Somewhere, there’s a parallel universe in which I am a drag queen.
I’m at that age now where I no longer ask, “What am I going to do with my life?” and start fantasizing about what I might have done instead. So there are also parallel universes where I’m a college professor, a lawyer (think more Annalise Keating than Alan Dershowitz), and an opera singer. But every time I tune in to RuPaul’s Drag Race, guess which universe wins.
The truth is, I’ve always been a little in love with drag queens. Something happens to a man when he puts on a dress. It isn’t simply an appropriation of the feminine: while old-school “female impersonators” may have been trying to pass as women, at least for their time on stage, drag queens never let you forget that there’s a man under all that Revlon and bugle beads. What really happens is a strange and glorious melding of the feminine and the masculine, an alchemy that calls into question all our preconceived notions of gender. And that is, by definition, a good thing.
What drag tells us, in no uncertain terms, is that gendered behavior need not be limited by one’s biological equipment. You don’t need a vagina to wear a dress. You don’t need breasts to be nurturing. And you don’t need a penis to be powerful and self-reliant.
Drag tears down all sorts of walls. It’s performance art. It’s entertaining, yes, but it’s also a profound act of liberation.
I was at a show the other night where audience members were encouraged to join the performers by attending in drag. As I was on my way in, I ran into a stunning figure—tall and dignified, in a tight rhinestone-bedecked gown and beautiful makeup (eyeshadow applied in a rainbow pattern over lush lashes). She came up to me with a coy smile and a couple of flirtatious remarks that left me momentarily flustered. And then she walked determinedly away, confident, complete in herself. Only when she was gone did I recognize her as a quiet man I barely knew who had never been the slightest bit flirtatious with me.
Drag does things to people.
One of the saddest of spectacles is a person who is clearly uncomfortable inside his own skin. I’ve seen many of them—eyes glancing out of the face as if it were an iron mask. But, ironically, I’ve never noticed that in a drag queen—even an amateur one. Drag queens always look perfectly at home with themselves, even though their cinched and tucked bodies are part of the costume: their comfort in someone else’s skin seems to make them revel in their own.
I speak primarily as a fan, a fan with minimal experience of my own. But I do clearly remember those youthful Halloween nights when my sense of myself and the world became slowly transformed by the eyeliner, the lipstick, the stuffed bra, the dress, the jewelry, the wig—and at long last, the heels as high as I could manage. I would become brazen in drag—partly because I felt unrecognizable (oh, how naïve I was), but mostly because I felt free.
I shouldn’t need to add that gay people in general owe our freedom in large measure to drag queens—who, from the beginning, have challenged the status quo simply by being themselves, more loudly than most of us dare.
Drag isn’t easy—and not just because of the tight shoes. In a misogynist culture, a man’s decision to take on—or let out—the trappings of femininity is a radical act. By modeling this behavior—daring to unite the masculine and feminine sides of themselves—drag artists force us to confront the ways in which gender norms affect and limit our own lives.
Fear of the feminine is sadly pervasive in the gay community as well as the rest of the culture, if on a somewhat smaller scale. It’s perceived feminine behavior, after all, that turns a little gay boy into the butt of jokes and the victim of bullying. So it’s no wonder that, even after accepting our homosexuality, many of us keep our feminine side at a distance.
I wrote my latest novel, Channeling Morgan, in an attempt to understand that dynamic—to examine how even gay men who seem completely comfortable with their sexual orientation can be susceptible to the misogyny that permeates American culture. And because there’s no one more ironically ballsy than a drag queen, I chose drag as the vehicle for exploring this theme. The drag queen at the heart of the book challenges her lover to question his own assumptions about gender and what it means to be a man.
It takes a tough man to wear a dress. And a tougher one to own the fierce woman within.