by K. Collier-Wise
When I say the word "queen," what names come to mind? Elizabeth? Cleopatra? Guineviere? I myself think of it a little differently. I think of names like Mistress Formica, Lady Bunny, and Miss Understood. Yes, drag queens. Those glamorous gender-bending entertainers are not just "queens" because of their name. No, in my eyes, they are royalty. I've set out to find just how someone decides to go into this exciting profession, what separates the first rate super-star from the third rate lounge act, and what kind of future drag has in our society. Luckily there are many web sites devoted to the subject and there is also a troupe in Sioux City that might help. This will not be an simple task, but as RuPaul always says, "You better work!"
I'd first like to make clear that I am doing this report on "drag queens", "female impersonators", and "gender illusionists". This is not about transvestites, cross-dressers, or transsexuals. This paper is about those who dress in women's clothing to entertain and bring colour into the lives of regular Joes like you and I.
When I started my search I knew it wasn't going to be easy. My first problem was one of location. A small town in South Dakota is not the ideal place to find drag queens. So I turned to one the marvels of modern technology, the World Wide Web.
My first internet search brought up more pages about drag racing than drag queens, but I did find a page run by a woman who was into female impersonators and it seemed like a good place to start. There I found links to the web pages of drag queens all over the world. I had hit the jackpot. I went to page after page, collecting information and e-mail addresses. After getting quite a few addresses, I went through and picked the ones I thought would be nicest to me (being as sensitive as I am) and mailed them my questions. I asked about their beginnings in drag, what makes a great queen, and what they see for the future.
Even though the internet is fast and convenient, it does have its drawbacks. I've always felt that computer communication is very impersonal and you're never sure exactly who you're talking to or if what they're telling you is true. You also have to worry more about the people even getting your letter. For one thing, most tend to check their regular, postal mail more frequently than their e-mail. You have to worry about certain technological disadvantages like down servers, change of address, etc. My first problem came when my e-mail account was deleted right after sending off some questionnaires. Your mailbox is never deleted.
After about three days after sending out my questions I started receiving responses. Most were helpful and answered all of my questions while a few were somewhat disappointing. One wasn't even a man, one was a little mean and suggested that I take in a live drag show (like any club or bar would let a little girl with braces in), and two didn't even respond. An interesting thing that I noticed was that many of the people would start out their responses with things like "honey pot" and "sugar". It reminded me of talking to my grandmother. Over all, I would say my interviews were successful.
One of the most interesting responses I got was from a performer who not only gave me answers to my questions, but a lot of extra information, too. He went from one of his first school plays to his "big break" filling in for a headlining drag performer. It gave me a good idea of how a career is made. It was just like a lawyer talking about making partner or a doctor discussing his internship. It was also really nice to know that someone took so much time to respond to my questions. He also had lovely cheekbones.
I also used other sources in my search. First I watched the documentary Wigstock: The Movie, about the annual drag festival. I had actually already seen it, but watching it again helped a lot. Next I read the autobiography of singer RuPaul. I had a little trouble finding it at first, but I finally located it after scouring the shelves of Barnes and Nobles. I then searched the magazine database in our school library and got several articles.
The secondary sources were good for background information and took a lot less work to get. If this had been a research paper instead of an I-search paper, I probably would've gotten more. As it was, they provided an interesting comparison to the interviews.
Once I had all of my information, it was simply a matter of organization. I went over the questions I'd asked and then looked at the different answers I'd gotten.
My first question was, "How did you first get into drag? How old were you?" A lot of people's first experiences were at a young age with something innocent like dress up or a school play. (This doesn't, of course, mean that if you let your son wear a dress once, he'll grow up to be a transvestite. My brother once played a bag lady in a play we put on and he currently has facial hair and a girlfriend.) A few said they had only very recently started drag. I found it interesting that what some people said was their first experience with drag, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, was also my first real exposure to it. I also found that a lot of people compared drag to acting. "It's a bit of an alternative reality without all the chemical mess," said one.
My next question was, "What separates the great, glamorous queens from the crowd?" The most popular answer: style. Another crucial quality that I heard about was some special aspect that makes you different from the crowd (something that makes sure you aren't ever mixed up with anyone else). One response I would think would be important, but only heard once, was intelligence. I believe that's important in any part of life.
My last question was, "What do you see for the future of this profession?" The majority said that they saw acceptance for the future. The recent appearance of movies and TV shows featuring drag queens prove that they've already been accepted by pop culture, even if your grandparents won't even rent The Birdcage. A couple of people argued that drag wasn't even a profession to begin with. My opinion is that if you can be paid for it, it's a profession. Professional actors aren't always paid (some don't even work) but they're still considered professionals.
The information I got from the interviews was a little different than what I got through my secondary sources. The book, movie, and magazines portrayed drag as just a bunch of people getting together and having a good time. That's true to some extent, but there's a little more to it. It is not a field like electronic engineering where just anyone can make it. The drag queens who are successful and are actually making money had to work to get to where they are. The media seems to view drag queens as male go-go dancers with humorous appeal. Even RuPaul tends to gloss over drag so much that he starts to sound like Kathie Lee Gifford talking about sweat shops. From the things I heard in my interviews, these views are simply not realistic.
I learned a lot as a result of this paper. I think most importantly, I learned that what you see on TV and read in magazines is only one side of the story. Just as I have taken my own view of this topic, so does everyone else.
I think that from now on, I will tend to take a closer look at what I see and read and encourage others to do the same. It's very easy to just take what we are give, especially in a sheltered area of the country like this, but we can only learn by questioning.
I also think that I will no longer look at drag queens with the awe that I usually reserve for exotic animals. They are everyday Joes like you and I, trying to do well at something they enjoy. Drag is important because it challenges the standards that the government and media have set. "Drag is somewhat like throwing a big pie into the face of everything that society would try and stifle," said one individual.
Actually, when a drag queen puts on a dress and performs, it's not that different that when I pick up a pen and write. They just look a lot better doing it.