For those of you who aren’t familiar with the beginnings of drag, get ready for a (not so) serious history lesson…
Men dressing up as women has been going on for quite some time. It started in a theatrical setting, with female impersonation going back to ancient Roman literature and classical Chinese theatre. Since women were generally banned from performing on stage, men had to perform all of the parts. A modern example of this phenomenon can be seen in the film Shakespeare in Love, which shows men on stage dressed as women. When looking at the etymology of drag, according to the online dictionary, drag means the following:
Sense of “women’s clothing worn by a man” is said to be 1870 theater slang, from the sensation of long skirts trailing on the floor (another guess is Yiddish trogn “to wear,” from German tragen); drag queen is from 1941.
The term ‘queen’, which was considered a more derogatory term to describe a gay man, has been around since the 18th century. The word has since been reclaimed in a more positive sense. The drag queens of which we speak today first started (particularly in the US) in the 1950s and 60s. Even though the drag queen scene started around that time, it didn’t properly flourish until the 1980s and 90s. This is, coincidentally, also around the time that gay culture started to develop. In the 1950s and 60s drag was far more underground and even criminalised.
all images are from:
However, during the late sixties the LGBT community started fighting back. It started with the Stonewall riots, which were a series of violent demonstrations by the gay community against a police raid that took place at the Stonewall Inn in New York City. At the time, the Stonewall Inn was owned by the Mafia. It was known to be popular with the poorest and most oppressed people in the gay community, including drag queens and the transgender community. It’s been said that these riots have partly been inspired by drag queens. Within six months after the riots, two gay activist organisations were formed in New York, that were ultimately trying to bring attention to their lack of social rights and respect.
One well-known Amerian political activist was José Julio Sarria (also known under her drag name Empress José I), who was a drag queen and went on to found the Imperial Court System. During his performances, he supposedly warned people of police entrapment schemes through his song lyrics. In 1961, he was the first openly gay person to run for public office. He campaigned for San Francisco City supervisor, the same postition that Harvey Milk would win 16 years later. He didn’t win, but came in 9th out of 32, which was significant for the gay community at the time.
Drag act Jackie Jackson
Some more developments happened in San Francisco around this time. There were ongoing crackdowns on gay bars by the authorities, and after numerous closedowns, the San Francisco Tavern Guild was formed. The association, which represented gay bar owners and liquor wholesalers, put on the city’s first large public drag ball called Beaux Arts Ball. The ball gave rise to a whole system of LGBT rights groups coming together under the name Imperial Council of San Francisco. José consequently developed bylaws for the International Courts System.
Check back with us next week for the second instalment of our fabulous history of drag!
And read out review on Fanny and Stella– a book all about the true criminal trial of two drag queens in Victorian London.