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The History of Drag Queens

1. Introduction

Imagine a world where men can freely dress in long skirts and high heeled boots, and women freely dressed in pants and male tailored suits without any ridicule from the public. Once, there was a time when this was the norm, but, over the years, society has put a veil of disgust over the act of cross-dressing. Cross-dressing was initially accepted in theatres as impersonation of the opposite sex, but, with time, it became more of a taboo than an art; earning partakers of the trait the name ‘drag queens’ or ‘drag kings’.

The Oxford dictionary defines ‘drag’ as clothing more conventionally worn by the opposite sex, especially women’s clothes worn by a man. It goes further to define a ‘drag queen’ as a man who ostentatiously dresses up in women’s clothes. Baker attributes the name ‘drag’ to the long nature of the skirts and petticoats men wore when they took up feminine roles during middle 19th Century plays (19). While Senelick recognizes that the term ‘drag queen’ was first used to refer to male actors draped in women’s clothes as early as 1870 (6). Feinberg infers that the term ‘drag queen’ probably came about due to the style of women’s costumes in 18th and 19th Centuries which included extremely full and long skirts that actually dragged across the stage during performances (110).

The first definition of ‘queen’ in the Oxford Dictionary is a female ruler of an independent state, especially one who inherits the position by right of birth. In one of its variety of definitions, The Oxford Dictionary defines a queen as a promiscuous woman or gay man. The term ‘drag queen’ was used back in the 18th Century to refer to transvestites who wore long skirts that dragged on the ground (Baker 21). Herdt states that the term ‘drag’ actually originates from non-English speaking cultures; ‘bardag’, a Persian word, meaning slave, later coined into ‘bardaje’ meaning a passive sodomite, the French borrowed this, and it became ‘bardache’, and later, adopted by the Americans as ‘berdache’ referring to ancient men who were left at home and had to dress like women while their wives went out to fight as warriors (48). There are other terms like ‘gender illusionist’ and ‘female impersonator’ that have been used widely refering to drag queens.

2. Mythological Origins

Kerenyi gives a detailed account of the Greek history, and, in his text, he refers to, probably, the first instance of cross-dressing ever seen. Hercules, who was a great hero in his era, was punished for murder by the high priestess and sentenced to serving Queen Omphale as her servant. Kerenyi gives detailed accounts of Hercules’ time as a slave and recounts how he was not only made to do women’s work like sewing and fetching water, but also forced to wear women’s clothing. In his book, he also talks of Achilles, a war hero in Greek mythology, who was dressed as a female by his mother in a bid to prevent the King from recruiting him to fight in the Trojan War (Kerenyi 192-197).

Grimes gives a redaction of the myths in Scandinavia, prior to its Christianization, and, in Chapter 25, she recounts how Odin, a god in Norse mythology, dressed as a woman in an attempt to seduce Rindr, a human princess. To my amazement, Odin’s trick had worked, and they ended up together (Grimes 215-221).

Narayan talks about the Hindu mythical culture, and, in one of his revelations, he explains how 5 sons of King Pandu, commonly referred to as Pandavas, were forced to disguise themselves as women in order to avoid detection during their exile. The revealing book also relays the story of Bapiya, a bandit and outlaw, who, in an attempt to attack the goddess Bahuchara Mata and her sisters, was rendered impotent by a curse. The only way the curse could be lifted was if Bapiya worshipped Bahuchara Mata by acting and dressing up like a woman (Narayan 53-89).

During the 5th Century BCE, Ctesias recounts how Saranapalus, an Assyrian King, spent a substantial amount of time in his palace clothed in women’s garments and pleasured by countless concubines. Although he tried to keep this part of his life a secret, it was eventually known to all, and some of his noble used this as a justification to revolt against him (Schacht and Underwood 214-216).

Cross-dressing as discussed by some authors makes one think if it was a show of strength or weakness on the part of the dresser. For instance, in 18th Century Egypt, a female ruler, Hatshepsut, took over power after his 2 half brother proved inadequate in controlling the dynasty. In a show of support to her reign, the Temple Community of Amun put up a statue in honour of her leadership and portrayed her as a man with a royal beard (Bollough and Bollough 23-25). One might argue that women who dress as men do so to show that they are strong and masculine; but this leaves a question as to men who dress as women, are they trying to show weakness? Katz allude that yes, men who dressed as women not only showed weakness but were deemed as failures in the society (194).

The timeline of cross-dressing can be retraced to the 13th Century where St.Thomas Aquinas sentiments on unnatural ways of life that people had taken to this and other instances show the presence of cross-dressing and homosexuality in that era (Kimmel and Aronson 552-555). The 14th Century indicates instances of men engaging in homosexual behaviour and in secret dressing as women amongst the Arabs (Weston 160-165). In the 15th Century, Joan of Arc dressed as a man in order to fight in the war (Feinberg 28-34); during the 16th Century era, Leon, Cook and Cook account how Pedro de Cieza wrote about cross dressing Indians on Peru’s Island of Puna (156-170); 17th Century James VI of Scotland became the ‘Queen’ of England and Elizabeth I was commonly referred to as ‘King Elizabeth’ (Baker 54); 1600 male performers in Japanese Kabuki Theatres performed as women, and finally, in the 18th and early 19th Centuries when men dressed as women while performing William Shakespeare’s plays in Elizabethan playhouses (Senelick 82, 131).

3. Early Life Instances of Cross-Dressing

It is clear that the art of cross-dressing was used in earlier times either as punishment for crimes committed or as a guise to avoid detection or for purposes of pleasure. This is also the case for other individuals in later times like Prince Charles Edward Louis who disguised himself as a maid to avoid capture by the Scotland Government (Odom 15-18). Queen Elizabeth wore male military attire when addressing her troops. Late 19th Century vaudeville became a popular form of entertainment, and drag became a regular feature in Elizabethan play houses (Senelick 125).

Some of the famous drag queen actors in early 18th Century include Robert Steidl who performed a Spanish dancer at many venues including the Apollo theatre in Berlin, and later became a cabaret performer; Richard Harlow played Queen Elizabeth in a play in 1983; Julian Eltinge appeared in various plays like Malady, the Musketeer, Miss Simplicity and Mr.Wix of Wickham as a woman in late 19th and early 20th Centuries; Harvey Korman and Lyle Waggoner stole the hearts of many theatre lovers in the late 19th Century (Baker 161). The above examples show the various men who took an active part in cross-dressing for purposes of theatrical amusement and as part of their acting careers.

Authors like Baker (19); Ackroyd (112) and Senelick (10) attribute cross-dressing to theatre and plays. In his book, Hall give detailed depictions of the social well-being/relations of the Elizabethan era with explicit account of various plays and actors who took roles that required them to cross-dress (22). Baker recounts that, in England, young men/boys played the roles of women in plays and were greatly appreciated in the Elizabethan playhouse of the early 1600s (114). He goes ahead to allude that this might have been the inception of female impersonation, now referred to as drag queens, on a professional capacity.

Johnova gives a critical review of English Renaissance dating as far back as 16th and 17th century documentations. She shares a deep sense of women’s plight and negligence in the earlier times and says that

“From the social point of view, cross-dressing in the Renaissance had an important aspect: as women were considered inferior to men and had fewer rights, cross-dressing presented an important change of status...” (Johnova)

Cross-dressing was famous in Shakespeare’s comedies like “The Two Gentlemen of Verona”, “The Merchant of Venice”, “As You Like It” and “Twelfth Night”. Most of the female roles were played by young boys who dressed as women, and were popular in the Elizabethan theatre. The art of cross-dressing during plays was common-place in the 19th Century and was evidenced in English theatres, American theatres, German theatres and even South African theatres (Ackroyd 112).

4. Cross-Dressing during the War

Over the period that followed and with the emergence of the First World War, theatre was treated as a therapeutic engagement. After a long day in battle, soldiers would spend their evenings being entertained by their colleagues who re-enacted famous plays from back home. During the First and Second World Wars, women were not allowed to join the army, and men had to play female roles for purposes of acrimony. He also explains that entertainment units were put in place to increase the morale of the troops (Berube Chapter 1). Over the course of the war, representation of femininity changed drastically allowing women to be viewed as strong and able (Katz 196).

Of course, not everyone in the army was happy about their fellow colleagues dressing up as women and enjoying it. It is because of this distaste that during the Second World War male cross-dressers were increasingly associated with homosexuality and eventually disbanded from the war (Berube Chapter 2, Katz 195).

Schacht and Underwood explain that there was little known about the sexual orientation of male cross-dressers in the 1800s(3-4) while Feinberg attributes that the sexual allusion that cross-dressing portrays can be traced back to the Molly Houses taverns that offered meeting venues for homosexuals and cross-dressers, as early as the 1700s in London (86-89). Gelder deduces that sexual orientation with reference to cross-dressing dates back directly to drag balls held in Europe and the United States in late 19th Century (56-60).

5. Post-War Incidences of Cross-Dressing

In a bizarre, unexpected for oriental countries twist, a man by the name Shi Pei Pu was a Beijing Opera singer who dressed as a woman. He was forced to live as a man by his father in order to fulfill the latter’s desire of having a son. In his line of work, he met a French accountant attached at the Chinese Embassy who previously lived his life as a homosexual, but greatly desired to meet and fall in love with a woman. During their meeting, both dressed as men, the French man discovered that Shi Pei Pu performed as a female opera singer when he was teaching Chinese to the Embassy employees. The two fell in love, and a relationship blossomed, and they even had a child who they claimed was born by Shi Pei Pu. On later discovery of their relationship by the Chinese Government, Shi Pei Pu’s lover was deported back to France, and both were later imprisoned for espionage (The Telegraph).

With pressure increasing from post World War II stigma, homosexuals and transgender felt a need to continue their culture even if they were no longer welcome to fight for their country. The transgender community resulted to hosting drag balls in which individuals would attend dressed as drag queens and kings, socialize and carry out a fashion show to select the best dressed drag queen. The first masquerade ball was staged in Harlem’s Hamilton Lodge in 1869, and years later, similar balls were held at Walhalla Hall, the Webster Hall hosted Madison Square Garden and Astor Hotel. Drag balls were initially held annually, and they featured a procession by the drag queens, which came to be known as ‘parade of the fairies’. The balls were attended by more than 6,000 people and their popularity continued to grow. It is documented that men adorned birds of paradise and peacocks’ plumage as head dress during the parades (Adams 25-31).

In 1923 ‘homosexual solicitation’, as the government referred to the activities of drag balls, was criminalized, and hosting of drag balls was banned. This was a road block for the transsexual society, and it caused a big rift between them and the Government. However, in retaliation and through scheming, the drag balls were still held in secret with organizers using neighbourhood organizations to get permits from the police (Adams 50-60).

Lottie and Crystal LaBeija co-sponsored and promoted the formation of House of LaBeija, the first homosexual movement to come to existence, and secretly hosted drag balls and masquerade parties. The House of LaBeija allowed homosexuals, transvestites and drag queens to enjoy good music, socialize and compete just as they did previously; it was in some way a hidden haven for the transgender society (Adams 27). With time, other drag queens formed their own houses some even had drag fathers and mothers and lived like a normal family. The formation of more drag houses paralleled the increasing confidence of the gay liberation movement (Adams 52). During the famous Stonewall Riots of 1969, their symbolic breakthrough was realized when over 100 drag queens, dressed in drag, occupied the frontline taunting and insulting police as a show of their steadfastness (Carter 210).

Drag queens are a predominant culture of the Western World (Adams 72). During the 1950s and 1960s, the United States government tried to put an end to the social stigma related to cross-dressers. Letters were screened to flag mails with homosexual; content, addresses and locations of known homosexuals were recorded, bars and restaurants catering to homosexuals were closed down, and the wearing of the opposite sex clothing was outlawed (Adams 65). Psychiatrists and medical professionals actually referred to cross-dressing and homosexuality as a mental problem.

In 1959 gays and lesbians staged a small riot in Los Angeles while dressed as drag queens in arms against police harassment. This was one of the first instances where drag was directly represented as a homosexual portrayal, and its connection to previous conceptions like theatre, disguise or punishment lost their hold.

The trend was similar in years following the Los Angeles riot with other cities following in tow; Stonewall Riots is perhaps the most commemorated riot in the gay and lesbian community. It was during this riot that hundreds of people put up a fight against the police who had continuously harassed them and denied them their right to freedom. One man, Jose Julio Sarria, gave hope to the gay and lesbian community through his singing and did the unexpectable; he became the first openly gay individual to run for public office in 1961. Although he lost the vote, he garnered 5,500 votes and emerged 9th out of 32 candidates (Gorman 201-209).

6. Conclusion

Some of the notable drag queen of the 19th and 20th centuries who played a crucial role in their liberation are; Sylvia Rivera – a founding member of Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activist Alliance, Shannon Price Minter – legal director for National Centre for Lesbian Rights, Mara Keisling – founding Executive Director for Transgender Equality and Jose Julio Sarria – first openly gay candidate for public office (Stonewall trans heroes). These are just a few celebrated individuals who fought for what they believed in and who they are. Every year, several regions participate in a gay parade or pride parade to celebrate their liberalised culture, fight for other rights like same-sex-marriages and celebrate their heroes/heroines in the fight for recognition.

Little is known about the sexual orientation of female impersonators in the 1800s. Self-identified heterosexual male actors were most likely to play women’s roles in the movies and, eventually, on television. In contrast, today cross-dressers live openly as gays and express no desire to undertake transsexual operations and predominantly perform in clubs and gay bars often as a way to earn a living and/or garner situational power (Schacht and Underwood 3-4).

The history of drag queens indicates that it progressed from a mythical aspect; Hercules, Achilles, Bapiya, Hatshepsut; for purposes of disguise; Pandavas, Prince Charles; for theoretical purposes; Harvey Korman, Robert Steidl; for purposes of entertainment during the 1st and 2nd World Wars then it became a means for carrying out fashion shows; House of LaBeija and as a trademark for actors, musicians and stage performers Shi Pei Pu, RuPaul and finally, most recently homosexuals use it as a way of standing out from the rest as evidenced in their gay/pride parades.

Being a drag queen is a status that has gradually moved from glory to shame. Many famous individuals attribute their fame from the art of cross-dressing and others to the fight against it. Is cross-dressing a crime? Well, some may argue yes due to the fact that it imbues certain sexual deductions and some may argue no since it allows one the freedom of being themselves. In my view, the perception towards an individual should not be influenced by the type of clothing one has on; be it a dress, a trouser, a wig, over-exaggerated make-up or plaited hair but by ones deeds and virtues. Cross-dressing has made remarkable changes in our life time and has enabled the adoption of new laws, amendment of old ones and creation of identities.

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