Originally posted in The Establishment
(image is of Misty and Jimmy Paulette, 1991)
“I’m here to spill the tea on the fact that women can perform drag . . . as women.”
This was the bold lead to Amanda Scriver’s article in celebration of “bio-queens.” These are women assigned female at birth who perform as drag queens, and who Scriver argues ought to be represented and appreciated more widely in the world of drag, which she says has historically been “an art form made by and performed for gay men.”
This is incorrect — dangerously so.
Scriver’s thesis is that when “biological women” take on the exaggerated femininity of drag, they are pioneering a novel form of resistance against the expectations placed on women by society’s predatory male gaze. The entree of “biological women” to the world of drag, according to Scriver, newly renders drag a queer phenomenon of resistance, an act that is now political where it was once merely performative.
This reading of drag and its relationship with bodies, politics, and performance, sounds good on paper. But in reality, Scriver’s article stands in direct opposition to the generations of women who have used the political power of drag to resist straightness, whiteness, and colonialism.
Actually, women have always been doing drag. Trans women, cis women, queer and gender non-conforming folks of all identities — all have been deeply embedded in drag communities since the development of the North American drag landscape. From Stormé DeLarvarie performing at Stonewall, to Tracey Africa Norman and Octavia St Laurent serving legendary face, to Amber Rose mugging at the Legend Ball, drag has been shaped and shared by women throughout history.
Scriver’s article opens with an unattributed quote, “You don’t have to be a man in a dress to perform drag,” a paraphrasing of Bianca Del Rio, who is hardly new to making transphobic comments. Bianca Del Rio won season six of RuPaul’s Drag Race, a reality TV show with drag queen contestants.
But even those who know nothing about drag beyond what they’ve seen on Drag Race would know that this comment is obvious, and that the assumption that drag equates to men in dresses is patently untrue. To many queens past and present, the distinction between gender performance and gender non-conformance is blurry, if it exists at all. Several Drag Race participants have publicly identified as transgender or as gender non-conforming, and have articulated their drag as political, including Violet Chachki, Gia Gunn, Jinkx Monsoon, Courtney Act, and BenDeLaCreme.
Moreover, no fewer than five drag queens who have been on the show have since come out as trans women: Carmen Carrera, Monica Beverly Hillz, Stacey Lane Matthews, Jiggly Caliente (Bianca Castro), and Sonique. Even the freedom fighting women of the Stonewall Inn, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, called themselves “drag queens.” What would it mean to call these women “men”? As Laverne Cox remarked during her 2014 Creating Change speech, “When a trans woman is called a man, that is an act of violence.” Part of the power of drag is in its capacity to empower femininity for those who have traditionally been excluded and attacked for their relationship to it.
Drag has always had the power to create spaces for endangered femininity in the face of violence. Drag Race contestant Jujubee spoke about the empowering femininity of drag on the show:
“People don’t hate gay guys because they’re gay, they hate anything that’s ‘feminine,’” says Jujubee. “They see anything that’s girly, or feminine, or woman-like as something that’s weak. And that’s why I think we do drag, because we want to empower that deity, feminine focus.”
When white women speak of the necessity and novelty of “bio-queens” courageously claiming space in resistance of the male gaze, it’s easy to forget that drag is always and already serving that exact same function for queer and trans folks. Tatianna on Drag Race put it succinctly, recalling the first time she was called a slur as a child and reacted by turning to drag. “Literally, I started getting called ‘f*ggot’ when I was in first grade,” she says. “So in my head, I’m thinking, ‘my femininity is not OK to the outside world if I’m dressed as a boy.’”
Many of the modern roots of drag can be traced to ball culture, an American Black and Latinx LGBT subculture characterized by gender performance and nonconformance. As represented in the 1990 documentary, Paris is Burning, balls are competitions and cultural hubs around which Black and Latinx LGBT folks create intentional communities of refuge and solidarity in the face of racism, poverty, homophobia, and transphobia.
Throughout the film, we are reminded of the constant dangers faced by Black and Latinx queer folks. Our most vivid encounter with this reality comes in the form of Venus Xtravaganza, a trans woman and drag queen with the house of Xtravaganza, who was brutally murdered partway through the documentary’s filming.
When we think about drag and its relationship to creating spaces apart from social violence, it does us all a dangerous disservice to forget that these spaces were created out of necessity by people of colour and trans women — in particular, trans women of colour, who are at incredibly high risk of violence and who have historically made up the bulk of what Scriver terms the “drag community.”
Implying that these women and trans folks performing drag have ever been safe from the male gaze is a cruel misreading of their daily reality. This is particularly true for Black and Latinx queer people, for whom ballrooms and drag communities were necessary spaces of refuge and self-actualization. As Dorian Corey comments in Paris is Burning, “Black people have a hard time getting anywhere and those that do are usually straight. In a ballroom you can be anything you want.”
Similarly, it’s worth reminding ourselves that 80% of the victims of anti-LGBT violence are people of colour. 72% of the victims of anti-LGBT homicides are trans women; trans women are 1.8 times more likely than transmisogyny-exempt folks to experience sexual violence; and transgender people of colour are 6 times more likely to experience police violence than white cisgender people. Sixteen of the 20 LGBT people murdered in 2014 were people of colour, 11 of the 20 were trans women, and 10 of the 20 were trans women of colour.
Women have always been performing drag, and they have always been performing drag politically. The difference is that these women, as trans women of colour, do not have the option of choosing to see their drag as political; it has always been political and it has always been necessary in the face of the violence that they encounter on a daily basis.
From Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, to Dorian Corey and Venus Xtravaganza, to Monica Beverly Hillz and Carmen Carrera, women have always been performing drag. There is an intrinsic connection between gender performance and non-conformance, and more than anywhere, that has historically been articulated in Black and Latinx LGBT communities.
Thus, while it may seem that Scriver’s “bio-queens” are underrepresented, this understanding overlooks a long history wherein the femininity of members of the drag community have been repressed and oppressed, as Black women, as trans women, and others. Drag offers them a chance to speak to their own experiences in a space specifically marked off from society’s predatory gaze. What Scriver is suggesting is to offer cis women a chance to take the stage and reaffirm their own experiences as natural at the expense of the femininity others articulate through drag.
Do women perform drag? Of course. Do women participate in drag communities? Of course. They always have and they always will. But when a white cis woman writes that “biological women” deserve space in drag communities, it’s worth asking ourselves which women she considers to be woman enough that they deserve the space that Black women, Latinx women, queer women, and trans women have spent their lives fighting to create.