When drag was straight – a journey through drag’s history and evolution
Written by Anthony T. Eaton
In recent years, we’ve witnessed an alarming surge in legislation targeting drag performers in our country. Drag appears to have become the unexpected target of hate from a faction of the Republican party that claims to represent conservative and Christian values. However, it’s crucial to remember that drag has a rich history that dates back centuries, even though it found a more modern audience through television, introducing many average Americans to the world of men in dresses.
In ancient history, men often impersonated women in theatrical productions. This practice was primarily a result of patriarchal societies and legal restrictions on women performing on stage. The lineage of drag can be traced back to ancient Greek and Roman cultures and the Japanese tradition of Kabuki. Even as societal norms shifted and women gained greater acceptance on stage, men continued to perform in drag, often for the shock value it provided.
However, despite periods of greater acceptance of drag and LGBTQ+ culture in the early 20th century, conservatism significantly impacted Hollywood’s portrayal of drag. The Hays Code, implemented in 1930, imposed strict moral guidelines on films produced by Hollywood studios. This code prohibited profanity, sex outside of marriage, and any depiction of same-sex relationships, including impersonating the opposite gender. Interestingly, Europe did not pay much attention until the rise of the Nazi party in Germany.
After World War II, there was a cultural shift towards emphasizing “masculinity” in film and television, relegating drag to comic relief. It wasn’t until 1959, with the groundbreaking film “Some Like It Hot,” starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon, that drag and the implication of homosexuality were subtly featured, despite the Hays Code’s restrictions. This film received six Academy Award nominations and marked a turning point for drag in the world of film and television.
In 1968, the film rating system replaced the Hays Code, and drag took another step toward mainstream acceptance. Over the next fifty years, there was a significant shift in drag culture and its acceptance in society.
In 1972, John Waters’ film “Pink Flamingos” elevated the careers of Waters and Divine, contributing to a growing recognition of drag in plays and movies. “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” in 1975 became a cult classic, gaining a following among the LGBTQ+ community and the general public, and during this time, television also began to feature drag more prominently. The TV series “All in the Family” introduced audiences to drag queen Beverly LaSalle, portrayed by actual drag queen Lori Shannon (Don McLean). This portrayal was sympathetic and respectful, a rarity for the 1970s.
As drag gained momentum on television, shows like “Starsky and Hutch” and “Wonder Woman” also featured drag queen Charles Pierce. Meanwhile, one of the first mainstream gay-themed films, “Making It,” was released in North America in 1977.In 1978, “La Cage Aux Folles” was released, leading to sequels and an American remake in 1996 titled “The Birdcage,” starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. These films made a significant impact on the lives of drag artists.
In 1982, “Tootsie” received 10 Academy Award nominations, becoming one of the year’s most profitable movies.
The ’90s marked a clearer distinction between drag and the LGBTQ+ spectrum, with a growing awareness of transgender individuals within the drag community. The documentary “Paris is Burning” in 1990 chronicled New York’s ball culture and inspired Madonna’s famous song “Vogue.”
Throughout the ’90s, films like “M. Butterfly,” “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” and “Wigstock: The Movie” celebrated drag and its vibrant culture. “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar” in 1995 featured Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze, and John Leguizamo as drag queens.
In 1999, “Flawless” starred Robert De Niro and Philip Seymour Hoffman, exploring themes of identity and self-expression through the friendship between a conservative security guard and a drag queen.
Initially appearing as a backup dancer in the B-52’s music video “Love Shack.” RuPaul emerged on TV in 1989, and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” came in 2009. Drag had truly gone mainstream.
Reflecting on this history, it’s clear that drag has come a long way from its origins in ancient theater to its prominent place in contemporary culture. While there have been periods of acceptance and backlash, drag has persevered and evolved, reminding us that self-expression knows no boundaries. Despite recent challenges, the history of drag proves that its vibrant and resilient spirit will continue to shine through.