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?

Published January 31, 2009 6:20PM (EST)

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.

By 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.

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