Drag legend Vivaceous

Drag has been a queer culture treasure for years, and we must protect it from the culture wars

From cross-dressing performances that were common among troops during war times to the Club Kid scene in 1980s New York, drag has dazzled millions of people in the United States and abroad for decades. Straights and gays alike can be heard shouting things like “sashay, shante” as queer culture has continued to make its way into the mainstream.

Despite how many brides-to-be scream “Work, bitch!” from the front row at the show, many people still misunderstand what exactly drag is, with some seeing it as simply a male performer dressed as a woman, while opponents of the art form view it as vulgar and attempt to restrict it. But what exactly is drag?

The answer is complicated, but is best described by the esteemed Vivacious, who stated in a video interview with ELLE Magazine, “It’s kind of like projecting an introvert into an extrovert and projecting that into the Universe.”

Drag isn’t specific; at the end of the day, it’s putting on clothes and a performance that makes you feel good and gives you confidence. Vivacious rejects the idea that drag is just female impersonation, saying she and other queens in the 1990s were less concerned with looking like a woman than they were with design, shape and structure. The arms of drag are wide-reaching: It is about being yourself and rejecting what is thought to be normal.

If rebellion is its heart, conformity is drag’s betrayal; setting standards defeats its purpose.

In addition to empowering the individual, drag can also uplift others. Vivacious continues in video by discussing how drag can be used as outreach to opponents of the LGBTQ community, saying, “It could be somebody who hates everything about gays, but the second they see a fierce drag costume — ‘Hey, can I take a picture with you?’”

People connect with drag; it makes them turn their heads and laugh, and it brings them joy that can bridge gaps and lead to better understandings of one another. Drag is advocacy; it is beauty; it is art. The craft is open to anyone who wishes to participate; you don’t have to be gay, a man or cisgendered. Some people already get that, but the mainstream drag community has been resistant to change.

The self-proclaimed queen of drag,” himself, RuPaul Charles, has been criticized for being narrow minded. On his program, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Charles often discounts less-conventional queens and tends to reward hyperfeminine impersonation over innovation and creativity. Then viewers began to complain and call for more diversity on the show, not just in demographics but in what type of drag is showcased.

Charles has also been accused of promoting transphobic rhetoric. While he allowed trans contestant Peppermint to compete in 2017, Charles in 2018 likened gender-affirming care to performance enhancing drugs for athletes, saying he probably wouldn’t allow a queen who had medically transitioned to compete on Drag Race. But after facing backlash, Charles issued an apology and has since allowed medically-transitioned queens such as Gottmik and Kornbread to participate in his completion. The trans woman Kylie Sonique Love won Drag Race All Stars 6.

Comparing drag superstars Sasha Velour and Texas native Alyssa Edwards highlights the subjective, broad nature of drag.

Edwards, to put it mildly, is a dancer. She leaps into the splits, kicks her knee to her face and is known as a “lip sync assassin,” someone who is dangerous competition in a lip sync battle. Edwards’ physical appearance is conventional; she is a Texan at heart so her wigs brush the bottom of the throne of God and her corset is always laced up tight.

Velour, on the other hand, didn’t participate in a lip-sync battle until the tail end of Season 9 of Drag Race, winning that one by conducting an innovative wig-pull rather than using power dance moves like Edwards. She focuses her drag on clever humor and stunning visuals that take advantage of color, geometry and her signature bald head.

Despite their differences as performers, Edwards and Velour both hold esteem in the drag community and are adored by countless fans, showcasing just how widely-encompassing the art is.

With drag facing hate and legal challenges from the far right in recent years, it’s important to highlight what it truly is. It is about gender and joy, not about vulgarity and sex. While some queens do put on sexual performances, others focus on fashion and family-friendly fun. There is nothing sexual about drag queens, like Mama G, who host drag-queen story hours; they are playing dress-up and teaching kids to express themselves.

Efforts to restrict drag are based on unfounded assumptions and come from a place of misunderstanding. Drawing attention to the nature of drag helps convince opponents that it isn’t inherently obscene, rather it is something that can elicit a “Yaaas queen!” from people of all types.

Will Reames is a Junior at Marquette University studying political science and theater arts. He was raised in North Texas by two moms who taught him the importance of helping others, which is the basis of his work.