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Drag History: A Work In Progress

Drag Queens are fierce.  Drag Queens are funny.  Drag Queens really know how to raise some money.  Drag Queens are so many amazing things rolled into one and no two Drag Queens are alike, unless they plan it that way!  

Drag Queens are men who impersonate women for the purpose of performance and entertainment.  Their styles are usually over-the-top and as one drag queen I once new, Larissa Campbell-Winchell Parkos described it, “everything is BIG!”  

Drag Queens shouldn’t be confused with transvestites, which are men who cross-dress and switch gender roles.  Drag Queens dress as women because they want to be seen and be the center of everyone’s attention, while transvestites do not and tend to cross-dress for the purpose of sexual fetish.  Drag is rarely ever used for sexual purposes and when asked, most drag queens will say that they would never have sex in drag.  They know that they are men who enjoy dressing up to entertain and inspire, not to “be” an actual woman.  However, there are a few exceptions to the rule every now and then.

While in recent times, Drag Queens have graced us on both the big screen in films like “To Wong Foo: Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar” and on our TV screens with popular shows like Logo TV’s “RuPaul’s Drag Race”, drag isn’t something new.  In fact, it was part of Shakespearean and classical Chinese Theatre.  Back in those days, only men could date the stage while women were not permitted to perform.  Traditional drag was seen in the 1800’s.  The term “Queen” was once used in a more derogatory sense since the 18th Century.  

Sadly, after World War I and World War II, homosexuals were deemed as part of the “subversive” groups (along with Communist parties) and records were kept of who was gay.  Not only that, but they even printed the photos of known homosexuals in the local newspapers.  At the same time, cities began to do sweeps of bars and clubs to get rid of gay people.  Wearing clothes of the opposite gender was banned and homosexuals, both men and women, faced public humiliation and were harassed and fired from their jobs and even imprisoned and institutionalized in mental hospitals.

On June 28, 1969, a Maifa-owned bar in New York called “The Stonewall Inn”, the police conducted a raid, which was common at the time.  Women (lesbians) who weren’t wearing at least three pieces of feminine clothing were arrested.  

Anyone who wore gender-opposite clothing was humiliated by “gender checking” and was arrested.  However, things didn’t go as planned with the June 28th raid as people, particularly lesbians and drag queens, began to fight back.  

Many believe the raid was instigated by a drag queen named Sylvia Rivera who was apparently throwing pennies at the police.  Three nights of riots ensued and included another drag queen named Marsha P. Johnson, who smashed a police car window with her handbag.  It was the first time that gay people came together as a community and the events at Stonewall ignited.

Above:  Marsha P. Johnson

There was one famous Drag Queen known as Empress Jose I (Jose Julio Sarria, or, “The Widow Norton” after the late self-proclaimed “Emperor Norton” of San Francisco) who was a political activist who founded the International Court System.  

During performances, she’d warn people of police entrapment schemes through his song lyrics.  

Jose was also the first openly gay person to run for public office, campaigning for San Francisco City Supervisor, which is the same role that Harvey Milk took on 16 years later.  Unfortunately, Jose did not win and came out 9th out of 32. This was still significant for the gay community during those times.

After crackdowns began in local San Francisco gay bars and there were numerous closedowns, the San Francisco Tavern Guild was formed, representing gay bar owners and liquor wholesalers.  They put on a public drag ball called the Beaux Arts Ball, out of which rose several LGBT rights groups that came together under the Imperial Council of San Francisco. 

During the 1960’s, a Baltimore man named Harris Glenn Milstead (soon to be known as “Divine”) was going to Marinella Beauty School learning to do hair,  He was also dressing as his favorite star, Elizabeth Taylor, at lavish parties that his parents reluctantly financed and built up a large collection of friends.  In the mid-1960’s, he befriended an aspiring filmmaker named John Waters who was the same age and was from the same neighborhood.  They both embraced Baltimore’s countercultural and underground elements.  It was John Waters who first called Harris Milstead “Divine”, later remarking that he had borrowed the name from a character in Jean Genet’s novel “Our Lady of the Flowers”, a controversial book from 1943 about homosexuals living on the margins of Parisian society, which Waters who was himself a homosexual, was reading at the time.  Waters got his friends who became known as the “Dreamlanders” (among them were Divine, David Lochary, Mink Stole and Mary Vivian Pearce) to appear in some of his low-budget film productions.  Divine kept his involvement with Waters and these early underground films a secret from his conservative parents, believing that they would not understand them or the reason for his involvement in such controversial and bad-taste films; they would not find out about them for many years.  

To Be Continued…

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