Image: A drag queen, dressed in a rainbow-sequeened dress and pink wig stands with arms raised, smiling. Image courtesy of Dany Sternfeld, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

In June, in celebration of pride month, members of LGBTQ+ communities and allies honored and reflected on hard-fought advancements for queer people, from civil rights like marriage equality and employment protections, to representation in positions of political prominence and mainstream culture. One area of change is the rising popularity of drag — an artform pioneered by queer people of color in clandestine ballrooms, now occupying prominent positions in gay bars, television competition programs, and mainstream films.

Drag began, like many parts of queer life, underground in urban nightlife spaces. In queer havens like San Francisco and New York City, drag performers have graced nightclub stages for over a century. As homosexuality grew more visible in the late twentieth century, drag performers were at the forefront of battles for liberation, political rights, and, later, for medical treatment during the years of the AIDS pandemic. In the 1960s, drag queens in Los Angeles and San Francisco pushed back against run-ins with law enforcement. Some in the queer community believe a drag queen, Marsha P. Johnson, threw the first brick at the Stonewall Inn in 1969, kicking off the now-infamous confrontation with the NYPD. In the years that followed, drag queens blended campy performance with activism, protesting governments unresponsive to those dying from AIDS, drug manufacturers, and anti-same sex marriage advocates. 

Today, in light of the LGBTQ+ community’s social, political, and legal advances, drag enjoys an unprecedented prominence in mainstream culture. Drag Story Hours, where performers, or queens, read storybooks to children are commonplace in schools and libraries in twenty six states and Puerto Rico. Performing drag, once a marginalized profession, is now a viable, if precarious, job prospect. The RuPaul’s Drag Race franchise boasts thirteen seasons (with six All-Stars seasons to boot) as well as international spin-offs in seven countries. The cultural significance and prominence of drag today raises questions: How does drag celebrate queerness and resist normative sexuality? How did drag find its footing in both pop culture and political circles? Significant research in the humanities and social sciences sheds light on this. 

Performing Gender

Gender theorists have argued that gender is a performed identity, reproduced in daily social interactions. Like other social categories, gender is shaped by, and reshapes, relations of power. Drag involves stylistic and exaggerated gender performance. Drag queens were initially male-identifying performers who, unlike “crossdressers,” relied on exaggerated and parodied gender performance to both entertain and draw attention to political causes. Given the queer community’s social exclusion, drag performers have for decades formed closely knit communities, or “houses”, of mutual support and solidarity for performers often cut off from traditional familial networks. 

Subverting Gender: Transgressive Tactics

Drag’s most enduring social impact has been calling into question popular conceptions of gender. Drag draws attention to the important differences between sexual orientation and gender, as well as internal gender identity, external performance, and biological sex, topics of ongoing discussion in academic and activist communities.
Drag queens use cultural tools like language and physical appearance to subvert and perform gender identities. Through parodying and imitating mainstream gender norms, drag queens reveal the arbitrariness, cultural origins, and performance inherent to all gender identities. In these communities, queens have developed coherent group identities by creating particular speech patterns and unique cultural cues. Values like not being too competitive or “hungry,” maintaining “sisterhood,” and exuding professionalism and humility are reinforced through language and cultural norms. Drag entertainers draw on appearances and practices situationally, in some cases displaying feminine sides in interactions with men while reverting to their masculinity in situations that call for it. Lesbian drag kings – female identifying performers presenting as men – similarly subvert gender roles by drawing on masculine practices in performance and, in some cases, more feminine practices in intimate settings.
While drag’s prominence today has prompted debates on gender norms in the mainstream, it has, at the same time, led to criticism about some harmful aspects  of drag performance, including caricaturing racial minorities and marginalized groups. 

Art Form as Resistance

Since drag first became a commonplace – if clandestine – staple at gay bars and clubs, the performances involved an inherent critique of dominant gender norms, presentation, and behavior. This resistance owes much to the repression and marginalization queer performers have faced in many aspects of their lives. Homophobic views often forced performers out of their homes, leading them to build bonds and kinship networks with other queer people in more accepting urban locales. Under precarious conditions, performers build community with other marginalized queer individuals and crafted a trangressive art form now seen as a cultural staple.  Drag’s rise would not have been possible with changing gender norms and styles of self-expression. Birth control became publicly available in 1960, opening new possibilities for women beyond the home. In the postwar decades, artists like Esquerita, Little Richard, and Sylvester pushed the limits of accepted gender presentation, normalizing new portrayals of gender. norms in their revolutionary performances., Cultural change was already well underway by the time the Stonewall riots kickstarted the national queer liberation movement. While evolving gender norms and the cultural movements of the 1960s did help the cause of queer liberation, fractures among LGBTQ+ activists kept drag remained in a marginal position within the movement.