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Drag Queens and Drag Kings: The Difference Gender Makes

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  • 1. Sexualities http://sex.sagepub.com/Drag Queens and Drag Kings: The Difference Gender Makes Leila J. Rupp, Verta Taylor and Eve Ilana Shapiro Sexualities 2010 13: 275 DOI: 10.1177/1363460709352725 The online version of this article can be found at: http://sex.sagepub.com/content/13/3/275 Published by: http://www.sagepublications.com Additional services and information for Sexualities can be found at: Email Alerts: http://sex.sagepub.com/cgi/alerts Subscriptions: http://sex.sagepub.com/subscriptions Reprints: http://www.sagepub.com/journalsReprints.nav Permissions: http://www.sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.nav Citations: http://sex.sagepub.com/content/13/3/275.refs.html Downloaded from sex.sagepub.com at UNIVERSITY COLORADO on March 10, 2011
  • 2. ArticleAbstract In this article, we use case studies of two different dragperformance collectives, the 801 Girls, a drag queen troupe inKey West, Florida, and the Disposable Boy Toys, a politicalfeminist collective in Santa Barbara, California, to explore thedifferences between drag queens and drag kings. We argue that,despite their divergent routes to performing drag and thedifferent contexts and styles of their shows, a similar critique ofhegemonic gender and heteronormativity emerges from theirperformances. As the first systematic comparison of drag queensand drag kings, this article enhances our understanding of thegendered dynamics of drag.Keywords drag queens, drag kings, transgender, gender,performance Leila J. Rupp University of California, Santa Barbara, USA Verta Taylor University of California, Santa Barbara, USA Eve Ilana Shapiro Westfield State College, USA Drag Queens and Drag Kings: The Difference Gender MakesIn the spring of 2004, three of the drag queens featured in our book,Drag Queens at the 801 Cabaret (Rupp and Taylor, 2003) came toperform at our campus, the University of California, Santa Barbara. Afterenchanting a wildly enthusiastic audience of almost 1000 people in anintroductory sociology class, the drag queens participated in a panel at theMulticultural Center, billed as ‘Absolutely Fabulous: Race, Gender, Classand Drag King and Queen Culture’. This was, of course, a pretty foreignsetting for them. We were all part of the panel, one of us in both herresearcher and drag king capacities and two of us as moderators. It wasthe most tense event of the drag queens’ visit to campus, and it illustratessome of the differences and similarities in the ways that drag queens and Sexualities http://sex.sagepub.com Copyright © The Author(s), 2010. Reprints and permissions http://www.sagepub.co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav Vol 13(3): 275–294 DOI: 10.1177/1363460709352725 Downloaded from sex.sagepub.com at UNIVERSITY COLORADO on March 10, 2011
  • 3. Sexualities 13(3)drag kings perform gender and sexuality and engage in the political workof drag. The panel brought together Key West drag queens Sushi, Kylie JeanLucille, and Gugi Gomez, and drag kings Max Madrigal, whom the dragqueens read at first as male and then persisted in calling ‘she’, and one ofus, also known as Noah Boyz. It all started off well enough with adiscussion about identity and dressing in drag, but the tension in theroom ratcheted up when Sushi, who, as her Japanese mother complainedonce, ‘has no shame’, said she thought issues of gender, sexuality andterminology should not be taken so seriously. As the story in the studentnewspaper quoted her, ‘You suck cocks or you lick pussy. Who cares?We’re all the same’ (Gonzalez, 2004: 5). She went on to say that in hersmall town high school, she used to cry when she was called a ‘jap’ or‘faggot’, but explained that now she and the other drag queens use wordssuch as ‘spic’ and what she called ‘the n word’ as a way of strengtheningthemselves and deflecting hatred with humor and light-heartedness. As the perceptive reporter noted, the drag kings were ‘less flamboyantthan their fellow panelists’ (Gonzalez, 2004: 5). Max, who had graduatedfrom the university, commented that audience members at a drag kingshow should leave thinking about their own sexuality, and Noah expressedthe hope that queer audiences would explore issues of war and politicswhile straight ones would contemplate gender and sexual identity. Thecontrast between the drag kings and drag queens, flamboyance aside, wasstriking. Although both engaged with issues of gender and race, the dragkings were serious and overtly political, the drag queens campy andverging on the outrageous. In this article, we explore the differences and similarities between dragqueens and drag kings: their divergent routes to performing drag, thedifferent contexts and styles of their shows, and yet the similar critique ofhegemonic gender and heteronormativity that emerges from theirperformances. There is a great deal of scholarship on drag queens, begin-ning with Newton’s (1972) classic study, while research on drag kings isstill relatively new, given the fact that drag kinging became a widespreadphenomenon in the USA only in the 1990s.1 Drag queens are gay menwho perform in women’s clothing, although they are not necessarilyfemale impersonators, as the descriptions of the 801 Girls will make clear.Drag kinging includes female-bodied individuals performing masculinity,transgender identified performers performing masculinity or femininity,and female identified individuals performing femininity, the latter knownas ‘bio queens’. We base our analysis on our two case studies: the dragqueen troupe at the 801 Cabaret in Key West, and the self-named‘political feminist collective’ the Disposable Boy Toys (DBT), a dragtroupe based in Santa Barbara.276 Downloaded from sex.sagepub.com at UNIVERSITY COLORADO on March 10, 2011
  • 4. Rupp et al. Drag Queens and Drag Kings This is the first systematic comparison of drag queens and drag kings,and it enhances our understanding of the gendered dynamics of drag.Drag queens tend to engage in gender transition early in life and come todrag in part as a resolution of gender identity issues. In contrast, dragkings tend to rethink their gender identities as a result of doing drag. Inaddition, the drag king troupe, with connections to a universitycommunity, engaged with gender and feminist theory, which shaped theirperformances and other activities in ways quite foreign to the drag queenworld of a gay bar. Nevertheless, we argue that, despite the very differentways that members of these troupes came to drag and the differentkinds of theoretical and political consciousness they express, in theirperformances both drag queens and drag kings embody resistance to thegender structure and heteronormativity. Performing different genders indifferent ways, evoking a range of sexual identities, and eliciting non-normative sexual desires from audience members, their performances havea similar impact on their audiences.Theoretical framingThe existing literature on drag suggests that drag queen and drag kingperformances do not critique the binary gender system in the same ways.Some scholars view drag queens as primarily reinforcing dominant assump-tions about the dichotomous nature of gender presentation and sexualdesire because they appropriate gender displays associated with traditionalfemininity and institutionalized heterosexuality or because, despite theirperformance of femininity, they embody masculine privilege (Dolan, 1985;Frye, 1983; Gagné and Tewksbury, 1996; Schacht, 1998, 2000, 2002a,2002b; Tewksbury, 1993, 1994). Others, influenced by the writings ofqueer theory, argue that drag queen performances are transgressive actionsthat destabilize gender and sexual categories by making visible the socialbasis of femininity and masculinity, heterosexuality and homosexuality, andpresenting hybrid and minority genders and sexualities (Butler, 1990,1993; Garber, 1992; Lorber, 1994, 1999; Muñoz, 1999; Rupp and Taylor,2003). The concept of gender performativity in queer theory (Butler,1990, 1993; Garber, 1992; Muñoz, 1999) implies that the theatricalperformance of gender is a form of resistance that undermines the assumedconnections among gender, sex, and (hetero)sexuality (Moloney andFenstermaker, 2002). For Butler, traditional gender loses some its claim tonaturalness and authenticity through drag, which uses parody to reveal thefundamentally performative nature of gender. The literature on whetherdrag affirms or contests hegemonic gender is not, however, entirely polar-ized, as suggested by the work of Schacht (2002a), who argues that dragqueens represent ‘a masculine embodiment of the feminine’ and the 277 Downloaded from sex.sagepub.com at UNIVERSITY COLORADO on March 10, 2011
  • 5. Sexualities 13(3)‘homosexual embodiment of the heterosexual’, in the process ‘realizingmasculine authority and power’ (2002a, 173, 174). In contrast to scholarship on drag queens, the emerging literature ondrag kinging, shaped by queer theory (Halberstam, 1998; Murray, 1994;Shapiro, 2006, 2007; Troka et al., 2002; Volcano and Halberstam, 1999)emphasizes the intentional challenge to binary gender and sexualidentities embodied in the performances of drag king troupes. The first-person narratives in The Drag King Anthology (Troka et al., 2002)explicitly refer to the work of gender and queer theorists to analyze theirperformances, and the articles by scholars are in agreement that dragkinging – whether performances of traditional masculinity, femalemasculinity, gay male masculinity, or femininity – subverts binaryconcepts of gender and heteronormativity. In order to understand the differences and similarities between gay maledrag queens and female-bodied and transgender drag kings and bio queens,we consider how the personal gender and sexual identities of drag per-formers affect and are affected by their gender performances in drag. Thisquestion can only be addressed by examining the biographies and thesexual and gender identifications and embodiments of individual dragperformers – by telling gender and ‘sexual stories’ (Plummer, 1995). Inthis article, we argue that the transgressive personal gender and sexual iden-tities of drag queens and drag kings influence and are influenced by theperformance of drag and are key to understanding the boundary – andidentity – deconstructive potential of drag. In making this argument, weare attentive to the interconnections between gender and sexual identities.We heed the warnings of Valentine (2003) and Valocchi (2005), who bothargue, in different ways, that separating the concepts of gender identity andsexual identity can obscure the desires of individuals whose identities aremore complex. To understand the multiple layering of gender, sex, andsexuality that takes place in drag means asking whether an effeminate gayman performing femininity who is attracted to straight masculine men ora masculine lesbian who desires transmen breach the categories of hetero-sexuality and homosexuality. What do expressions of desire by individualswith such complicated identities say about the intersections of gender andsexuality? We turn to our ethnographies of drag queen and drag kingcommunities to understand the complexities of gender and sexual ident-ities, the messages that drag performances impart to audiences, and thetransgressive power of ‘queering’ gender and sexuality through drag.MethodsBoth of our case studies made use of multiple qualitative methods. Dataon the drag queens is based on research in Key West from 1998 to 2001.278 Downloaded from sex.sagepub.com at UNIVERSITY COLORADO on March 10, 2011
  • 6. Rupp et al. Drag Queens and Drag KingsThe 801 Cabaret is a popular drag bar in a gay-friendly tourist town,where a troupe of full-time drag queens lip-synch to recorded music everynight of the year to a mixed audience of men and women, tourists andlocals, queer and straight people, making at best a rather marginal living.The research involved observing, tape-recording and transcribing 50 dragperformances, including the dialogue, music and audience interactions,collecting data on the production of the performances by attendingweekly drag queen meetings, observing the performers in their dressingroom, conducting semi-structured life histories of 12 performers, andremaining connected to the drag queens and the field setting aftercompletion of the original research. The interviewees include one AsianAmerican, one Puerto Rican, one Swedish immigrant, and nine nativeborn Whites, ranging in age from 18 to 60 years, although the majoritywere in their late 20s and early 30s. Our analysis of audience responses isbased on 12 focus groups, ranging in size from 2 to 12 participants, withaudience members who attended the performances and agreed to comeback the following day to talk about the show. The focus groups consistedof 40 people, exactly half women and half men and more than two-thirdsidentifying as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transsexual. In addition, informalconversations with 50 audience members at the shows added to the dataon audience response, as did coverage in the local newspapers.2 Data on the drag kings are based on research on the Disposable BoyToys (DBT) between its debut in 2000 and its retirement in 2004. Overits lifetime, DBT grew from a five-person drag king group to a self-titled‘political feminist collective’. With connections to academic feminism andqueer theory, group members lip-synched and danced to numbers thatconveyed messages about sexism, racism, body size, and militarism, as wellas gender and sexuality. Performances explicitly critiqued binary categoriesof masculinity/femininity and gay/straight through numbers about trans-sexual, genderqueer, and fluid identities, queer desire, and transgressivemasculinities and femininities (such as masculine women and femininemen). Performances took place in queer spaces as well as at straightprogressive events. Between 2002 and 2004, we conducted and tran-scribed semi-structured interviews with 28 of 31 current and pastmembers. Participants ranged in age from 17 to 34, with 23 identifyingas White, one as Black, one as Asian/Pacific Islander, and three as multi-racial. Participants described coming from or living in a range of classpositions from poor to upper middle class. The study also involved theanalysis of documents from DBT and from an annual conference calledthe International Drag King Extravaganza. In addition, content analysisof 200 hours of video-recorded drag performances from DBT and partici-pant observation at meetings, rehearsals, workshops, and performancesadded to the data.3 279 Downloaded from sex.sagepub.com at UNIVERSITY COLORADO on March 10, 2011
  • 7. Sexualities 13(3) Although neither the 801 Girls nor the Disposable Boy Toys can betaken as representative of all drag queens and drag kings, neither are theyunique. Both perform a style of drag that can be found throughout theUSA and around the world.4 In this article, we use the drag names andthe pronouns of choice of the performers. The drag kings were morelikely to match pronouns to gender of presentation than the drag queens,who in everyday life switch back and forth between masculine andfeminine pronouns.Gender identity and coming to dragThe drag queens and drag kings we studied came to drag in dramaticallydifferent ways, a result of both the different historical context of dragqueening and drag kinging as well as the different social locations of theeconomically marginal gay male drag queens and the university-connecteddrag kings. For the drag queens, gender transgression and same-sex sexualdesire played an important role in how they came to do drag.5 Beginningeven before their early teens, the Key West drag queens began to engagein gender transgression through dressing in feminine or androgynousclothing, experimenting with make-up, and playing with what wouldconventionally be seen as ‘girls’ toys’. Several of the 801 Girls tell storiesabout dressing in their mothers’ clothes when they were boys. Milla, whogrew up working-class in Saint Petersburg, Florida, would wait until hisparents went out and snatch his mother’s clothes out of her closet. ScabolaFeces, whose name makes clear his lack of interest in traditional femaleimpersonation, claimed that he would dress in his mother’s outfits andwalk down the street to a store to buy cigarettes. Gugi Gomez, a PuertoRican from Chicago, also enjoyed wearing his mother’s clothes. Millaconnected his desire to wear women’s clothing to wanting to distancehimself from his abusive father. Gugi just felt more comfortable dressedas a girl, since he wanted to be one. All of the drag queens reported some elements of effeminacy growingup. Milla and R.V. Beaumont, who performs as Bette Midler, both playedwith their sisters’ Barbies, and Scabby liked to pretend to be a girl. R.V.says his preference for girls’ toys meant that his mother ‘knew when I wasa kid what I was going to be’. Drag also began in the use of flamboyantdressing as a masquerade or disguise that allowed the drag queens tocreate a new identity that they could put on and take off. Kylie JeanLucille, who performs as a California valley girl, and Sushi, the JapaneseAmerican house queen, grew up as best friends in Oregon in the 1980s,and both began by imitating Boy George. At first it was just about havingfun, becoming another person, and doing crazy things. Sushi’s motherreported that he would leave for school dressed in normal clothes and280 Downloaded from sex.sagepub.com at UNIVERSITY COLORADO on March 10, 2011
  • 8. Rupp et al. Drag Queens and Drag Kingsthen change into an outfit made up of his father’s pajamas and herkimono, prompting a call from the school principal. By his senior year,Sushi was, in his own words, a ‘flaming queen’, wearing full makeup andplatform shoes. Kylie describes their dressing up as starting out as flam-boyance but ending up as dressing in women’s clothes. While Newton (1972) also finds a history of cross-dressing at early agesamong the drag queens she studied, our interviews suggest that same-sexdesire and identifying as gay were even more important in the adoptionof a drag queen identity. Like the Brazilian travestís researched by Kulick(1998), desire for men when young was what they described as the criticalfactor in becoming drag queens. Inga, a towering blonde from Sweden,said matter-of-factly that she started to do drag because of ‘coming outbeing gay’. Most of the drag queens responded to the question of howthey began to dress in drag by telling us of their first sexual experienceswith boys or men. Scabby responded that he had always been gay, alwaysattracted to men, and told a story about kissing another boy in kinder-garten. Milla ‘always knew what I liked, which was I knew I liked boys’.‘I’ve always known I was gay. I always knew I was attracted to men,’reported Gugi. Of course not all gay men react to their experience of same-sex desireby getting into drag. What emerged in the drag queens’ stories is that, forthem, drag is related to their desire for straight men, or straight-seemingtraditionally masculine men. Sushi connects this to a sense of being trans-gendered. Her desire to become a woman and her decision to pass as awoman for over a year she says is because ‘I wanted to have what menwant, I wanted a pussy’. She thought, ‘“Oh my god, I look like such awoman, maybe I am a woman” and it sort of confused me’. Now shedescribes herself as ‘some place in between’ a woman and a man, ‘I knowI’m a drag queen, I finally realized that’. Yet Kylie thinks Sushi still ‘hasa struggle . . . whether she should be a woman or a man’. Sometimes Sushiidentifies as transgendered. Watching a television show one night abouttransgenderism, Sushi had a very emotional reaction, feeling that she wasreally a closeted transgendered person, not a drag queen. But mostly shejust identifies as a drag queen, even though she says ‘it’s not that I realizedI was a drag queen, I learned how to become a drag queen’. Gugi also connects doing drag to being transgendered. She feels‘feminine’ and says she always wanted to be a woman. But, like Sushi, sheknows that, at least in part, she wanted to be a woman because she isattracted to men. She took hormones for a while and stayed in drag allthe time, going to the straight end of town to pick up men. She admitsshe would love getting breasts. But she herself is not clear how much thisis because she wants to be a woman compared to wanting to be desiredby (straight) men. 281 Downloaded from sex.sagepub.com at UNIVERSITY COLORADO on March 10, 2011
  • 9. Sexualities 13(3) Milla, like Sushi, passed as a woman for over a year. She took hormonesand seriously considered sex-reassignment surgery. But she came to realizethat she was running away from herself, although she also loved the atten-tion of men. She would go out dressed as a woman and ‘just have the menfall over, all over me, and with no clue, no clue’. Others never thought ofthemselves as transgendered, feminine, or women. As a young gayteenager in New York in the 1950s, Margo read about ChristineJorgensen’s famous transformation from a man to a woman, and it scaredhim. ‘I did not want to be a woman, and here it is in the paper that thismay be what I have to do’. Despite the gender-transgressive experiences of many of the 801 Girls,none at the time of the research identified as transgendered. Later, thetroupe came to include Colby Kincaid, a ‘tittie queen’ who had breastimplants but kept her penis, and Baby D, an 18-year-old on hormoneswho was saving for sex-reassignment surgery. There was a lot of discussionabout Colby; Kylie thought that she was not a real drag queen because ofher breasts and did not belong in the show. In a conversation about thebook with the drag queens, Margo commented on how much more theyhad learned about ‘the transgender thing’ since the book came out (Ruppand Taylor, 2005). And even transgender sensibility does not always, forthe drag queens, translate into real understanding of transgenderism as anidentity, as is clear from our description of the drag queens’ confusionabout the gender identity of the drag kings at the panel discussion in SantaBarbara. Since that event Sushi met one of the drag kings, now a transmanwith top but not bottom surgery, and expressed shock at the idea of a manwithout a penis. In contrast to the drag queens, the drag kings tended to experienceidentity transformation as a result of performing as a drag king, althoughmany were butch or masculine women before joining the troupe. But itwas not gender identity that attracted them to drag; rather, they joined insearch of queer community, performance opportunities, and time withfriends who were already involved. Yet doing drag in the Disposable BoyToys fostered gender shifts – both coming to a new gender identity anddefining or understanding a pre-existing gender identity in new ways – formost members. When they joined DBT, almost all participants thoughtof themselves simply as female; only two members identified as trans-gender and one as genderqueer. By the time of the interviews, however,almost half of members identified themselves as ‘genderqueer’, ‘FTM’(female-to-male), or ‘transgender’ instead of only as female. The term‘genderqueer’ claimed an identity outside of the male/female binary,‘FTM’ signified moving from a female to male gender or sex, and ‘trans-gender’ referred to a wide range of gender non-conformity, includinggenderqueer and FTM identities. As the complexity of these identities282 Downloaded from sex.sagepub.com at UNIVERSITY COLORADO on March 10, 2011
  • 10. Rupp et al. Drag Queens and Drag Kingssuggests, the drag kings also moved in a world shaped by exposure toqueer theory and activism. For Mike Hawk, a member who was working as an administrativeassistant at the university and came to identify as transgender during hisparticipation, DBT was a place of discovery around his own gender. I wasn’t out as trans when I joined DBT or when I started getting interested, but there was something about going in drag that was really appealing and something about being in this male character that was comfortable for me. [I was] able to experience this other gender, this male gender that now I under- stand was fitting my identity, but at the time I didn’t really understand that.In addition to members who came to identify with masculine genderidentities, female members understood their normative-appearingfeminine identities in new ways. All members, including those who felt that they had made conscious anddeliberate choices about their gender presentations prior to DBT, never-theless came to think deeply about gender. For some feminine membersthe community and culture of DBT opened up new identities. Venus Envy,an undergraduate student at UC Santa Barbara, began DBT feelingsecurely woman identified, but over time, ‘I came to identify as femme andI came to be very butch femme oriented when I was never that way before.It definitely had to do with the troupe dynamics’. Dylan, who joined as anundergraduate and remained femme identified, described a similar shift inself-understanding, elaborating that ‘when I started doing drag I realizedthere were so many questions I hadn’t even dared to ask myself and somany things that I hadn’t tried or been open to at all’. What thesecomments by Venus Envy and Dylan reflect, and what many othermembers expressed, is that participants’ understanding of how they couldbe gendered broadened beyond the academic understanding they broughtto drag kinging through doing drag with DBT. The more nuanced gender identities that members came to embracewere reflected in a linguistic shift away from the language of male andfemale to a continuum of masculinity and femininity. For example, whendescribing how DBT affected him Rian Hunter, a member who beganDBT female-identified and became transgender-identified over time,reflected that, ‘I am more ambiguous, more whatever, I just am whoI am . . . you don’t have to be in a box about anything’. Instead ofaccepting normative genders, members described specific and complexidentities. For example, femininities might be ‘chosen’, ‘proud’, and ‘trans-gressive’, expressed as ‘radical femininity’, ‘femme’, ‘genderqueer-femme’,‘androgynous female’ and ‘de facto female’. An even more striking expansion happened around masculinities. Asmore members identified as transgender or genderqueer, they claimed 283 Downloaded from sex.sagepub.com at UNIVERSITY COLORADO on March 10, 2011
  • 11. Sexualities 13(3)labels such as ‘butch’, ‘ambiguous masculinity’, ‘masculine female’ and‘female-to-male transsexual’. As part of their broadening of femalemasculinities, some participants drew connections to histories of butch-ness, while others thought that continuing to call themselves ‘women’ wasa political act. Nate Prince, an undergraduate butch Asian Pacific Islander,talked about a solo performance he created to female vocals. ‘I did theIndia Arie song [Video] to say I don’t wear pantyhose, I don’t shave mylegs all of the time, and I don’t look like a supermodel but I’m still awoman. I wore my boxers and [men’s undershirt] and showed here areways to be a woman.’ The political feminist ideology of the group manifested as an effort toresist binary gender classifications. Often, members had to be pushed toname a singular gender identity, and then they generally qualified thesenamings with caveats such as, ‘If I have to choose’, or ‘I guess I am’.Throughout their discussions of identity, DBT members talked aboutgender as constructed and intentionally chosen rather than natural, andmade sense of their own changes as outcomes of participation in DBT.Summer’s Eve, a graduate student and bio queen, noted: ‘We joke inDBT about drag being the gateway drug for gender regardless of whatthat gender is. Some members came into a masculine butch, somemembers came into a female identified butch, and some members cameinto fiercely femme.’ What is striking is that participation in DBT facilitated self-reflexivityabout gender identity at a very high level, which led to significant changesin the identities members claimed. The drag queens did not experiencethe same kind of questioning about gender as a result of their perform-ances; rather, gender transgression played an important part in bringingthem to drag, but they did not develop the same kind of complicatedgender identities and analysis. This is no doubt in part, at least, becauseof the different histories of drag queens and drag kings in the gay andlesbian community. Young men who have feminine tendencies have areadily available model – drag queens – that they can embrace, eventhough the sanctions imposed on men who wear women’s clothing undernormal circumstances are far more severe than those applied to womenwho adopt masculine attire. Drag, through its association with camp,has historically been an assertion of gay existence. Drag kinging is arelatively recent phenomenon, although there is of course a longhistory of masculinity associated with female same-sex desire, includinggender-crossing women and butch/fem communities (Feinberg. 1996;Halberstam, 1998; Kennedy and Davis. 1993; Rupp, 2009). In any case,these different positions – a visceral response to effeminacy and sexualdesire versus a theoretically sophisticated critique of gender – lead tocontrasting modes of performing gender and sexuality.284 Downloaded from sex.sagepub.com at UNIVERSITY COLORADO on March 10, 2011
  • 12. Rupp et al. Drag Queens and Drag KingsPerforming gender and sexualityDBT shows reflected the theoretical sophistication and politicalconsciousness of the collective. Although the troupe did not start with apolitical or feminist focus, many of the members were graduate studentswith knowledge of feminist and queer theory. As Jake Danger, a graduatestudent and one of the founders who identified as genderqueercommented, ‘Looking back on it I can say unconsciously there were allof these notions of politics, I mean I was interested in politics, I waswriting about Judith Butler and Judith Halberstam and theories of genderand performativity.’ Discussion about gender theory among bothacademic and non-academic members helped participants challengenormative beliefs about gender as static and biologically based. Partici-pants used the language of performativity to talk about all gender presen-tations, regardless of whether they occurred on stage or off. For example,in a public statement about the validity of feminine performances madeat the third International Drag King Extravaganza, three DBT membersasserted that bio queens perform various kinds of femininities and female genders – from heterosexual housewives to working dominatrixes – which are not equivalent to our ‘real life’ identities. Our gender performances may resemble or be connected in some way to our gender identities off stage, but they are valid performances nonetheless.This description is, at its core, a declaration of the social construction offemininity by female identified individuals. Discussions within DBT aboutperformativity, coupled with drag performances, gave members newconceptual tools to make sense of gender identity as socially constructedand mutable. Verbal and performed challenges to the gender binary played a centralpart in DBT numbers. Shows usually began with a statement about DBTas a political feminist collective from the group’s emcee, a tall, striking bioqueen, Summer’s Eve. In DBT’s rendition of Sweetest Perfection byDepeche Mode, a drag king and bio queen moved back and forth betweenmasculinity and femininity in an intricate flirtation. At the end, lip-synching, ‘The sweetest perfection/To call my own/The slightest cor-rection/Couldn’t finely hone/ The sweetest infection/Of body andmind/Sweetest injection/Of any kind’, the bio-queen pulled up her skirtto stroke boy’s underwear stuffed with a sock and the drag king wrappedhimself in a feminine scarf. Slow and sexy, this crowd favorite eroticizedgender fluidity and non-normative gender presentations. Another popularDBT number explicitly addressed the issue of coming out as transgender.Created by a member who had just embraced the identity of transgenderhimself, Unwell by Matchbox 20 told the story of a transgender person 285 Downloaded from sex.sagepub.com at UNIVERSITY COLORADO on March 10, 2011
  • 13. Sexualities 13(3)triumphing over familial and social rejection. As the protagonist resistedthese forces he sang, ‘I’m not crazy, I’m just a little unwell/I know rightnow you can’t tell/But stay awhile and maybe then you’ll see/A differ-ent side of me’. By performing such a wide range of gender identities –transgender, genderqueer, butch, femme, as well as hegemonic male andfemale identities – DBT eroticized gender fluidity and non-normativegender presentations in ways consistent with queer theory. The drag queens, in contrast, do not come to their performances froman understanding of queer theory, but in different ways they raise ques-tions about the ‘naturalness’ of gender and sexual identity. They are notfemale impersonators: although they sometimes look like beautifulwomen, they announce from the start that they are gay men, they talk inmen’s voices, they make jokes about their large clitorises and ‘manginas’,and they interact with audience members in an aggressively sexual waythat is more masculine than feminine. Some do not even shave their legsor underarms or tuck their genitals. Inga was often introduced as ‘Ingawith a pinga’, and Milla sometimes appeared with a dildo gripped in hercrotch, calling attention to the real item tucked away. Sushi occasionallypulled down her dress and bra to reveal her male chest, and then she eventook to flashing her penis on stage. In some performances she strippedentirely behind a white sheer curtain but kept her genitals tucked betweenher legs as she backed off stage, presenting what the drag kings would calla ‘gender-queer’ body. For the final number of the weekend shows, R.V.changed out of drag on stage to the Charles Aznevour ballad, ‘WhatMakes a Man a Man?’ transforming himself from woman to man. And aregular feature of the Saturday night ‘Girlie Show’ is Kylie strippingentirely to ‘Queen of the Night’, leaving the audience with the contrastbetween her blond wig, makeup, high heels, and well-hung body.These are the ways the drag queens educate their audiences about theperformativity of gender. The drag queens also work to undermine the divide between hetero-sexual and homosexual by deliberately working to arouse desires outsideaudience members’ claimed sexual identities. A central part of the showinvolved bringing audience members on stage to represent different sexualidentity categories. The drag queens called for a straight man, a gay man,a straight woman, and a lesbian, sometimes a bisexual or transsexual. Whilethis seems to affirm the boundaries of sexual desire, the intent of the dragqueens was quite the opposite. First of all, they allowed a great deal oflatitude in who represented what categories, and audience members playedwith the categories, so that gay men called out that they were lesbians andstraight women played lesbian for a night. And then, once on stage, thegirls arranged the couples in positions simulating sex acts, the two womenas the drag queens say ‘bumping pussy’ and the gay man on his back with286 Downloaded from sex.sagepub.com at UNIVERSITY COLORADO on March 10, 2011
  • 14. Rupp et al. Drag Queens and Drag Kingsthe straight man crouched over his pelvis. By asking presumably straightaudience members to enact queer sex acts, and by encouraging them to‘try it, you might like it’, they contest heteronormativity. The drag queens also move out into the audience, hoping to arousemen they identify as straight by touching and fondling them. One nighta straight couple got in a fight because the man got an erection whenSushi caressed his penis. A straight woman tourist, on the other hand,loved when the girls fondled her husband. ‘It’s like here’s this mantouching my husband, it’s like really cool. And he’s standing there lettinghim.’ She found this the ‘sexiest’ part of the show, ‘there was somethingcrackling the most’. Her husband described his own response: ‘I’m sittingthere and there’s a little bit of me saying, ‘This is sexually exciting’ andthere’s another part of me saying, ‘Wait a minute, don’t do this. You’renot supposed to be sexually excited, this is a man . . . .’ At one show, avery macho young man there with his girlfriend took one look at Sushiand confided in us, ‘I could do her’. The drag queens report that oftenwhen straight men approach them after the show, they are interested intaking the insertee rather than inserter role in sexual encounters. And it is not just straight men who experience sexual desires outsidetheir claimed identities. A lesbian woman described feeling very attractedto Milla: ‘She was so sexy’, and a straight woman agreed, commentingthat ‘I was very drawn to her sexually. I felt like kissing her. And I’m notgay at all’. Another straight woman ‘started falling in love with’ Milla andannounced, ‘I want to make love with her’. Straight women in the barsometimes take to kissing and fondling each other during the shows. From different vantage points, then, the drag kings and drag queensperform in ways that underscore the social construction of gender andsexuality. The drag kings very consciously and deliberately invoke queertheory and the perspectives of the transgender movement, raising ques-tions about what is ‘real’ beneath the costumes. The drag queens play withcategories of gender and sexuality out of their own histories and desires,but they announce that they are gay men with intact male genitalia. Theytransgress in different ways, sending different messages about what queergenders and sexualities look like. But both, in the process, contest binarygender and heteronormativity.Queering gender and sexualityAs the name ‘political feminist collective’ makes clear, the Disposable BoyToys were very explicit about their intersectional politics and performednumbers with the intention of challenging their audiences not only onissues of gender and sexuality but race, class, body size, and war, to namejust a few. Because of the connection of DBT to academic feminism and 287 Downloaded from sex.sagepub.com at UNIVERSITY COLORADO on March 10, 2011
  • 15. Sexualities 13(3)queer theory, the troupe developed a consciously anti-racist perspective,leading them not to perform numbers in which White performers lip-synched to songs by musicians of color. As a result, some members of theSanta Barbara community, as well as DBT members of color, critiquedthe troupe’s repertoire as ‘too White’. Presentations of gender and sexualfluidity were central to their performances. Kentucky Fried Woman, agraduate student who joined as a bio queen and remained femme-presenting, drew on the troupe’s understanding of gender as alwaysperformative to make sense of gender transgression – what she and otherscalled a genderqueer identity – as intentional gender play. She stated: I believe that me and the people I perform with . . . my friends, my community, we’re gender outlaws. We refuse to be placed in a box that says this is what we’re born as, this is what we are. We play with it. And the more we play with it the more I feel like the fucked up foundations that our whole society is built on are going to crumble.Regardless of outward gender presentation, identifying as a gender outlawbecame a political act through resistance to hegemonic gender norms. Although our research did not explicitly explore the impact of drag kingperformances on audiences, the connections between audience membersand performers – especially in local queer venues – were close enough toknow something about audience reaction to the political messages of dragkinging. As Bill Dagger, an African American graduate student whoidentified as a genderqueer butch dyke, explained, DBT ‘gives a way forthe audience to express desire towards people that they might otherwisenot be inclined to express in public’. In contrast to the drag queens, whoengaged in sexual touching and fondling as a way to arouse unaccustomeddesires, the drag kings developed a critique of such practices. At the sametime, they recognized the potential of the kind of tactics embraced by thedrag queens. As Summer’s Eve explained, gay men in the audience weresometimes turned on by butch members on stage. Sometimes it was really inappropriate; they were very grabby and touchy in ways that were just appalling to some of our members. But it was also very interest- ing and fascinating to see these guys who are so about the cult of masculinity. That gets troubled when you get a hard-on for a drag king and you know that the plumbing up there isn’t the plumbing that you desire . . . I would say that DBT has been a force for counteracting misogyny in the queer community.Roman Hands, a graduate student who joined as transgender-identified,put it this way: When DBT performs for an audience . . . there is a certain amount of eroticism of us by the audience [and this] pushes their boundaries . . . When you put two people up on stage and they are both performing a gay male persona, one of them may live their life as a woman and one of them as a gay man. [What288 Downloaded from sex.sagepub.com at UNIVERSITY COLORADO on March 10, 2011
  • 16. Rupp et al. Drag Queens and Drag Kings happens when] someone in the audience is attracted to both of them and that person thought they were straight? It makes people question themselves and any of the strict biases and prejudices they have in their head because they see it in themselves, then. From an entirely different perspective, the drag queens also challengehegemonic masculinity and heteronormativity. Although none of themhave read Judith Butler, they, too, get across to audiences the per-formativity of gender and the fluidity of sexuality, race and ethnicity. Theysee themselves as challenging their audiences and raising consciousness.As Milla put it, ‘We are attractive to everybody. We have taken gender andthrown it out of the way, and we’ve crossed a bridge here. And when weare all up there, there is no gay/straight or anything.’ Race, ethnicity, andclass are also explicit in their performances, but in a complicated way. Onthe one hand, the drag queens deploy the tradition of camp humor, whichcan be read as self-denigrating and incompatible with assertions of gaypride (Newton, 1972). Sushi, for example, asked the audience to call hera ‘nip’, ‘gook’, and ‘chink’ and deliberately played on stereotypes of Asiansexuality, and Destiny identified as ‘white trash’ while performing HarperValley PTA. On the other hand, the drag queens embrace a more fluidconception of race and ethnicity when they engage in what Robertson(1988) calls ‘cross-ethnicking’: Gugi performed as Cuban or Mexican aswell as Puerto Rican, and Milla, whom the other girls called a ‘Blackwoman trapped in a White male body’, favored numbers by Black women.The strategies of both the drag queens and drag kings – with profoundlydifferent theoretical foundations – called attention to racial, ethnic andclass difference, appealing to some audience members but not others. And in fact, as focus group members made clear, their message gotacross. One gay man concluded that the labels of ‘gay’ and ‘straight’, like‘man’ and ‘woman’, just do not fit: ‘You leave them at the door’. Saidanother, the drag queens are ‘challenging the whole idea of gender andso forth and they’re breaking that down’. A straight male tourist put itthis way: ‘I think that one of the beauties of attending a show like this isthat you do realize that you . . . shouldn’t walk out and say, “I only likemen”, and you shouldn’t say “I only like women”, and it all kind of blendstogether a lot more so than maybe what we want to live in our normaldaily lives.’ Despite fundamental differences between the drag queens and dragkings, both troupes make a real impact on people’s thinking about theboundaries of gender and sexuality. They bring people together, blur thelines of gender, and arouse unaccustomed sexual desires. The drag kingsconsciously embody a queer theory perspective, but the drag queens,without the language of social constructionism or gender performativity,trouble gender and sexuality in similar ways. 289 Downloaded from sex.sagepub.com at UNIVERSITY COLORADO on March 10, 2011
  • 17. Sexualities 13(3)ConclusionAs the events at the UC Santa Barbara panel discussion with which weopened this article make clear, drag queens and drag kings do not alwayssee eye-to-eye. The 801 Girls do not quite know what to make of dragkings, and drag kings often view drag queens as misogynist. When DBTwas first emerging, the troupe often performed with local drag queens,sometimes to the dismay of the kings. Earl remembered thinking, ‘Holyshit, are they going to just make fun of women all night?’ Yet despite thevery real differences – the different histories and trajectories of coming todrag, the different theoretical foundations, the different styles of per-formance – the intent of the shows and the potential impact of drag queenand drag king performances have something in common. For young men like Sushi and Milla and Gugi, ‘drag queen’ as apotential identity allowed them a place between man and woman and toassert their gay identity. Male effeminacy is more stigmatized in US societythan female masculinity, so the world of drag queens has long provided ahaven for men with the desire to perform femininity, on stage and off.Although neither female masculinity nor female drag are new, drag kingcommunities are a recent development, so they do not play the same kindof function for masculine women. Rather than attracting individuals whowere in the process of exploring their gender identities, we found thatDBT sparked among its lesbian membership the reconceptualization ofgender identities. Drag kinging is in many places closely connected touniversity communities, bringing theoretical perspectives on gender andsexuality and an intersectional political consciousness to drag perform-ances, but not offering an easy access to a range of individuals as does theolder and more common venue of the drag queen bar. Nevertheless, both the theoretically grounded, feminist and explicitlypolitical numbers of the drag kings and the sometimes raunchy and in-your-face tactics of the drag queens create new gender and sexualpossibilities through their challenge to hegemonic gender and hetero-normativity. Both troupes use entertainment as a means of education, bothcreate solidarity among queer audience members. And both allow us to seethe ways that consciously performed gender has the potential to changeboth the performers and their audiences, perhaps even to dismantle rigidand binary gender and sexual categories and subvert heteronormativity.Thinking about the difference gender makes in intentional performancesof femininity and masculinity and the acting out of complex sexual desirescan also help us to understand the significance of doing gender andsexuality in everyday life for challenging the gender and sexual system.290 Downloaded from sex.sagepub.com at UNIVERSITY COLORADO on March 10, 2011
  • 18. Rupp et al. Drag Queens and Drag KingsNotes1. Newton (1972); (see also Butler, 1990, 1993; Dolan, 1985; Frye, 1983; Gagné and Tewksbury, 1996; Garber, 1992; Halberstam, 1998; Lorber, 1994, 1999; Muñoz, 1999; Rupp and Taylor 2003; Schacht, 1998, 2000, 2002a, 2002b; Tewksbury, 1993, 1994). The literature on drag kings includes Halberstam (1998), Murray (1994), Shapiro (2006), Troka et al. (2002).2. A full description of the study can be found in Rupp and Taylor 2003.3. A full description of the study can be found in Shapiro 2006.4. Although some drag queens are female impersonators who maintain the illusion of femaleness throughout their performances, the literature on drag queens, our own observations of drag in different locations, and focus group research with audience members makes clear that the 801 style of drag is a common alternative to female impersonation. DBT was part of a national and international drag king community, as reflected in the annual International Drag King Extravaganza held in Columbus, Ohio.5. This discussion is based on Taylor and Rupp 2004.ReferencesButler, Judith (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.Butler, Judith (1993) Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. New York: Routledge.Dolan, Jill (1985) ‘Gender Impersonation Onstage: Destroying or Maintaining the Mirror of Gender Roles?’ Women and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 2(2): 5–11.Feinberg, Leslie (1996) Transgender warriors. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.Foster, J. (1999) ‘An Invitation to Dialogue: Clarifying the Position of Feminist Gender Theory in Relation to Sexual Difference Theory’, Gender & Society 13(4): 431–56.Frye, Marilyn (1983) Politics of Reality. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press.Gagné, Patricia and Tewksbury, Richard (1996) ‘No “Man’s” Land: Transgenderism and the Stigma of the Feminine Man’, in Vasilikie P. Demos and Marcia Texler Segal (eds) Advances in Gender Research Vol. 1, pp. 115–55. Greenwich, CN: JAI Press.Gamson, Joshua (1997) ‘Messages of Exclusion: Gender, Movements, and Symbolic Boundaries’, Gender & Society 11(2): 178–99.Garber, Marjorie (1992) Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. New York: Routledge.Gonzalez, Jessica (2004) ‘Kings, Queens Hold Audience at MCC’, Daily Nexus 84(130): 1, 5, 12.Halberstam, Judith (1998) Female Masculinity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Kennedy, Elizabeth Lapovsky and Davis, Madeline (1993) Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community. New York: Routledge. 291 Downloaded from sex.sagepub.com at UNIVERSITY COLORADO on March 10, 2011
  • 19. Sexualities 13(3)Kulick, Don (1998) Travesti: Sex, Gender and Culture among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Lorber, Judith (1994) Paradoxes of Gender. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Lorber, Judith (1999) ‘Crossing Borders and Erasing Boundaries: Paradoxes of Identity Politics’, Sociological Focus 32(4): 355–70.Moloney, Molly and Fenstermaker, Sarah (2002) ‘Performance and Accomplishment: Reconciling Feminist Conceptions of Gender’, in Sarah Fenstermaker and Candace West (eds) Doing Gender, Doing Difference, pp. 189–204. New York: Routledge.Muñoz, José Esteban (1999) Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Murray, Sarah E. (1994) ‘Dragon Ladies, Draggin’ Men: Some Reflections on Gender, Drag and Homosexual Communities’, Public Culture 6(2): 343–63.Newton, Esther (1972) Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Plummer, Ken (1995) Telling Sexual Stories. New York: Routledge.Robertson, Jennifer (1988) Takarazaka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press.Rupp, Leila J. (2009) Sapphistries: A Global History of Love Between Women. New York: New York University Press.Rupp, Leila J. and Taylor, Verta (2003) Drag Queens at the 801 Cabaret. Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press.Rupp, Leila J. and Taylor, Verta (2005) ‘The 801 Girls Talk about Drag Queens at the 801 Cabaret’, Sexualities 8(1): 99–106.Schacht, Steven P. (1998) ‘The Multiple Genders of the Court: Issues of Identity and Performance in a Drag Setting’, in S. Schacht and D. Ewing (eds) Feminism and Men: Reconstructing Gender Relations, pp. 202–24. New York: New York University Press.Schacht, Steven P. (2000) ‘Gay Masculinities in a Drag Community: Female Impersonators and the Social Construction of “Other”’, in Peter Nardi (ed.) Gay Masculinities, pp. 247–68. Newbury Park, CA: SAGE.Schacht, Steven P. (2002a) ‘Four Renditions of Doing Female Drag: Feminine Appearing Conceptual Variations of a Masculine Theme’, in P. Gagné and R. Tewksbury (eds) Gendered Sexualities (Advances in Gender Research, vol. 6), pp. 157–80. New York: JAI Press.Schacht, Steven P. (2002b) ‘Turnabout: Gay Drag Queens and the Masculine Embodiment of the Feminine’, in N. Tuana et al. (eds) Revealing Male Bodies, pp. 155–70. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Shapiro, Eve Illana (2006) ‘Performing Politics: Gender, Sexuality, Political Consciousness and the Transformation of Identity’. Dissertation, University of California, Santa Barbara.Shapiro, Eve Illana (2007) ‘Drag Kinging and the Transformation of Gender Identities’, Gender & Society 21(2): 250–71.Taylor, Verta and Rupp, Leila J. (2004) ‘Chicks with Dicks, Men in Dresses: What It Means to Be a Drag Queen’, Journal of Homosexuality 46(3–4): 113–33.292 Downloaded from sex.sagepub.com at UNIVERSITY COLORADO on March 10, 2011
  • 20. Rupp et al. Drag Queens and Drag KingsTaylor, Verta and Whittier, Nancy (1992) ‘Collective Identity in Social Movement Communities: Lesbian Feminist Mobilization’, in A. Morris and C. Mueller (eds) Frontiers in Social Movement Theory, pp. 104–30. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Tewksbury, Richard (1993) ‘Men Performing as Women: Explorations in the World of Female Impersonators’, Sociological Spectrum 13(4): 465–86.Tewksbury, Richard (1994) ‘Gender Construction and the Female Impersonator: The Process of Transforming “He” to “She”’, Deviant Behavior: An Interdisciplinary Journal 15(1): 27–43.Troka, Donna, LeBescoe, Kathleen and Noble, Jean (Eds) (2002) The Drag King Anthology. New York: Harrington Park.Valentine, David (2003) ‘“I went to Bed with my Own Kind Once”: The Erasure of Desire in the Name of Identity’, Language & Communication 23(2): 123–38.Valocchi, Stephen (2005) ‘Not Yet Queer Enough: The Lessons of Queer Theory for the Sociology of Gender and Sexuality’, Gender & Society 19(6): 750–70.Volcano, Del LaGrace and Judith ‘Jack’ Halberstam (1999) The Drag King Book. London: Serpent’s Tail.Biographical NotesLeila J. Rupp is Professor of Feminist Studies and Associate Dean of SocialSciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is co-author, withVerta Taylor, of Drag Queens at the 801 Cabaret (2003) and Survival in theDoldrums: The American Women’s Rights Movement, 1945 to the 1960s (1987)and author of A Desired Past: A Short History of Same-Sex Sexuality in America(1999), Worlds of Women: The Making of an International Women’s Movement(1997), and Mobilizing Women for War: German and American Propaganda,1939–1945 (1978). Her most recent book is Sapphistries: A Global History ofLove Between Women (2009). Address: Department of Feminist Studies,University of California, Santa Barbara, CA 93106–7110.[email: lrupp@femst.ucsb.edu]Verta Taylor is Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology at theUniversity of California, Santa Barbara. She is co-author with Leila J. Rupp ofDrag Queens at the 801 Cabaret (University of Chicago Press) and Survival inthe Doldrums: The American Women’s Rights Movement, 1945 to the 1960s(Oxford University Press); co-editor of 8 editions of Feminist Frontiers; andauthor of Rock-a-by Baby: Feminism, Self-Help and Postpartum Depression(Routledge). Her articles have appeared in journals including The AmericanSociological Review, Signs, Social Problems, Mobilization, Gender & Society,Qualitative Sociology, Journal of Women’s History and Journal of Homosexuality.Address: Department of Sociology, University of California, Santa Barbara, SantaBarbara, CA 93106–9430. [email: vtaylor@soc.ucsb.edu] 293 Downloaded from sex.sagepub.com at UNIVERSITY COLORADO on March 10, 2011
  • 21. Sexualities 13(3)Eve Shapiro, an Assistant Professor at Westfield State College, received her PhDfrom the Department of Sociology at the University of California, SantaBarbara, with a PhD certificate in Women’s Studies. Her research is guided by atheoretical and empirical interest in how individuals and communities respondto social change. Eve’s study of drag kings has been published in Gender &Society as well as in several edited volumes. Her book Gender Circuits: Bodiesand Identities in a Technological Age (2010) explores the impact of newbiomedical and information technologies on the gendered lives of individuals.Eve Shapiro is also Associate Editor of the Encyclopedia of Gender and Society(2008). Address: Department of Sociology, Westfield State College, Westfield,MA 01086, 413–572–5385. [email: eshapiro@wsc.ma.edu]294 Downloaded from sex.sagepub.com at UNIVERSITY COLORADO on March 10, 2011