Where have all the drag queens gone?

The campy spectacle has lost favor with a generation of young gay men. Can RuPaul's new reality show bring it back?

Topics: LGBT,

Where have all the drag queens gone?

As a child of the ’90s, I was taught by popular culture to expect several things from my future life as a gay man: shirtless dancing in large nightclubs, a disconcerting number of flamboyantly patterned shirts and, of course, drag queens. And by drag queens, I meant RuPaul.

During my early teens, RuPaul seemed to be everywhere. She had a hit single in 1993, “Supermodel (You Better Work),” her own VH1 talk show and, as the face of MAC Cosmetics, she popped up in ads everywhere. Her gentle brand of bitchiness and Caesar’s Palace-meets-”Dallas” aesthetic helped turn drag into a mainstream pop cultural phenomenon.

By 1994, Terence Stamp was slipping on high heels for “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” followed one year later by Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo in “To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar.” The same year, “Wigstock: The Movie” documented the popular New York drag festival of the same name, drag queens were a fixture on the daytime talk show circuit and, in 1996, Nathan Lane seduced a Republican senator in “The Birdcage” dressed as an uptight housewife.

But something funny happened on my way to the gay ghetto: The drag queen disappeared not only from mainstream popular culture, but also, to a large extent, from the gay culture of my generation. Most young gay men I know are far more likely to head to a gay-friendly straight bar than take in a drag show, and while drag queens remain a fixture in many bars and clubs, especially those catering to older gay men, those venues appear to be dwindling.

Nearly all of New York’s mammoth gay dance clubs have shut their doors since the ’80s, and demographics suggest that gay men are increasingly leaving behind gay neighborhoods, like the Castro in San Francisco. Half of Boston’s gay bars closed between 1993 and 2007. New York’s Wigstock and San Francisco’s Trannyshack, the two best-known drag revues in the country, have ended their runs. Most conspicuously, RuPaul has disappeared from view without anybody to take her place.



On Feb. 2, however, she will be making a comeback with (what else?) a reality show. Airing on Logo, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” is a “Project Runway”-style competition hosted by the former “Supermodel of the World,” in which nine queens — with names like Ongina and Rebecca Glasscock — compete to become America’s next “drag superstar.” RuPaul hopes the show will return the drag queen to her pop culture pedestal, although, given the generational shifts that have taken place since drag’s heyday, that may be easier said than done.

The first time I wandered into a drag show, it was 2002, and I was 19 years old. While the exact details of the show remain a blur (my attention, as a teenager in a gay bar, being largely focused on other things), I remember an applause meter, some very intimidating heels, one Dolly Parton and a multitude of Celine Dions. By the end of the night I had accomplished two important things: 1) awkwardly hit on a very stoned real estate agent with a keen interest in all things Suze Orman, and 2) confirmed that drag shows had very little to do with my experience of being gay.

It’s not that I didn’t respect the hard work that went into transforming middle-aged men into French-Canadian pop stars, but watching them perform didn’t feel particularly liberating, either. While generations of gay men before me spent their teenage years yearning to escape to big cities — and discover what urban gay life was about — I had Sally Jessy Raphael, reality television and Internet search engines as a guide since my early teens. Not only had they taught me there was nothing wrong with being gay, but by eighth grade I also knew where the gay bars were in most major cities in North America and the difference between a twink, a circuit queen and a bear.

By the time I began coming out of the closet, in my final year of high school, the most shocking parts of gay culture had stopped being very shocking, and, furthermore, nobody seemed to think that my sexuality was all that big a deal. When I left for college, I knew who I was, that being gay didn’t mean I had to conform to any stereotypes, and that there was little novelty in watching a man dressed as a woman lip-syncing to the theme song from “Titanic.”

While my positive experience as a gay teenager is not a universal one, by any means, it’s one that’s becoming more and more common. In the 1970s, the average coming-out age was 21; in 2007, it was closer to 13. Gay teens are coming out earlier to increasingly accepting parents, and the cocoon-to-butterfly narrative that has shaped much of gay culture — and drag in particular — is no longer as universal. For many men of my generation, coming out registered on the personal trauma scale somewhere between our first pimple and the pain of our first breakup.

Which is somewhat at odds with the message of the drag queen. A drag queen is sassy, glittery and fabulous — “a punk rock reaction to our masculine culture,” as RuPaul told me, when I spoke to her over the phone. Drag is a way of taking what has often been held against gay men — our effeminacy, our outspokenness, our passion for ABBA — and celebrating it with style. Drag queens imitate women like Judy Garland, Dolly Parton and Cher because they overcame insult and hardship on their path to success, and because their narratives mirror the pain that many gay men suffer on their way out of the closet. These women didn’t become drag icons because they had a mildly awkward sex talk with their parents.

According to Lady Bunny, the founder of New York’s now-defunct Wigstock Festival, drag faded from pop culture at the end of the ’90s because “people got used to the idea of the drag queen.” Mainstream audiences — and gay audiences — simply stopped being shocked by the idea of a man dressed as a woman. “We’ve had an entire generation grow up seeing drag queens play basketball on daytime talk shows,” she says, “and I don’t think it’s that freeing for gay people anymore.”

It also raises a bigger question: Without the trauma of oppression, how will future generations of gay men define themselves? Through promiscuity? Party drugs? A flair for dinner parties? “With more and more teenagers coming out of the closet earlier, and parents being more supportive, the whole dynamic has changed,” says Sean Mullens, the director of “Filthy Gorgeous: The Trannyshack Story.” “The explosive party scene doesn’t really have a place anymore.”

“All of us associate a gay bar with female impersonation, which you associate with gay culture,” says Terry Eason, the co-owner of the Miss Gay America pageant, the country’s largest drag competition. “Twenty years ago, the only way to meet other gay people was in the bars. Now you’ve got Web sites, and it’s much easier to find a partner without going to the bars.”

The tragic and outsize divas that have long inspired drag queens are also becoming harder to find in the manufactured pop landscape: The Bette Midlers and Whitney Houstons have been replaced by Katy Perry and the Pussycat Dolls. “The sad thing is, the pop stars that were popularly impersonated in my day all had personality,” says Lady Bunny. “How are you going to impersonate Rihanna? What is her personality? You don’t know, because she’s just a product.”

Meanwhile, the man in a dress has become a minor staple of family-friendly Hollywood comedies. In the past few years, John Travolta appeared as Edna Turnblad in “Hairspray,” and Tyler Perry’s turn as the tough-love granny Madea has made him millions. Neither of those performances has anything to with gay or drag culture. At the same time, the rise in prominence of the transgendered character (like Felicity Huffman in “Transamerica” and Katelynn, the male-to-female transsexual from this season of “The Real World“) suggests that Americans are becoming more comfortable with the much more radical notion of gender dimorphism. “Drag is a costume,” says Lady Bunny. “Transsexualism is still more taboo. It’s the costume that can not come off.”

It’s in this cultural context that Logo launches “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” a show that aims to recapture drag’s glory years — and doesn’t quite pull it off. That’s not to say RuPaul and the show’s competitors aren’t game for the cause. RuPaul manages to be both warm and bitchy in her hosting duties and spouts off some memorable catchphrases (“Prepare to lip-sync for your life,” and, more succinctly, “Don’t fuck it up”). Its flamboyant characters include Shannel, who shows up on the first day wearing buttless pants, and Tammie Brown, who looks like Lucille Ball on a crack binge. (Another contestant calls Tammie “creepy” when she won’t stop winking.)

“Drag Race” aims for high camp, but, unfortunately, with the show’s low production values and sloppy execution, it lands somewhere closer to pathos. The prizes are meager (at one point, a contestant wins a basket of chocolates and sparkling wine), and the challenges are astonishingly unimaginative (“Strike a pose and take a picture of yourself”). More tragically, with its haphazard production design and awkward camerawork, the show robs the queens and their performances of all of their glamour. The appeal of drag has always been its over-the-top fabulousness, but there’s little that’s fabulous about performing on a cheap set under dull lighting in front of Santino from “Project Runway.”

That’s not to say drag is dead. There will always be an audience, albeit likely a small one, for female impersonation. Underground balls and pageants continue to play a large part of African-American gay urban culture (as documented in “Paris Is Burning”). While Eason has noticed a decline in pageant interest in some parts of the country, there’s been an upswing in conservative states like Missouri, Louisiana and Texas, and everybody I spoke with acknowledged that, while mainstream gay culture may have changed, pop culture works in cycles: You never know when things will come back in style.

If a drag queen is to emerge as the next RuPaul, however, she’ll have to reinvent drag for the sensibilities of a generation that thinks it’s seen it all. She’ll have to make us want to turn off our computers, put on an outfit and head to the clubs. So whatever she does, it’s going to have to be pretty damn fabulous.

Thomas Rogers

Thomas Rogers is Salon's former Arts Editor. He has written for the Globe & Mail, the Village Voice and other publications. He can be reached at @thomasmaxrogers.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>