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Draggin’ It Up!

by Billy Amador. Amador is a Chemistry student in the South Carolina Honors College at USC. This paper was written for the Fall 2007 class "Folklife in America."

For decades, drag has been a pivotal part of the gay community. From gay pride parades to AIDS benefits to beauty pageants, drag queens have become an integral part of today’s society. Dating back to the late nineteenth century, the term “drag queen” originates from Polari, a subset of English slang used widely by the gay community in Great Britain. According to Webster’s Dictionary, a drag queen is “a homosexual male who dresses as woman especially for comic or theatrical effect.” However, drag has now come to encompass not only homosexual men, but men and women of all sexual preferences.

In the film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, the following definition has been given to drag queens that I feel is quite appropriate: “When a straight man puts on a dress and gets his sexual kicks, he is a transvestite. When a man is a woman trapped in a man’s body, and he has a little operation, he is a transsexual. When a gay man has way too much fashion sense for one gender, he is a Drag Queen.” This paper will strive to explain the world of drag and how this community is very folkloric in nature. The following information presented is with respect to the drag community in Columbia, South Carolina and some variation may exist between different drag communities of other cities, states, and countries. In the world of drag, there are two main types of queens, camp and glamour. Camp drag queens are those who dress as woman for a comedic, clown-like affect. This type of drag queen is less concerned with looking like a real woman as much as being an entertaining figure. Glamour drag queens are those who strive to impersonate a woman. Several drag queens try to impersonate famous people, including Liza Minnelli, Tina Turner, and Marilyn Monroe. While camp drag queens do drag mainly for entertainment purposes, many glamour drag queens not only perform, but live their lives as women.

As one can imagine, a man transforming himself into a woman is no easy task. After consulting many drag queen in the Columbia area, I discovered it takes on average one and a half to two hours to complete the transformation. The first step is creating a figure. Several queens use Styrofoam or cardboard to create hips and use a variety of materials to create breasts such as socks, water balloons, and flesh-like breast pads. Many duct tape the ‘boy fat’ under their arms or use bronzer or brown eye shadow to give the appearance of cleavage. A few drag queens even take estrogen pills to grow breasts or simply have breast implants. Once the figure is established, the next step is every drag queen’s favorite – the makeup! There are countless makeup techniques drag queens employ to make their faces more feminine. These include the application of lip liner to give the appearance of larger lips, covering up the eyebrows with a combination of glue and concealer, redrawing eyebrows higher on the forehead, and using light and dark colored makeup to give the appearance of high cheek bones and more slender noses and faces. Makeup can range from the extremely loud and flamboyant to more “classic” or subtle.

After makeup is completed, a costume is chosen. Because many men are not physically built to wear women’s clothing, it is very difficult, according to one drag queen, to find an outfit that “fits a six foot man with no hips.” Thus, drag queens very frequently make their own costumes or have them professionally tailored. If one happens to be low on funds, they may go buy something from Wal-mart or Marshal’s made to fit a larger-figured woman. Shoes are almost always some sort of heel such as a pump, stiletto, or wedge. Rarely will a drag queen ever perform in a shoe without some sort of heel. Last, but certainly not least, is the hair. Many drag queens buy wigs from local wig shops. However, some special-order wigs that can be made to fit certain specifications, but these are usually a great deal more expensive and are only used for special occasions such as large pageants or charity benefits.

The performance aspect of drag is what sets drag queens apart from cross-dressers. While a cross-dresser is simply a man or woman who dresses in the clothing of the opposite sex, a drag queen traditionally performs to different songs. This usually involves dancing on a stage while mouthing lyrics to a particular song – usually one that is very upbeat. However, there are instances where a performer may actually sing a song in falsetto to a backup track or mouth the words of a slow-paced song. As in all folk performances, markers clearly delineate the beginning and end. Because most drag shows occur within alternative lifestyle establishments such as gay clubs and bars, the beginning marker of a performance is the playing of a particular song that everyone within the establishment recognizes as the opening song to a show. This song could be any song ranging from “Come to the Cabaret” to “The Muppet Show Theme Song.” The end is usually by an announcement by an emcee, the playing of a finale song, or the playing of dance music that signals the audience is now free to dance on the stage that was previously occupied by the performers.

There are several performances that take place throughout the year both in Columbia and nationwide. The most prominent in Columbia is The Birdcage. This is a program at the University of South Carolina held during Creed Week where several prominent drag queens in the area donate their time and talent to raise money for charity. Other drag performances are Miss South Carolina Pride, Miss Liberty on the 4th of July, Miss Sweetheart on Valentine's Day, and Miss Newcomer for a queen who has never won a title. Aside from these rather large shows, there are also weekly shows at the different gay clubs around downtown Columbia. One of the largest nationwide drag shows is "Night of 1,000 Gowns" which is a benefit in New York City featuring an incredible number of queens in amazingly complicated drag costumes. For instance, think of someone with a five foot wig styled like the Empire State Building complete with King Kong crawling up the wig and little planes flying around the wig. Aside from this, there are several drag queen pageants, one of which is being Miss Gay America. This particular pageant was won this past year by a drag queen from Columbia, South Carolina named Luscious.

So why do drag? For many, it is a second job that provides additional income. Others perform on a full-time basis and make thousands of dollars performing. Others, such a Patti O’ Furniture, perform strictly for charity purposes. Pat, as he is called outside of the drag world, began performing over nine years ago on what began as a “one time thing.” The Birdcage was in its second year at the university and Pat was asked to help raise five hundred dollars in order to bring the group. Pat told the planning committee if they managed to raise the money on their own, he would emcee the show. The next day the money was raised and Pat became the emcee for The Birdcage. In Atlanta, Georgia, a group of camp drag queens known as the Amorettes raise money once a week for AIDS charities. By doing this, the group raises thousands of dollars for these charities. Pat, who is well-acquainted with the group, believed this same policy could be brought back to Columbia and is now the only drag queen in Columbia who donates all of his proceedings to AIDS charities. In fact, he keeps only enough money to help him pay for costumes and makeup. However, most drag queens just enjoy dressing up as another character and performing.

Drag is extremely folkloric in nature. Drag is not taught in a formal setting but learned by watching and learning. In general, drag queens are more than willing to help a newcomer with the