Here’s a collection of historical “drag queens” dating back to the 1800s and then onwards. The reason I’m using “drag queen” in double quotes is because I’m not entirely sure if these people were transgender, cross-dressers, dressing up as women for theatrical purposes or just for the of fun it. The information is very limited for each image. Either way, they’re all gorgeous and seem quite comfortable with themselves in front of a lens during a time when society looked down on such self-expression.
Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton AKA “Fanny and Stella.”
Singapore’s Bugis Street was renowned as a meeting place for trans women to mix, mingle and have fun during the 1950s-1980s. Each evening, a fabulous parade of glamorous trans women would walk up-and-down the rundown streets at Bugis Junction, flirting with tourists, sailors and G.I.s, often charging them to have their photograph taken, inviting them to a bar for a drink, or taking them to a quiet room (or rooftop) for sex.
Bugis Street was a popular area for touring British servicemen in the 1950s, who became fans/lovers of many of the trans women, and rechristened the area “Boogie Street”—a mispronunciation of the district’s name that stuck in 1970s with the rise of disco.
For thirty years, Bugis Street thrived as a haven for trans women and their admirers, until the government cracked down on what was described as “shameful” and “lewd behavior” in the 1970s. Many servicemen were arrested at gunpoint, tourists were threatened and frightened away, the bars were closed and many trans women were arrested. Eventually the hard-line puritans won and old Bugis Street was demolished in the mid-1980s and replaced by a shopping mall and entertainment outlet.
In December 1980, French photographer Alain Soldeville was on a two-year trip to Asia and Australia when he arrived in Singapore. After a few days sight-seeing, he headed out one evening to Bugis Street.
Within an hour, strange androgynous creatures arrived by taxi. Dressed in sexy, tight-fitting dresses or satiny pants, wearing heavy stage makeup and high heels, they took over the territory. The street seemed to belong to them and their dramatic entrance was followed by scrutinizing eyes. It appeared that most visitors were there to watch the show that had just begun.
I stroked up a conversation with Anita who was of Malaysian background. She was 23 years old, with a clearly outlined masculine face, tall, thin and muscular. She wanted to know where I came from, how long I was going to stay in Singapore. During the following weeks, I became close to Anita and she introduced me to her friends: Amina, Danita, Delphine, Rosa and Susanna. They liked having me photograph them and would strike natural poses.
After five or six weeks in Singapore, short of money, I had to leave for Australia. I would return in 1984 only to learn that Bugis Street was about to be torn down to make way for the subway.
Bugis Street still has its glamorous legend, and a moderately successful film was made about the transgender women of the area in 1996. Soldeville forgot about the photographs he took in 1981 of Anita and her friends for over twenty-five years, until he rediscovered them in storage. Since then, they have been exhibited in France and Thailand.
It’s hard to believe, now that RuPaul is a beloved American icon who can be identified even by nursing home residents in Middle America, that cross-dressing used to be illegal. Despite being a long-standing tradition in Western civilization, especially in theater, the simple act of walking down a public street dressed in clothing associated with the gender you were not assigned at birth could get you arrested.
Non-heteronormative women, whether butches, drag kings, or transgender men, were easy targets for harassment and violence in pre-Stonewall America. Outside of the mainstream, their subculture survived in protected enclaves for most of the 20th century: gay- and lesbian-owned taverns, cabarets, and speakeasies, private clubs, salons, the annual Greenwich Village Drag Ball. At some universities and women’s colleges occasional cross-dressing parties were surprisingly socially acceptable.
But drag kings have been relatively obscure compared to drag queens, even on LOGO. It’s fairly easy to name four or five famous drag queens, but somewhat harder to name the same number of drag kings from today or a century ago.
Male bodied gender transgression has always been more visible, either because of guarding masculinity or simply because they are a lot taller. As a result so many female bodied performers have busted their asses with character, choreography, and costume and still never gotten to top the bill when queens are around. Now don’t get me wrong, I have some very dear friends who are queens, drag or otherwise. Some of my favorite performers are drag queens. That said, the constant removal of non-male bodied drag and gender performers from the drag movement, or even the queer movement, is fucking bullshit. Drag queens have long been a trademark representative of visual queerness, not because they are better in any way, but mainly because of the cultural dissonance caused by any male person “giving up” their masculinity for the less than desirable feminine presentation. I’m not saying drag queens haven’t been around the block, fighting the good fight. I’m just saying they weren’t the only ones there. Another element that I feel may contribute to the muffling of drag kings is the stereotyping of female-bodied queerness. it isn’t just straight porn projecting “straight looking” women fucking each other anymore. Shows like the L Word promote a gender-normative, hyper-sexualized female queerness that leaves no room for anything or anyone else. Who decided that genderfucked female bodies weren’t sexy? Homonormative, HRC pumping queer gentrification rears its ugly head again.
I asked JAC if it was likely that there will be a drag king equivalent of RuPaul any time soon. JAC replied:
At the moment, I don’t think it is likely. Heteronormative culture is fascinated with drag queens for one major reason—sexism and the obsession with masculinity. Masculinity and maleness are prized above all else in terms of power and privilege, so someone giving up masculinity is seen as comical, mysterious, confusing, and even fascinatingly disturbing. People feel the same way about kings, but less so as aspiring to masculinity is seen as reasonable and expected, since masculinity holds more power. Ironically, to those of us in the drag community, we think of it so differently; it is empowering and fun, challenging and political. Also, there is the irritating argument that queens take more work to get dressed, and are prettier’ and ‘sparklier’ than kings, and therefore deserve more attention. Anyone who says that obviously has never seen kings prepare for a show, or burst out on stage covered in sequins and bust out a complexly choreographed dance routine. And, we can’t forget that some of us are not kings or queens, but are in the middle of the genderbending spectrum, or there are also femmes and boy dancers (women who perform femininity, and men who perform masculinity). Being a genderbending performance artist myself, I am just as glittery and shiny as any queen, but why don’t I get the same attention? I don’t have penis and therefore it is supposed I can’t really be bucking the system that much. When I am outside my home community, say at a school or with an unfamiliar audience, I have actually noticed a difference in how the audience responds based on if they misread me as a queen, versus the next number when I am seen as a king or genderbender. So, if a drag audience is more preoccupied with queens, then I would assume the same for a TV audience. All in all, drag performers, no matter what kind, can be unfairly exotified or revered by outsiders no matter who or what we are. The levels are dependent on their own cultural views. But the real drag world is simply not what RuPaul’s show paints it to be and I don’t know if the media will ever care enough to show the world what we are really made of.
Here is a compendium of images of masculine drag from the past century. Whether these photos are from a one-off party, images of female cabaret or music hall entertainers in drag king costume, or a trans man’s daily wear is not always possible to pinpoint. But whatever their personal situation, they were living their lives exactly how they wanted and proud to be photographed doing so.
Above, Evelyn “Jackie” Bross, left, was 19 years-old and walking home from her job as a machinist at a defense plant when she was arrested for public indecency and cross-dressing in Chicago in 1943.
Music hall performer and drag king Ella Shields, 1933:
Murray 101: The life and times of Mr. Showbiz, 2009:
I ended my first Notes from the Niallist column by mentioning the collective I am a co-founder of, and performer with, called Tranarchy.
Frankly, it’s Tranarchy that has been taking up most of time, and distracting me from mining the cultural coal face for Dangerous Minds. But that’s the trade-off I guess, as Tranarchy is helping to create the diamonds people discover under all that dust.
As the name would suggest, Tranarchy is a drag-and-trans-heavy collective interested in subverting, and commenting on, normative gender roles. I know that all sounds very serious, but Tranarchy is dedicated to putting the fun first, and letting people discover the message for themselves, without having it rammed down their throats. There’s just too much hectoring in this world already, and not enough people willing to lead by example, i.e. living the life they want to live regardless of what society says. Sniff all you like at the supposed frivolity of drag queens and the “feminine” aesthetic, as historically has been the case with male-dominated, straight society, but always remember how much guts it takes to flaunt your otherness in public.
Besides the political aspect, however, there’s something almost magical going on with Tranarchy. And I mean “magical” in terms of seeing dreams and desires become a reality. We started the collective just over a year ago, and as we have grown at a surprising rate, we have managed to put on events and happenings that, just 18 months ago, we (literally) could only have dreamed of.
So far, we have hosted Manchester’s first ever vogue ball, called Vogue Brawl (now into its second year.) We’ve held a number of interactive film screenings in the style of the legendary Peaches Christ’s Midnight Mass in San Francisco (Showgirls, Zoolander, Mad Max: The Road Warrior with Empire Drive-In and Abandon Normal Devices.) We have created promo videos and photos shoots for our events that show off much of Manchester’s untapped talent, and these are beginning to get attention in the States and further beyond. Our most popular film so far is the promo for Vogue Brawl 2: Pride Is Burning, which can be basically summed up as “The Warriors in drag.”
The collective is very aware of gay and trans history and we want to celebrate that. We’ve held a few outlaw parties inspired by the original New York club kids James St James and Michael Alig, and documented them in the style of the sadly-missed pioneering NYC videographer Nelson Sullivan.
This is where it gets interesting, though. Our first outlaw party was a reclaiming of the Manchester tram system, which, as anyone who has ever used public transport will know, can get pretty hairy if you stand out in any way. Our last outlaw party was even bigger, in terms of execution and impact. It was an invasion of, and statement about, Manchester’s annual “Pride” festival of gay culture and awareness.
Every year, Manchester Pride is held in the city’s Gay Village and attracts up to 40,000 people, making it one of the flagship gay Pride festivals in the UK. However, the amount of money raised for charity as opposed to the amount of money raised for personal profit has been a major, running issue for a while, as has the fact that a festival celebrating gay visibility, and interaction with the wider, local community, is held in a walled-off compound that charges people to enter.
However, the one thing the Manchester Pride organizers don’t have control over is the large canal that runs right through the Gay Village, and along side Canal St, where much of the festivities take place. So, as a bit of a lark, Tranarchy took a barge down to the Village this year, and crashed the Pride party to perform a few numbers and make a basic point.
We have issued an official Tranarchy statement detailing some of the problems with Manchester Pride to accompany the YouTube video, and here is an extract from that:
Freeing Pride is not an attack on Pride as a party, and it is not just about the fences and the ticket prices. Its about setting Pride free from the businesses and individuals who seek profit before the well-being of our community. It’s about asking what the event is really about, who benefits from it who should pay for it, and remembering why we do it in the first place! Its about asking whats more important; extra cash for an organization reaching out to the most vulnerable among us, or getting to see Steps [90s pop band] one last time before they slip into room 101?
In short, we were all incredibly nervous about pulling this stunt, but it turned out better than we could have hoped. Check out the old voguing queen we encountered at the end of the video, in the Piccadilly basin, which is a well-known cruising ground:
Our YouTube video channel is here, and for regular news updates, subscribe to Tranarchy on Facebook.
K-11 is a new film directed by Jules (mother of Kristen) Stewart, about a prison complex in LA for homosexuals and transgender inmates. It looks brutal, exploitative, and I can’t wait to see it.
The trailer is pretty self-explanatory: a record producer ends up in jail, charged with killing a cop, after he blacks out. The prison is the titular K-11, and there he must navigate a murky world of mixed genders and shifting loyalties in order to survive. (Hmm, maybe I should go into b-movie copy writing?)
Yeah, it sounds corny, but it looks pretty well shot and the cast is decent (though some actual trans actors wouldn’t have gone amiss, and I would love to have seen Kristen Stewart in this, as was originally cast - perhaps she was slated to play Mousey, the prison’s tough bitch queen?) But you know what really surprises me about this? For a subject that looms so large in the American subconscious, it’s surprising that there haven’t been more films about homosexuality in jail.
Even HBO’s mighty Oz was disappointing in that respect (if pretty much perfect in any other.) Sure, two of the main male characters fell in love (or did they?) but the show failed to explore the prison’s gay subculture, in the way it did the Nazis, Nation of Islam, Latinos, etc. Gay characters were only shown flitting away campy in the background, or as facilitators for other characters’ story lines.
K-11 is hardly going to be perfect, but for films about gay life behind bars, it’s a start:
Pardon my ignorance, but are US prisons really segregated by sexual orientation and transgender identity?