A drag queen is a person, usually male, who dresses in clothing of the opposite sex and often acts with exaggerated femininity and in feminine gender roles which is for the purpose of entertainment or fashion. Often, they will exaggerate certain characteristics such as make-up and eyelashes for comic, dramatic, or satirical effect. While drag is very much associated with gay men and gay culture, there are drag artists of all sexualities. There are many kinds of drag artists and they vary greatly in dedication, from professionals who have starred in films to people who just try it once, or those who simply prefer clothing and makeup that is usually worn by the opposite sex in their culture. Drag queens can vary widely by class and culture. Other drag performers include drag kings, women who perform in male roles and attire, faux queens, who are women who dress in an exaggerated style to emulate drag queens, and faux kings, who are men who dress to impersonate drag kings.

There are many reasons people do drag including self-expression, comfort, transvestic fetishism, and spiritual reasons, as well as the higher-profile performing and entertaining. Drag can be a creative outlet, a means of self-exploration, and a way to make cultural statements. While the general public may be most familiar with the "high drag" of professional performance artists, drag is also part of regular life and street culture for many gender-nonconforming or gender-variant people, who may or may not consider what they do, "drag."

Drag queen activities among stage and street performers may include lip-syncing performances, live singing, dancing, participating in events such as gay pride parades, drag pageants, or at venues such as cabarets and discotheques. Some drag artists also engage in mix-and-mingle or hosting work in night clubs, such as drag bingo, and at private parties and events.



The etymology of the term "drag queen" is disputed. The term drag queen occurred in Polari, a subset of English slang that was popular in some gay communities in the early part of the 20th century. The first recorded use of "drag" to refer to actors dressed in women's clothing is from 1870. [43]

A folk etymology is that drag is an acronym of "Dressed Resembling A Girl" in description of male theatrical transvestism. The film Connie and Carla also made a reference to this, though the acronym was slightly altered to men "Dressed as Girls."

Queen may refer to the trait of affected royalty found in the personalities of many who do drag (whether this is their normal personality or a character created for the stage). It is also related to the Old English word quean or cwene , which originally simply meant "woman", then was later used as a label both for promiscuous women and gay men. The Old English word appears derived from Middle Dutch quene ("old woman"), ultimately from Proto-Germanic * kwenǭ ("woman"), from Proto-Indo-European * gʷḗn ("woman").

Female impersonator

Another term for a drag queen is female impersonator. [3] Although this is still used, it is sometimes regarded as inaccurate, because not all contemporary drag performers are attempting to pass as women. Female impersonation has been and continues to be illegal in some places, which inspired the drag queen José Sarria to hand out labels to his friends reading, "I am a boy," so he could not be accused of female impersonation. [4] American drag queen RuPaul once said, "I do not impersonate females! How many women do you know who wear seven-inch heels, four-foot wigs, and skintight dresses?" He also said, "I don't dress like a woman; I dress like a drag queen!".

Some performers draw the distinction that a female impersonator seeks to emulate a specific female star or celebrity, while a drag queen only seeks to create a distinctive feminine persona of his or her own.

Drag and transvestism

Drag queens are sometimes called transvestites, although that term also has many other connotations than the term "drag queen" and is not much favored by many drag queens themselves. [46] This is because of the distinctions between drag queens and transvestic fetishists. "Drag queen" usually connotes cross-dressing for the purposes of entertainment and self-expression. It is not an accurate way to describe people who cross-dress for the fulfillment of transvestic fetishes alone, i.e., people whose cross-dressing is primarily part of a private sexual activity or identity. Those whose motivation for transvestism is not primarily sexual, and who may go about their daily lives cross-dressed, often do not adopt the over-the-top drag queen look, at least not for daily wear; these individuals may or may not self-identify as drag queens.

Alternative terms

There are also performers who prefer to be called "gender illusionists" who do blur the line between transgender and drag queen. Generally transgender performers do not consider themselves to be drag queens and drag queens don't consider themselves to be illusionists, but, as with everything, there are exceptions. Often these distinctions are more generational, as laws and acceptance of individuality change and grow.

Many drag queens prefer to be referred to as " she " while in drag and desire to stay completely in character. Some performers object to being referred to as "he" or by their legal name while in character. Drag performer RuPaul is an exception, as he seems to be completely indifferent to which pronoun is used to refer to him. In his words, "You can call me he. You can call me she. You can call me Regis and Kathie Lee; I don't care!"

The term tranny has been adopted by some drag performers, notably RuPaul, [5] and the gay male community [6] in the United States, but it is considered offensive to most transgender and transsexual people. [7] In the transgender community, it is taken as a degrading term along the lines of the highly offensive words "fag" and "faggot" in gay communities. This has caused the usage of the term to diminish.

History of drag


Pantomime dames

In the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, pantomime dames became a popular form of female impersonation in Europe. This was the first era of female impersonation in Europe to use comedy as part of the performance, as opposed to the serious Shakespearean tragedies and Italian operas. The dame became a stock character with a range of attitudes from "charwoman" to "grande dame" that was mostly used for improvisation. The most famous and successful pantomime dame was Dan Leno. After the World Wars, the theater and movie scenes were changing and the use of pantomime dames was on the decline.


Minstrel shows

Development of the drag queen in the United States started with the development of the blackface minstrel show. [47] Originally the performers would only mock African American men, but as time went on they found it amusing to mock African American femininity as well. They performed in comedic skits, dances, and "wench" songs. [48] Far from the progressive freedom of modern drag, these minstrel shows and their "wench players," were used by white men to both mock and oppress both women and African Americans. [48]

Vaudeville and female impersonators

Drag queens walking in a parade in São Paulo, Brazil.

The broad comedic stylings of the minstrel shows helped develop the vaudeville shows of the late 1800s to the early 1900s. [47] With this shift, the "wench players" became "prima donnas", and became more elegant and refined, while still retaining their comedic elements. [48] While the "wenches" were purely American creations, the "prima donnas" were inspired by both America and European cross-dressing shows, like Shakespearean actors and castrati. [48] With the United States shifting demographics, including the shift from farms to cities, Great Migration of African Americans, and an influx of immigrants, vaudeville's broad comedy and music expanded the audience from minstrelsy. [47] With vaudeville becoming more popular, it allowed female impersonators to become popular as well. Many female impersonators started with low comedy in vaudeville and worked their way up to perform as the prima donna. Famous female impersonator Julian Eltinge found success in this and eventually made his way to the broadway stage performing as a woman. At this time being a female impersonator was seen as something for the straight white male, and any deviation was punished. [47] Connection with sex work and homosexuality eventually lead to the decline of vaudeville during the Progressive Era. [47] Both the minstrelsy and vaudeville eras of female impersonation led to an association with music, dance, and comedy that still lasts today.

Night clubs

In the early to mid-1900s, female impersonation had become tied to the LGBT community and thus criminality, so it had to change forms and locations. [47] It moved from being popular mainstream entertainment to something done only at night in disreputable areas, such as San Francisco's Tenderloin. [47] Here female impersonation started to evolve into what we today know as drag and Drag Queens. Drag queens such as José Sarria and Aleshia Brevard [49] first came to prominence in these clubs. [47] People went to these nightclubs to play with the boundaries of gender and sexuality and it became a place for the LBGT community, especially gay men, to feel accepted. As LGBT culture has slowly become more accepted in American society, drag has also become more, though not totally, acceptable in today's society.


The Cooper Do-nuts Riot was a May 1959 incident in Los Angeles, in which drag queens, lesbians, transgender women, and gay men rioted; it was one of the first LGBT uprisings in the US. [50]

In 1966 in San Francisco, the Compton's Cafeteria riot, which involved drag queens and others, occurred. It marked the beginning of transgender activism in San Francisco.

On March 17, 1968, in Los Angeles, to protest entrapment and harassment by the LAPD, two drag queens known as "The Princess" and "The Duchess" held a St. Patrick's Day party at Griffith Park, a popular cruising spot and a frequent target of police activity. More than 200 gay men socialized through the day.

Drag queens were also involved in the Stonewall riots, which were a series of spontaneous, violent demonstrations by members of the LGBT community against a police raid that took place in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn, located in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City. They are widely considered to constitute the single most important event leading to the gay liberation movement and the modern fight for LGBT rights in the United States. [4] [4]

During the summer of 1976, a restaurant in Fire Island Pines, New York, denied entry to a visitor in drag named Terry Warren. When Warren's friends in Cherry Grove heard what had happened, they dressed up in drag, and, on July 4, 1976, sailed to the Pines by water taxi. This turned into a yearly event where drag queens go to the Pines, called the Invasion of the Pines.

Story time in libraries

In December 2015, Radar Productions and Michelle Tea developed the concept of "Drag Queen Story Hour". [54] Launched at the San Francisco Public Library, Drag Queen Story Hour was adopted by the Brooklyn Public Library in the summer of 2016, and has since traveled to various libraries, museums, bookstores, and recreation centers, and parks across the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. [55]

Drag queen names

Examples of drag queen names are Alexis Michelle, Roxanne Russell [57] and Zsa Zsa Shakespeer. A drag queen may either pick or be given a drag name by a friend, sometimes called a "drag mother", the so named thus becoming known as a "drag daughter". [58] Drag mothers and drag daughters have a mentor - apprentice relationship. Drag families were part of ball culture and drag houses around 1960. [3]

Art of drag

Eugene d'Ameli, a white man, dressed in blackface as an African American woman for a minstrel show in the late 19th century

The process of getting into drag or into character can take hours. A drag queen may aim for a certain style, celebrity impression, or message with their look. Hair, make-up, and costumes are the most important essentials for drag queens. [10] Drag queens tend to go for a more exaggerated look with a lot more makeup than a typical feminine woman would wear.

With the complete look, drag queens often go out to clubs and bars, where they will typically perform an act which is called a "drag show." Many drag queens do dress up for money by doing different shows, but there are also drag queens that have full-time jobs but still enjoy dressing up in drag as a hobby. [3]

Many parts of the drag show, and of the drag queens’ other intellectual properties, cannot be protected by intellectual property law. To substitute the lack of legal protection, drag queens revert to social norms in order to protect their intellectual property. [3]

In entertainment

Drag shows and venues

A drag show is an entertainment consisting of a variety of songs, monologues or skits featuring either single performers or groups of performers in drag meant to entertain an audience. They range from amateur performances at small bars to elaborately staged theatrical presentations. Many drag shows feature performers singing or lip-synching to songs while performing a pre-planned pantomime, or dancing. The performers often don elaborate costumes and makeup, and sometimes dress to imitate various famous female singers or personalities. Some events are centered around drag, such as Southern Decadence where the majority of festivities are led by the Grand Marshals, who are traditionally drag queens. [3]

In film

In music

Julian Eltinge as a female impersonator in the 1910s

While some male music celebrities wear exaggerated feminine clothing as part of their show, they are not necessarily drag queens. For example, Boy George wears drag queen style clothes and cosmetics but he once stated he was not a drag queen. [3] RuPaul [3] is a professional drag queen performer.

Examples of songs where lyrics refer to drag queens:

Societal reception

Drag has come to be a celebrated aspect of modern gay life. [4] Many gay bars and clubs around the world hold drag shows as special parties. Several "International Drag Day" holidays have been started over the years to promote the shows. In the U.S. drag is typically celebrated in early March.

A televised drag competition, RuPaul's Drag Race , is the most successful program on the Logo television network. In 2016, RuPaul's Drag Race won an Emmy award for "Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program." [4] However, its winners and contestants have yet to receive the same level of recognition as mainstream reality show contestants.

Within the larger lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender ( LGBT) community, drag queens are sometimes criticized for their participation in pride parades and other public events, believing that this projects a limited and harmful image of gay people and impedes a broader social acceptance. This attitude itself is criticized for limiting self-expression and encouraging the idea that there are "right" and "wrong" ways to be gay. In more recent years drag queens have been prominently featured at these same events.

A common criticism of drag queens is that they promote negative stereotypes of women, comparable to blackface (a racially offensive portrayal of black people by white performers that was popular throughout the 19th to early 20th century). Conversely, some feminists embrace drag as a skewering of traditional gender roles, defying the social norms of male and female appearance and behaviour and showing the artificiality of femininity and masculinity.

Drag queens are sometimes criticized by members of the transgender community — especially, but not exclusively, by many trans women — because of fears that they themselves may be stereotyped as drag queens. For example, the late Star Maris, a Canadian transgender activist, wrote a song entitled "I'm Not A Fucking Drag Queen" which expresses her frustration and hurt at being mistaken for a drag queen. The song was featured in the film Better Than Chocolate , performed by a trans woman on stage at a gay club. The transgender character, played by Peter Outerbridge, struggles throughout the movie to fit in with cisgender women, and performs the song partially as an act of cathartic defiance and self-empowerment. Other trans women reject those criticisms in the broader context that drag queens, many of whom are gender-variant and sexuality minorities, are more of an ally for the cause of recognition and equality.

See also


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