A Brief History of Drag:
LGBTQ+ History Month is a pivotal moment to look back on one of the most prominent forms of queer art and expression – drag queen history.
Both drag queens and kings have had their narratives woven into the grander history of the LGBTQ community. However, its beginnings were not what you may expect.
Drag first found its home in the theatre. Pre-Shakespearean era theatre used men in drag for the female acting parts. This was surprisingly due to religious reasons. It was seen as a religious right that only men were allowed to act in plays. This is quite ironic given the context drag is often seen in now.
However, it was during Shakespearean era theatre, where only men were allowed on stage, that the term “drag” is believed to have come from. This is rumored to be because the male actors would always comment on how their dresses would drag across the stage.
An Intimate Vaudeville Setting
Until the Vaudeville era, drag was strictly apart of group performances such as plays. Once Vaudeville performance gained popularity, drag became a much more intimate art form.
Men found themselves impersonating women alone on stage and in a way that allowed them to mix comedy, music, and dance.
It was during this time that we saw one of the first famous drag queens come to light – Julian Eltinge.
Eltinge found popularity in Vaudeville that would earn him success that surpassed the giants of this era, such as Charlie Chaplin. Eltinge and the drag queens of his time undoubtedly prove that drag has been visibly woven into queer culture for some time now.
Despite the success seen during this time, prohibition brought a challenge for drag queens of the time. It was hard to find venues that really showcased the atmosphere they wanted, so many gay men and drag queens alike used speakeasies to entertain and be entertained.
The Broader Culture
Naturally, even if drag queens were flourishing in the underground queer community, the majority of society was not welcoming.
During prohibition, queer culture was a crime and police often cracked down on gay speakeasies and underground bars.
It was bad enough that serving alcohol was illegal, but the fact that queer folk couldn’t dance together legally didn’t help the situation. Years passed, and while alcohol became legal once again, being queer in any sense was still very much crime.
The community was not without allies, even back then. The New York Mafia often gave drag queens and the queer community as a whole various outlets to express themselves.
Specifically, the Genovese played a large part in what would, unknowingly at the time, become a huge part of the community’s history.
Stonewall and the New York Scene
The Genovese family purchased the Stonewall in 1966. This spot would become a hub for queer culture in New York City. This would also be home to the 1969 Stonewall riots and the beginning of the gay rights movement.
At the forefront of this movement was transgender women and drag queens. This is often an overlooked piece of history, and arguably one of the most important things to remember.
One drag queen who found herself front and center during this movement was Flawless Sabrina. She organized drag queen pageants that presented drag beauty in the same respect as traditional pageants presented cisgender female beauty.
Flawless Sabrina, like many of those who took part in this movement, was arrested several times over and was also brave enough to dress in drag and appear in public and on talk shows.
Over in Harlem and Washington Heights during the early 1970s, ballroom culture was blooming. Started specifically by queer people of color, the drag scene was beginning to adapt to a new form of expression.
Drag “balls” were where “houses” or groups of queer folk would compete to be the best at their art form. A mix of fashion, dancing, and cutting edge gender expression found itself on the floor of every ball.
Shortly after the ballroom culture found its way into the queer culture, drag culture began to weave itself into the broader culture of the United States. Drag and gender-bending performances exploded—from the likes of Tim Curry in Rocky Horror Picture Show, to the fashion of David Bowie and Boy George, and even beyond.
It’s important to note that these white men could’ve only used this for their art forms because of the oppressed queer people that came before them, and notably queer people of color.
With the popularization of drag, the world became ready for the now ultra-famous RuPaul Charles. Charles found fame beginning in the 1990s amidst the New York City club scene. He skyrocketed into stardom with his 1993 hit song “Supermodel (You Better Work)”.
He soon became the first drag queen to become a spokesperson for a major cosmetics company, get their own talk show, and even a morning radio show.
Since his early days of fame, Charles has launched his drag competition series, Rupaul’s Drag Race, which is also premiering in Canada and the United Kingdom now. The show, and many of the queens who have been a part of the show, have become worldwide phenomenons.
RuPaul and drag culture are prime examples that marginalized communities can be uplifted with the right media presence.
The Significance of Drag History to a Small Town Drag Queen
With a clear past of ups and downs, drag is undeniably an important art form in the queer community. This brings us to today, to State College: the small town surrounding the famous Penn State University. Named one of the most LGBTQ friendly universities in the country, Penn State has a small yet thriving drag community. A part of this community is Marceline.
Marceline, aka Marco Planchart, is a transgender man who is just starting out in the drag scene at Penn State.
“I got into drag because I had friends that encouraged me to do it,” said Planchart.
With experience in cosplay, Planchart found the transition to drag very easy. This, paired with years of dance experience, he found himself combining the two and finding himself comfortably transitioning into the drag scene.
Beyond being a drag queen and a member of the queer community, Planchart is also a student intern at the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity at Penn State, where he aids the office in educated students on all things related to the LGBTQ Community.
During this LGBTQ History Month, Planchart made it very clear that his identity as a drag queen is significant to the rich history queer folk.
“I think it’s very important to recognize drag queens and kings during LGBTQ+ history month because of how prevalent they were in queer history.
Many queens and kings were a part of the queer community already and saw it as a way to have an amazing experience for themselves.
Plus, just looking back on major moments in queer history like Stonewall, they were on the front lines as much as any identity. I would talk to Freddy or some people from Opulence to talk about how important they are, and how important especially the [people of color] drag queens and kings were in shaping a lot of queer cultures today.”