy cruising and recreational drugs of the club scene faded away, along with all-night music revved up to the max,” (Senelick 433) the sisters were considered “the first organization to print and distribute safe-sex flyers” (Senelick 468). The sisters were also soon respected as “among the most conspicuous agents for social change and the most effective fund-raisers in San Francisco” (Senelick 468).  Although their innovative public displays of activism, or representations and dramatizations including ritualistic recitations, “‘From the prejudice of Ronald Reagan/Let us protect ourselves,’” and performing “exorcisms [on]… Phyllis Schlafly and Jerry Fallwell” (Senelick 468), incited outrage from opposing forces, their costumes “gave pause to anyone considering physical violence,” perhaps due in large part to the sacred, unblemished impression of nuns branded into minds of onlookers and adversaries (Senelick 468). In essence, the use of the Catholic habit served as a representational way of triggering foes while also functioning as a type of armor, or in short “both a provocation and a shield” (Senelick 468).

What’s more, the sisters’ physical appearance has undergone an extensive evolution from plain, endearing habits juxtaposed with butch beards and motorcycles, into extremely elaborate makeup, ornate accessories and symphony of colors. The sisters declare that “‘our face and our bodies are our canvases’… [and] instruments [for]… channeling the other and providing a performance” (Senelick 468). In accordance with their official website mission statement, The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence remain devoted “to community service, ministry and outreach to those on the edges, and to promoting human rights, respect for diversity and spiritual enlightenment,” affirming their belief that all have “a right to express their unique joy and beauty and we use humor and irreverent wit to expose the forces of bigotry, complacency and guilt that chain the human spirit” (Sisters). The organization’s objective and purpose appealed to individuals from all walks of life, as most notably demonstrated during an AIDS benefit event in observance of their “Decade of Decadence” anniversary in 1989, which featured thirty sisters, “several of them female and/or heterosexual” (Senelick 468).

As characterized earlier, The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence’s sardonic use of religion, as a way of exposing the flagrant exploitation and perversion of organized faiths by the swelling forces of the far-right, drag performer Craig Russell’s staged performances as renowned anti-gay diva Anita Bryant “often brought down the house” during a singing rendition of the Battle Hymn of the Republic (Senelick 387). More recently, David Karl Lee’s 2009 one-man-show, entitled PIE FACE! THE ADVENTURES OF ANITA BRYANT, based on real-life historical events and interviews, delivered audiences a “musical pastiche that exploits the misadventures of Anita Bryant– the ex-beauty queen and Florida orange juice spokeswoman — who launched her scandalous conservative ‘Save Our Children’ campaign in 1977” (Kangagirl). Lee proclaimed his desire to revisit injustices of yesteryear by sharply noting that, “With the gay community still fighting this battle and with new anti-gay spokespersons like Miss California getting attention, I feel this play profoundly resonates” (Kangagirl). Both Russell’s and Lee’s motivations and demonstrations involving staged drag performances echo those of The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence where the embodying of direct and/or exaggerated portrayals of discriminatory icons and forces, employing unique adaptations of their own rhetoric against them, activists ultimately succeed in diluting powers bent on propagating misrepresentations, inflicting social harm and sustaining the marginalization of the LGBT community. Also, specifically in the case of Russell and Lee, the explicitly campy physicality and dialogue of their “Anita Bryants” only further weaken the validity of homophobic crusaders, like the notorious Bryant. Finally, illustrating the nonsensical facets of bigots through the use of satirical performance has proven to be a key method in unmasking their duplicity and combating their continued efforts toward depriving civil rights by conjuring irrational fear and heterosexist fanaticism.

Works Cited

Senelick, Laurence. The Changing Room. London: Routledge, 2000. Print.

“Who Are The Sisters?” The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Inc. Web. n.d. 

“Kangagirl Productions Presents PIE-FACE! THE ADVENTURES OF ANITA BRYANT.” Off Broadway World.  Web. 29 July 2009.

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