I’m hardly the first one to pose this question, and I won’t be the last. The truth is, gay men have been getting away with misogyny since the start of the gay liberation movement. As Nico Lang wrote in 2017, “Gay men, first and foremost, are men.”
Women have long looked for allyship from gay men. In some ways, we find it. Being gay is, inherently, gender non-conforming and disrupts the patriarchal narrative of male/female, dominance/submission (despite the fact that this pattern may be replicated in same-sex partnerships). Many of us have gay male friends who have served as great allies to us on a personal level — myself included.
To criticize aspects of gay male culture is not to attack gay men as a whole. Many gay men are interested in being better allies to women and willing to engage in this discussion and learn from it. In fact, it was through conversations (and debate) with my good friend, Lucas, that I came to fully shape my opinion on drag.
The History of Drag
Men portraying women in entertainment goes back as far as ancient Greece, and Japanese Kabuki theater. Originally, this had nothing to do with subverting gender roles but rather enforcing them — women weren’t allowed on stage.
In more modern history, drag has been an integral part of the gay male community since the mid-twentieth century. Sheila Jeffreys, lesbian feminist historian, wrote in her 1990 book, Anticlimax:
“Drag is a phenomenon deeply rooted in gay male consciousness, so deeply rooted indeed that one might be persuaded to see it as the foundation of gay male culture.”
Within this culture, she explains, drag arose from a desire to be “gender-free.” Some men adopted a behavior they called “radical drag,” which involved wearing dresses, heels, and makeup and participating in gay community meetings by “knitting and chatting through some person's big ego-trip speech.” (Anticlimax, pg. 169) They claimed this was their way of resisting the macho-masculine behavior of other gay men and struggling against male privilege in the community.
This behavior was, of course, highly offensive to the lesbians in the room — women who largely were working to shirk the expectations of oppressive femininity themselves. Women’s interests in the gay community, as with all of society, were largely ignored.
Recently, drag has broken through mainstream consciousness in an unprecedented way. Ru Paul’s Drag Race has become a cultural icon. Children are starting to do drag, like the 12-year-old Desmond Napoles who has been catapulted into recent fame and sparked controversy over the sexualization of children. Drag Queen story hours at local libraries are finding similar controversy across the country, facing backlash from conservatives and feminists alike.
Drag and Role-Playing Womanhood
In all other areas, it’s generally accepted by progressives that members of a dominant/oppressor class should not dress up as and mock the members of a more marginalized class — especially when that costume involves harmful stereotypes.
Consider, for example, the recent backlash Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, faced when it was revealed he had dressed in black and brown-face makeup. Critics, rightfully, pointed out that black-face is rooted in a deep history of violence and oppression, including slavery, against black and brown people.
The Indian Express wrote in regards to Trudeau:
“Despite its continuing existence in popular culture, blackface is a mocking, deeply offensive, racist portrayal of black people, whose dehumanising tropes strongly suggest the inherent superiority of white people, and reduce blackness itself to a joke.”
Similarly, Warren Kinsella of the Toronto Sun wrote, “blackface is literally about white people caricaturing black people.”
Blackface isn’t offensive simply because a person of one race is dressing up as another. The power dynamics and history of white supremacy are what make the act particularly harmful. The costume dehumanizes, mocks, and stereotypes a marginalized group at the hands of their oppressors — sound familiar?
When men dress up “like women” in overly feminine costumes, change their bodies to look more like women’s (fake breasts, etc), and act in stereotypically female ways (“bitchy, catty, dumb, and slutty”) they are perpetuating patriarchial and offensive expectations of women.
In 2015, the conversation around blackface and drag rose to public awareness when Mary Cheney, lesbian daughter of Dick Cheney, compared the two.
The backlash she faced was immediate. It was “foolish,” people said, to compare blackface and drag. The difference, one gay man explained to her, is that “A blackface performer had no respect for the people he was caricaturing… Drag queens do not hate women. Drag queens view women as sisters and friends, as inspiration.”
Another drag queen interviewed W. Fitzhugh Brundage, male author of Beyond Blackface, to come to his defense:
“Minstrelsy was being performed by whites in positions of cultural and local power, whereas drag is performed by a marginalized group who are subject to fear and repression,” Brundage said. “To be a drag queen is not an act of privilege.”
Suspiciously missing from the public conversation were the voices of any actual women — just men talking to other men about how totally not sexist they are.
These criticisms missed two main points: drag queens do display disdain for the women they mock (more on this later), and drag queens are men playing women — an inherently privileged position.
To deny that men hold privilege over women in a debate that is deeply related to gender is to deny the existence of patriarchy entirely.
Black lesbians, of course, have had their voices consistently ignored in this debate (where is their HuffPo feature column?).
While the black radical feminist community seems torn on whether or not blackface and drag are comparable given their different histories, one thing is clear: black feminists overwhelmingly find drag offensive to women.
I am a black woman from the DC area where drag shows are common forms of entertainment and while I do NOT feel as degraded by drag shows as I am by blackface, I do see drag as an absurd interpretation on femininity, just like blackface is an absurd (yet markedly violent and offensive) interpretation on blackness.
This feeling is repeated throughout the thread by hundreds of black women.
Of course, drag and blackface can more directly intersect. Black lesbian Jasmyne A. Cannick wrote in 2008 about Charles Knipp, better known as the “Mammy Welfare Queen”, Shirley Q. Liquor.
Played by gay white man, Shirley is said to be, “a heavy-set, shoplifting, promiscuous, inarticulate, malt liquor drinking single parent Black woman that doesn’t know who the fathers of her 19 children are. If that wasn’t enough, many of the children are named after sexually transmitted infections, like Chlamydia.”
When discussing Knipp, critics seem to be able to easily point out how his caricature is both racist and sexist.
Femininity is not an inherent aspect of womanhood. Femininity is a socially-constructed set of behaviors, attitudes, and aesthetics which women are expected under patriarchy to adhere to in order to keep us in the subservient position. Femininity, to any significant degree, is not a choice that many women have. It is a sign of our oppression.
Dressing in traditionally feminine outfits (dresses, heels, makeup, etc) is a choice that only men can actually freely make. Men do not face oppression for refusing to adhere to femininity, women do. Women are still persecuted at work and home for not presenting feminine enough. One survey found that more than half of employers would be less likely to hire a woman who didn’t wear makeup, and admitted it would also have a detrimental effect on her promotion prospects.
Donning the shackles of another’s oppression for fun is the very height of privilege.
Similarly, women are oppressed for our female bodies — bodies that drag performers simultaneously attempt to emulate and mock.
Drag Culture, Itself, is Full of Misogyny
In his article defending drag for Slate, drag performer Miz Cracker admits that drag culture is often misogynistic:
“But the critics are right to sense a thinly veiled disdain for women among some of my fellow queens. At certain shows, women in the audience are given a particularly bad time. Backstage I have heard complaints that there’s too much “tuna” in the crowd.”
Cabaret performer, Miz Ima Starr, reports the same experience:
“When I started doing drag 25 years ago, there wasn’t anyone I knew doing drag that wasn’t misogynistic, and it’s something we continue to see today.”
In a 2014 article for The Spectator, feminist journalist Julie Bindel writes about iconic drag queen Divine:
“Divine was born into a conservative, middle-class family and played on nasty stereotypes of trailer trash women to get a laugh. In his films Divine called his female co-stars ‘sluts’.”
Likely, misogyny in the drag community is just an exaggeration of misogyny in the wider gay community. Despite the fact that gay men suffer under patriarchy (through their alignment with the “woman’s position,” a violation of gender norms), where men go misogyny will follow. In some ways, since gay men do not need women for sex the same way straight men do, the sexism is more pointed — often related to our bodies (which straight men need to at least pretend to like).
The perpetuation of the “fish” narrative in gay male communities is the most prominent example of this. While gay men certainly have the right to not like vaginas (it should be noted, lesbians are rarely granted the same courtesy), the sheer disgust associated with female bodies in gay communities is often astonishing.
Despite claiming to be disgusted by our bodies, many in the gay male and drag cultures display a massive amount of entitlement to them. Sexual assault in the gay community is rampant and constantly brushed under the rug because “gay men can’t assault a woman!” As someone who was personally sexually assaulted by a drag queen in college— I promise you, they can.
Drag isn’t inherently misogynistic
Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I don’t actually believe all drag is inherently misogynistic. It is still possible for drag to deliver on its initial promise of a “gender-free” space by bending what is culturally expected of both men and women. Men should be allowed to be feminine, bold, and divas if they so desire. So should women.
So what separates misogynistic drag from good gender-bending fun?
1. A true appreciation for the female artists
My friend, Lucas, recently exposed me to Alexia Twister, a Brazillian drag performer who makes nearly-perfect replications of Lady Gaga performances.
Twister’s work stands out to me because it demonstrates a deep appreciation and respect for the woman he is emulating. There is no question in my mind that Twister respects Lady Gaga — he’s not playing her for laughs. He’s using his own body to share her work with the world, unlike the Liza Milleni drag impersonators that turn up every year at Pride.
2. Comedy that isn’t at the expense of women
Although now there are many genres of drag ranging from serious to horror, drag, historically, has been a comedy act. Despite being a feminist kill-joy, I still appreciate a good joke. But when comedy performed by men comes at the expense of women, it crosses the line. If men in drag are supposed to be acting in solidarity with women to take down the patriarchy, how about making men the butt of the joke?
3. Female bodies aren’t used as props
By wearing fake breasts or otherwise artificially sculpting their bodies to look more “feminine,” drag performers perpetuate the idea that female body parts are commodities and that womanhood is a costume that can be taken on or off — real women, though, don’t have that privilege. Drag performers can gender-bend in dresses, wigs, heels, and makeup all without pretending to actually have a female body.
4. Actual women are welcome
Are actual women welcome at the drag venue, or will they be insulted and called names? What about as performers? More and more women are discovering that dressing up like a man and gyrating on stage can be fun — but these women (“drag kings”) are still excluded from the more elite levels of drag performance. Some women even have an interest in participating as drag queens. Yet, Ru Paul states that “Drag loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once it’s not men doing it.” If drag is truly about creating a gender-free world, women should be not only welcome but leading it.
Despite the fact that feminists have been making these same arguments for decades, it’s hard to find drag that’s not perpetuating the gender roles it claims to contradict. The shameful reality is that men have little motivation to listen to women they aren’t trying to fuck. Our complaints largely go ignored.
If we want to see more good drag that truly allies with women, gay men need to hold their communities accountable for the sexism they perpetuate. Drag is just the start.
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