Elyssa Maxx Goodman recounts her lifelong obsession with drag queens.
I had thought of the phrase before but never actually uttered it until leaving a meeting with a drag queen. As I was working on an article for The Good Men Project, I was interviewing drag queens all over New York to get their perspective on what drag means in the context of “being a man.” It was a dream article, one that I was so excited to investigate because it meant that I would actually get to talk to or spend time with the people who made up these extraordinary, magnetic personalities in sparkling gowns, luscious wigs and intricately sculpted faces on stage two to five nights a week, depending on their level of engagement.
On the Lower East Side, at the Pause Café, I sat across from a young man, a college student, who looked weary of the world and of the day. Having run around all day myself, I envied his big, blue hoodie, sweatpants and scarf, wanting to bundle myself up in them despite the four hours ahead of me in a day that had already been eight hours long. At just 21, he was already a well-known drag queen who performed in New York. After listing some of the places he performed for me—some places with more exotic titles than others—he noticed I had spelled them all correctly. “Wow, you really know what you’re doing,” he smiled. “Of course,” I said. “I’m a drag hag.”
Inspired by the sometimes-derogatory “fag hag,” a phrase used to describe a woman who almost exclusively hangs out with gay men, “drag hag” was a term I devised after I realized how consumed my life had been with drag queens not only from working on this article, but from my life in general. At the age of 23, I had become a connoisseur of drag queens, drag performances and drag culture. As comedy would have it, however, this was not something that began at 23, but rather at the ripe-old age of seven, when I saw the film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar.
To those not familiar with the film, it follows three drag queens, Miss Vida Boheme (played by Patrick Swayze, may he rest in peace), Miss Noxeema Jackson (Wesley Snipes), and Miss Chi-Chi Rodriguez (John Leguizamo) as they embark upon a country road trip from New York to Los Angeles. Along the way there are the expected plethora of misadventures, but more than anything there are costume changes. Gold lamé dresses with metallic beaded shawls, black taffeta suits with matching hats, tangerine hot pants with matching thigh-high boots, scarlet red patent leather dresses with platform heels. For my seven-year-old eyes that continually feasted upon lush movie musicals with grand costume design like 1964’s What a Way to Go (costumes by Edith Head), 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (costumes by William Travilla), and 1951’s An American in Paris (costumes by Orry-Kelly), To Wong Foo was a smorgasboard. It was sparkly and colorful and bright and unusual. It was everything that I, a child brought up watching fashion shows on Saturday mornings instead of cartoons, loved about fashion. As far as I was concerned, it fell into the same category as the tales of romance and adventure spun by MGM. These were men, they were in beautiful dresses, and they were funny. End of story.
My parents didn’t care about me watching the movie as a seven-year-old. As my mother says, “If I brought any attention to any of it, I would have been stupid. I don’t think you would have understood what was going on.” Plus, she says if she stopped me from watching it I would have wondered why and then wanted to watch it even more. She watched the movie with me, she says, and enjoyed it. There was nothing else to it, and there didn’t need to be.
I watched it over and over, even with my best friend Jenna. We loved the scene where the three queens fabulize a dank and dingy room they’re given in the dusty little town of Snyderville, throwing about scarves and hats and feather boas to make it more livable. We decided that our current surroundings were also much too boring and I dug out my mother’s scarves from her dresser and we flung them about the room, tossing them on lampshades and endtables for more color and flair as the queens had done. My mother came in and asked us to take the scarves off the lamps so they wouldn’t catch fire.
Drag has just always been a part of my life in that way, as something on my radar that I actively seek out. I watch RuPaul’s “Drag Race” like it’s my job, have viewed Jenny Livingston’s seminal drag documentary Paris is Burning repeatedly, I see drag shows whenever I can. I know the great queens and their history and even own RuPaul’s Supermodel of the World album on CD. (I found it in a used bookstore in Pittsburgh for $5. It is some of the best money I have ever spent. My mother and I jam to it on road trips.) My parents took me to drag shows all while I was growing up—it was just something we did as a family. Instead of going to the movies one night, we went to see a drag magic show. On my little planet, drag was and is a constant presence.
So when I was writing the aforementioned article, it struck me how not on the typical American’s radar drag is. My friend Jeff didn’t even know who RuPaul was, much less Lady Bunny. I was taken aback. How can you not know who RuPaul is? RuPaul is practically the leader of the free world in my mind. Jeff and I were out to dinner with another friend of mine, Alissa, who is also a drag fanatic. Alissa and I tried to explain drag to Jeff, not realizing that we were casually switching back and forth between the ‘he’ and ‘she’ pronouns. Jeff stopped us—wait, so do they want to be women? Why did the men put on dresses? Did they dress like that all the time? Why is it entertaining?
No, they don’t want to be women. They dress in drag because it’s an entertainment, a character just like PeeWee Herman or Elvira. The costume comes off at the end of the day. It’s entertaining because it’s sparkly and glamorous, like an outrageous beauty pageant.
I had to step out of my insular little drag world and understand that, as much as I loved drag, that it wasn’t technically on the American mainstream. Sure, RuPaul’s Drag Race was a highly popular show on Logo that filled up a gay sportsbar called Boxers in Chelsea, but the market is still a niche one. It is fair to say that Jeff, who loves Dave Matthews Band and the Miami Heat, would probably not know about such a niche—I certainly couldn’t tell you squat about the Heat. Is LeBron James still playing for them? I have no idea. But, if pressed, I could certainly name all of the queens from this past season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Different strokes for different folks. It’s interesting how well we can insulate ourselves from other “worlds,” to the point where we forget or don’t even know that they exist at all. A world without drag? What is this preposterousness?
Unfortunately, I know that drag is not as popular as I think it should be primarily because of the conceived role sexual orientation plays in drag. And, sadly, we know that homosexuality still carries with it a stigma in many parts of this country. But I truly believe that an appreciation of drag doesn’t have to involve politics at all. Drag is a performing art, drama. It is the creation of a character, the incitement of belief in the audience that such a character is not actually a character at all, but rather a living, breathing being that exists beyond the stage. It doesn’t have to be about anything beyond that. It never was for me. But, without getting all political, I know that I can simply be a one-woman crusade in the spreading of the drag gospel. See these men in dresses? See how beautiful they are? All I’m saying is look. Expose yourself to a part of culture you may have not yet experienced. As with anything, in experience there is knowledge and in knowledge there is power … thereby, in drag queens there is power. But anyone who’s seen a drag show before could tell you that.
Originally appeared at Art Faccia.
—Photo James Buck/Flickr