It took hours of holding his face just inches from the mirror to fully transform into his other self – into her – but, in every way imaginable, it was worth it. Once the transformation is complete, she rounds the corner onto the stage feeling confident, beautiful and unstoppable. The spotlight shining from above casts a brilliant sparkle against the room’s dark, velvet walls, reflecting the sequins that cover her figure-hugging magenta dress. No sooner than Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” sounds over the speaker, is she strutting across the stage, lip-syncing, twirling and dishing out the sass that she so naturally radiates. With every move, the audience awes over her platinum blonde hair, long metallic acrylics, over the top makeup and dangerously high-heeled pumps.
Such theatrics, and the longer-than-most backstage prep, should tell you that this is no ordinary performance. It is one of glitz and glamour, promiscuity and prima donna poses, melodrama and marvel. It is one of queens: drag queens.
As the self-attributed hosts of the queer community, drag queens know how to put on a show. But more than that, they know to use their voices. Faced with decades of stark opposition, the queens have been forced to do just that. They battle for equal rights, protection and, ultimately, a stronger sense of understanding. The drag community often finds itself fighting on the front line in the battle for LGBTQ rights, despite having been a part of society for centuries past.
Some attribute the ancient Greeks with having the first drag queens. This notion originated from male actors who wore feminine masks during plays since women were forbidden from taking part in theater. Others believe true drag came to be in Shakespearean theater during Britain’s Elizabethan era where, like ancient Greece, women were forbidden from appearing on stage. In Shakespearean theater, however, men playing female roles wore more than just masks. They dressed in female garments, wore exaggerated makeup and adopted the stereotypical demeanor of women.
Though there are multiple theories as to the origin of the word ‘drag,’ it is widely held that the term came from the acronym ‘D.R.A.G.’ meaning ‘dressed resembling a girl,’ which was used in Shakespearean theater.
In its narrowest sense, drag means roughly the same thing today. In its broadest sense, however, this definition only applies to drag queens, men who dress up as and perform as women. Now, drag is considered as any person, male or female, who dresses up and personifies the extremes of either gender.
In addition to drag queens, there are drag kings, women who dress up as and perform as men. Biologically female drag kings and biologically male drag queens have also become more common in recent years, as drag culture experiments, evolves and strives for inclusivity.
Sometime between Shakespeare and Gatsby, drag became less about necessity and more about genuine interest. 1920s jazz clubs in New York adopted a few things from the Globe Theatre in London: namely, the drag queens. Drag queens found relative prominence during the prohibition in underground entertainment, taking roles as singers, actors and dancers.
The illegality of alcohol and gambling, both of which took place at these jazz clubs, meant that drag was considered taboo, too. Nevertheless, a drag community began to form, eventually hosting events called drag balls. The extravagant nights hosted large numbers of drag queens and other LGBTQ individuals who watched as the queens competed against one another in various categories. Possibly most remarkable about these drag balls, was the sheer level of diversity; participants were gay, straight, bisexual, Latino, white and black. Drag balls did not discriminate. They were a celebration of expression, unity and uniqueness, yet to the mainstream society they were deemed immoral.
The Stonewall Riots of 1969 used drag queens as a powerful force within the LGBTQ community. The riots, which served as one of the major catalysts of the Gay Liberation Movement, began when New York City police raided Stonewall Inn, a historically gay bar. The inn’s patrons retaliated violently and a series of protests ensued.
The first gay pride parades took place the following year in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco. At the time, Americans never would have fathomed that in only two decades they would witness a drag-pop icon’s rise to fame.
RuPaul Andre Charles, popularly known by his first name, gained international fame with his 1993 single “Supermodel (You Better Work)” from his debut album. The song became popular on MTV during an age dominated by grunge and alt-rock music.
Now, RuPaul is most recognizable for his hit reality TV show “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” No longer confined to underground nightclubs, drag has become a pop culture staple, shared with hundreds of thousands of Americans from the comfort of their living room couches.
For many drag queens, RuPaul and his Emmy-winning series serve as an inspiration.
Senior Andrew Gryniewicz had a tendency toward drag even from a young age, but it was not until college that he truly understood and embraced this, gradually inventing Angeli Beltressa, his drag persona.
“When I was little I would play ‘house’ and I would always dress up as a woman,” Gryniewicz said. “I would find a blanket for hair and something long enough that would work as a dress.”
His freshman year of college, he and a friend attended a performance of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” for which they dressed up in drag.
“I loved putting on the makeup and the clothes, and creating this different person,” Gryniewicz said.
It was this same friend who introduced him to “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Gryniewicz credits the show with teaching him about drag as an artistic expression and giving him a better understanding of what the word means to different people.
“I have been experimenting more and more over the past year, and now when I dress as Angeli Beltressa she radiates confidence and royalty,” Gryniewicz said.
Though no one doubts the amazing things that RuPaul has accomplished for the drag community, some caution fellow queens against using the franchise as their sole incentive to get involved in drag.
Miss Toto, a queen who fiercely dominates the Miami drag scene, is among those who feel this way.
“When people decide to dress in drag, they need to have this deeper ‘why?’,” Miss Toto said.
According to Miss Toto, every queen’s ‘why’ should shed light onto their background, personality and, most importantly, what drives them.
“If your ‘why’ is that you want to appear on a reality TV show competition, then you are in it for the wrong reasons,” she said.
Part of Miss Toto’s motivation lies in the relationships that have been fostered through drag.
“The queer community is like your chosen family,” she said. “You get to decide who your sisters are.”
It is common for drag queens to build their families by adopting drag moms, drag daughters and drag sisters. Some connections are formed more deliberately, while others just happen upon the queens over time. These families-by-choice are there to support and help one another along each of their journeys. Miss Toto herself has a drag mom.
“I didn’t notice at the time, but she really took me under her wing and taught me a lot of things without directly telling me them,” Miss Toto said.
Now, Miss Toto has incorporated much of her drag mom’s persona into her own drag aesthetic, even changing the way she carries herself in public to resemble her drag mom.
“The drag community isn’t exclusive by any means, but once you have a drag family, you feel more included in the whole scene.”
Miss Toto is supported not only by her chosen family, but her biological family as well. An only child, Miss Toto says that her parents have always been accepting and “don’t care about much,” and even attend some of her performances when visiting Miami.
Many others in the drag community are not so lucky. Finding acceptance in others is often difficult, so the support of loved ones is monumental. LGBTQ pride is all about celebration of the spectrum. Unfortunately, some have a very limited perspective and only see things in black and white.
Gryniewicz has wrestled with this issue in his personal life. Though he came out to his parents as gay in his freshman year of college, three years later, they still do not know of his participation in drag. According to Gryniewicz, they have always had a difficult time with the concept of drag.
“If I ever post anything drag related, I have to post it to social media that they don’t follow, so that it kind of stays a secret,” Gryniewicz said. “They just have a difficult time accepting the idea that a man would ever want to dress as a woman.”
The scope of challenges facing the drag community stretches from quaint family rooms to high power offices in D.C. Despite recent progress for the LGBTQ community, conservative-minded individuals have been the force of a push-back against these advancements.
A gay man walking down the street can slip right into the crowd, unbeknownst to his detractors. A drag queen walking down the street, however, is difficult to miss. This is why drag queens are often the face of LGBTQ movements.
“There is something to be said about not only making a literal face for yourself, but also serving as the face of the queer community,” Gryniewicz said. “At the heart of it all is acceptance.”
Across the drag community, there is still a degree of fear present when out in public. Some queens have told real-life tales of violence, while many others can attest to the name calling that ensues when dressed in drag.
“Not everyone is so accepting,” Gryniewicz said. “When I leave the house as Angeli there is always that fear of, ‘What will the Uber driver say? How about the students who are about to walk by me?’”
Ultimately, drag queens want outsiders to know that drag is a celebration of the feminine spirit and the strength of women.
“If you ask queens, ‘Who are the people you look up to?’ you get answers of these iconic women who are so powerful in what they do,” Miss Toto said. “Or also just powerful women in our lives, so my mom would be an example of mine. Drag queens take the pieces that they admire of these women and emulate them.”
Miss Toto also argues that drag isn’t something that can be taken too seriously.
“Some queens are funny queens and the over exaggeration of feminine features can be funny,” she said. “They will wear these stupid-huge eye lashes, draw eyebrows up to their forehead and wear pads to make their body look unrealistic for a biological woman.”
Miss Toto thinks that if more women would appreciate and enjoy the dramatics of drag, that it wouldn’t have such a negative reputation in society. She said she wants women to “look at drag and say, ‘They’re taking everything that I have been given and exaggerating it to the point where it doesn’t even look real and that’s hilarious.’”
The goal of the drag community is to achieve awareness, understanding and, in the end, acceptance. Drag is so much more than its glitzy appearances and shocking performances. It is a story of resiliency, of confidence and poise. It captures the power of femininity and radiates it wherever it goes. It is a testament to the maxim, ‘be yourself and do not apologize to anyone for it.’ It is strength. It is courage. It is bold. It is drag.