Olympia lies prostrate across a bar table in a short white dress, conceding, “nature is beautiful and healthy and all”; then, throwing a handful of rainbow cereal rings into the air, she declares, “but it ain’t no Fruit Loop”.
There I was, in the company of three of Melbourne’s finest drag queens, Karen From Finance (Richard), Agent Cleave (Anthony), and Olympia (Taylor), brought together to discuss their unique ‘trash drag’ aesthetic and what it means to be a drag queen. What place does a piece about drag queens have in a tattoo-culture magazine? Beyond the tattoos that they all have in relation to their performing art, gender and identity are inextricably linked, with both performed on the stage that is our body. How we decorate this stage—with tattoos, make-up, scarification, or clothing—not only affects how others are likely to receive our act but also in what manner we perform our ‘selves’. Queer theorists, most notably Judith Butler, suggest that gender is a performance and that, depending on the prevailing social context, the meanings associated with these performances vary. Defined simply as individuals who publicly perform ‘femininity’ in front of an audience that knows they are ‘men’, drag queens highlight the theatricity of the performance.
I have a lot of personal respect and admiration for people who present themselves in a manner at odds with generally accepted social categories. Although drag queens may have become a digestible form of entertainment in mainstream culture thanks to movies like The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and television programs like RuPaul’s Drag Race, this was not always the case. During the 1960s, gay men dressed in drag in order to become unrecognisable punters in ‘morally questionable’ venues. Yet, positioned on the front lines of the Stonewall riots, they were pertinent players in kick-starting the LGBT movement that spread across America during that same decade.
Although female impersonation likely began when clothing started to take on gendered meanings, with examples found in the mythologies of many early cultures, the contemporary drag queen’s lineage can be traced back to the Elizabethan playhouses of the early 1600s. Because of various prohibitions against women appearing in public places or undertaking pursuits allowed only of men, men’s playing women’s roles became an institutionalised mainstay. As a result, the role of female impersonators both reflected and sustained men’s images of what a woman is, or should be, and other important cultural values of the given society, and, in this sense, were very much symbols of the politics of the times.
However, what was once seen as a role of necessity to be undertaken only by professional actors has increasingly become a form of artistic expression, with the artist enacting a multitude of performance styles. In so doing, these varying performances of gender emphasise and play with cultural ideals of masculinity and femininity. They bring to the fore, unravel, and challenge the common binary construction of gender. As Steven Schacht and Lisa Underwood, authors of the paper The absolutely fabulous but flawlessly customary world of female impersonators (2004), attest,
“By studying female impersonation much, can be learned about the cultural values of the society in which they are found, with drag queens very much being a sign of the times.”
In their paper Chicks with dicks, men in dresses: what it means to be a drag queen (2004), Verta Taylor and Leila Rupp grapple with the question of whether drag queens primarily destabilize gender and sexual categories by “making visible the social basis of femininity and masculinity, heterosexuality and homosexuality” or whether they are gender conservative and “reinforce the dominant binary and hierarchical gender and sexual systems by appropriating gender displays and expressing sexual desires associated with traditional femininity and institutionalized heterosexuality.” From 1998–2001, Taylor and Rupp conducted field research in the ‘mecca’ for drag cabaret: Key West, Florida. Their research consisted of countless interviews with drag queens and their audiences. They found that theatrical performance was central to the personal identities of those drag queens. Drag was used to “forge personal and collective identities that [were] neither masculine nor feminine, but rather their own complex genders.” In that sense, drag queens were more gender ‘revolutionaries’, challenging the rigid limits of male/female gender categories and highlighting their artificiality. They conclude by suggesting that, “rather than eliminating the notion of gender categories”, we need to expand them. Drag queens “create their own transgender and theatrical identities that force their audiences to think in a complex way about what it means to be a woman or what it means to be a man.”
I first did drag a little under two years ago. I think I’d wanted to do it for a while, and then I went to this party and the theme was Dolly, Denim, and Diamantes. I spent, like, four hours doing my makeup, and I came out looking like a monstrous clown. Prior to that, I didn’t actually like drag. I just didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand why a guy would want to dress as a woman. I didn’t understand why it was big in the gay scene; like, if men wanted to date men, why would they dress up as a girl? I was totally naïve; I had no idea why, or what it meant.
The way that I came to have an interest in it was through so many other versions of performance, like dance and burlesque, mainly, and theater and acting, and seeing all of those things incorporating costume and make-up and all that sort of jazz. Then drag was just an aspect of performance that was totally accessible to me without any training. And I started following some other performers; like, there was this guy called The Divine David in London who was big in the ’80s and ’90s—even before that—but just through watching his videos on YouTube, showing an alternative side to the beautiful, typical drag scene—beautiful, like sequined dresses, lace fronts, beautiful legs, diamantes: that real pageant/show-girl sort of stuff. That was really intense and inspiring, just the realization that there can—if you want it to—be so much more than just dressing to resemble a girl. That you can basically paint yourself and dress to be anyone you want to be. It doesn’t have to just be a woman; it can be an emotion, a feeling. It can be a concept. It can actually be whatever you want it to be. A lot of people come up with a different character every time they go out, to express an idea, or a concept or a feeling.
I went to a party around about the same time [as starting to get into drag]; some friends and I brought these disgusting dresses we found at an op-shop that were really cheap, and we just wore them as boys wearing dresses to the party. We didn’t wear make-up or anything like that, and when we were wasted we gave each of the dresses a character, like, we made it up, the lady that owned it before us, and her whole life story. And the character that I gave my dress was this lady Karen from Finance. The character was so strong, so funny, such a good-time … and the next time I decided to do drag, I thought I’d play with this character. I’d go as this lady, Karen from Finance. The more that I did it, it was so much fun, and it was so deep I found that when I was introducing people to the character I was … like, I didn’t have to come up with as much of the character because people would just apply it. The more I did it, the more people responded to it, the more people that got into it. Where it just felt like rather than dressing up and doing ‘whatever-drag’, I should roll with this lady and see what happens.
I associate drag not so much with homosexuality but with the queer lifestyle. I like the concept of being queer, which isn’t restrictive to only homosexuals. Being queer, being alternative, it’s where the lifestyle choice comes into it, as opposed to homosexuality: you can be a homosexual and still decide to live a mainstream lifestyle.
Although the art form that I take part in is more drag as opposed to gender bending, my friends have started doing drag at the same time, and we’ve started referring to ourselves as ‘she’ even if we’re dressed as boys in general conversation. Just because, I mean, we refer to each other as ‘she’ when we are in drag, but then when you’re out of drag … you know, like, What’s the difference? You are still the same person that was doing the drag as you are when you’re dressed as a boy or whatever. You can say ‘he’ or ‘she’, and it doesn’t matter in a conversation; you still know who ‘he’ is and who you’re talking about, and, again, it breaks down those gender roles. The title that I use doesn’t change anything about me.
I think it’s a real big kick and liberation once you’ve put on a face and the costume and you go out in public. You become a character, a different person, and so people respond to you differently, and so I can take it on and enjoy whatever it is that could potentially serve me, which is completely different every time.
People called me a girl until they learned the word faggot. I grew up in the country, so anyone who wasn’t a straight white guy who liked sports was going to have a little bit of a hard time. I was always going to do drag, I think, I love performing, and I’m not afraid of striking out on my own and doing shit: I’m trying to say that without sounding like a cliché teenager; I’m not afraid of doing my own thing just because no one else is doing it. I was the first person who came out at my school; it’s like you either do it or you don’t, and if you’re not going to do it, you lose a lot more than if you do.
I started performing in 2009, but I’ve been getting into drag since I was, like, three. I always took every opportunity I had as a child to wear dresses and stuff, because I thought they were a lot more fun and interesting than boy’s clothes, which are basically just t-shirts and pants.
Being a drag queen is a really lovely experience, to just be someone else—when being me is really stressful. People treat your differently, and you exist differently. So it can be a really nice break from mundane bullshit. I think also when your job is to make people feel good or have a positive experience or be surprised by something, that’s a pretty cool feeling too.
A lot of my work is focused around trying to get a feeling of togetherness; you know, like the first time you read a poem when you were a teenager and were like, Oh my God, someone actually understands how I feel right now—that’s always like an epiphany. I guess that always affected me so strongly. Because when I felt isolated or whatever and I read something, like, by Sylvia Plath, who felt that she was going crazy because no one would treat her like a person, or something like that. I’m really focused on that, and that’s one of the big reasons that I do drag. One of the big reasons that I am involved in doing anything creative is to alleviate that feeling of loneliness.
Do you feel as though you’re reinforcing the dominant binary by appropriating gender displays associated with traditional femininity, or do you feel as though you’re destabilizing gender and sexual categories by making visible the social basis of femininity and masculinity, heterosexuality and homosexuality?
Drag has a lot of heavy questions asked of it as a medium. And drag has the capacity to do both those things like any other medium, like any kind of performance. It can both serve to reinforce [and] to subvert social norms. And, I don’t know, that’s a very heavy question that gets asked of drag a lot. Many of my earlier performances had very obvious feminist undertones because I thought that that was really important in drag. But while my shows still very often do, I don’t feel like I need to justify the reasons [for] why I would rather express myself through performance as a man or as a woman; it’s just what I do. And I have just as much right to a feminine aesthetic as someone who is born with a vagina. It’s not so much the drag [in itself] but how I do it that’s feminist. Drag, like any other medium, has potential for both. I think an important thing to note is everyone does drag for a different reason.
I first started dressing up when I was really little. We were always quite a creative little family, so we had a big dress-up box and all that kind of thing. I always had a propensity to dress as Michelle Pfeiffer or I was a big fan of The Addams Family as well, so even though she was the only female in the family, I always wanted to dress as Morticia. So, yeah, I guess it started quite early on!
I’m a gay man. And, yeah, I think on stage I’m a gay man. You see, it’s a funny thing, Agent Cleave has been fairly ambiguous as far as what gender he’s theatrically portraying. I’ve always kind of referred to myself as ‘he’ in all of my publicity material. I often get called ‘she’, and I don’t really mind that. What is a man or a woman? You know, it doesn’t matter, and as long as you feel beautiful, that’s the point in a lot of ways. I still believe that for myself, but I think I’ve got to be more responsible as a queer artist too—to make sure that I’m not silencing anybody else. There are a lot of people in the world … in the trans community over the last six years I’ve noticed that we’ve grown in visibility, politically and socially and in lots of different ways. And I’ve always felt that I’ve been part of their crew and sort of learnt what it is to be queer, so I kind of feel a responsibility to make sure I’m presenting it in a thoughtful way. By doing drag you run the risk of judgment and of critique and examination; I guess I’ve been lucky enough to do that and to start a dialogue about what it is to be beautiful and what it is to be ugly, feminine or masculine.
Can you touch on the line between transgender and drag?
Trans … trans is a truth. Drag is performance, while trans is a way of life. Trans is someone who was born with the wrong hormones. In some weird way maybe that’s related to my drag, [how] I’m putting myself on stage as Agent Cleave is no different to putting himself on stage to start these discussions and be examined in that way and to allow and to invite the audience to feel whatever it is they feel, repulsion or eroticism at the image. That’s not the trans way, that’s not the trans ethos—that’s completely different. They’re just people living their lives, trying to live in this world.
A lot of my fans, I’ve found, have been women or straight men. They love watching what I do for the most part. My audience has always been pretty inclusive of an array of different sexualities and gender identities and stuff like that. I think the audience of drag has the capacity to be much wider. I would never say it’s gay men only, or it’s specific to a gay man’s experience.