Gender Pretenders: A Drag King Ethnography

Lauren W Hasten

Department of Anthropology

Columbia University in the City of New York

February 1999

Contents

Introduction

Part I - Procedures

Fieldwork

Venues

Videotape

Interviews

The Camcorder

Shooting Shows

Shooting Interviews

The Proper Use of Pronouns

Fame and Pseudonymity

People-Boxes

Part II - People

Maureen Fischer

Betsey Gallagher

Mildred Gerestant

Shane

Wendy Wiseman

Antonio Caputo

Elizabeth Marrero

Shelly Mars

Diane Torr

Part III - Patterns

Masculinity and Maleness

Identifying with Men, Owning Masculinity

Feeling Like a"Faggot"

Hyperreality and Mimetic Transformation

Facial Hair

Packing

The Corroboration of a Female Partner

Passing

Anger, Abuse, and Performance

The Performance of Art

Camp

Stripping

The Politics of Performance

But What About Community?

Conclusions

Appendix

References

Shane and Dred

 

Introduction

I have never taken gender for granted. As a very young girl, I was convinced that I'd grow up to be a big, strong man; needless to say I was somewhat disappointed when puberty hit and made it quite clear that was not going to happen. As a short-haired, overweight tomboy, I grew used to adults calling me "son" and, "young man," and as a masculine woman have come to expect the occasional "sir." But I am not transgendered; I've grown to love being a woman, to appreciate my female body, and to value my identity as a lesbian. I do not feel"like a man" and do not want to be one; still, I am often accused of harboring such a desire. I am told that I dress like a man, I talk like a man, and I look like a man; surely I must want to be a man?

I credit Judith Halberstam and her book Female Masculinity with finally providing me with a rebuttal: I am not like a man; I am simply a masculine woman. Masculinity, Halberstam clarifies, is not equivalent to maleness; it is a set of specific behaviors and attitudes that are available to all who would access them, including women. In semeiosic terms, then, masculinity is a set of signs that are assumed by most to be indexical to gender, which they are not. C. S. Peirce explained that an indexical sign is one which bears a real and physical relationship to the thing it represents; a fever is therefore an index of infection, just as facial hair is an index of testosterone -- although not necessarily of maleness. Masculinity, however, is more properly symbolic; the relationship it bears to the thing it represents is maintained strictly by social convention, and not through any actual physical relationship. As a masculine woman, I have broken with convention and adopted a personal style which is, in some ways, incorrectly indexed to maleness. But with the semeiosic bonds of indexicality and social convention collapsed, the signs of masculinity are revealed for the gender ambivalent behaviors and attitudes that they are.

Masculinity, being in essence gender-free, takes many forms apart from maleness; maleness, however, carries a specific social demand for its emphatic expression. Males must in fact perform masculinity in an almost hyperbolic fashion in order to be convincing as men, while females must deny it all but the smallest expression; the same can be said, in reverse, of femininity. Such are the performative demands of gender in the work-a-day world, where most of us struggle to be naturalized. Importantly, this Butlerian gender performativity is not perceived as performance, by either the actor or the spectator; it is largely unconscious and fully internalized. But when gendered signs are consciously hyperbolized and presented expressly as performance, we arrive, I suggest, at gender theatricality.

Gender theatricality is more commonly known as drag. While generally conceptualized as cross-dressed behavior, drag can also be presented as self-same hyperbolized gender: witness the Village People. Drag, by nature gender-disruptive, is an intrinsically"queer" form of expression, linked specifically by various theorists to gay male culture. It was while watching Jennie Livingston's Paris is Burning, however, that I found myself questioning the gender balance of drag; surely there were some women doing it? Strikingly ethnographic, Livingston's drag queen documentary was yet another book in the rapidly growing library on feminine drag. But while drag queens from Ru Paul to Priscilla, Queen of the Desert have found parallel acceptance in both popular media and the academy, masculine drag remains a question largely un-asked.

I was not sure, at the outset of this project, whether or not there even was any such thing as a drag king, let alone in New York. Still, the idea was intriguing. What might a drag king be like? Not the mirror image of a queen, I imagined, for women are not merely the mirror of men. What might constitute masculine drag? Why might women do it? What meanings might it carry? The temptation to begin by comparing kings to queens was great, but one I determined to avoid. Enough has been spoken of men, I reasoned; women exist on their own without necessary reference to them. I decided to approach my inquiry empirically in the form of ethnographic fieldwork, seeking out scenes and informants, dealing only with what I could see and hear for myself. Utilizing various texts to gain an historical sense of masculine drag, I went out into the clubs and simply introduced myself to the kings that I found. I attended dozens of shows at different venues, socialized with some of the performers, and did one-on-one on-camera interviews.

I had no idea what I might find, but I was specifically hoping for one thing: community. Every ethnography I had ever read was based on a community of individuals living or working together in a particular place; the genre seemed to demand it. While New York City is a pretty big place, I hoped at least to find a group of people committed to a common goal, a similar aesthetic, a particular political message, or minimally, a sort of camaraderie. Apparently, I missed out on most of these things by a matter of months; what I found instead were relatively isolated individuals, each with their own methodology. Yet, despite the incredible diversity of styles, opinions, goals and identities, commonalities emerged -- only not where I expected them to. In this manner the work has been truly enlightening, and I feel that I have grown, both intellectually and emotionally, as a result.

 

 

 

Part I - Procedures

 

Fieldwork

•Venues

In April of 1998 I began attending a series of Thursday night drag shows at a lesbian bar called Crazy Nanny's in the western part of New York City's Greenwich Village. A two-story establishment, the lower level houses a bar and a pool table; upstairs lies a second bar, a small seating area, and a medium-sized dance floor with a small area set aside for a stage. Home to a weekly event called Dragnet, Crazy Nanny's provided a forum for both drag kings and queens, with attempted emphasis on the kings. The shows, hosted by a lesbian comic, usually began after midnight and featured anywhere from one to four drag performers. The great majority of acts I saw at Crazy Nanny's were lip-synched, and most were by women of color. Drag kings Dréd, Shane, Antonio Caputo and Macha made regular appearances there, while other drag artists occasioned the bar socially. Playing mostly hip-hop, R&B, and dance music, Crazy Nanny's attracted a primarily black and Latina group of women in their twenties and thirties. I attended weekly performances with some regularity for a period of approximately eight months, at which time I curtailed my fieldwork activities.

Drag king Murray Hill performed in a variety of venues, most of which were straight nightclubs; the first time I saw him perform was at a lounge called Life, whose logo was a stylized depiction of a sperm penetrating an ovum. The club was chic and pricey, providing only a drink menu with prices as high as $300.00. Playing techno-industrial and alternative dance music, it attracted a young, white, straight clientele; I sat for several hours and watched kids in their twenties nurse the single drink they could afford to buy. I also saw Murray when he appeared with drag king Mo B. Dick and his female sidekick, Bob, at Fez, a performance space located under the Time Cafe on Lafayette Street. There, the crowd was mixed and a little bit older, but still predominantly straight and white. Serving mid-sized meals and desserts, Fez came closest to providing a genuine cabaret atmosphere. Long tables were lined up at angles facing the stage, and several booths lined the walls.

Drag kings Mo B. Dick, Murray Hill, Dréd, Antonio Caputo, and Macha, as well as Shelly Mars, all appeared at various times at Meow Mix, a lesbian bar on Houston Street in the East Village. Playing mostly alternative rock, this club also attracted predominantly white women. They were, however, decidedly young and, "alternative"; Meow Mix provided the most tattoos and piercings per square foot. The basement, cramped and sparse, was the setting for a Dyke TV benefit featuring Antonio Caputo, Macha, and Shelly Mars; the stage for this event was barely two square feet, and the kings were forced to negotiate a small piece of the floor upon which the women were seated. The more roomy ground floor was where Judith Halberstam celebrated the release of her book, Female Masculinity, by inviting the kings to perform upon a medium-sized, slightly elevated platform.

Diane Torr and Shelly Mars appeared together at a West Village nightclub called Mother for an AIDS fundraising event that Torr had organized. Staffed mostly by drag queens, Mother was decidedly queer, white and thirty-something; men outnumbered the women by more than two to one. By contrast, the Club Casanova show (featuring Mo B. Dick, Bob, Dréd, Antonio Caputo, and Lucky 7) at Axis in Chelsea attracted an exclusively lesbian crowd; they, too, were white and predominantly thirty-something. While the stage at Mother was barely two feet from curtain to edge, Axis utilized a rather large, elevated seating area as a performance space; both spaces functioned to place the performers above the crowd and almost out of reach. Other performance venues included outdoor festivals and Gay Pride events, a student-organized Diva Ball at New York University, and a cavernous space called The Brooklyn Anchorage located inside the stone foundation of the Brooklyn Bridge.

 

•Videotape

A considerable amount of information, especially with regard to recent history, was gleaned from viewing videotapes; significant here were the contributions of Lucia Davis, an independent filmmaker who has been documenting the drag kings of New York since 1995. Her films, Kings of New York (1996), Murray for Mayor (1997), and Men We Love (1997), as well as her insights, were instrumental in providing background on the more cohesive drag king scene that existed seemingly just before my project began. They allowed me also to witness the infancy and recognize the maturation of kings such as Mo B. Dick, Murray Hill, Dréd and Shane (previously known as Shon).

Monika Treut's Virgin Machine (1988) provided me with an opportunity to see Shelly Mars doing masculine drag long before most of the other kings began performing; her scene as Martin steals the film. Diane Torr was kind enough to provide me with privately-made videotapes of several performances, as well as a copy of HBO's Girls Will Be Boys (1994), documenting her Drag King for a Day workshop. I, myself, shot several hours of videotaped performances for the purposes of repeated viewing and eventual analysis; I was assisted in this by Justine Frankovich, a friend and graduate film student.

 

•Interviews

Since the first drag king contests of the early 1990s, literally hundreds of women have performed masculine drag in New York City; some constructed minor careers for themselves, building name recognition within at least the lesbian community. The great majority, however, appear to have participated on a limited basis for a limited time, and even a lot of the"stars" eventually walked away. In the course of my fieldwork I discovered approximately twelve women currently entertaining as drag kings in New York City, most of whom had been doing so for more than two years. There were numerous other women who had, in the past, performed drag, but since I could not see their performances for myself, I decided that it would be unwise to attempt to include them in my analysis. I therefore confined my interviews to those whose performances I could personally witness.

While I interviewed only nine women in depth and on-camera, I chatted informally with up to a dozen more who were, or had formerly been, involved in performing masculine drag. On-camera interviews took place either in the home of the informant, or outdoors in a public space such as a park; I did one interview on a black tar rooftop in ninety-five degree heat, and another on a Sixth Avenue sidewalk in the din of rush-hour traffic. I interviewed each informant formally only once, at a pre-arranged time and location, after obtaining written consent to videotape. Interview lengths were constrained primarily by battery life and tape length; where at first I thought this a disadvantage, I later began to appreciate it for the structure it provided. I found that knowing I had only a limited amount of time encouraged me to keep the conversation focused, avoiding any interesting but nonproductive digressions. Interviews seemed to grow tiresome or repetitive after an hour to an hour and a half, about as long as two to three tapes or a single battery charge might last; indeed, most of my informants grew tired or annoyed if the interview threatened to go on any longer.

I had many informal exchanges with numerous drag artists, as well as their friends, romantic partners, family members and fans. At Crazy Nanny's, I got to know the manager and the event promoter, as well as the staff and a lot of the regulars. Where in the beginning, I had entered the bar anxious and feeling out of place, by the end it had become a sort of"Cheers" to me -- a place where everybody knew my name. While I tried to maintain something of an air of seriousness and professionalism there, I enjoyed myself immensely and made several new friends.

 

•The Camcorder

When I began planning out my fieldwork, one of the first issues I considered was the question of how to record my interviews. Afraid at first of souring the process by introducing an artificial element, I contemplated not recording them at all, but the burden of representation seemed too great without the words, themselves, to fall back on. I thought then of simply recording them on cassette tape, but the image of my own face, bored to tears over the necessary transcriptions, convinced me that videotape was a better choice. Having moved from one extreme to the other, I plunged forward into rationalization: Surely it is better to watch the face of someone speaking than simply to listen to her words; videotape would provide me with a wealth of information that audio tape could not. Simply setting up a formal interview had already introduced an element of artificiality to the exchange; why not go all the way? I could record on-stage performances as well as at home interviews, facilitating the anticipated comparison between person and persona. Besides, I reasoned, my informants are performers; they will want to be on camera. With this, I took my first naive steps into the realm of visual anthropology, where convenience battles constructedness and the researcher must find a way to strike a balance.

 

•Shooting Shows

As the fieldworker leans out over the vessel, the skipper hails him with"Here's the fellow who's going to take photographs, boys." The observer is introduced as someone who has a job to do; he will be as active as they are.

(Collier, 11)

I am neither a filmmaker nor a photographer, but I learned through my research the power of the camera as a veritable all-access pass. The best example of this occurred during Gay Pride Weekend when I went to see drag kings Dréd and Shane perform on the main stage on Washington Street. It was a searingly hot day and the streets of the West Village were jam-packed with revelers. The police had literally fenced in pedestrians with barricades, funneling the throng through a narrow gauntlet of navy blue to selected points of access; my dreams of crossing Seventh Avenue South at Christopher Street were dashed as I was pushed along two blocks further south. It was nearly noon and I was already late in arriving, so I hurried west toward Washington Street and the staging area. The barricades were up, however, and I was led to a point about four blocks north of where I needed to be on Washington Street. Ahead of me, a sea of people, thousands upon thousands shuffling shoulder to shoulder through the ridiculously narrow passage of gutter that was the festival grounds; at the rate I was moving, I would miss Dréd, 's performance entirely.

Exasperated and annoyed by the cattle-pen conditions, I made my way to the sidewalk and ducked behind the vendor trucks and stalls. Gingerly stepping over power cords and behind generators, I slipped through to the end of the block and exited Washington Street to walk down a parallel, uncrowded street. I came up on the main stage from behind but was disappointed to find the area blocked off and patrolled by security. Pressed for time, I stepped over the barrier and approached someone on staff for the event."I'm sorry," I smiled,"but I need to get through to the front of the stage. I'm here to shoot the show." Asked if I was on"the list," I replied,"I don't know, but you can ask drag king Dréd. He's expecting me." Hot and tired, the fellow simply looked at my camera bag and nodded."See him," he pointed, indicating a guard near the stage.

Moments later I found myself immediately in front of the stage, at the head of a crowd of thousands. Feeling strangely empowered, I grinned and began setting up my gear. When I opened my tripod, several people stepped out of my way; when I began recording, they admonished each other not to block the camera. Folks offered their opinions as to the best angle to shoot from or the best performer to videotape, and I felt like a VIP. My camera battery died about halfway through the show but I stayed to watch anyway, letting them think I was still recording.

I personally never shot any videotape at Crazy Nanny's, my primary venue, but Justine Frankovich came twice to do so on my behalf. I had already decided that I wanted everyone there to be comfortable with me as a regular, and I felt that a camera would only separate me from them. When Frankovich arrived with her gear I introduced her as"my camerawoman"; she claimed a perch which clearly obstructed the view of others, but no one complained. It was, in fact, the only time my presence at the club was noted on stage by the comic, who made a routine of"shouting out" the notables in the crowd. Childishly, I'd waited a while for that bit of recognition, and I was surprised that the camera inspired it.

At places like Meow Mix and Mother my camera secured me a prime viewing position and a small degree of respect from the group assembled, who generally were concerned not to get in my way. Had I been without the camera, I likely would not have pushed my way to the front as I did, nor maintained such a steadfast position. The camera gave me courage in that regard, and an extra shot of confidence that I might be taken seriously as a professional. On one occasion it served, I think, to make me more interesting to a few women who paid a bit more attention to me than they otherwise might have. It certainly carried with it a sort of power, which I recognized immediately and did in fact attempt to manipulate.

The camera did, however, have its drawbacks, and after several experiences I stopped bringing it with me to shows. It framed not only what I saw, but what I experienced. I found that operating the camcorder during a show forced me to focus on it, rather than the performance; it also tended to isolate me from the experience of the audience. With one eye closed and the other squinting into a viewfinder, I was truly half blind. On one occasion, my preoccupation with finding a suitable electric outlet once my battery had died essentially ruined my experience of the show. I missed nearly ten minutes in just seeking a spot; forced finally to shoot the action on stage from a distant DJ booth, I could neither see nor appreciate what was happening. Looking through the lens, I had a false sense of distance and entirely no idea of what was really going on around me. Hoping to produce a reasonably professional tape, I was concerned with lighting and exposure, framing, battery power, and tape length time. Sometimes poor lighting forced me to pull in closely on a drag king in order to make out his face; this meant that I did not see the full of his body during the act. Compelled to focus thusly on creating a product, I could little appreciate the creativity before me. It was only when I went home and viewed the tapes that I really enjoyed the performances, but I had retained no perspective at all on the reactions of the audience. Grateful now that I have them to watch, I wish only that somebody else had shot them.

Sometimes the video camera had an impact on a particular performance. Its very presence appeared to demand the attention of the artist, but when faced with the promise of tips he could usually manage to ignore it. When a situation prevented the crowd from directly interacting with a performer, however, the camera could become an attractive audience. On several occasions I saw people play to it intentionally, unaware sometimes that I was not even recording. Under certain circumstances, I believe the videocamera actually enhanced a performance, its promise of repeated replayings providing added performance incentive; I have heard a few performers admit that this is the case.

It was not difficult to obtain any performer's permission to film a show; what proved more complicated was explaining my purposes. This involved a kind of sales pitch which I recognized as such, but was anxious to render as genuine. Several of the women with whom I worked are seasoned performers who have grown somewhat used to having writers, photographers, and filmmakers around them; some were leery of being misrepresented or perhaps cheated out of whatever profit I might at some time earn through the use of my tapes. I assured them all that I had no intention of using my recordings for commercial purposes, explaining that if ever that were to happen, I would need to seek a separate, signed consent. I declared that I was not a filmmaker, but a student, intent on representing them to an academic community with the express purpose of earning my degree; I could not have been any more honest, and I am certain that it was appreciated.

All of the women agreed to be filmed, but some were more concerned than others to elaborate their rights under our agreement. Eventually I arrived at a form I referred to as an"anti-release" because it allowed the signee to revoke my rights at virtually any time. (See Appendix.) Even this form raised some experienced eyebrows, to which I responded:"Change whatever you like and sign it, and I'll initial the changes." Most requested at least a screening before I showed any taped material; some asked only for private copies of what I had recorded.

 

•Shooting Interviews

Videotaping my interview sessions turned out to be rather complicated; artists expressed concerns ranging from privacy to dress, location and length. Some were reluctant to have me in their homes, while others offered me meals and return invitations. While all of the women signed my release form, in certain cases I had to expressly state that I would not be including this footage in my edited presentation reel; a performer anxious to be filmed in action is not always happy to expose her real self to the lens. Often it was evident that the content of our conversations was to be kept private and anonymous, and I promised nearly everyone that I would do so with regard to at least one matter.

I resolved before beginning my research to videotape my interviews so as to have an audio-visual record to refer to when preparing my paper; it is a decision that had a notable impact on my results. Just the act of setting up a camera to face someone immediately creates not only an artificial environment, but an invisible audience and a heightened set of expectations. Roland Barthes told us,"Now, once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of'posing,' I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image" (10). Indeed, I often saw this very process occurring before my eyes as I pressed the"record, " button. Some of the women, professionally trained as actors, almost could not help but look into the lens when speaking to me, regardless of where I was seated. When I tried to anticipate this once by standing behind the tripod, my informant told me to"sit away from that so I don't have to stare at the camera. Jesus, that's what 60 Minutes does;" she then proceeded to look at it quite a bit, anyway. Another informant asked,"Do you want me to look at the camera?" "You can look at me," I responded;"you can look wherever you want to." She too, spoke more to it than to me. There was, for me, a constant conflict between the desire to make a good videotape and the need to do a good interview. While only a few informants posed and strutted specifically for the camera, I am certain that nearly every interview carried an edge of camera-influenced theatricality.

On the other hand, as I said earlier, the camera did provide a sort of regular structure to the interviews, acting in some ways as an equalizer in terms of mood, setting, and length. It appeared to encourage verbosity in some and quietude in others, but I believe that most of my informants measured their words fairly carefully, knowing they were being recorded. Some felt a drive to be exceedingly productive and helpful, while others, upon later viewing, looked somewhat stricken by the process. While happy indeed to have these tapes to refer to, I find myself suddenly understanding the perspective of those who might wish for more covert recording methods. Unethical though it is, one yearns for that lost degree of naturalness which is eroded by the presence of a visible camera.

 

The Proper Use of Pronouns

The reader may have noticed my use of the word, "he" when referring to the women involved in this project; I would here point out that this is in fact not the case. I learned from several of the drag kings that proper etiquette demands they be addressed as "he" when in drag; my usage of a masculine pronoun is intended to denote that I am speaking of a male character rather than the woman who portrays him. Maureen Fischer (a.k.a. Mo B. Dick) put it best:"If I'm working hard to keep this male persona, this illusion of being male, to refer to me as'she' just defaces everything I'm doing. It negates everything I'm doing. It tells me that I'm not passing. It's infuriating."

Using the wrong pronoun is a mistake that many drag queen hostesses make at mixed king/queen events. Explaining that gay men tend to call everyone"girl," Fischer noted that lesbians rarely engage in such cross-gendered naming; even the most masculine of women almost never call each other"boy." When a drag queen refers to a king as"she," she (the queen) may be doing so out of a sense of inclusive camaraderie, rather than an overt denial of masculine success. Despite friendly intentions, several of the kings made it clear to me that this, in the context of a performance, is an inappropriate usage which indicates a refusal to recognize a crossing of gender with which drag queens, in particular, should be familiar."I would never deface a drag queen and say,'he'," Fischer told me."That's never done. Never." In the spirit of respect, then, I refer to all drag king personae as"he."

 

Fame and Pseudonymity

Under ordinary circumstances an ethnographer uses pseudonyms to refer to her informants; using a videocamera renders that exercise fairly useless. More importantly, in this particular case, the informants are performers who seek employment and fame, and the camera offers much-needed exposure. Many of the women I worked with in fact expressed a desire to be recognized for their efforts, to have their contributions documented, and their performances shown to others. It was obvious to me from the beginning that they would want me to use their real names.

Yet, some told me incredibly personal things. While it was clear that I had permission to use whatever information I was given in the formulation of my thesis, it was also obvious to me that a few desired anonymity on certain topics. Therefore I have taken an approach which detaches the more sensitive statements from those who made them, while attributing the more harmless ones correctly to their authors. Despite the sort of tabloid, gossip column effect this may produce, I believe it is the best compromise I can achieve under the circumstances.

 

People-Boxes

It is unfortunately necessary to define a few terms before moving on. I say"unfortunately" because language works best when it is allowed some fluidity, yet critical discussion demands that we make certain we are all talking about the same thing. I did, in the course of my research, attempt to elicit some definitions from the performers themselves, but found, firstly, that no two were the same and secondly, that many grew annoyed when asked to define themselves. No one likes to be put into a box or placed into a file, and most don't appreciate having limits drawn around their set of possibilities. This was the case with regard to everything from sexual orientation to gender identity. It falls to me then, to define my own terms so that I may demonstrate internal consistency at least.

"What is a drag king?" I asked this of nearly everyone, and only a few actually answered:

I'd define"drag" as dressing as something that you're not used to. Like for you, I would say drag is getting long hair with make-up and fake long nails and a dress and heels, because that's not something you'll ever do, probably.

To me, drag king is performance, and cross-dressing is a lifestyle kind of a thing -- somebody who's dressing as a man and passing every day. I think a drag king is like a drag queen; it's about performance. It's about being big and larger than life perhaps, or stereotypical, taking those stereotypes and playing on them.

Drag's a lot of different things. It's a lot of things for different people. For me it's all about parody, and that's pretty much it. Parody, and then I use it as a vehicle to express my feminist goals.

Some automatically associate being in drag with pasting on facial hair. It's really a sort of performance aura or intention. . . or, you have to be passing.

The main element of drag, to me, is parody. It's comedy.

According to Judith Halberstam, who has spent a considerable amount of time researching drag kings,"A drag king is a female (usually) who dresses up in recognizably male costume and performs theatrically in that costume" (1998:232). While I find the formulation useful, I suggest instead a more expansive definition which recognizes the fact that costume is but one of a set of signs adopted by masculine drag artists. A drag king, male or female, expressly performs maleness by hyperbolizing the signs of masculinity; conversely, a drag queen expressly performs femaleness by hyperbolizing the signs of femininity. Biological maleness carries with it the social demand for an emphatic use of masculine signs; drag takes this one step further by intentionally hyperbolizing and theatricizing those signs, regardless of gender. Such gender theatricality may sometimes attempt to render itself as genuine and seek to pass, but its origins always lay in a conscious performance of gendered stereotypes which are themselves hyperbolic. Passing women, by contrast, live their lives as men, preferring, as they do, understatement to hyperbole. Like biological men, they utilize the signs of masculinity emphatically; emphasis and hyperbole are quite different things.

Gender theatricality, as defined earlier and above, is independent of sexual orientation; anyone can do it. Still, the fact remains that the great majority of drag artists are either gay, lesbian, or transgendered, and that all of the women with whom I worked built primary emotional and sexual relationships with other women. But when I asked them if there was any relationship between their sexual orientation and their work as drag artists, most responded negatively, attributing the choice instead to a profusion of feminist goals; only one suggested that it helped to have a sexual knowledge of women when entertaining as a drag king. Why then, were the drag kings all queer? In my introduction I suggested that since drag is by nature gender-disruptive, it has always come naturally to queers. But many scholars have linked drag to camp and seen both specifically as products of gay male culture; lesbians who did drag were simply borrowing the strategy (see Bergman; Meyer).

I see this line of thinking as but another example of the pervasive tendency to view women as naught but a pale imitation of men. Drag, some claim, has a history among gay men that it simply does not among lesbians; therefore it must belong exclusively to gay male culture. I suggest rather that drag has something of a history among all gender transgressors, and that drag is attractive to all those who feel limited by their assigned gender roles. Women, however, had simply lost the space they had to perform it; the drag king concept, while"always available," never had the chance to develop"into a continuously generating tradition the way drag queen has." à While the first half of the 20th century saw a tradition of cross-dressing actresses, blues women and lounge singers flourish (see Halberstam; Faderman; Ferris), the feminist movement of the 1970s fostered the spread of an anti-male attitude among women, especially lesbians, who until rather recently had little desire to engage masculinity in any form. Masculine women were ridiculed within feminist ranks for imitating men, while lesbian couples with a butch-femme aesthetic were chastised for aping heterosexuality and perpetuating the patriarchy (see Nestle; Faderman; Rubin). There was simply no friendly space for a drag king.

Several of the women I spoke to expressed surprise that they were, in fact, accepted among the more"P.C." lesbians, who"traditionally have hated men;" ¤ they did not expect their acts to go over as well as they did. It is true, I believe, that fifteen or twenty years ago, their acts would not have been well received. But audiences have changed. Drag kings have emerged in the'90s, I suggest, because the political environment has changed yet again, and men are no longer cast as villains. Post-feminists are less willing to see themselves as victims of a male enemy and more likely to consider themselves liberated and independent actors. Young women today refuse to acknowledge any sort of gender imbalance they cannot overcome, and many respect the"new man" as a vital contributor to society. The age of AIDS, too, has drawn lesbians and gay men together, where they have found certain shared aspects of culture and sexuality; a lesbian can accept her attraction to masculinity and still remain true to her politics. Women, feeling more secure in their gains and achievements, see themselves on a more equal footing with men. As men and masculinity grow in the esteem of women and lesbians, masculine women reap some of the benefits; because men are no longer perceived as threatening, it is safe once again for women to be masculine. It makes sense, then, that the post-feminist'90s have finally opened up a space for drag kings to exist; it also accounts for the fact that nearly all of my informants went for the feminist explanation of why they do drag.

Since I will be using the term in this paper, it must be explained that a masculine woman who identifies as a lesbian is often referred to as"butch." According to Gayle Rubin,"Butch is most usefully understood as a category of lesbian gender that is constituted through the deployment and manipulation of masculine gender codes and symbols" (1992:467). Butch women are sometimes confused with drag kings because both are females who express masculinity. But unlike the drag king, a butch woman does not consider her masculinity to be an intentional performance, much less one that is specifically hyperbolized. It is who she is and not an act, and while some butch women do indeed pass as men, they do so without specific intent.

Women who intentionally set out to pass as men generally recognize that they are performing maleness, rather than simply adopting certain signs associated with masculinity. Performing maleness requires not only the rejection of feminine signs but, as I have said, a certain emphatic expression of masculinity. It is a fine line to walk then, for a passing woman's performance of gender must not be excessively hyperbolized to the point that it reveals itself as an act; her life sometimes rests on the fact that the performance appears genuine. A female-to-male transgendered person, by contrast, genders himself as genuinely male; if he is"acting," is it only in the sense that the gender he performs has not been entirely internalized, and so must be consciously learned and habituated. Only the drag artist consciously acts out gender with some degree of hyperbolic theatricality, rather than simple internalized identification."Male impersonator," I suggest, is a catch-all term that may be applied to any woman self-identified as female who performs maleness, be it theatrically or in a temporary effort to pass."Genderfuck," however, is constituted by the conscious desire to escape from dichotomized gender; it is marked by the visible combination of both masculine and feminine signs, whether hyperbolic and theatricized, or naturalized in the form of androgyny or, in certain cases, butchness.

 

 

 

Part II - People

 

The following section is intended as a brief introduction to each of the women with whom I worked most closely. Since the reader can neither meet these performers nor view their performances, I have tried in these chapters to provide a general sense of how they presented themselves to me, both on the stage and off. The personal details provided here are done so by the express permission of the participants; where anonymity was desired, statements have been omitted and reserved for pseudonymous discussion elsewhere.

 

 

 

Maureen Fischer Mo B. Dick as Mo B. Dick

(photographer unknown)

"Instead of being an angry woman,

I became a funny man."

- Maureen Fischer

 

The night I saw Paris is Burning, I hurried home to my computer. Logging on to Infoseek's search engine, I typed in"drag king" and hoped for a happy coincidence. Distressed at the return of only a short list of NASCAR websites, I switched to Yahoo and tried again; the very first site listed was that of New York's Club Casanova, the brainchild of Maureen Fischer, alias Mo B. Dick. A weekly event whose life expired shortly before I began my research, the Club lives on in the persons of its primary performers, foremost among them its creatrix, Mo Fisher. These are the people who formed my basic pool of informants, and most of the performances I saw were made by its constituent members.

The Casanova website *, administered by a professional web designer, is extremely well put together, high-gloss, and information packed. It is also plainly politicized: The second page one accesses contains a running countdown, to the second, of the time left to go until the end of the current Mayoral administration. The first page details the events surrounding the birth and subsequent death of the Club:

Mo B. Dick started Club Casanova with Mistress Formika in 1996 as the first weekly regular Drag King show in New York City. The idea was simply to give drag kings an outlet to express themselves, but what happened was an explosion. Queers, Hets, Bi's, Dykes, Bikes, Freaks, Punks, Monks, and everyone else came from miles around to see those sexy swaggering macho sex-machines strut their stuff. The proprietor of this madness, Mr. Mo B. Dick, put together some amazing shows for dazzled onlookers. Shows got more elaborate and exciting. But then the police came.

New York's Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani -- referred to as"Ghouliani" by those less satisfied with his performance -- embarked in 1997 upon a much-publicized campaign to improve New Yorkers' "Quality of Life." While doing so, his litter squads targeted nearly everyone from butt-dropping smokers to coffee-drinking commuters. Specially singled out for legal attention, however, were the adult businesses. Utilizing oft-ignored legislation ("carryovers from Prohibition," the Casanova website informed me), the city set about closing as many peep shows and triple-x stores as possible, while archaic cabaret statutes forced several bars out of business. In 1998, one bar owner found a rather ironic way around the problem: He changed his policy to admit minors when accompanied by adults; thusly was his place no longer an"adult business."

Eventually the tide turned against Cake, the East Village bar that had been a cozy home to Club Casanova every Sunday night. They were cited for two violations -- one for simply having curtains hung too low in their windows -- and a third would have meant the revocation of their liquor license, a loss the owners could ill afford. Backing away from the risk, they shut their doors. Fischer laments the loss of the venue as the beginning of the end of Club Casanova, speaking with disdain of the polished-wood sports bar that emerged in the space a few months later. The show moved to another venue but for Fisher, it was never the same. So Mr. Dick and the boys went on the road --"twenty-six shows in sixteen cities, folks, never been done before" -- and returned eventually to a dampened downtown scene.

Feeling reasonably well-informed after this Club Casanova-sponsored education, I followed its advice and went the following Thursday night to Crazy Nanny's, a lesbian bar I'd virtually grown up in, where a new weekly drag event had been born. It was there, on the occasion of my third visit to Dragnet, that I met Mo Fischer. I'd been planning on calling her, but had been putting it off until I felt I understood my project a bit better; I wanted to have something intelligent to say to her, since it was clear to me that she was an intelligent person. Kate, who was promoting the event at the time, took the stage to introduce the show. She announced the presence of Mo B. Dick in the crowd, but when I turned around to look I saw no one in drag aside from the scheduled performers. There were a lot of butch women, to be sure, but none in drag. A short time later Kate pulled me by the arm and introduced me to perhaps the last person I'd expected to be Mo B. Dick. She was not in drag, of course, and I was somewhat shocked. For while the photos on the Casanova website had prepared me for the sharp and studly fellow pictured above, Mo Fischer turned out to be a beautiful, feminine, lipstick-wearing woman. I'd expected a drag king to be butch.

Fischer has a head of short, thick, blond hair and big, blue eyes that always seem to be wide open; she looks at you with an intensity that seems to inquire constantly whether or not you are listening. Her facial structure is well-defined and somewhat square; she told me,"I've had female-to-male transsexuals say to me,'I love your jaw. I'd kill for that jaw.' They love my whole facial structure; they consider it more masculine." Slim and small-breasted, her body is well-suited to male drag but her presence is entirely feminine. Within moments of meeting her I was certain of her intelligence and passion for performance. Eager for intellectual engagement, immediately she began throwing information at me -- so much so that I embarassedly had to ask her to"save it for later," when I'd be able to record or take notes. She told me right off that to her, drag is very political, and then she began talking about gender inequality. Much as I wanted to have the conversation, Shane's act was starting and I could barely hear her over the music. I took her phone number and promised to call her the following week.

I videotaped an interview with Fischer about a week later, fully two weeks before I actually saw her perform. I had seen several drag king performances at Crazy Nanny's by then, however, and read all of the Club Casanova press available on the web. Still, it is awkward to interview a performer one has never seen on stage, especially when it is the first interview one has ever conducted; fortunately, a silent mule could have done the job. Used to being interviewed, Fischer is very good at it and requires little assistance from the interviewer; consequently, she makes the perfect informant. When I arrived at her apartment she had books and videos waiting for me, as well as an extensive scrapbook of her own activities. She was helpful and informative, and quick to credit the work of others, both performers and academics. We discussed Esther Newton, Judith Butler, Kate Bornstein and Judith Halberstam, all of whom she was familiar with. I left her apartment that day with over two and one half hours of videotaped interview, every minute of it jam-packed with fundamental information, a stack of magazine and newspaper articles, and a list of books to read. My visit with Fischer had been more productive than my last trip to the library, and thanks to her, I was beginning to get an idea of what I was doing.

I finally got to see her perform during Gay Pride Weekend at a special revival of the Club Casanova road show. They were booked into a large Chelsea night club called Axis, with an elevated stage that was inexplicably roped off. Fischer opened the show in the guise of the Reverend Jimmy Johnson, a southern preacher with a bad toupee who appeared to be on the spiritual equivalent of Ecstasy. He made his entrance into the crowd, shouting,"Hallelujah! Amen!" and sprinkling holy water on us as he passed. Taking the stage, he proclaimed loudly,"The Drag Kingdom is come!" and, reading from"The Book of More-Men," proceeded to address the crowd with Pentecostal fervor:

"Brothers and Sisters, I want to read from the righteous book of the gender free. Right here in Chapter 13 it says, and I quote: and on the eighth day the gods realized that there must be a third sex. And then the gods created the royal family of the drag queens and the drag kings. Hallelujah!"

Now here is a drag king, I thought, who's read Gilbert Herdt. Fully aware of the theory behind the performance, the Reverend condensed it for the audience:

"Brothers and Sisters, many people ask me, they say, what is a drag king? What is it? What is it? What is this movement that's sweeping the nation? What is it? I'm here to tell you; I'm a special messenger. I am a Reverend. A drag king is a person who wants gender euphoria! A drag king is a person who has accepted their female masculinity! And a drag king is a person who likes fast cars and cheap women, Amen! Amen! Ooh, Lordy, I'm feelin' it!"

Later on, Mo B. Dick made his first appearance on that roped-off stage. Virtually the first thing he did after introducing himself was to take that rope in his fist and ask us,"What the fuck is with the ropes? Right? They're ropin' us in!" He simply voiced what all of us were thinking."You know who's this? I'll tell you. I'll tell you, I asked tha' fella back there, god bless him, Scott, right? Giuliani! This shit is Giuliani! I'm not lyin'! Am I right? I said,'Get ridda tha' fuckin' ropes!' He says,'Buddy, I can't do that.' No joke. Fuckin' bastard." Separating me from you, he seemed to be saying, roping me off like a freak, like an enemy. He stood there with his big blond pompadour, gold-capped tooth, snazzy suit and funky shoes, uttering unselfconscious profundities and pulling at his necktie like an oversexed Rodney Dangerfield. I saw nothing but a guy on the stage; any trace of femininity was either gone or thoroughly obscured, and the politics, while up front, were strangely dislocated from the erotic reality of the performance. Instead of a woman, I saw, as Fischer says,"a funny man" with a great big bulge in his left pant leg where his absurdly erect penis was lodged.

Acting as M.C. for the evening, Mr. Dick worked the mic like a stand-up comic, bantering back and forth with the audience. Fischer likens him to Andrew Dice Clay; loud and crass, he's a womanizer who claims he's"no homo." He flirted unabashedly with the women in the audience and then introduced them to his fiancée, Bob, a"female, female impersonator"  ; she called him"Daddy" and ogled him adoringly. The two of them then did a duet à la Sonny and Cher, called, "I Got You, Bob," which included the following refrain sung by Bob:"And when I'm bad/at goin' down,/if I use my teeth,/you slap me around." Fischer explained,"The persona, the character that I have adopted, is in your face. In your face! He epitomizes the stereotypical attributes that I don't like in men." Still, he's good-looking and amusing, and somehow strangely sexy, too; one ends up liking him despite the fact that he's not really a likable guy. Fischer, for her part, would have it either way, and is in fact most flattered when people claim,"I hate you!" "Thank you!" she returns happily, convinced that she is doing something right.

When on stage, Fischer prefers to stay completely in character as a man; it is for this reason that she generally does not strip. She does, however, do a rather a mind-boggling genderfuck number called, "Are You a Boy or a Girl?" where she appears, from the head up, as Mo B. Dick. The problem is that, from the neck down, she's a babe with gorgeous gams in a wonderbra and pumps. Halfway through the number she allows the audience to see her erect"penis" beneath the negligee. Fischer told me that she feels"more like a man in a dress" than a woman during this number."I've got the facial hair and the pompadour, and I put on a wonderbra and I've got a slip dress, dildo and fishnets, and stilettos. So I'm feeling my tits and then I feel my dick, and then I'm all {confused}, and I can't figure out, are you a boy or a girl? So it's this whole weird hermaphrodite kind of performance, and it freaks people out. Because, if I start working out really hard, going to the gym, I could be all buff. And then I've got these fairly pretty legs, so that would fuck people up even more.

"I did La Cage Aux Folles,'I Am What I Am.' It's funny because it's a woman dressing as a man dressing as a woman. I come out in this long wig and kimono, and I rip it all off, rip off the wig. And underneath it I've got fishnets and stilettos, and boy's underwear and a T-shirt, so my tits are strapped down. So that's another weird bend.'I Am What I Am -- well, what are you?! I like genderfuck stuff like that more than blatantly coming out and exposing my female self. I haven't done that; I don't know that I will. Maybe I will, maybe I won't. Because to me, it takes so much work to maintain the male persona. That's a lot of work, capturing that, keeping that, maintaining that illusion. To me that's the greater part of it, really working on it. Because I'm a woman every day, all the time."

 

 

Betsey Gallagher Murray Hill as Murray Hill

photo by Lucien Samaha, c. 1997 The Face

"I really want to run for President."

- Betsey Gallagher

 

I first read about Betsey Gallagher in The Village Voice in late 1997, when her alter ego, Murray Hill, was running for Mayor of New York City against Rudy Giuliani. Perpetually 45 years old, Murray is a short, fat, middle-aged white guy, a regular working schlub with a wife and two kids. A laid-off token-booth clerk, he wears conservative suits and wide ties, gold-framed glasses, and his hair slicked back and parted on the side. He greets everybody with the same,"Hi, howya doin'?" and sends them off with a hearty"God bless ya!" You almost don't notice his breasts.

"Hey, a lot of middle-aged white guys have tits," says Gallagher, the 27-year old woman behind the mascara mustache,"You know. You've seen them." She conceived Murray while studying for her Master's degree at the School of Visual Arts, where her focus had been on photography. She'd come to New York from Boston University in late 1995, bright-eyed and enthusiastic, a portfolio of drag queen photos tucked under her arm."So I had this body of work," she told me,"and then I thought,'Okay, I'm going to New York, and I'm over Boston. I want to go to New York and be a photographer.' Just like everybody else. Little did I know that the work I was doing, everybody else was doing." The message finally got through to her at Wigstock."I was down there and I saw millions of photographers. Everyone was doing the same thing, literally. It was like (mimes a dropping bomb), New York, let's face it now! I was totally freaked out. The whole situation just weirded me out and I had this epiphany. All these guys were around, all these fags, so many people, so many photographers. And there were no dykes."

Right then was when she stopped taking photos of drag queens. Deciding instead to document the women and lesbians she knew must be out there, she began looking for drag kings. Her timing could not have been better, for it was shortly before the birth of Club Casanova and a series of drag king contests were being held at the Her/She Bar in Chelsea."I was there as this little naive photographer, taking photos of everybody, the whole scene. In the beginning it was very mellow, people would just walk up on stage, and I'd think,'Oh, I could totally do this. I could really be funny and do funny things.' But there was still the camera; I was tied to the camera." Despite her desire to perform, she was not yet ready to move from the silent to the spoken.

"So I had all these photographs and I was showing them at school. I got some work published, and everyone at school was really excited about it. But then I was like,'Fuck the art world.' It wasn't satisfying for me and I wasn't reaching my goals by putting up photos for grad students, or putting up photos for art people. Because I wanted to show lesbians, and show drag kings, and show what was going on to everybody, to get it out there. I mean, it's not really that effective to show it to this very small group. I wanted more. More, more, more, more. So there was a conflict happening with that. The photographs were great, and they were well-received, but it wasn't enough."

Eventually a friend offered her a job as a cigarette girl --"with the dress and heels and pumps" -- in a new nightclub known as The 999999s, a"straight, trendy, cocktail-lounge kind of place." When he offered to buy her a dress, Gallagher tried to think of the role as"girl drag," a pure performance. Still, she could not shake her sense of discomfort. Thinking twice, she phoned her friend and told him,"I want to do this, but it's not going to work out." When he offered to buy her a suit instead, she was instantly relieved;"I think that's going to work a little better," she replied. And so she began working on Sunday nights in drag, pushing cigarettes and taking photos of the customers.

Shortly thereafter, Gallagher began appearing regularly at Club Casanova, where she did a series of wickedly funny drag impersonations. Her various incarnations included a gray-haired Bela Karolyi, urging little Kerri Strug on despite her broken leg, holding out the promise of a meal as reward; she was John Travolta on Grease night and Elvis on Elvis night, albeit in his"puffy," later days. It was a busy time for Gallagher:"I was at The 999999s every Sunday and then I would go to Casanova for these little shows. It was the same night, so I'd work at The 999999s till one, take a cab over, do the show, go back to The 999999s till four o'clock in the morning. That kind of thing."

She was still in school at the time, attending classes and taking photos, but her interests were steadily moving away from photography and more toward performance. The conflict grew until a supportive professor took her aside."There was just a point where she knew there was so much tension there, and it wasn't working for me to try to stay in the photographic medium. So she said,'You gotta' stop taking photos. You need to concentrate on this character. You need to do this, you need to work on this. Don't waste your time in the darkroom. You need to be doing this full-time'." So Murray was born, and the fellow who began as a sleazy sort of playboy lounge-singer snapshot-hound was transformed into Mr. Hill, the clean-cut family man.

The reason for the change, of course, was political; this became clear the night Murray tossed his hat into the Mayoral race at Club Casanova. Rudy Giuliani was up for almost uncontested re-election on a platform that promised to continue closing down bars and nightclubs, mostly businesses that happened to be queer spaces or downtown performance spaces. Someone had to stop him, so Murray went out stumping:"Mayor Ghouliani is trying to clean up our city," he railed,"and I will not tolerate his behavior!!" Hill promised to give New York City back to"the young people," to"make sure that New York City is dancing every night of the week, 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year." He preached a brand of"family values" that included respect for the rights of lesbians and gays, claiming,"I'm not gay, but my daughter is," despite the fact that she was only six years old at the time. He shook hands at street fairs, night clubs, and queer events, winding up in newspapers and on television.

When the race was over and defeat conceded, Murray settled for the distinction of having Gallagher write her Master's thesis about him. He scaled back his operations a bit, preferring to stick to nightclub appearances where he has built up a repertoire of over fifty songs, all"big numbers" which he puts over with a style all his own; he can't really sing, but his attitude is stellar. Most of his gigs are at straight clubs frequented primarily by white people with enough money to pay for a $25.00 glass of Scotch, or at least a few well drinks. He's fond of limousines and entourages, and is usually on his way to going somewhere else. He works often with his wife, Penelope Tuesdae, whom he met thirty-five years ago at a karaoke bar -- he would have been ten years old at the time. They have been married for twenty-five years, and she's been played by at least three people. Murray thrives on this kind of incongruity; his mustache is painted on, his breasts are obvious, and his son is sometimes played by a plastic doll.

I met Murray near the beginning of my fieldwork and saw him thereafter several times; not once did I catch a glimpse of Betsey. Gallagher rarely makes a public appearance out of drag, and when she is in drag, she is completely in character. Brash and overblown, Murray insists that you respond to him as Murray, and there is nary a sign of Betsey. I was always"kid, " to him, and I could never be certain whether or not he was taking me seriously. I remember wondering where the line of demarcation was; where did Murray end and Betsey begin? I recall telling Mildred Gerestant, a.k.a. drag king Dréd, how I felt around Murray."It's kind of difficult to negotiate for me," I explained,"because from one minute to the next, I'm not sure how to respond. Am I reacting to the male character? Am I reacting to the woman inside? Because when I'm with Murray I'm totally reacting to Murray. It's like, I have to react to Murray because Murray doesn't give me a choice; there's no Betsey there to react to. And with Maureen, it's like, when she's in drag as Mo and she's on stage or she's on her way to being on stage, if she's getting in character, she's very solidly in character. But once she steps off stage and you start talking to her, little by little by little, she falls out of character. And then eventually I'm talking to Maureen in a mustache. And it's wild to feel it happen."

Gallagher was the last person I interviewed for my project, almost six months to the day from the first time I met Murray. I admit it was a shock, as I had no idea what to expect when I met her at her Brooklyn apartment. As I stepped out of my car, she leaned her head outside her second-story window and whistled. I looked up and briefly caught sight of her face but did not recognize her until she met me at the door. Even then, it was a surprise. I'd had a feeling that Gallagher might be the one true butch dyke among the drag kings I'd found, but to have my thoughts confirmed was slightly unsettling. After interviewing Mo, Dred, Shane and all the others, I'd gone from expecting butchness to anticipating femininity. Not that Gallagher isn't feminine -- she is a woman, after all -- but she was the lone drag king to own up to the"butch" label."I like to think of myself as butch," she told me,"but any girl I ever dated will tell you otherwise -- damn them!" To me, she looked the part.

The thing that stands out about Gallagher's act is the obvious fakery of her drag. She uses only mascara -- Cover Girl, she's quick to mention -- for her mustache; it should look, she explained,"like you're trying to have it look real, but it looks fake, so fake, like in the movies." The Groucho Marx wax-looking lip ornament comes to mind."I mean," she went on,"I definitely do it because it's also very convenient. But it's funny. I think it's funnier to have this dumb-ass mustache painted on. Some people are like,'What's that?' And other people, they don't recognize. Because it does look kind of real." Surreal, I would say."Yeah, that's kind of my deal," she admits with a wry grin,"and I have the gold pinky ring, gold watch, and the slicked-back hair with the Aquanet. Yeah, I'm a cheeseball."

"And you don't bind your breasts," I stated, intending it as a question."Too big," she gestured."It's true. Forget it." I asked her if she'd ever tried."Early on, I did, and I couldn't breathe. I wear a sports bra. But one time I bound, and they were flipping up from the bottom. And I was like, this is bullshit. I don't have time for this." I suggested that there is no real moment when Murray actually tries to pass."No," she agreed,"and I think that's what makes it more real. I'm not about exposing to the crowd that I'm a woman. I never get out of character when I'm out as Murray; I always stay in character because I think that's more effective and more powerful. Because that's what people don't know. I'm not letting people know, I'm not giving them what they want. Not the gay crowd; they know. But I'm never revealing overtly that I'm a woman underneath. Obviously I am; there are my tits, there's the whole thing, everything's there. But I'm staying as this character, and that edge is more powerful, I think, than whipping out your dick or showing that you have tits.

"So there's that and there's also the component that -- I always shy away from it. I don't discredit other people or performers that do this, but I just have a real problem with the sex and all the perversity. I didn't want to bring that to my act. I get kind of very subtly sleazy with the girls. I make off-the-cuff comments. But I never wanted to have it just be about the raw sexuality, because I perform for a lot of straight people, too. And I feel like they want to see that and they think drag kings, drag queens -- okay, that's what they're going to expect. So I've tried to have a more conservative act, but to use humor and comedy, and try to do original, fun stuff, and not do that kind of stuff. I want to try to have it be this character, this person, and not be a spectacle."

So Gallagher, as Murray, does not"pack." ´ To her,"wearing a dildo or a strap-on doesn't make you a drag king or not a drag king." I suggested to her the possibility that there is a metaphoric relationship between a drag king's choice of"packy" and her attitude toward drag in general."Yeah," she agreed."Some of the other drag kings have made fun of Murray. It's funny, I am aware of the theories, and they do try to emasculate me all the time. Like,'Aw, Murray,' they're like (mimes grabbing a crotch),'Aw, you faggot, you have a little dick.' So yeah, those things are in play." Intriguing to me here is the level at which the other drag kings are employing the label,"faggot." As a"guy," the other"guys" taunt Murray just as biological men might, calling him out as a"faggot" for being unable to have sex with women (by virtue of his absent phallus). In similar fashion they accuse him of being too polite for masculine values. The dominant stereotype, fully internalized by the drag kings as women, occurs quite naturally to them as men -- albeit rather nasty men.

 

Mildred Gerestant

Dred as Dréd

photo by Yvon Bauman

"Just looking at yourself in the mirror and

seeing yourself actually transform is so, so

beautiful. I think everybody should try it."

- Mildred Gerestant

www.dredking.com

 

On a Thursday night in mid-April I paid my first visit to the Dragnet event at Crazy Nanny's. It was a warm and pleasant evening, and a woman stood outside checking driver's licenses and collecting the price of admission. A butch dyke in a baseball cap and cotton jacket, she smiled when I approached and asked,"Is there a drag king show here tonight?" "Yes," she replied, introducing herself to me as"Mega Boy Kate," the promoter of the event."Why? Do you want to be a drag king?" I laughed embarrassedly and explained,"Oh, no. I'm a student at Columbia, writing my Master's thesis on drag kings. I'm just here tonight to sort of introduce myself, lay a little groundwork." "Oh yeah?" she inquired, eyebrows up, and began briefing me about the drag king scene at Nanny's. Kate became a friend to me almost immediately, recommending me enthusiastically to all of the performers, keeping me as company through those first awkward weeks until I achieved a working level of comfort at the bar. I was profoundly ill at ease there in the beginning; insecure despite having a committed partner at home, I was as afraid of looking available as I was of being unattractive. It helped immeasurably to know that I was not precisely there alone -- there was always Kate to chat with.

At 11:30 p.m. I found myself sitting in the still-empty club, waiting for the crowd to arrive and the show to start. With little else to do, I began taking superfluous notes. I pulled the promotional card I'd picked up at the door out of my pocket and examined it, noting the words,"$5.00 cover, $3.00 if you're in drag." I looked down at myself and wondered, why did I pay five dollars? Dressed up for a night out, I was wearing black jeans, black men's shoes, a button-down shirt and a necktie. True, I was not attempting to pass as a man; I was simply a butch woman in a necktie. Still, the question nagged at me: Why was I not in drag? I approached Kate and said,"Can I ask you a purely academic question? It's not that I'm cheap or anything, but I was wondering. The flyer says'five dollar cover, three dollars if you're in drag.' I paid five dollars. Am I not in drag?"

"No. You're not," she responded flatly.

"Okay," I conceded,"I'm not." After all, I was not intentionally trying to do drag, or to pass as a man; the latter was simply an unintended consequence of my self-expression. Still, I wanted a definition, or at least the beginnings of one, as a place from which to start."But I want to know," I went on,"why am I not in drag? What constitutes drag?"

Kate looked me up and down and raised an eyebrow."Are you packing?"

"No," I blushed, instantly grateful that I even knew what she was referring to."Not right now," I grinned.

"Packing," she explained,"facial hair, a full suit --"

"So it's got to be all the way?" She nodded."So when somebody says they're in drag," I joked,"waddaya do? Give'em a squeeze?"

"Well," she answered seriously,"I pat'em down. The other night I had someone come in here, FTM. He said he was in drag and I said, 'No, you're not. You're not in drag. You do that all the time. That's who you are.' That's not drag."

"So it's a performance, then? It has nothing to do with identity."

"Right. I get butches come in here all the time, they say,'Yeah, I'm in drag.' I tell'em,'No. No, you're not. You didn't put that on, that's who you are. You wear that all the time, out on the street.' Can you change your look entirely? Can you put it on?" I nodded, understanding."Or," she continued,"you can do reverse drag. You can put on a dress, and heels, a wig and makeup, and I'd let you in for three bucks."

"You mean butches, right?"

"Yeah," she confirmed, eyeing me directly."If you came in here in a dress, you'd be in drag."

"And I'd get in for three dollars?"

"Yeah."

"That's okay, I'll pay five."

I left Kate to her business at the door and tried to assume an air of nonchalance, surveying the room around me. There were so many butch women there -- any one of them could be a drag king, I mused. All it would take would be a mustache. The masculinity is already there, I reasoned; all that's lacking is the masquerade. But when Mildred Gerestant arrived a short time later, I realized I was wrong; a mustache alone wouldn't do it. Masculinity is not equivalent to maleness.

Scheduled to perform that evening, Gerestant had dressed at home and traveled to the club in drag. Yet despite the bald head and crisp goatee, I perceived her as a woman immediately. While it might be more appropriate here to refer to the drag king as "he" because the performer was in drag, in this case Gerestant had not yet adopted the requisite male persona; she was simply a female performer in make-up, not yet "in character." The performance of Dréd would require her to suppress her femininity, a step she had not yet taken. Even butch women do not necessarily suppress their femininity so much as they express their masculinity, but to be convincing as male requires the eradication of femininity. When femininity is markedly present in a man, it marks him as"other." While many drag kings like to play with this boundary, as women who make convincing men who are sometimes effeminate, Dréd, in full character, was never effeminate. Once he took the stage, the masculinity represented by his beard became naught but a sign for some sort of internalized maleness, confounding the old adage that"clothes make the man"; clearly, it was his attitude that did that.

Dréd was the first drag king I ever met and the first I ever saw perform. As such, he shaped my initial perception of drag and the outlook with which I approached the subject. His performance confirmed for me the complexity of masculine drag as well as the wit and intelligence of those who perform it; I found myself awestruck by the power of the representation, compelled by its polyvalent eroticism. Admittedly, this is a credit to Gerestant, herself, who is truly at the top of her game as far as drag is concerned; in under three years she has developed something of an international reputation. Her act is truly mesmerizing, and my eyes glazed over as a smile spread across my face."Brilliant," I kept telling myself,"really brilliant." I was not alone in my judgement, as Dréd appeared to have little problem soliciting dollar bills from the excited women in the audience.

The success of Gerestant's performances are a testament to the amount of time and energy that she puts into them, and other kings are quick to recognize that she is one of the hardest workers among them. Her act is all lip-synched, she says, just for now, until she is ready to begin singing. But while the lip-synch is nearly always dead-on accurate, it is the way Dréd moves that makes him so convincingly male. His hands and arms, aggressively outstretched, claim the space around him, pulling it closer, owning it completely. He may rely for emphasis upon stock moves and expressions found in hip-hop music videos, but the core of his masculinity runs up his spine and through his face. His body posture is heavy and thick, one foot forward, aggressively leaning; his facial expression -- eyebrows furrowed, the self-assured glare, the snarling lips; these are the qualities that buy him currency as a man.

Utilizing the songs of his medley to set different moods, Dréd moves through a series of costume changes within any one performance. Entering perhaps in army fatigues as a"gangsta" rapper, a change in music allows him a moment to turn his back to the audience and strip down to his next layer, be it a polyester-clad, afro-sporting Shaft or a leather-coated, braided, beaded Rick James. Sometimes just the sight of him putting on a signature hat or wig, his back to the audience, will elicit cheers. If his act stopped there it would be entertaining enough, but more impressive is the transition he then undergoes from male to female, made all the more powerful because Gerestant is so convincing as a man. Dréd strips down, layer by layer, through various male personae to reveal at last the woman beneath them all. She pulls open her shirt to expose her bikini top and breasts -- no need to bind them -- and then unzips her pants to show a jockstrap noticeably bulging. The moment, complete with breasts, facial hair, and, "phallus" all visible is, in itself, definitively genderfuck. Reaching into his jock, he pulls out an apple and, Garden of Eden symbolism and all, takes a bite. He then turns his back to the audience once more, composes himself, and returns, despite the facial hair, as a woman. Her body language shifts, her posture and her face change, and Gerestant becomes once again a beautiful, sexy woman in make-up.

I interviewed Gerestant well near the end of my fieldwork, having finally pinned her down after months of trying. Like many of the other drag kings I worked with, she keeps a 9-to-5 job in addition to performing what sometimes amounts to several nights per week. Each night I saw her at Crazy Nanny's, I asked her how she was, and every time her answer was the same:"Tired." She's making some money doing drag, she says, but not nearly enough to give up her day job. I'd seen her perform many times by the date of our discussion, but was nonetheless unsure of what to expect when I arrived. While I knew her to be a feminine woman whose gender was to me, unmistakable, I was less certain of her actual self-image. The bald head, she told me later, confuses people sometimes, and I must count myself among them. I may not have mistaken her for a man, but I did expect her to be somewhat more masculine than she actually was. Lithe and lean, she sat cross-legged on her futon and, in a voice so soft I had to strain to hear, told me about her talk show appearances.

"I was on Maury Povich and recently, on Sally Jesse Raphael. Both of them did the same subject. It was a pageant with eight contestants, and the crowd had to figure out by the end of the show which were really women, and which were men in drag. We all were dressed as women; we had the wigs, the gowns, the make-up on." Spaced about two and one-half years apart, both shows ended up in pretty much the same way."At the end they started reviewing each one; they would show you baby pictures. But when they got to me, for example, on Sally Jesse Raphael, I came up and Sally said,'What are you, a man or a woman?' And I said,'Well Sally, let me show you.' The crowd was yelling'man! Man,' and I couldn't believe it, because I was all prettied up and everything -- I had a long wig on. Maybe because they knew the wig was fake, or they could tell. But they were yelling,'man! Man!' And I love tripping them up! I was just laughing inside. So I said,'Well, Sally, let me show you,' and I pulled off the wig, and I was bald. And then when they saw the bald head, they started yelling,'Woman!' So who knows?"

The audience response was exceptionally ironic because it is Gerestant's bald head that, under ordinary circumstances, sometimes convinces others that she is a man. Even when she's wearing make-up,"people just see the head. And they'll say'sir' without even really looking at you. Which is really, like damn, where are you living? What time are you living in?" When she is in drag the situation only grows more complex."Some people still think I'm a man -- it's happened a lot of times -- even after they see the cleavage, a bikini bra. The hair on my face is what's confusing them. And one guy, I was at this club once and he was like,'Are you pre-op?' He thought I was a man who was in the middle of a sex change. You know, like maybe I just still had the breasts, or maybe I just got some breasts and I just didn't, you know,'ka-ching' or whatever." As a butch (or relatively masculine) lesbian, these statements confound me; to me, Gerestant is so obviously female. If she is passing as a man when she is not in character, then surely she must be a fairly effeminate one.

"My being bald now," she explains, by the way,"has nothing to do with the drag, just for the record. I shaved my head because I got tired of perming it and putting in extensions and gelling it up and all that." Fed up with the time it took to maintain it, she says,"I cut it short and then I shaved it a month later, after some encouragement." Being on the street, she says, can be difficult,"because, you know men -- the ones that are old fashioned or whatever -- can't deal with it and have to say some stupid comment. But then there are also a lot of compliments, like,'Oh, you have a beautiful head,' and,'It's a beautiful shape,' or,'It brings out your features.' My mother is still not quite used to it after three or four years, now. But it's okay. It's my mom, what do you expect?" She smiles, shrugging."But she still loves me, and she wants to come see my show."

"The first time I got interested in doing drag," Gerestant related,"was probably when I first started seeing drag kings at a party in the East Village called, 'The Ball,' at the Pyramid Club. Some of the first drag kings I saw were Buster Hymen and Justin Case. I was just, probably attracted by the women disguised as men. And also, I thought it was very empowering. I was like, wow! I'd like to come up and do that, and be a stud just like them, in drag. It took me a while. I kept running into Buster, and I kept telling her how I wanted to try drag. We made plans and she came over to my place one day and we put on the mustache, which was really cool. She showed me how to apply the facial hair and stuff, and then I experimented with it, how I wanted it.

"She was doing shows monthly called, 'The Drag King Dating Game,' and somebody had dropped out, so she asked me if I would replace her. It was my first appearance as Dréd, and this was December 1995." It was there that Dréd discovered his"superfly, mack-daddy" look, modeled on the music -- like the theme from"Shaft" -- that Gerestant had loved as a child."Afterwards," she recalled,"I got a lot of positive feedback, and it felt really good. I think that's when I also met Mo B. Dick but she wasn't in drag -- Maureen. She had this contest coming up, a drag king contest, and she encouraged me to enter it." Gerestant, however, was still too frightened to commit to the appearance; it was Fischer who pushed her to do it. Dréd won that competition and thereafter began his longtime association with Club Casanova. Gerestant credits the other kings with bringing her into drag and making her feel welcome there."Mo B. Dick helped me," she said,"she pushed me to really do drag. And Buster Hymen helped me. It's always good when people, your peers, are helping you get started. And there was real companionship there, and we did a lot of shows together."

 

 

Shane Shane

photo by Yvon Bauman

"I'm a woman with facial hair, imitating

a man, and I can't get you pregnant.

And I have breasts! You've got everything!

What more could you ask for?"

- Shane

 

"Wow. Shane is so sexy!" Maureen Fischer was standing right behind me, and I couldn't help but agree with her assessment. Smooth and intense, Shane's sex appeal is all the more alluring for a certain kind of confidence he displays. While all of the kings are sexy in some way, performers like Mo B. Dick and Murray Hill do not set out specifically to be so. A king like Dréd, by contrast, is sexy up front, and primarily so. But while Dréd, 's tight-faced strut conveys the practiced fullness of a character well-crafted, Shane's stroll through the crowd is underplayed and loose, and one feels certain his aplomb comes not from character, but from within. The things that make him attractive seem intrinsic.

This might be because Shane is, simply, Shane. I had a great deal of difficulty eliciting another name from her, and when I explained that I needed a way to distinguish, for my readers, between the persona and the person, she replied,"They're really one and the same." It was a telltale remark, because she is in fact so genuine. She may play a man on stage, but his essence is the same as hers."I don't do characters," Shane told me, or at least, she hasn't done them seriously since Club Casanova."I may do something that might be close to a character. I'm gonna' deal with Usher or something like that; I may wear certain clothing. Sometimes I'll do the 70's thing. With certain things, you have to kinda give people that afro thing, those sideburns, with the cut. Sometimes you gotta' do those things to get people into the feeling. But I don't really like doing characters. What I do is I take a song that I like, and I make it me, and I just give off what I feel from the song."

The man Shane plays is pretty much herself, then, in a male guise. He can take the stage in classic hip-hop, b-boy style -- baggy jeans and Kangol cap -- or in a fresh-pressed suit and tie; either way, his aura is the same, and one gets the feeling he's a fellow one might actually respect."If I were a man," the woman said,"I'd be a perfect gentleman." Instead, he is perhaps the most gentlemanly of the drag kings; when asked once what it meant to be a drag king, he responded:"It means showing men and women how women should be treated, " (Halberstam, 1997). His brand of maleness and masculinity is far more tribute than parody, and it lacks a lot of the anger, aggression, and perversity one sees in other acts. He is really Shane, and she is really him; the reason he is so sexy, I suggest, is because his sensuality is in fact her own.

Respectful and respectable, Shane's solo act is powerful nonetheless, equally exciting, erotic, and accurate. Sometimes he'll enter with his back to the audience and work an imaginary mirror before him, arranging the hat on his head to his satisfaction before turning to face the crowd. He likes to work the hat a lot, tracing the brim with his fingertips, re-settling it at a more jaunty angle. His hands are very prominent, with fingers held together straight like a salute except the thumb is sticking out. His mannerisms and hand movements may help to put the number over, but it's more the way he carries himself -- the extremely upright posture, the open-legged, long-armed stance -- that conveys the message,"male." It reads like a physical expression of assertiveness, a bodily way of saying,"I own this space I'm standing in."

Before long, Shane steps down off of the stage that separates him from the crowd and enters into their ranks. Approaching one of the women, he'll"sing" to her, kiss her hand, maybe dance closely with her a bit before moving on. The women adore him and, pushing past their friends to get their hands on him, keep him from returning to the stage by stuffing dollar bills into his shirt and elsewhere."Sometimes I have to remember," Shane laughed,"get your ass back on the stage. Get back on stage! Everybody can't see you; you can't be everywhere at once. You gotta give everybody a view at the same time." She does prefer the"one-on-one thing," though, because it"involves people more." "And," she added wryly,"sometimes people are afraid to come up on stage to give tips. Sometimes you gotta' go out there and get it. You'd be surprised how many tips you get if you go out in the audience."

Shane does not always work alone. Accompanied by drag kings Nico and Sugah and known collectively as"DK," the trio lip-synchs numbers by vocal groups like Boys to Men and the Jacksons; he's also worked quite a bit with Dréd. These well-choreographed bits point out that while all the kings are specialists in movement, lip-synching kings like Shane and Dréd are really dancers. They rely on their bodies to communicate maleness, over and above any words. Shane, nonetheless, is tired of lip-synching."I don't like the whole lip-synching thing," she admitted,"but you gotta start somewhere." She plans to start singing soon, and perhaps to do it as a woman."I've learned that I don't want to lip-synch. I've learned that I possibly do not want to do drag. I really just want to be myself on stage a lot of the time, since I am doing that already, but it's just that I have this facial hair on."

Shane and I met for a discussion in the West Village one evening after she'd finished working; I probably wouldn't have recognized her were she not standing on the corner and looking around rather obviously for me. When I asked her what she did, she told me that she was a security manager, which neatly explained the black slacks, white shirt, and blue jacket. It occurred to me then that it is the sort of job that might be popular with women who are uncomfortable in feminine dress; the requisite uniform affords both an escape from the confines of women's clothing and a reasonable excuse for the adoption of traditionally masculine garments. It's also a distinctly non-traditional job for a woman to hold. But despite the butch trappings and her incredibly short hair, Shane is in fact a beautiful and feminine woman with great, deep, soulful eyes.

"I don't think I'm butch," she affirmed, choosing instead to call herself an"aggressive femme." I asked her if she thought that being a lesbian had anything to do with being a drag king."I don't think that it has to. I think someone can be straight and do drag, definitely." Considering the matter further, she added,"I think it's unlikely, probably, or maybe there are few and far between, but I don't think there has to necessarily be a connection. You'd have to be a really, really good actress, though, performing for women. Because to do it, you have to have some type of -- I would think -- have some type of knowledge, or be involved in sex with women, somewhat. I kinda get that feeling. Hmmm." So it isn't necessary, she believes, but it helps.

"For me," she continued,"dragging is a feeling, a kind of feeling. I always have this idea that I always want to be every woman's fantasy. I like to create that with the hair and the clothing, and the way I act." To be complete, she believes, the fantasy does not necessarily require a"packy." "Sometimes it's uncomfortable," she explained."I don't really wear the dildo thing,'cause it's just too much. Too in the way. I don't really know how some people use it. I like to dance a lot, and I can't really dance with that on. I use a sock. A sock, sometimes you get a little better effect. For me anyway. And a really tight pair of briefs sometimes, to keep it in place."

A large part of the fantasy is the fact that she is indeed a woman, and so it makes sense that she usually does not"pack." "I feel like it's a great thing to be a woman," she told me."I think you have a lot of power being a woman. I believe that. I have that confidence." And so she strips sometimes, just to"let you know I'm still a woman, and to just put the cherry on top of that whole fantasy. I'm a woman with facial hair, imitating a man, and I can't get you pregnant. And I have breasts! You've got everything! What more could you ask for?" Of course, a woman with so much to offer other women may sometimes find herself competing with men. It's something she's sometimes wary of when performing at straight venues."I think it's tougher with a straight audience. I really worry about the men. I don't worry about the women; I just worry about the men. Because men get angry at certain things. They have issues. Sometimes they can't cope."

"Are you afraid you're gonna piss them off?"

"Sometimes, yeah."

"Just by being sexy?" I inquired."By not having a dick and being sexy? Is that not allowed?" We both laughed.

"By their girlfriends going crazy and figuring,'Oh, what the fuck'," she grinned, suggesting that a woman might decide to leave her boyfriend and go home with her. She was only half joking, though, and her comment belies the reality that a heterosexual man can feel that his relationship with a particular woman may be threatened by the presence of a lesbian. On the one hand, such ambiguously gendered eroticism does indeed have the potential to open up minds; on the other, it suggests a revival of the Victorian notion that a normal (read:"feminine") straight woman can be vulnerable to the lures of a"mannish" lesbian. Either way is fine with Shane; as she would have it, all women are vulnerable to the attractions of a charming drag king.

 

 

Wendy Wiseman Willy Ryder as Willy Ryder

self-portrait

"Of the most interest to me right now

is gender-hack, gender-fuck.

Twist it up as much as possible.

Confuse, confuse, confuse."

- Wendy Wiseman

I tried to see Willy Ryder perform on several occasions, but it was never in the cards. At the time I began my fieldwork, he was hosting a weekly show called, "Whacked!" in a tiny space at a West Village lesbian bar called Henrietta Hudson's; I missed his last show by one week. Wiseman set up another gig for Willy to begin a few months later, but when the time arrived it turned out they'd forgotten him and the club had overbooked. Understandably disappointed, he posted a message on the Internet:

*** NEWS FLASH ***

and it ain't good news

Due to a communication FUCK UP ...

THERE WILL BE NO WHACKED! WITH WILLY RYDER AT MEOW MIX AT THIS TIME

... please be aware that if you attempted to get Whacked at meow mix on Oct. 14th you will instead be witness to numbers of bands as it seems some Rock Block thing has been scheduled over the dates once supposedly reserved for Whacked!

will inform as to dates if it is decided to persevere in such presentations

may just do occasional quarterly type shows ...

hopefully some good news soon

willy ryder

Unfortunately, good news did not follow in time for me to include it in this paper. I did meet Willy at the Club Casanova show at Axis, but he was not performing; instead, he was hawking Casanova merchandise. Maureen Fischer had laid out a bundle having the Casanova crown logo imprinted on everything from cigarette lighters to boxer shorts, and Wendy Wiseman, an old Casanova friend, was kindly engaged in attempting, as Willy, to help her recoup some of the loss. I interviewed Wiseman early in my research, hoping that I would eventually get to see her perform. I still have not, and despite that fact have chosen nonetheless to include our encounter in my discussion, since it proved so informative. Wiseman helped to shape the drag king aesthetic at Casanova, and in New York has used various performative means to create a presence on the downtown arts scene. The conversation we had played a significant role in formulating my understanding of drag, and as such, should be noted here.

When I asked her to recount the tale of her entrée into drag, Wiseman credited Chris Chapman with making the first real, lasting impression on her. As Club Casanova's"Labio" (the younger brother of Fabio, of course), Chapman used her long blonde locks to make an obvious play on the popularity of a certain less-than-intellectual male icon."I had been at Meow Mix one night after a show," Wiseman recalled,"when I was new to New York, and she had blown in -- he had blown in -- from Cake. And I remember standing in line for the bathroom, and there was all the chest hair, right? And it was like,'Yes! This is it!' Of course I had to touch it. And Chris was trying to say,'You gotta' come back to Cake with me.' And then she disappeared, and of course I didn't know where the fuck Cake was. But I totally would have gone for that." It was the first time Wiseman had heard about Club Casanova, back when the event was still at Cake, its third and only truly happy home. But by the time Wiseman finally joined, the show had been displaced, a fact she notes with sadness.

"I started going to Casanova a year ago -- it may have been May. I remember it was Murray Hill's election campaign, that was my first Casanova. And then a couple of weeks later a friend of mine put a mustache on me, and then I went out. I'd gone a couple of times by myself. One time I had on just a light mustache and maybe a little goatee, a pair of overalls, and Mo B. Dick didn't know if I was a guy or a girl, and was impressed by how well I was passing. So she asked me to be a part of the drag king contest which was coming up in July." Wiseman entered and tied for first place with another king called Harry Krishna; after that she began appearing at Casanova roughly once per month. When the show went on the road, Wiseman went with it.

Upon her return from the tour, Wiseman began hosting another event."In October, I started, 'Whacked!' at Henrietta Hudson's, which I hosted in my drag character, Willy Ryder, as a performance art variety which welcomed drag kings, comedians, writers, performance artists, dancers -- you know,'whacked, ' acts, whatever you do, and tried to do an open stage. But it never took off." I remarked that I had noted how cramped the performance space was."Not only is it a very small space," she agreed,"but it's a very difficult space to bring that kind of very East Village, downtown arts scene, art into, because it's a lot of -- well, a lot of people call it a bridge and tunnel bar. New Jersey.

"The first couple [of shows] were hard, because all of my performing friends were busy or just didn't come west. I think I'll do much better at Meow Mix, just because people interested in that already go there all the time. So, the first couple of'Whackeds!,' I mean, we had people -- a pool league, even, on some nights, because of scheduling disasters and a little lack of respect. But I really appreciate that Lisa let us have the run and do it, and try it out. And so it did start to build, and it was nice that people who otherwise wouldn't see that kind of stuff would sit and listen, and be surprised that they were enjoying it, and sign the mailing list and come back."

I had to ask Wiseman what Willy was like, since I had never seen him perform. The scant few photos I had seen of him were fairly perverse; Willy with his pants down, bent over, restrained, butt cheeks red from being"Whacked!" "I don't have a specific character about Willy Ryder," she told me."He's more of an alter ego, a mirror of me in a sleazy male persona, be that more of the trucker, redneck Willy Ryder, or the sleazy, cocktail club kind of guy. Or a faggy Willy Ryder. Or an'anything that moves' kind of guy. Whereas, some people have very specific characters -- that this is this guy, and this is what this guy's about, and this is where this guy's coming from. I mean, Willy Ryder is a performer like me and ready for anything.'Hey, we just have to try it! Let's see!' And some days, he's more of one thing than another."

"I'm an improviser," she went on,"so a lot of it's freestyle. But there is some preparation. And it depends on whether I'm being Christ or Elvis, or just doing some Willy thing. Sex appeal. As twisted as that may be sometimes, still having that current of sex carrying it, be it for boys or girls." It's an aggressive and perverse sensuality that Willy owns, and it's the cornerstone, says Wiseman, of a"Whacked!" act. For her, the allure of drag lies in its potential to obscure and obliterate gender; to"fuck" gender, as it were."Of the most interest to me right now is gender-hack, gender-fuck. Twist it up as much as possible. Confuse, confuse, confuse. So I started wearing more confusing clothes. Like the way so many of the rock guys in the East Village will dress, in their tiny little spaghetti-strap tops, big boots, tight jeans, whatever. And I pull that off really well, especially if I have on a latex shirt and it compresses my breasts. And I'm not in my cycle, so that they're a little larger. Then I pass really well. But I'm still effeminate, you know, in a certain faggy kind of way. And it really confuses the fuck out of people, and it's a beautiful thing. And then to throw a little facial hair on that makes it even more confusing. So that's what I like to play with mostly, gender-fuck."

For Wiseman,"fucking" gender can mean being androgynous on the street, passing as a"faggot," or radically confronting sex and sexuality on stage. Lucky 7, a Philadelphia drag king and occasional Casanova guest, is another denizen of the"Whacked!" philosophy. He's renowned for a fetish bit he does that I got to see the night I met Willy at Axis: Wet-lipped with anticipation, he applied shaving cream to a prosthetic leg, shaved it and then, encasing the foot in a condom, simulated fellatio upon it as the audience howled with delight."Lucky 7 and I are a little more on the performance art edge," said Wiseman."I think Lucky's a genius, to get up there and do the thing he does with the leg. No lip-synching, no super-male act. This lovely, twisted little scene. It's beautiful. It's art. It's good. It's creative. Completely original, completely focused, completely perverted."

Similar heights of perversion, Wiseman informed me, were reached at Club Casanova on the night of Lucky 7's birthday party,"when Mo and I did the orgasmic bit, where we shot our wads on stage. I had, about an hour before the show, taken this old dick that the base had broken off of, and I'd run a tube up the center of it, and I had a little ball syringe, like to remove ear wax or whatever, that I taped onto the end of the tube. And this dick happened to be pierced, which was great for the photo, but there was no base on it. So I had it totally jerry-rigged in the harness and I had this stuff wrapped around it. When it was down it was poking me in this weird way and it was pretty uncomfortable, but the stage effect was wonderful. The things you'll do for performance!"

"There's a certain freedom," Wiseman admits,"in allowing yourself certain behaviors that otherwise wouldn't necessarily be deemed appropriate, exploring those things in the name of performance." But getting up on stage is not simply a license to do anything; it carries with it a responsibility to at least engage the audience, if not to entertain it. Wiseman is a dancer, an actor, and an artist whose political and artistic concerns take her many places aside from drag. But all of them, she asserts, are"about performance. And I'm talking about, something that comes from inside, projecting. Believing in whatever stupid little thing you might be doing." Admitting that she sometimes sinks to it herself, she bemoans the drag kings' use of unadorned lip-synch."You have to be projecting something," she insists,"even if you're not in time with the words. It's performance essence." People come to see a show, so it's best to give them one. It's the"investment" of the person in the performance that does that, said Wiseman,"whether it's moving, or lip-synching, or whatever. Or shaving a prosthetic leg."

Wiseman is quite used to being taken as a man. Long and lanky, I read her at first as butch but she called herself"androgynous," conveying to me the sense that she has of her ability to slip between the genders. Immediately I thought, perhaps wrongfully so, that it is easy to call oneself"androgynous" when one's physical body is indeed so; a more busty woman might have trouble claiming that label for herself."A lot of people will see me as butch," Wiseman admitted,"depending on what they encounter me wearing, what they are reacting to. I do feel a lot like a fag, sometimes, and I would probably identify with that more than as a butch lesbian or whatever. But I am one hundred percent female and comfortable with that, and with being a woman, even though I don't display the generally seen sides of being a woman and wear the skirts and shoes and make-up." I had trouble understanding precisely what she meant by feeling"like a fag" until I viewed the videotape of our interview. It became clear to me then that while Wiseman can indeed be taken easily for a man, her gestures are still rather feminine. Hence, the label she prefers, quite rightly, is the one associated with a person who looks like a man but is somehow effeminate:"faggot."

"I've been androgynous all my life," she told me,"and since I was a small girl, I'd go into girls' or ladies' rooms and people would freak out and say,'You're in the wrong place,' and blah, blah, blah. I've been called, 'sir' forever. It usually freaks the other people out more if they bother to be aware enough to realize their mistake. And then of course they try to over-correct it, and make themselves even more uncomfortable. And I'm just so over it. So it was a natural transition." Her decision to do drag was so natural, in fact, that her father's response to the news"was classic. He was like,'Well, that's not much of a stretch. You've been kicked out of girls' rooms your whole life.' I told him,'Yeah, but now Dad, I'm getting paid for it'."

There have been times when her natural ability to pass proved useful."I lived in New York for a while in'90," she recalled,"and it was a time when there was all kinds of gay-bashing going on -- the Pink Panthers and all. A couple of lesbians had been beaten up around the corner from Crazy Nanny's, like, literally two minutes after my girlfriend and I walked home one night. I used to dip into the passing kind of body-language quite a lot for protective purposes of being on the streets of New York by myself. In my leather motorcycle jacket, there are ways of walking, wider stances, sitting, taking up more space, having more confidence about you, in your stride. That kind of hunched-shoulder attitude. And it was really amusing sometimes, when the panhandlers on the street would be like,'Hey brother, spare me some change?' And then sometimes they'd just realize somehow that I was female and then the attitude would change like (snaps her fingers).'Yo, baby, you're hot! Why don't you come over here and sit on my lap?' And it's just amazing, that kind of split." So amazing, we agreed, that it's certainly worth putting up on stage.

 

 

Antonio Caputo

Antonio Caputo as"The German Gigolo"

photographer unknown

"I think I am a good man. Both. Both man, woman.

I don't know. I don't need a name for this."

- Antonio Caputo

 

From the moment I first met Antonio, I knew that he was different. It was that same Thursday night in early June when I met Maureen Fisher at Nanny's, and I had been milling around rather aimlessly, waiting for the show to begin. Across the bar I noticed Antonio, and a brief glance at my field notes for the evening reveals the confusion he inspired in me:

I see one very handsome looking woman(?) in pure drag style, a white girl with no facial hair but just the most handsome looking guy(?) in a pinstripe suit with an open-collared buttoned-down white shirt and short, short shaved hair. S/he is exceptionally handsome, cute, and attractive. S/he gives me a smile so I lean forward and ask if s/he's a drag king, and of course s/he is -- Antonio Caputo, with a lovely German accent.

Note my use of question marks and the label,"s/he;" I simply had no idea what to make of him. By the next time I saw him I had interviewed Fischer, who was kind enough to enlighten me as to Antonio's status. While biologically female, Antonio -- or Tony -- goes by no other name, and in Fischer's words,"would prefer to be'he' all the time," a fact she was privy to by virtue of the time she spent with him on tour with Club Casanova. To my eyes, Tony did not appear to be taking hormones or attempting to make a physical transition to male; I reasoned that he had no need to, as he was already passing quite convincingly.

Likable and friendly, Tony was easy to talk to despite his less-than-complete command of English; once I had an idea of who he was, I felt very comfortable around him. We grew rather close in the three months that we had before his return to Berlin, and even now maintain an affectionate correspondence. He calls me his"American Daddy," which I admit, I found strange at first; now that I understand his rationale, I do indeed think of him, in a way, as my"German son." It's a difficult relationship to explain to others, as Tony lives his life on a level most cannot intellectually approach, but it has expanded my understanding of gender, increased my flexibility both rationally and emotionally, and taught me quite a lot about myself.

I remember the first time he referred to me by a masculine pronoun, what a profound effect it had on me. I, too, have been called, "son" and, "sir" all of my life, and just the sound of it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up; I hate it. But with Tony, it was different. My partner had come with me to the bar that night, and when she retired to the ladies' room I spoke to Tony. My field notes relate:

We chat for a while and I tell him that Krei and I will be traveling to Germany in August, which makes him really happy -- like now, maybe, we have even more in common. But the magic moment comes when I tell him that her parents are paying for the trip, explaining with a shrug that"they love me": his face lights up in a giant grin as he high-fives me, saying"Good boy!" It feels like total butch approval, one of the biggest pats on the back I've ever gotten. It's really a magic bonding moment, and I feel all warm inside. He tells me again how cute and sweet Krei is, and I agree wholeheartedly.

I wish I could explain why, despite its chauvinistic opportunism, that moment felt so good to me. I didn't become angry with him, either for referring to me as male, or for implying something less than admirable about my relationship with my partner. As far as the latter is concerned, I knew that he was not quite being serious. For the former -- his use of the masculine pronoun -- I suppose that, through Tony, I began to think of myself as being able to occupy the space of either gender; I could choose to be male if it suited me, no surgery required.

On one particular Thursday night he walked in the door in his usual natty male garb, with a pencil-thin mustache drawn onto his upper lip and a short, black straw, summer formal hat perched on his closely-shaven head. After obtaining a beer at the bar, he returned to chat with Kate and I at the door. Complaining about having gotten his period -- especially inconvenient since he was scheduled to perform -- he cried,"My tits are so big!" It was all Kate and I could do to keep from laughing; the two of us, both well-endowed, looked at each other and smirked, thinking they were anything but that."Normally I have no tits," he insisted, eliciting yet another smirk since both of us were thinking that he still had none. At Kate's prompting, he showed me the tattoo on his right bicep; a crown bearing the words,"Drag King," it featured a rendering of his treasured tiny mustache.

In Tony's absence I asked Kate why she considered him to be a drag king, given the rationale she'd provided a few weeks earlier."Since he identifies as male," I reasoned,"he lives his life like that. That's who he is. So why is it drag?" She looked at me with an amused expression that could only be read as saying,"Hey, Ivy League! Get with the obvious!" "Because he gets up on stage and performs," she explained."He puts on that mustache, he gets dressed up, and he has an act." He also"packs," for the record -- a fistful of sweet hard candies he tosses out to the enamored women at the end of his act."Perfect, no?" he grinned.

Tony's American act was strictly lip-synch, admittedly less effective than it might otherwise have been since he was still using German songs. It was rather his personality that put him over; he radiated a pure and proud sensuality, combined with charm, wit, and a wonderful smile, that was nearly irresistible. The accent didn't hurt him much, either. Tony did, in fact, get quite a lot of attention; always a favorite with the crowd, he was the target of innumerable"schoolgirl" crushes. Whenever I mentioned him to any of my queer friends, the response was invariably,"Does he have a girlfriend?" An inveterate flirt, he never lacked for female companionship.

Reaching past his natural appeal, Tony aimed for camp in his performances. His music was always somewhat ridiculous, only a step or two short of a beer-hall oom-pah band and painfully dated. With a rose between his teeth, he went for Mafioso, gigolo, Adonis. As sexy as he was on stage, he was often far more sexy when seated at the bar. On stage he preened and strutted; among friends he simply owned his maleness, making it apparent to all. There is a risk here of confusing maleness with masculinity, and I want to be clear: Like a butch woman, Tony expresses his masculinity; the difference is that he perceives himself to be closer to male than female. Happy with his body as it is, for now he sees no need to change it."I don't want to be a straight man! Ugh! That's so disgusting." Content to remain, in his words,"other," he lives on a border that most consider uninhabitable.

Born in what used to be East Germany, Tony came to New York for a six-month stay to see if he could make a go of it; I met him halfway through his visit. We got together on the rooftop of the building he was staying in and shot a rather a serious interview until my camera battery died. Adjourning to a Mexican restaurant for lunch, we lightened the mood over a couple of Coronas. He told me about growing up in East Berlin under communism and described poignantly the changes that unification brought."I was seventeen years old when the wall was coming down, and I had a great time on the East side. Because of the social stuff. When I am sick, I can go to a doctor; I don't need money. It was all automatic. You get a job, you can go to school. After school, you go to the job that you learned. Nobody lives on the street, really, because all the people have a job. So that side is okay. Four people are doing a job for one person, but everybody has to do something. Get up in the morning, or whenever you start your job, and you have to do something. You can take care of yourself, you have a flat.

"My first apartment, I was seventeen years old, and my rent was forty-nine Deutschmarks; it's like, maybe twenty-five bucks. It was sponsored, that all the people can have a standard, and you can buy your bread and milk, and all the things were not so expensive. And when you have kids, you can {send them to} a kindergarten. It was all social{ized}; you didn't need really much money. And all the people on the East side, there was the same standard. Nobody was really rich, and the other one has no money. It was all swimming in the same thing and nobody was really jealous, because all the people were the same." There was less class-based violence then, he explained, because no one had more than anyone else.

"I live now," he went on,"because communism in gone, so now I live in capitalism, in Berlin. And you have so many people that are so rich, you know? It's like America. So many people that are so rich, and other people that are so fucking -- living on the street, or they have nothing to eat. Of course people are jealous and there's aggression, because other people have millions and millions and don't know what {to do} with all this money. You didn't have this on the East side, and it was easier to live there." But when the wall came down, I suggested, everything changed."Oh, it changed. In one year the West side had eaten the East side, in one year. The wall was falling down in {'89}, and Germany was one in'90. One year later. {It was in}'89, the 9th of November,'89, that the wall was falling down. But one year later the people said,'Oh, now we are one Germany.' And that's after forty years. Forty years of communism. And that's hard. For me it's not so hard because I am young; I was seventeen when the wall was falling down. But for people that are maybe older, like forty, fifty years old, you have lived forty years in communism and then in one year all the things have changed. It's hard. It's really difficult."

Even more difficult for Tony, personally, was growing up as something other than simply"male" or"female." It is ironic that while the German language, which assigns a gender to all nouns, allows for a third or"neuter" article, the German people have made little concession to Tony in his"thirdness." "For me," he relates,"when I was younger, maybe fourteen, fifteen, I had more problems because I was all the time between the genders. I was not really a woman and I was not really a man, and sometimes it was really hard. Especially when you're a kid. Other kids tease you, and it's not nice.

"But now, I enjoy this so much. I feel I am both. I am a man, of course. I am a woman of course, too. It's so nice for me, because for me the world is open; I can do what I want. I enjoy really the time now that I can play with gender. For me it's beautiful when people say'he' to me, or when I am going to buy some cigarettes and people say,'sir, what can I do for you?' Yeah! That's cool. But I don't want to really be a man; I don't want to have a dick, you know? My dick, when I have my cock on, he is hot every time. He is standing up every time. And I don't want to have a real dick because, come on, it's ugly, that thing. You see that maybe in some porn videos, some gay videos, I see there are some nice dicks, but that's not normal. Normally it's like this (holds his thumb and forefinger about three inches apart) and when it's hard it's like this (holds his two index fingers about six inches apart). Ugh. So much hair is there; I don't understand why the men don't shave. It looks so ugly. For me, when I say'I am a man,' you know that's just a word. I can do what I want. When I say I am a man, then I mean I am a man, but that's not for my body; it's like a feeling. I feel like it is so. I don't need the body for this."

Despite his wonderful acceptance of himself, he's had a hard time in his native country. I suggested that had he grown up here, he might have found the same was true, but he remained skeptical."I think that sometimes the German people, it's like this, it's very -- you get aggression from other people on the street. They don't know you, and they say,'Hey, you fucking lesbian!' or so, and I say,'Are you speaking with me?' So I have very bad things. Four years ago some young guys kicked me out on the Underground. The train was coming in the station and two people open the door and they want to kick me out. And the Underground was full, and nobody helped me. I said,'Come on!' You know? And it was really a bad situation. All the people in the Underground looked this way {he turns his head away}. That's so specially German, you know? Nobody helps you."

Because he feels unsafe in Berlin, he said, he's stopped trying to walk the streets in drag."When I am going on the street alone, in dress-up, I don't do this anymore. When I go in dress-up somewhere, then I take a cab. Because I was in dress-up there, I was in a really good suit, with a mustache and so, and I went as such into the Underground. Here it's no problem; you can go naked here. Nobody gets interested in you. And I love this. I love this because, yeah, I feel so free. That's really nice. But in Germany it's different. When I am doing this, when I am going in dress-up on the street, I feel like I am in danger. It's not easy, you know?"

We moved on to a discussion of his act."I think when I am doing my show, I have a lot of sex appeal in my show. You know Dréd, when {Mildred} performs -- she is a great performer. She is really great. She changes her clothes so quick. She works on this really hard. And for me, I work on my sex appeal. I don't change my clothes and make my shirts open and so show my body. It's like a little bit {of a} strip, you know? But my performance lives from this, and all my work is going {toward} this, that I am showing the sex appeal. Of course, the drag king, you think is'man' and, 'man' and, 'man.' Of course, I am a man, and I am cool, and I am butch, you know? But I can be sexy, too. I love this. I call myself sometimes, I am a'faggot,' because that's not like a heterosexual man, to play so much with the sex appeal."

"I don't want to say it's easy for me to go on stage," he told me,"but I love it. I love to go on stage, to show the people, and to give the people something. And to enjoy my number. And the people can see I am enjoying my number, and then I give them something, and they give me back something. And that's nice. That's a good combination. Because when I perform and I watch in the eyes of the girls, or the men, and I see the light in their eyes because they enjoy the number, that's my money. That's my payment, and that's good."

 

 

 

Elizabeth Marrero Macha as Macha

photo by John Purick

"I look at a drag king like a piece of candy;

if you take the wrapping off, there's all that sweet stuff."

- Elizabeth Marrero

 

On a Friday night in July I attended a benefit event for Dyke TV at Meow Mix, a lesbian bar in the East Village that tends to draw a very young, white crowd. I had come to see Antonio Caputo perform, but was happily surprised to find another drag king on the bill; Elizabeth Marrero, it turned out, was making her debut appearance as Macha. I sat through her performance somewhat shocked, I admit, to see such mastery in a king I'd never heard of, convinced she was a seasoned professional whose name had simply eluded me. Her wit, her finesse, the polish on her act, the hold she had on the audience -- all of these combined to produce an aura of experienced professionalism. When she intimated to me afterwards the fact that this had been her first-ever drag performance, I was awestruck.

The only Latina drag king that I know of, Marrero is smart, sexy, upbeat and amiable; more than that, she is all woman, all the time. Significantly, she is Macha, not Macho;"I can have my little mustache and my sideburns and still move the way I would as a woman," she explained,"because that is my essence; I am a woman. I don't want to deny that." There is"something about a woman who can be that aggressively fierce, and then once you do the unwrapping, it's still just as fierce. That's the candy. It's like two different fierces all at once! How much fierce can you take? I know that there are a lot of lesbian women out there that do appreciate a drag king because they look so aggressive, but then they have the candy underneath. For me, that is the ultimate twist -- that you can look that aggressive and be as hard-core as you wanna' be. But mamita, I'll put on that lingerie if you want me to." Most importantly, said Marrero,"I don't want anyone to forget that I'm a woman. I don't want anybody to forget my candy. Don't forget me, I'm sweet, honey!"

Since this philosophy is evident throughout her performance, I cannot refer to the elegant Macha as a"he," for it is clear that s/he is not specifically male. Rather, Marrero walks the borderline of gender, taking a sort of"what if a woman was convinced she was the prototypical -- read, 'male' -- Latin Lover?" stance. Marrero may look like a man, but he moves like a woman; she may talk like a man, but he has dyke sensibilities. Macha does not comes across as a"faggot" and probably cannot pass; Marrero is not trying to. Macha is instead a female who has adopted a male gender guise; without"packing" or perversity, Marrero"fucks" gender by revealing it as socially ascribed, yet self-assigned.

Marrero's act, while sensuous and charming, is also rather funny in its over-the-top depiction of Latino masculinity. Entering the stage that day in a cream-colored suit and a pencil-thin, penciled-on mustache, Macha eyed her/himself coolly in a mirror frame, smoothing her/his eyebrows. Dashing for the free weights, s/he hurriedly did a few maniac moves, stopping afterwards again to flex before the mirror. Donning a coat, tie, and ridiculous wide-brimmed straw hat, Macha began lip-synching the original"Cuban Pete" by Desi Arnaz; the coat, I quickly noticed, was a woman's cut, but the Cubano style of the number seemed to allow for the small flare cut into the waist. Debonair and daffy, Macha moved her/his way through a deliberately comic interpretation of the lyrics, making it plain in the bargain that Marrero has had some training as a dancer. Flirting with the crowd, s/he made a show of drinking from one woman's beer and licking another's nose; s/he needed only to strike a pose and the audience laughed out loud.

At the end of the song, Macha addressed the audience, making the message perfectly clear:"Allow me to introduce myself. Yo me llamo Macha. Okay? No soy Macho; Macha." After a brief bit of repartee, s/he warned them not to underestimate her/him, because"there is more to Macha than meets the eye." The music began again and then Macha did something I had never seen a drag king do: s/he lip-synched a song by a female vocalist while in full drag, in precisely the same manner as s/he had done the previous male vocal. I found it to be disorienting, confusing, and wonderful. While Mildred Gerestant also incorporates a female vocal into her act, by the time it happens she has shifted her body language noticeably, usually having already exposed her bikini top and ditched her phallus. The facial hair has been rendered meaningless, simply make-up she did not have the time to remove. But Macha did, "woman" as Macha, in precisely the same style as s/he had done"man," as if to say that there is really no difference. The mustache looked silly on both of them, but both wore the masculinity well.

I interviewed Marrero shortly after that performance and, impressed with her ability, suggested she call Kate about performing at Dragnet. Kate, also impressed, made her a regular guest. This little bit of networking made me a hero in Marrero's eyes, and from that point forward, she made it a habit to introduce me to people as"the woman who discovered me." I smiled, demurred, and told her"No, no, I haven't done anything," but was of course ego-gratified nonetheless. She insisted she was"having none of it," and the night of her first Crazy Nanny's appearance, bought me a Bacardi Limon with a beer chaser. We were fast friends.

We sat outdoors and chatted for nearly half an hour before I realized I had forgotten to turn on my camera; during that time she spoke freely to me about the early death of her father, and about her Latina upbringing."There's a different mentality in this society with Latinos and their women. Women are very subservient in our culture. They're like,'Yeah, okay, whatever he wants.' Make your father happy, make your brother happy, make this one happy, but don't make yourself happy." As the woman, she explained,"you're the weakling. You're here to be the mother, the nurturer. You're here to take everybody's stuff and help them with it, help them to advance. Or as a mother, to help your children do this or do that. As a wife, to help your husband maintain the house in a different fashion; he maintains it financially, while you keep it clean, you do the clothes. You do this, you do that. It's like, no. I'm not gonna' be there. You want to be there, that's your choice. I choose not to."

Like many of the women I spoke to, Marrero talked a lot about the men in her life. She told me, with candor and composure, about the day her father died. Her older brother, Junior, having gone out for the Auxiliary Police, had gotten involved in an argument with some boys from the neighborhood who disapproved of his career choice. Later, they made a comment to Marrero, who passed it on to her mother; when her father got home from work, he took matters into his own hands. Listening from her apartment window, Marrero heard the argument escalating in the street below. As it reached a crescendo, she leapt from her chair and raced down the stairs. She heard the gun fire just before she made it outside. Her father lay dying on the sidewalk, Junior bent over him, crying. Suddenly Mr. Marrero slapped his son in the face."Be a man!" he scolded his eldest."You're the head of the family now."

It was a message Junior took to heart, unfortunately."I was fourteen when my dad died," Marrero began."Between the ages of fourteen and eighteen, we had a very physically violent relationship. And that was because, well, the name'Junior' is like you're a substitute dad. Man of the house and that kind of shit. I was like,'Who the fuck died and --' I mean,'daddy died, but he didn't make you boss.' Do you know what I'm saying?"

"He kinda did, actually," I answered, recalling the slap and the literal transfer of power.

"He did, but -- right. He bestowed that upon him. And, in the Latin culture, you're expected to do that. So when you think you see your sister out of line, you want to whack her. And I wasn't having it. I went through it a lot. We went through blows a lot."

Eventually Junior's violent tendencies landed him in jail for abusing his wife and son; upon his release he came home to Mami -- to live in the apartment over Marrero's head. I asked her if she would have preferred that he hadn't;"I don't even want him in my space," she replied,"let alone to be breathing the same air he breathes. And that's because of that physical violence that I went through as a child. Because I know that the reality of that, was that it was because I was a lesbian. I know it. Most people in my culture will say,'Oh, you know brothers and sisters go through that.' I was like,'really? Not in my book.' You know,'He just is who he is.' Like that. It's all right for them to coddle that kind of behavior, but it's not all right with me. And my family is like, if Junior is home,'Oh, you know, he saw you from the window, and he thinks you look absolutely beautiful. He can't believe how much weight you lost.' And I ask them,'Why are you guys telling me all of this? Why do you feel like I need to build a relationship with him right now? I don't. And it's my choice to do that'."

"It's funny," she went on,"in looking at my father's death and looking at his behavior, at my brother's behavior, the things about them that I hate the most are sometimes the things that I have with myself. Like their anger, and their temper tantrums, and how they dealt with it; sometimes I see myself there. And that's what keeps me away from it. I don't want to be like that. I don't want to be like them. I'm not like them. I'm not even them! I'm a woman." But Junior has"always had a really bad temper," she reiterated."That's why I say, a lot of times when I feel myself getting really angry about something, to the point of something physical, that I just think about them. And I see myself in that place, and I don't want to go there. That's the worst part for me."

Marrero's problems with the men in her family, sadly, do not end there. Slightly suspicious, I questioned her rather directly about her brother:"Did he ever sexually abuse you?"

"No," she responded firmly, and I was relieved."Our stuff was purely physical. Purely physical violence, not sexual. That's not to say that I haven't been, though. But not by him."

"But you were?"

"Yeah. I was sexually abused by my uncle." I sighed very deeply, sorry to have been correct."I think I was about nine or so," she began with a steady voice."My uncle is not that much older than me; I think at that time he was about sixteen years old. I don't ever remember him being too young -- he was my uncle, so he always seemed older, but he probably was pretty young. I remember him saying,'Lisa, come with me, so that I can go check the boiler.' He didn't live there, he didn't work there. I never thought about it. All right, I thought, so he's doing Tio a favor and checking the boiler. So I was totally naive; I didn't know any better.

"I walked with him into this basement that led to a huge boiler room. You had to step down ladders in order to get to that boiler, but just before you stepped down that ladder, you hit a corner, and then a foyer. And in that foyer, there was a room that was indented. It was just a space, it wasn't even a room. It was just a space. And there was a mattress in that space. I remember him asking me to lay down on it. I remember him pulling my pants down. I remember him sodomizing me. I remember him coming, sodomizing me, because I remember feeling wet with all that stuff. And just getting up afterwards and not even knowing how to deal with it. Like, I knew that it was wrong, but it was Tio. It was my uncle. What do you say? What do you do? How do you act when you come back?

"I remember feeling like,'Wow, this is really weird.' Like,'What's going on?' And then after the situation was done, the whole incident, you know, getting up and cleaning myself and everything like that, and then walking back to where the whole family was just having fun again. And I just remember moving into that. I don't remember ever cowering in a corner. I don't remember feeling like,'Nobody touch me. Don't look at me.' I don't remember any of that; I don't remember acting that way. I don't know if in fact I did; I don't know. I just never dealt with it. I never even thought about saying,'mom, Tio just did this to me.' I never thought that. I think what I thought was that if I did tell her it would rock the boat, and I thought that they wouldn't believe me. By the same token, though, my parents were really strict. Why would I lie? I don't know. It's a really confusing place.

"In looking back, I remember it like yesterday, the incident happening. That was the first time ever. It happened after that, and I remember it, too. It was in my house. He was babysitting us. My parents had gone out. Maybe I was like another year older, maybe around ten. And the same thing. You know, they had bedrooms in the house, nobody was there. You know, that kind of thing. And never have I really felt like I had someone to say,'Look, this is what happened. I know I wasn't bugging out, and I know this happened.' I never felt like I had anybody that I could do that with."

Marrero explains her silence, in part, as a byproduct of Latino culture."I haven't seen him in a while," she says of her uncle,"but up until maybe a couple of years ago, I used to see him on a regular basis. And where we come from, in Latino culture, there's a lot of sexual abuse that goes on, a lot of incestuous shit. No one wants to look at it. No one wants to talk about it. No one wants to open the can of worms. And since that's where I came from, that's how I dealt with it. If I saw my uncle, I'd be like,'Hi, Tio. Bendición?' -- you know, you ask for the blessing. That's normal respect -- not even thinking about how he disrespected me. But it was just -- you just didn't deal. You just didn't deal." I asked her if she had ever spoken about it with anyone."Every once in a while," she said,"I can talk to perfect strangers about it. But I can't talk to my family about it, because I think it's gonna' open this huge can of worms. That's just not gonna -- what's it gonna do?"

In light of the details, Marrero's positive attitude is amazing. She dismisses the abuse as"just something that happened," preferring not to get bogged down in depression over it. Having just recently moved out of the"family compound," as she calls it, she is beginning now to deal with the issues she could not face when living there. Convinced that her lesbian sexuality has absolutely nothing to do with her history of abuse at the hands of men, we agreed that"if every woman who was sexually abused became a lesbian, there would be a helluva lot more lesbians."

Marrero maintains, in fact, many positive relationships with other men, from her cousin, choreographer Arthur Avilles, to her stepfather, of whom she is rather fond. He"connects with me," she smiled."It's so amazing sometimes, how he connects with me, because he sees a lot of me in himself; that I'm a hard worker, I do for my family. One of the things that my dad always taught me is that if you're gonna' do something, do it right or don't do it at all. I try to strive for that." When her mother's house fell under foreclosure, Marrero and her stepfather pooled their resources to buy it for the family; they both thought it was the right thing to do. They have similar sensibilities."He sees that I don't like bullshit," she continued."I like to have things right up front. If you think something of me, tell me. Work with me, let's build something. By the same token, I don't know; he could be thinking something totally different. But I get along with him really well. I mean, I'm really grateful to him because he takes care of my mother. That's the biggest thing. And he's very giving. He's a giving man. He's loving. If ever I need his help, he's the type of guy that would say,'If you need my help, give me a call'."

Marrero sees her drag as an affirmation of her femininity and of her lesbian identity. Refusing to become a man by relinquishing her womanhood, she acts the part of a masculine woman; ever female, her drag king flirtations remain lesbian. Marrero would never consider"packing," for it would obscure these messages. I wonder, too, if perhaps her strict refusal to let go of femininity has something to do with the violence she associates with some of the men in her life; becoming a"man," so to speak, would bring her closer to owning that violence in herself. She said it herself:"their anger, and their temper tantrums, and how they dealt with it; sometimes I see myself there. And that's what keeps me away from it. I don't want to be like that. I don't want to be like them. I'm not like them. I'm not even them! I'm a woman." Rather than acting out her anger, she has decided instead to defuse it. In the face of so much pain and sorrow, Marrero has chosen to portray the more gentle and romantic side of masculinity. It may well be, to use Halberstam's phrase, a strictly female masculinity, desired by and characteristic of women.

 

 

Shelly Mars

Shelly Mars as Martin in "The Virgin Machine" as Martin

still photo from Monika Treut's"Virgin Machine"

"He was my defense, my way of

hiding and being secure in that,

through all the pain I was feeling."

- Shelly Mars

 

It took me a little while to work up the nerve to call Shelly Mars. One of the"granddaddies" of masculine drag, I'd seen her strut her stuff as Martin several years ago in Monika Treut's Virgin Machine (1988); as a native New Yorker, hers was almost a household name associated with the downtown arts scene. A lesbian celebrity of some status, she's appeared on almost every major television network and in films such as Drop Dead Rock with Adam Ant and Debbie Harry (Adam Dubin, 1995) and Hayseed (Josh Levy and Andrew Hayes, 1997), opposite Scott Thompson. She's done Donahue, Montel, Comedy Central and CNBC; I admit I found just the idea of Mars rather awesome. Added to that was her reputation for perversity and her gift for stirring controversy, having upset, at some point in her career, everyone from feminists and lesbians to Jews, the trustees of the State University of New York (SUNY), and the Governor of New York, George E. Pataki. There is little wonder that I was intimidated even in her absence.

Mars, however, is quite present. Born in Celina, a small town in Ohio near Indiana, most of her family has worked in the clothing store her great-grandfather started, the only Jewish business in town. Later of San Francisco, she is a New Yorker now -- as evidenced by the trail of press clippings -- and active, as always, as an artist and educator. Truly a founding"father" of the current drag king wave, she's been doing drag for better than fifteen years. I saw her perform twice during my fieldwork, once as herself and once as Peter Powell, a closeted gay man with AIDS dementia; she left me feeling drained on both occasions. Her onstage presence is uniquely powerful; it is always somehow both threatening and fearless. She has a way of holding your attention, even as your skin is crawling. Both demon and demon-slayer, she's equal parts crusade and masquerade; she becomes the thing you hate the most and makes you laugh despite it. Accused often of being angry and offensive, she aims, in fact, to be so."Of course I'm angry," she acknowledged,"but I have a good sense of humor, too. I'm happy, I'm sad, I'm vulnerable, I'm a pig, I'm all of that. I think I was a lot angrier when I was younger, but believe me, I've still got anger in me.

"Today," she began, by way of example,"it was really interesting. I had just gotten on the train and I felt amazing. I'd had great sex all night, and I was in a really'wonky' mood. And I'm walking and this big asshole guy with a suitcase was just totally oblivious of space and walked right in front of me and just, didn't even see me. And I was like,'Uh, excuse me!' and I sort of pushed him. And he kind of grabbed my tit. He was twice my size and he's like,'don't push me!' He wasn't a street person, he was just such an angry fucker. He actually pushed my tit and goes,'You don't push me!' And I watched myself. I was like, wow -- that I went there. I could have taken a moment and walked aside and went,'What an asshole.' But I've still got that in me, to kick ass. I started it; I shouldn't have hit him. But he was just so in my face. And I'm just, I am like a rebel. I don't know if rebel's the right word, but I do fight back, and I am angry."

But beyond that, Mars says,"I've been changing a lot lately and making my world bigger than just the angry dykes that want to see me as an angry dyke. My material is not just gay. I'm an artist and whatever that may be. If they want to call Karen Finley an angry bi or whatever, then she is. But she's more than that, you know. She has that, but she's an artist and it's just the work. That doesn't really phase me anymore. I think I was pretty angry, but that wasn't all of me. Like I said, I always had a sense of humor and it was entertaining. But I like to go to the dark places. I enjoy performing anger. I enjoy rage. Because I release it inside me, you know? It's fun. It's boring to be a funny person all the time, and a nice person."

"Is it cathartic for you?"

"Yeah," she nodded,"sure."

"It's like sex, a little bit, right?"

"It's very much like sex. And I come from that kind of family, where you yell and scream, and so it must be part of that, too. A lot of my mother is in Peter. Very switching and cuckoo, and nice, and crazy. So we do what we know. We attract what we know."

Sometimes, what we know is unattractive. Mars, in shifting our discussion from sex through aggression to her family, did not do so unselfconsciously. She was, to be sure, not the only person who spoke to me of incest issues and abuse; she is, however, the only one to expressly incorporate a process of recovery into her act. A lot of the anger and ugliness she expresses on stage are intimately tied to this, just as they are, I am convinced, with certain other kings."Martin," she explained,"was really my first comment on the pain and the shit I went through with these kind of men in society, in my life, around their obsession with lesbians, sex, money, their disregard -- their misogyny. And also, a lot of healing came through that, also realizing that this part lives inside of Shelly. You know, all these characters, I own them as well. Whenever you're pointing the finger out there, it's back on yourself. It's a mirror."

Martin, the fellow in the skinny tie with the beer-bottle phallus who masturbates himself and then climaxes, humiliated, spraying beer across his audience, elicits strong responses."Some people love him and worship him, and others are totally offended, as if I'm a guy. I never really understood that. There's no doubt that he's offensive as a person, but I don't know, I think you really gotta' have a sense of humor with him. And he came from hearing this constantly. And I still hear it, you know. Martins, a million of them. But the denial of those people who hate him is that Martin lives inside them. I think there's a little piggishness in them. The way they might treat their girlfriend or a guy, with disregard, or just in that kind of way. We are all of that inside us.

"My last show," she went on,"was really about deconstructing who Martin was and how I got to where I came from. It was very real. It was probably so real that I went into denial that I even did it. I was talking about the sex business, but really why Martin came about. He was my defense, my way of hiding and being secure in that, through all the pain I was feeling." I asked her to be more specific."Just, the kind of emotional incest relationship I had with men, my father, my brother, guys always hitting on me, money and sex. Constantly getting hit on and being oversexualized. But then realizing why you behave that way, and so you go for it. So you're a little confused. You think,'Well, I like this. I'm into all of these weird things.' So you're getting it very attracted to you when you're very young. So I was always -- I'd put myself in those situations. I've sort of -- that's been my life. My healing and exploration has been through art, sex, gender, my own sexuality." Returning to Martin, she concluded,"So that's why he was the first guy, because that was the first guy I knew. He's my father, my brother and all the guys out there. You know, there's parts of my brother and my father I adore, but there's parts I can't stand."

"Just the ugly parts," I offered.

"Yeah," she agreed, still thinking."I think that, especially my last show,'Whiplash: Tale of a Tomboy,' was definitely driven, it was all about -- I think I called it'mars Behind Bars,' the most recent one was, started out in the analyst's office. Like, why am I doing this? Why do these characters come? I don't have any heavy-duty memories, but still I get like, incest relations with my father and the behavior; the kind of jokes he tells and the kind of energy. And he acts like he's my boyfriend, moping around. You just always felt like you were gonna' get eaten alive. You're looked at like you're gonna' get raped by him at all times. So I became a guy a lot, you know? Like one of the guys, and I could be a tomboy as my defense. I think that's in me anyway, but definitely I was like his'boy-girl,' and I used my seductions to work that, too. So there was always that element in my relationships with guys a lot, through my father. Just, you know, kind of those wolf eyes. But like I said, I don't really have any strong memories about really heavy stuff. It doesn't really even matter, because it's there."

"It's the inappropriateness of the relationship," I said.

"Yeah. The boundaries."

I considered for a moment, and decided to press her further."Do you see Martin as kind of a predatory character?"

"Oh, yeah," she agreed immediately.

"So you're inhabiting that other side, do you think?"

"Oh, yeah. And boy, it feels good to do it, too. It is so much -- sometimes I dissociate and become that, like (dropping voice)'Oh, c'mere, baby.' You know, a little pedophile -- what do you call them? A pederast? Yeah, I love playing that out. You know, like, mmmmmn. Because it's so creepy. Because it's what we know. Like, you repeat the abuse. And I believe you just accept that, and it's all about taking it into awareness. If you know you're doing it, then you can make a choice. If you don't know you're doing it, you have no choice."

"Are you saying," I asked,"that the choice is between performing it and actually being it?"

"Well, no," Mars frowned."I don't think that -- yeah. I mean, I don't think being a pedophile and really doing it is choice, I mean that's really hideous."

"Well of course. But they say that people who are sexually abused as children --"

" --'they always do it,' sure. But if they get help, they maybe can get it out in another way where they can release this sort of energy and still get the release without doing it to somebody."

"Is that what you're doing?" I watched her face closely.

"Maybe," she started, and then set her jaw."Yeah. Definitely. Martin's a lot of that. I probably would do it to somebody else. When I'm in drag, I totally become that. Like, I love to pick on trannies and stuff, and like,'Come here, baby.' And you know they're acting it out because they were probably abused as kids. Everybody's acting out their weird sexuality shit. So we're acting it out; we're not really doing it. We're not really taking some kid and doing it to them. Or some woman and blehh (makes a noise of disgust). But, yeah, it's definitely -- you get a real charge when you've had it done. But, knowing you're doing that, it certainly helps. You're just, you're playing it out." Art as therapy, perhaps, for both the artist and her audience.

Not everyone, however, is open to the idea of performance-as-purgation. Recently, at the East Coast Lesbian Festival, Mars and her girlfriend decided to perform a gender-bent bit of role-playing which ran awry. She wrote about the experience for Cups Magazine:

I play the part of a sleazy eurotrash frenchman, and she plays the part of a young woman coming to look at my apartment to rent one of my rooms. I show her around and come onto her. I offer her some coffee, I show her my paintings, I drop a lot of sexual innuendoes, and finally, she starts to get uncomfortable and says to me,"I really don't think this is going to work out. I'm going to leave." And I say, in my French accent,"Where do you think you're going, little girl? You're not going anywhere until you kiss this...cock." I pull out a rubber dildo from my pants, and just as my girlfriend is about to kiss it, 300 dykes started hissing and screaming. They don't wait for the next beat where I rip off my mustache and say,"Can't we just do it like regular lesbians?" And they don't wait until my girlfriend screams,"Why did you stop, I was just getting into it." They don't understand that we are two lesbians role playing. Half of the crowd hisses. The other half yells,"Shut up, let her do her thing." No one can hear us, so we just stop and watch them. It was a performer's worst nightmare.

There was a big powwow in the main tent to discuss Shelly Mars' performance. I was glad at least that we were going to discuss it. I walked in and was planning to explain that the skit was about role playing, but as soon as I walked into the tent, this woman at the far end let out a blood curdling shriek,"AHHHHHHHHHH," as if I were Jill the Ripper and screamed,"Get out of here. GET OUT OF HERE!" There was another woman, a pilgrim type who spoke piously with one of those Wasp calm whispers."I think you'd better leave," she said."You're upsetting some of the women. It would be best for you to go." I said,"Don't you think I should be allowed to tell my point of view?" But the shrieker let out another blood curdling scream, which caused the pious woman to whisper even lower:"I just think it's best you leave."++

Having set out to"get a few laughs," Mars ended up in tears. Vilified, her effort to encourage lesbians to contemplate the relationship between rape, aggression, fantasy, and sex went unrecognized and unappreciated. Instead of seeing her performance as a playful opportunity to work through some highly-charged emotional issues, they perceived her as an enemy; they could not see the knight, it seems, for the dragon.

 

 

Diane Torr

Dany King, a.k.a. Diane Torr as Danny King

photo by Vivienne Maricevic

"What immediately happens is that

people step aside to let you go past."

- Diane Torr

 

Diane Torr defies definition. Far more than a drag king, she is, like many of the other women I worked with, an innovator, an actor, a performance artist and a political activist. She is also an educator, wife and mother, a blackbelt in Aikido, and a hetero-bisexual lesbian formerly-Marxist-socialist Scottish feminist. Dubbed, "The Scholar with a G-string," she is an international ambassador of masculine drag and gender-interrogative theater; at the age of fifty, she's been investigating gender through performance for better than twenty years and performing as a man for over ten. She has brought her talent and her message to places as diverse as Amsterdam, Zurich, Hanover, Berlin, Helsinki, Copenhagen and Istanbul, to name but a few, and traveled via the New York City subway system in openly transsexual drag; she is brilliant, brave, and crazy. But there is still more to Diane Torr, for she is also the woman who made me understand that drag can be far more powerful off the stage than on it. No longer just a joke -- intended to provoke, though it may be -- or an erotic fantasy, Torr takes drag out onto the streets. There, it moves from the overt to the covert and becomes passing -- a doorway to a different world.

Torr discovered drag both slowly and all at once; while it took her quite a few years to find the mustache, as soon as she did, she saw its potential."I really think that the whole drag king thing for me started in 1968," she told me,"when I first got involved with the feminist movement. I mean, I could date it back thirty years. What I'm talking about is the development of a consciousness, an awareness of difference, of sexual difference, and an ability to see how constructed we are; how construction is enforced by class, by ideas of what you should be doing at a particular time in your life, at your age, and also by expectations in terms of who you take for a mate. So the idea of who you are is so culturally and socially defined that, as women, we're really limited." Even as a child, said Torr,"I looked at my mother and I thought,'I am never getting married. This is a trap.' I looked at my mother at the age of nine or ten and I'm thinking,'God, she's got no freedom'."

Having grown up in Aberdeen, Scotland, she came to New York in 1976."At the time," said Torr,"I was making a living as a go-go dancer, and working in these go-go bars in places like Paterson, New Jersey and Newark and Secaucus. I mean joints, real low down joints." A natural intellectual with a college education, she could not help but confront herself over the reality of her life."I used to work in these go-go bars and I would read stuff and try to figure out where I lay in all this, because I was a feminist, thinking,'I am a dancer, I could make a living go-go dancing, but it's so antithetical to my feminist aesthetic'." Torr found a way to reconcile her feminist and sexual politics:"I tried to form a union with the go-go dancers," she recalled,"but they were all so ashamed of what they did, they didn't want anybody to know."

Torr left the trade in '81, she said,"because I was so -- to see the reality of what you're expected to do in go-go bars, and to actually experience that and to do that -- you're on the front line. You're selling your sex for money. And all these guys are sitting there with eyes like goldfish bowls, you know, staring at you. And you're thinking,'This is what our society thinks of our sexuality as women. And I don't agree with this. I'm doing this to make money but there's got to be another way'." Eventually she translated her experiences"on the front line" into theater."I had a piece called, 'Go-Go World,' in which I did a whole analysis of go-go dancing, the formulaic nature of it , and I taught the audience how to do it. If you were to analyze go-go dancing," she explained, "and you wanted to find out which were the moves that would lead the guy to take the dollar bill out of his pocket, you would find that there are dollar pulling moves that you can do. So I found, like ten, and I just said, 'Okay, if you just did a variation of these all night long, you could probably do pretty well.' And so I started teaching this to girls who were at college -- not here, actually. I was invited to teach in Holland at the European Dance Development Centre in Arnhem." That was the beginning of her third career (the first two being dance and theater) as a visiting artist and lecturer at academies around the world.

She continued writing and performing, lecturing and leading workshops with titles like"Gender as Performance" at places such as Cal Arts and Boston University. Then in 1989,"a friend of mine who was dating Annie Sprinkle gave me a call, and she said,'Annie's doing this interview with this female to male transsexual and she's looking for somebody to illustrate the article. And I recommended you because you do all these performances in drag.' So Annie invited me over and I met Johnny Science," a make-up artist who specializes in making women look like men. He transformed her completely; outfitted in a crepe-hair mustache, five o'clock shadow and what might have passed for an Adam's apple in low light, Torr, who'd been in drag before, had never quite achieved such"realness." Pressed for time, she sat for the photos and then proceeded directly to the Whitney Museum for its Biennial celebration, still in drag. What happened next is a story she's told countless times to interviewers, audiences, and workshop participants.

"Since none of my friends recognized me, I had no one to talk to, so I decided to take advantage of the situation and observe the scene as a man might. I got a beer and leaned against the wall, thinking I was safe. However, I hadn't been there long when a woman came to me and started chatting me up in the manner that women use to chat up men. I looked at her with incredulity. I expected the light to dawn and for her to realize my true identity at any moment. However, that didn't happen. I didn't want to blow her faith in this exchange by telling her that I was really a woman, so I didn't speak. This made her more interested. I finally walked away from her, not knowing what else to do. I found another wall to lean against, on another floor of the museum, and turned around. She had followed me, and was coming on really strong! I stood staring at her and thought,'Where's her self-respect? Why is she laying herself out on a carpet for me?' Women do this all the time for men."**

Immediately, Torr realized the instructive possibilities. She started creating drag king characters, blokes like Jack Sprat, a beer-swilling, tone deaf, British mod wanna-be rockstar still trapped in the late'60s and worshipping at the altar of The Who, and Jim McCabe, a straight American guy who dresses in bad drag for laughs. Recognizing the value of the passing experience to any woman, eventually she began working with Johnny Science on a workshop that grew out of Annie Sprinkle's Transformational Salons; when Johnny bowed out, Torr took over. Since 1992, Torr's "Drag King for a Day" workshops have attracted women from all over the world, all walks of life, all sizes, all ages and sexualities. As Danny King, Torr teaches them how to walk, talk, dance, sit, and eat like men -- albeit stereotypical men. They build cotton-wool phalluses, bind their breasts, glue on facial hair and, dressing the part, go out on the town. En masse, they invade pubs and restaurants, peep shows and gay back rooms, easily gaining access to some of the most intimate male spaces. They are not"passing women," per se, because that designation indicates a lifestyle choice; they are passing in drag specifically because their performance, while successful, is nonetheless perceived by them as acted rather than owned. Important, too, is the fact that their display of masculinity, sometimes rather convincing, is based nonetheless on a hyperbolized stereotype rather than any internalized male identity or long-term investment in maleness.

But it's more than just dress-up, and it's more than just play; it's nothing short of a lesson in life. Firstly, one learns the rules of male behavior, summed up below by Jim Cross, another of Torr's many male personas. As a representative of the American Society of Men, a real organization dedicated to"protecting and preserving the God-ordained rights and privileges of men," Cross addresses his male charges:

"I'm here tonight on behalf of the American Society of Men to give you your first lesson on how to gain and retain respect. Rule number one: territory. When you walk into a room, have a sense of ownership; don't be intimidated. You want a sense that your feet own the ground under each step you take. I often give my clients an image of being in a castle with a moat around you. In this way, you maintain a sense of boundaries; don't let anybody enter your space. Don't budge. And when you walk into a room for the first time, act like you've been there before; it's not the first time you've seen a dead cat before. Don't be intimidated. Every thing you look at, you could own, or you do own. That is the sense you want to convey.

Rule number two: stop smiling. When you smile, it's an act of friendliness; you're conceding territory. It could make you open for exploitation. It's very nice to see women smiling; it makes them appealing, unthreatening. But as a man, it's important that you allow no way that somebody can permeate you. Maintain a sense of your decision-making capability at all times.

Rule number three: stop apologizing. As a man in a man's world, you are right. And even if you're not, why admit it? They're lucky to have you around.

Rule number four: speak slowly. When you speak, there are thousands of years of philosophy behind every word. When you pause to reflect, your audience will imagine that you are contemplating these thousand years of philosophy and you have something important to say. Actually, you don't really need to say anything at all. People can see by the way that you are, the wisdom that you reflect.

Now, if a woman should ask you an unnecessary question, you've no need to answer her. You can just look at her. Look at her with an air of bemused tolerance and waiting for her to say something that might just interest you."

Exaggerated though they are, Cross' rules are strikingly on-target. They reveal not so much what every man thinks, but what our society seems to expect of them. In this way they are enlightening for men as well, who laugh, themselves, during Torr's performance, at the ridiculousness of the standard to which they are held.

Cross' view is, of course, archaic and misogynist. As a drag king character, it is fitting that his personality be exaggerated, for he is meant to be performed upon a stage. But when Torr takes her workshoppers out on the street they are fully invested, sometimes at the risk of their lives, in achieving"realness." Where the drag king is by definition a performer, the passing woman is, in any context, committed to making a performance so authentic it goes unrecognized as such. The line between the two is thin, and Torr carries drag across it regularly. Doing so reveals a world accessible only to the likes of men, offering women a view of themselves through male eyes. As a sort of gender espionage, passing in drag allows women to own"male privilege" for a moment, Torr suggests, perhaps to carry it back with them into their normal lives.

 

 

 

Part III - Patterns

 

When I began my research, I had no idea what I would find; in the very beginning, I little expected to find anything at all. Happily, the simple process of being present to absorb the details of conversations and events has provided me with a sifter through which to pass my bucket of sand, and several larger objects remain on the lattice. So much has been shaken free, in fact, that a study of far greater magnitude would be required to adequately address it all. In the following pages I shall deal with the greater concerns as they showed themselves, rocks that hit me on the head, so to speak, as they coalesced into patterns before me.

 

 

Masculinity and Maleness

•Identifying with Men, Owning Masculinity

Conventional wisdom dictates that little boys grow up identifying with their fathers, while little girls emulate their mothers; many believe that those who cross-identify grow up to become homosexuals. Evaluating the relative truth or untruth of that simplistic nugget is far beyond the scope of this paper; I wish instead to take one logical step backwards to recognize that all human children, whether male or female, find points of identification in both genders. Generally we find it unfit to speak this truth, for it denies the radical requirements of gender dichotomism. Children, identifying with the adults in their lives, choose gendered signs to express this but are taught, from the outset, that only certain of them are appropriate. I believe that the drag kings are in fact expressing a sort of natural male identification, albeit in a space of play.

A naive observer might conclude that a drag king's hyperbolic expression of masculinity is a shot fired directly at men; indeed, some women have accused drag queens of taking similar aim at them. But a basic education in queer studies might open that perspective up to the realization that drag instead deconstructs all notions of gender fixity, regardless of who performs it or which gender is performed. The next logical step is to recognize further that drag rebuilds the very house it destroys; by simply allowing"one gender to perform the other," so to speak, it perpetuates the original dichotomy. As Judith Butler pointed out, while drag dramatizes the construction of gender through the hyperbolic use of gendered signs, it simultaneously assumes the onticity of the gender it imitates ¦. Immediately I think again of children, who do precisely this: they assume the onticity of gender and then imitate it; certain behaviors are then reinforced while others bring reprimands, and gender coalesces. My own research suggests to me that in performing, drag kings may sometimes be utilizing the"safe space" of the stage in which to semeiosically act out as children do, allowing themselves a harmless expression of cross-gendered identification.

A good many of the women I worked with during the course of my research spoke to me of their relationships with fathers and brothers; some spoke not at all, letting their silence on the point speak for them. Still, the amount of sheer time spent discussing these men exceeded any talk of women by more than two to one, a fact I found surprising considering how little time my lesbian acquaintances generally spend discussing them. Unfortunately many details were tragic, and while Elizabeth Marrero's discussion of her father, brother and uncle was the only instance so detailed in Part II, it was far from the only discussion that traveled such terrain. Still, most spoke fondly of men in their lives as sources of inspiration and guidance, power, pride and yes -- identification.

Maureen Fischer explained,"I pick up a lot of things from my father. And I remember as a girl, watching my father walk. Watching him, his power of authority, his dominance. His aura was just -- I was awestruck. I was like,'That's gorgeous.' Really. His chest seemed so powerful, and the way he would walk, and his suits. It was just gorgeous to me. I was just like,'Wow.' And I remember thinking,'I want to walk like that. I want that same kind of feeling. I want that'." As a drag king, Fischer has found a way to access that aura of masculine power; having thus taken ownership, she is able to carry it with her off stage. From an Irish Catholic family of ten, Fischer spoke fondly as well of the two brothers who came to see her perform, one of whom is"very accepting and very queer positive. He brought his friends with him."

Diane Torr spoke at length about the special bond she'd had with her brother, Donald, growing up together in the early'60s."I had a gay brother who loved to do dusting," she told me,"and loved to play with my dolls. So we totally subverted our parents' wishes by, behind their backs, switching roles." She broke into laughter at the memory."We were fifteen months apart. We had this whole conspiracy -- you know, a total conspiracy. And I think it saved my life, actually. Definitely. My brother -- he's dead now, unfortunately -- he was the conspirator to transcend the poverty of our family background, growing up in a housing estate in northeast Scotland, to becoming our own persons." She credits him with planting the seeds of her drag career;"he was really the person that introduced me to drag," she told me,"when he was seven years old at Halloween, traipsing around the neighborhood in my mother's clothes."

One of the most moving performances I witnessed during my fieldwork was also one of the most understated. Torr had come up with an event called, "Brother for a Day," to be performed in remembrance of men lost to AIDS."I feel that in performing men, perhaps we're filling a vacuum that's been created by their loss," she explained."I do have a gay male character that I perform, and sometimes I go out as him in memory of a lot of my gay male friends who've died. And for me, it's kind of like being a living a requiem, if you like, to them." Torr assembled a group of women who took the stage in the guise of men they had known and lost, a powerful sentiment in itself."I lost my brother in 1992," she explained to the assembled crowd."My brother was an extraordinary character, and I don't know how I can do him justice; I'm going to try to."

Containing what must have been powerful emotions, Torr told the audience about growing up in Scotland with her brother, the both of them listening to Dusty Springfield on Radio Luxembourg."Whenever she came on the radio, my brother used to do his own renditions of her songs. He was fourteen at the time and was very aware of his sexuality, but at that time there was no gay life in the U.K. at all. And he found out somehow that Dusty Springfield is a dyke. He felt like he had this secret knowledge; that it was some kind of a conspiracy between him and Dusty Springfield." When the music began, Diane became Donald; it was 1964 and he was fourteen years old, standing by the radio and lip-synching to Dusty. In an androgynous costume and absolutely no make-up, Torr transformed herself into a version of adolescent masculinity using body language and facial expressions alone; he was strikingly successful.

Even Elizabeth Marrero -- whose bravery and honesty I truly admire -- spoke of men in her life with fondness. She still looks to her father's example for guidance:"One of the things that my dad always taught me is that if you're gonna do something, do it right or don't do it at all. And I try to strive for that." She has a wonderful relationship with her step-father, who was supportive of her lesbian relationships even when her mother was not, and works regularly with her cousin, to whom she is very close. Wendy Wiseman smiled happily when her father came up, appreciating the support he has always shown her in the face of her sometimes troublesome androgyny, exemplified by his non-reaction to the notion of her performing drag:"Well, that's not much of a stretch. You've been kicked out of girls' rooms your whole life." She spoke fondly, too, of her brother."I have one sibling," she told me."He's two years younger, and four inches taller. And a couple hundred pounds bigger. Well," she laughed,"maybe not that much. He's a big boy, baby brother."

Many of the women I spoke to talked about being drawn to behaviors that are coded as masculine, as well as feminine."I was determined to be with the boys," said Torr,"searching in the woods, finding haunted houses. But then I also liked being with the girls, too, and playing girl games. I think I've always done both and felt I wanted all of it, not just one or the other." Antonio Caputo told me that he is both man and woman, but feels more comfortable as a man and always has. He was nothing like his sister, he grinned; she would come home from school and sit by the television while he ran around with the boys, climbing trees and getting into trouble. Shelly Mars admitted that she sometimes"became a guy" as a defense against inappropriate sexuality, while Wendy Wiseman often had trouble proving that she was, in fact, a girl. Shane wears suits and ties to work on a daily basis (and looks very good in them, actually), and Betsey Gallagher is invested enough in her female masculinity to have nearly turned down a job over wearing a dress. Even Marrero, adamantly female, loves and honors her own masculinity, which she referred to as"aggressiveness."

Maureen Fischer explained that her own natural "aggressiveness" often drew criticism."I've always been told,'You're so aggressive,' as a young girl.'Why are you so aggressive?' I never heard anybody say that about a boy:'You're so aggressive.' And I think -- I've got a lot of Aries in my astrological chart, maybe that's why! I don't know. That's who I am. Who cares?" She dismisses the dichotimization of gender as artificial and limiting, claiming that,"even in the straight world, my god, I think people would be much more comfortable, and much more at ease with themselves if there was more of a crossover, and self-acceptance about all of that."

Not all of the male-identification was positive, however, and some of my informants confessed that they felt personally able to understand certain unsavory aspects of male behavior."I'm not saying I like men," Shane told me,"I really don't. I do try to take everyone on an individual basis, but they just keep proving me right, that's all. I've actually looked into myself to see where I stand, where my feelings stand with men, and what sometimes disturbs me is that I can identify with a lot of the things that they do. But don't agree with them, for a lot of the stuff that they do. And I think that masculine women can identify with what I'm saying. I don't know. I'm not really angry at them." Both Elizabeth Marrero and Shelly Mars were totally honest about seeing the"ugly parts" of men in themselves, while others quietly intimated similar sentiments.

 

•Feeling Like a"Faggot"

Sometimes female masculinity is expressed in such an androgynous way that the woman looks more like a feminine man. Under these circumstances a lesbian might view her self-presentation as akin to gay male masculinity and therefore identify as a"faggot." Antonio Caputo put it best:"I call myself sometimes, I am a faggot, because that's not like a heterosexual man, to play so much with the sex appeal. . . I don't say for myself that I am a lesbian. For me, it's the word. It's not my word. I say I am gay, I say I am homosexual, I say I am a faggot, but lesbian is not a word for me. . . I think there's a difference between lesbians and people like me. It's not the same. But I am not a dyke, too. I think that the dyke word is a little bit more comfortable, it's more easier. But I am not a dyke, too. I don't need a name for myself. Why? I am Antonio, and that's enough."

"I don't consider myself as a butch lesbian or a butch dyke," said Wendy Wiseman."I do feel a lot like a fag, sometimes, and I would probably identify with that more than as a butch lesbian. But I am one hundred percent female and comfortable with that, and being a woman, even though I don't display the generally seen sides of being a woman and wear skirts and shoes and make-up." Asserting that she has little problem passing as a man, Wiseman explained that she is"still effeminate, in a certain faggy kind of way."

When in drag, Maureen Fischer is also sometimes taken for a gay man on the street."I'm passing," she told me."I'm so passing. But I don't go in drag on a daily basis. I usually go into a cab, a couple of times, maybe I'll walk or take the subway. Sometimes people think I'm a fag, or it's'Hey, Elvis!,' because of the big pompadour and stuff." While she is all man when on stage as Mo B. Dick, Fischer sometimes allows her femininity (or herself) to poke through the guise when off stage; hence the attribution, by others, of feminine maleness, crudely misnomered as"faggotry." And while the other kings call Murray Hill a"faggot" because he is not excessively"macho," Mildred Gerestant, when in drag as Dréd but off the stage and speaking in her regular voice, has had many a gay man hand her his phone number.

 

Hyperreality and Mimetic Transformation

The magic of mimesis lies in the transformation wrought on reality by rendering its image. (Taussig 1987:134)

It is no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor even of parody. It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself, that is, an operation to deter every real process by its operational double, a metastable, programmatic, perfect descriptive machine which provides all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes. (Baudrillard 1983:4)

The harmless insect whose appearance resembles that of a poisonous species is the consummate natural mime, for he mimics a reality and in so doing impacts in a real way upon his own survival. The mimetic process requires an original upon which to base its replication, a requirement which gender cannot meet. Being discursively constructed and perpetuated principally through the use of signs, gender is"a kind of persistent impersonation that passes for the real" (Butler 1990:viii). It is therefore closer to the Baudrillardian notion of a simulacrum, hyperreal rather than real, stable despite its lack of onticity. As a simulacrum, it invites re-duplication not so much by imitation -- which also requires an original -- but by inhabitation. You don't do gender; you live it.

Drag, however, is the construct which allows one to do, rather than live, gender. It accomplishes this largely through a transformative process which can be called mimesis only because it does, in fact, mimic the reality of facial hair and bulging pants. The mimesis does not usually strive to be genuine, though, and many opt instead for surreality. But when drag moves into passing, it becomes gender and it too, approaches the hyperreal.

 

•Facial Hair

"In male drag," Shelly Mars explained,"it's really important to have that mustache, because that really is what makes the transformation." The cosmetic application of actual hair to the face is perhaps the most significant step toward hyperreality a drag king can take. Mimetic because it imitates an occurrent reality, facial hair, more than anything else, allows the drag king to pass as a man. Masculine gender assumes with the passing woman the same veneer of onticity as it does with men, and the"very definition of the real becomes: that of which it is possible to give an equivalent reproduction" (Baudrillard, 146). Gender, merely an imitation of some discursive phantasm, becomes"that which is always already reproduced. The hyperreal" (ibid.). Of the nine women I interviewed on-camera, six incorporated the use of theatrical facial hair into their performances. These six, it can be safely said, were able to pass as men successfully on the street. Of the three who chose make-up mustaches, two never attempted to pass; the third passed fairly easily on a daily basis even without making any modifications. This third is of course Antonio Caputo, whose mustache had to be silly and fake, since it marked the distinction between his true male identity and his campy drag king persona.

For information on the cosmetic application of facial hair, I went straight to a professional: Johnny Science has been making women look like men for close to thirty years. What began as a childhood fixation on gaining access to adult male spaces has turned into an art form for Science."When I was about nine years old I invented a game called, 'spies'," he told me,"whereby I would do special effects theatrical make-up. I started doing theatrical make-up when I was a young kid. I was into horror and monsters, and Lon Chaney. So that was one of my hobbies. So around the age of nine I had discovered these techniques for doing false facial hair, five o'clock shadows. The first time I ever did it was at Halloween when I was about three or four years old. My father gave me a burnt cork and showed me how to make a five o'clock shadow using that. Then, with an eyebrow pencil, I made my eyebrows look thick; the goal was to look like an adult. As I developed these techniques I realized that with facial hair, you could make a kid look like -- if you were a good enough sized kid, you could actually look a lot older. And consequently go places where a kid couldn't go."

 

Johnny Science Johnny Science

photo by the author

"So," he continued,"as time passed, I continued doing this transformational process on women. I also did tremendous research into gender and women cross-dressing; I made a study of that subject. And I discovered that female to male cross-dressing was a historical thing that existed; women dressing as men to join the army or to join the navy, or to have life experiences that they couldn't have as women. So this was all formulating in my head as a way that women could have the experience of being male from a societal point of view, like being a male in society. And I started to practice these various make-up techniques. I had been doing make-up since I was nine years old, so by the time I was in my twenties I had a great facility with it, so that I could make it look incredibly real. I'm a total perfectionist when it comes to the make-up. I developed the ability to do drag king make-up; specifically, techniques which could be used for drag kings that were very, very realistic. Realistic in a face-to-face, close range -- like, you could go on a date and have your date be kissing you and not know that it wasn't real." Science refers to this as"total realness," but it is, I believe, hyperreal.

I asked him how, specifically, he does his job."I use crepe hair, which is theatrical hair, and it comes in a braid. They're usually a foot or two long, and it comes in all different colors. It's very tightly braided. It's made from human hair but it's very heavily processed. And it's braided, so that when you undo the braid it has a kind of a waviness to it. And then you use that waviness to create the proper curvature of hair that makes it look realistic. And you use spirit gum, which is a special kind of a very thick glue, a resin kind of glue, that is used for the face. You put a thick coat of spirit gum on and you let it dry a little bit. Then you put this hair -- and you can either cut out shapes like a half of a mustache, and another half, and a piece of a beard, or you can just chop it up into like a fine, almost like powder but it's hair. And then you can just put clumps of it on or shape clumps of it, so that depending on your skin type and your hair type, those are two of the main methods of using this crepe hair. You can also use latex as the base instead of spirit gum, but the trouble with latex is that it doesn't stick as well. Latex is more for a temporary application, where you want to be able to pull the hair right off."

"For five o'clock shadow," he went on,"I would use a blush brush that had not been used before, and then I would use gray or brown powder. You load up the brush with the powder and then you use the tips of the bristles so that you're actually pushing the make-up into the pores of the skin. And then when you rub it off and lighten it, you get these little tiny dots and it looks like hair follicles. There's also a stippling sponge that's very coarse. You dip it in a creme make-up and you go like that (making a dabbing motion) and it makes a pattern like stubble, and then you have to use a fixing powder so it doesn't smudge."

Science spent a few years working with Annie Sprinkle and then Diane Torr, traveling the world and transforming women. I asked him what it was that drew him to this type of work."It's extremely satisfying for me to do this," he said,"because of my ability, and because of the level of realness that I can achieve for these women; it's really satisfying and exciting. People have asked me this before, and I've thought about it a lot. It's not a sexual fetish, but it is an aesthetic fetish. I get so aesthetically turned on and satisfied. It's like an art form for me. It is art. It's a type of body art, definitely, or a type of sculpture, if you will. And I'm doing this to someone and they're being transformed; it's transformative art that you do on a person. It's so much fun; I love doing it. When I was traveling all over the place with Diane doing the workshop, no matter how tired I was or jetlagged out, I knew that I could walk in there and do make-up on fifteen women and have them all look absolutely incredible because of my ability. So it's a good feeling. I guess it's like if you can play tennis really well, or something. And you go and play tennis and it makes you feel really good because you have the mastery of that art. And I really enjoy it. Aesthetically, it's very pleasing."

Content to leave drag to Club Casanova during its heyday, Johnny has recently tried to fill the gap its collapse left open by producing a public-access television show."I have started having a weekly television program every Friday night at 10:00 on Channel 57, which is Manhattan Public Access television, which is just in Manhattan, hopefully in Brooklyn soon. It's called, 'That Show' with Johnny Science and basically, it covers drag king stuff. I'm also going to have some music from downtown, and some art and stuff from downtown, but mostly ninety-nine percent it's drag king stuff. A lot of what it is, is video of me transforming women, live, in real time on camera, which is something that's very important to me. Because I feel that you can actually see the magical quality of the transformation when you see it in real time. It's so amazing. It's so magical. The person looks like a woman, and right there in front of your eyes, all of a sudden they look like a man. Well, it's not even how they look; it's your perception. That you're watching this and you perceive them as a woman, and then you perceive them as a man, even though you know it's a woman. Which, to me, is the magical quality of this transformational make-up technique that I've developed."

 

•Packing

Packing, as defined in an earlier footnote, is the practice of stuffing one's pants with an object, referred to as a"packy," that is meant to pass for a penis. Every drag king has her own philosophy on this; not all of them pack, and those who do use a variety of objects. It occurred to me during my research that a drag king's attitude toward packing makes a microcosmic statement on her attitude toward drag, in general; a king who finds it unnecessary to pack is usually more committed to retaining her feminine essence than one who does, or at least, is less concerned with eroticism. Those who pack with dildos tend to give more overtly sexual or perverse performances which directly engage notions of masculine power and sexuality, while those who pack with decidedly non-phallic objects attempt mainly to disturb our conceptions of gender.

Maureen Fischer told me that she has difficulty imagining herself doing masculine drag without a penis."For me," she said,"I have to pack, because that's just the part of the persona that gets me in the full mode. And, it's like a drag queen not wearing tits. The essential element to manhood is the dick. I use a dildo, and I hang to the left. I like having an erect penis, because it's constantly -- it keeps me vigilant. It's a cheapy one, actually. It's flexible. It's like a cheapy ten dollar thing,'cause I just wear it all the time. I don't use it. Otherwise, it's just, well you know -- stage. Stage equipment! Stage prop! Otherwise, if I'm wearing something that I can't wear a dildo, then I stuff a jockstrap with socks, or like a g-string kind of thing. Or, I've got this really cool codpiece, this leather codpiece with spikes on it, that's really fierce. . . I constantly feel like I'm on the prowl, too, walking around with a hard-on."

"Men," she told me,"take up a lot more space. I think it's a combination of socialization and biology. I do.'Cause you look at the way somebody sits. Okay, a man -- when you wear a dildo, it's like, I can't help but sit with my legs like this {plants her feet far apart}. And you're futzing, and you're fixing, and you're constantly -- all your energy is here {at the crotch}. Which is another thing -- that when I first started wearing it, I was so turned on by it. Wearing socks, or a jock strap or a dildo, and walking down the street, I just go,'Oh! I get it, I get it!' Men have so much energy right here {at the crotch}. It's like,'Feed me! Do me! Now! Now! Now!' Where it's just, women aren't like that. We aren't like {squeezing her own breasts}'Oh, feed me daddy! Come on, do it'."

Shelly Mars is known for her simulated sexual scenes, also accomplished through the use of dildos and other phallic objects. Wendy Wiseman also packs with a dildo."I pack a lot of times when I'm not in drag, too," she explained, because she is more interested in genderfuck than in simply passing -- something she does without effort. Diane Torr, who is interested in passing, employs an entirely different packing philosophy. In her Drag King for a Day workshop, she teaches her students how to construct a phallus that resembles"a penis at rest." Explaining that most overestimate size, she encourages her charges to keep them small -- three to four inches -- and demonstrates by stuffing a nylon bandage with cotton wool --"sort of like a haggis," one workshopper joked. Placed against the pubic bone and secured by a tight pair of briefs, they produce a convincing bulge when worn under one's trousers.

Drag kings like Antonio Caputo and Mildred Gerestant pack with symbolic objects; Antonio uses a fistful of wrapped hard candies, while Gerestant is known for her apple. Significantly, both are sweet and edible, flatly suggesting the same of the genitals they obscure. Gerestant's apple of course has many biblical overtones and several levels of depth, but both she and her audience primarily engage the obvious; she is both Adam and Eve, taking a bite from the forbidden fruit of knowledge. Enlightenment ensues, and gender falls by the wayside.

 

•The Corroboration of a Female Partner

Several of the drag kings I spoke to worked, regularly or occasionally, with female partners. The presence of these women, whether hyperbolically feminine or not, adds credibility to the drag king performance; even today a man's masculinity is boosted by the presence of a woman. This may explain in some small degree why the emasculated Murray Hill has been working with Penelope Tuesdae for so many years; having a wife in tow goes a long way toward negating the effect of his breasts. I do not claim that this is an intentional effect, rather it is more likely that Murray simply"feels better" having Penny around; she probably makes him feel more"like a man."

Even the excessively virile Mo B. Dick has focused his attentions of late on"The Bob and Mo Show." Bob is, by herself, an excellent argument for a definition of drag that excludes the gender of the performer, for she is a female drag queen."Bob is a female, female impersonator" said Fischer,"that's how she identifies herself. But she likes people to think she's really a man. She's six feet tall. She passes as, well, a lot of people think she is a male. People think she's a drag queen. She even says,'Yeah, I'm a drag queen'." While both Bob and Mo refer to Bob as a"female, female impersonator," the taxonomy I am following rejects the usage of that label in this case. The phrase,"female impersonator," I suggest, is a catch-all term that may be applied to any man self-identified as male who performs femaleness, be it theatrically or in a temporary effort to pass. A woman has no need to impersonate femaleness; it is the fundamental condition of her existence.

Drag exaggerates. It takes too many gendered signs and expresses them hyperbolically, regardless of gender. Already female, Bob theatricizes femaleness by hyperbolizing the signs of femininity; as such, she is a drag queen. Ironically, the reason she is perceived as such is because of her size; when people see a very large person who is hyperbolically feminine, they think,"drag queen." Perhaps her audience imagines that, underneath the wig and (false?) breasts, there lurks a feminine man. It is a prospect Fischer finds perplexing.

"She does topless aerobics," Fischer laughed,"and how can you not know she's a woman after that? She's like, a 44-F. What the fuck kind of person's gonna' make their tits 44-F?"

"It's a little much," I agreed.

"She can't find bras to fit her!"

"And she does topless aerobics? Ouch!"

"Yeah," Fischer nodded."It's insane."

"Does she smack herself in the face?"

"It's so genius! It is! It's a wonder she doesn't have black eyes. It's so funny. But we have this whole thing that we're engaged -- Mo B. Dick and Bob are engaged. It's a lot of fun." Fischer works occasionally with male drag queens, too.

Mildred Gerestant works with a male drag queen occasionally, and I once saw her do a Rick James bit with the assistance of a female drag queen known as Sybil Secrets; I wondered why Sybil's breasts looked so lumpy until she showed me the packs of cigarettes and chewing gum she had stored there. At an amateur Diva Ball sponsored by students from New York University, several novice kings attempted to prove their worth in an on-stage flirtation with a woman selected from the audience; the winner, Nicky Silver, had already brought along his own female assistant. And, while none of the other drag kings I worked with had a regular female sidekick, most of them relied upon the women in their audience to help out. Kings like Shane and Macha build a lot of their performance around the women in the audience, who reflect their masculinity back like mirrors.

 

•Passing

When a drag king passes, he moves from doing gender to living it, albeit temporarily; momentarily inhabiting a male space, owning male gender becomes lived experience, rather than fantastic play. The mimetic effort of drag yields a hyperreal result when it achieves this assignment to its target gender category and enters the world as simulacrum; the"very definition of the real becomes: that of which it is possible to give an equivalent reproduction" (Baudrillard, 146). While the expressly theatrical aspect of drag moves, in passing, from the overt to the covert, the drag itself is always consciously performed by the passing king; owning a male identity it is not incorporated into her psyche in quite the same way as it is for a woman who makes a life of passing. Drag remains, for the drag king, expressly performed; it is something she does, living it only at rare moments.

For as long as men and women have had differential power in disparate spheres, passing has likely been utilized by both as subversive or protective strategy."I used to dip into the passing kind of body-language quite a lot," said Wendy Wiseman,"for protective purposes of being on the streets of New York by myself." Mildred Gerestant suggested the consequences of failure to pass on the streets when in drag;"I'm glad I pass," she told me,"because I don't want people to know I'm a woman. Some people who can't understand might need to do something to make them feel more secure. They might want to say something, hurt me, god forbid, or whatever. So I always have it in my head when I'm in drag that I want to look like a dude, a guy."

I walked with Maureen Fischer to the subway one evening after one of her performances; she was in costume but out of character as we conversed. As I said goodbye to her on the platform, I suddenly found myself concerned for her safety."Are you all right like that?" I asked, indicating her costume."I feel safer like this," she assured me."As a guy, people just ignore me." I recalled then how she had responded a few weeks earlier when I had asked her if she felt safer on the street in drag than she did as herself."Yes," she had instantly replied,"absolutely. It feels like protective armor in a lot of regards. My breasts aren't exposed, so it's not like,'Oh, there's a woman!' I just constantly feel like I'm raw flesh and vultures are trying to eat away at me, as a woman walking the streets of New York City. Whereas, walking the streets as a man, I never get commented on. Never, ever, ever. Except when I was wearing my hair up real high for a short period and I got the'Hey, Elvis!' thing. Just comical, fun stuff like that."

While passing as a man is merely a matter of consequence for many of the women I worked with, Diane Torr has elevated it to an art form around which much philosophy is built. The experience of passing can be incredibly enlightening, offering a doorway to an alternate existence with a thoroughly different perspective. It teaches women not only how men see them, but how they, themselves respond. Johnny Science, having worked over the years to literally thousands of passing women, was the first to point this out to me."Having done the workshop and transformed all these women, there are certain things which seem to be almost universal, that these women would come back with, having gone and passed on the street. I learned how rampant sexism is toward women. Because, invariably, these women would come back and they would say that the best thing for them was to be able to walk down the street and not be sexually harassed. It was really brought home to me how incredibly sexist -- I mean, women are constantly being barraged with sexism. Sexual harassment is constant for most women, and they loved the fact that they could walk down the street and not feel that."

There is, of course, a flip-side."The bad thing," Science added,"was that they often experienced women's fear. This has been written about by other people, experiencing the fear of other women when you are perceived as male." It is balanced, however, by the sense of empowerment that is gained in the experience; this is Torr's principal philosophy."Something that Diane's feminist approach brought home to me," Science explained,"was that from this experience you can take away that empowerment and have it in your life afterwards. You can take the experience, and the feelings that you got from those experiences, and still have them in your life when you're not in drag. You can retain that empowerment that you felt, and it can make you a stronger and more assertive woman. I know that Diane experienced that in her own life; she was always an assertive person, but I really think that since she's been doing this drag king thing, she has become even more so. I think that is one of the great values of the drag king thing." Torr agrees wholeheartedly, asserting the value of drag as a liberating experience."The women in Britain don't need CR È anymore," she told me;"they have the drag king workshop."

Some drag kings have no interest in passing; significant in my study is the fact that most of those who expressed such disinterest had, by virtue of their own female masculinity, already grown used to being called, "sir." "I never get curious," Elizabeth Marrero explained,"because I've already seen the reactions from people;" short-haired and lean, she is occasionally mistaken for a boy or a man. The same can be said of Shane, who often dresses the part, and Betsey Gallagher, whose butch aesthetic has similar effects. A woman who is sometimes mistaken for a man has little need to intentionally pass, since she is already successfully doing so.

 

Anger, Abuse, and Performance

The discourses of femininity suggest that anger in women is disallowed; performing masculine drag allowed many of my informants a space in which to express it. As hyperbolized, "men," the aggression that is so often associated with maleness becomes available for expression in the extreme, a tempting proposal to anyone who happens to be angry. Some said specifically that indeed they were angry, be it at family members, men, capitalism or academics. As drag kings, those who choose to can process this anger by acting it out in a sort of performative-therapeutic exercise, a variation of the role-playing technique that is sometimes used by therapists.

There was, unfortunately, a formidable amount of anger available to be performed, and I was saddened and shocked to discover a core of pain and abuse at the heart of so many of my informants' lives. While I would not venture to say that it is a motivating factor for all of them, I would suggest, rather, that theater in general presents performers with opportunities to work through serious emotional issues in a reasonably safe space. To confront a painful issue through the vehicle of a persona allows one to disconnect rationally while engaging emotionally, coming perhaps to conclusions that can then be applied to one's life. Becoming a performer entails a process of moving from silence to speech that can be therapeutic in itself.

Most appalling to me was the frequency with which incest and sexual abuse became topics of conversation between my informants and I. While previous chapters have only discussed this with regard to Marrero and Mars, the facts are these: Of the nine women I interviewed on-camera, three specifically spoke of incest, echoing eerily the oft-spoken"one in three" statistic that has come into popular consciousness. To be frank, I have little idea how to approach this finding; I doubt that it is within the scope of either this paper or my expertise to approach it. At the moment my feeling is that any study which opens the space for this topic to be discussed will make similar findings. False-memory syndrome aside, I believe that incest is perhaps the most horrible secret we have in America today, worthy itself of frank investigation.

While it is true that only three of my informants said specifically that they were sexually abused either physically or emotionally, every single one of them suggested that harassing or aggressive acts had been perpetrated against them, as women, by men. Again, I find myself unsurprised. The fact that young women (post-feminists?) now refuse to see themselves as victims cannot negate the additional fact that there are, nonetheless, a staggering amount of women around with disturbing stories to tell.

There are, of course, many ways to suffer that having nothing to do with sex or sexism. Three women spoke of violence endured at the hands of family members, while several others referred to emotional abuse. Alcoholism shook the homes of four of my informants (at least, the four who told me about it); two stated that they had broken off contact with their families for that reason, among others. One informant told me painfully of how her father had run off when she was a child, leaving her with a depressive and alcoholic mother who eventually gave her up to foster care. After compiling so many awful experiences, one realizes that to refrain from detailing such sadness is not to deny its existence; such are the conditions of life. It is really impossible to determine the relationship these details bear to being a lesbian, however, let alone a being drag king.

 

The Performance of Art

All of the women with whom I worked conceived of themselves as artists and performers; some performed simply for the joy of it, while others had a specific agenda. Their work, to them, is always both personal and public, but if it is also political, that is not always by design. Yet even those who devoted little critical thought to what they were doing produced profound results and were reasonably aware of the fact. Gender radicals, they stand poised on the edge of a new millennium, aggressively confronting our most basic assumptions about men and women. Fascinating, entertaining, liberating, I would like to be able to claim that masculine drag is somehow changing the world, but I am not convinced that it is. I believe, instead, that drag has become accessible to women once again because the advances of feminism have produced -- ironically, when one considers the stereotype of the man-hating lesbian -- a generation of female club-goers who have never seen men as their oppressors. Masculinity is no longer threatening, and masculine women can be not only appreciated, but eroticized. Drag, long attractive to gender rebels of all stripes, has again become available to women.

 

•Camp

Camp is not a thing. Most broadly it signifies a relationship between things, people, and activities or qualities, and homosexuality. (Newton, 105)

It is fairly impossible to engage in a discussion of drag without talking about camp, held by many to be a specifically queer discourse (see Meyer; Kleinhans; Ackroyd.) In Mother Camp, Esther Newton noted that camp is characterized by three things:"incongruity, theatricality, and humor. All three are intimately related to the homosexual situation and strategy. Incongruity is the subject matter of camp, theatricality its style, and humor its strategy" (106). While Newton's point is a valuable one, I remain unconvinced that camp is queer by definition. Drag is by nature gender-disruptive, but camp rests on incongruity, which need not be related to gender. Pee Wee Herman has always struck me as camp for reasons that have nothing to do with gender; he is a small boy in a man's body, and that is incongruous. Decorators describe eclectic designs as camp, where the juxtaposition of unmatched styles renders a similar effect. Still, the majority of queer scholars claim both drag and camp as their own, and much has been written to justify it.

Newton suggests, as do most, that camp is expressly performed; I am inclined to believe that it can in fact be unintentional. Drag, however, is definitively theatrical, and since camp cannot seem to escape its grasp academically, theatricality adheres to it. And while humor is inseparable from camp, not all drag is funny; to the contrary, some of it is rather serious. Camp, like masculinity, is composed of signs that are available to all; the fact is, some identify with its incongruity more than others. However, while drag is an act expressly performed, camp is a strategy utilized; drag is work and camp is a tool.

Perhaps the most camp of all the kings I met was Murray Hill; Murray is incongruity. The mascara mustache, the obvious breasts, the twenty-seven year old woman who claims she is a fifty year old man; they all leave me wondering how anyone can claim that camp is definitively the province of gay men. Discussing drag, Gallagher said,"For me, it's being this male persona, but I'm a woman doing it. I'm putting on this male persona, this goofball white guy, this Elvis guy, this Travolta guy, all these different things. It's parody, satire, and camp, and all those other words. I'm using camp and humor in all my stuff to reach the political goals, the feminist goals, that I have. I'm using all these things as a vehicle for lesbian representation. I'm not trying to pass as a guy or pass during the day; I'm using it more as comedy." Drag is the artform, representation is the goal, and camp is the strategy.

Not all of the drag kings I worked with utilized camp, and none did so exclusively. While my sample is far too small to make any definitive statements, it must be noted that something of a camp differential did take shape along a color line. Of the nine women I worked with most closely, six were white, two were black, and one was Hispanic; admittedly, these designations sound ridiculous to me, but I must begin somewhere. Gerestant's family is, for example, from Haiti -- shall I refer to her as Haitian-American? Marrero, while Latina, is just as white as I am, and Antonio, while white, was not American. Categories, like gender, lack onticity, and so I must work within their hyperreal limits. But the point that I am getting to is that Dréd and Shane, while often funny, were decidedly less campy than white kings such as Mo B. Dick, Murray Hill, Willy Ryder, and even Antonio Caputo. ? Said Fischer,"I've never seen Shane be campy. Shane is sexy. And Dréd is also mostly sexy, but {Gerestant} always does medleys. And she's got this one medley where she goes,'I'm the pusher man.' So she does take on things like Blaxploitation. She has a lot of different characters -- the pusher man, the drug dealer, the pimp daddy. So she throws some camp in, and her outfit and is really fierce, with the big afro and stuff like that." Indeed, Dréd can be very funny, but it is not his primary trait. Shane agreed with Fischer, noting,"I see it's been observed that a lot of the black drag kings do more sexy things, rather than campy things. I don't know why that is. I just know I'm not a comedian, so I don't try to really be funny." Shane considers herself to be a performer, a singer and a dancer; she prefers to be taken slightly more seriously than camp would allow.

Judith Halberstam has suggested that the camp differential I noted in the course of my research is directly related to what she refers to as the"nonperformativity" and, "naturalization" of white masculinity;"white masculinity proves difficult to perform," she says,"except through a distinctly parodic mode" (1997:111). By contrast, American culture at large already has an embarrassing history of parodying blackness, which black drag kings have little desire to emulate. Therefore, the performances of black drag kings tend to be more respectful of black masculinity, offering up a sort of"tribute," rather than a critique. Halberstam's argument is persuasive and sensible, but I suggest a consideration of further circumstances; my"epiphany" in this regard came during an interview with Gerestant. I mentioned to her that I had heard others say she had difficulty hailing a cab when in drag;"Oh, yes," she responded,"it's so true. Even out of drag, sometimes, because I'm so out-of-the-ordinary looking. Bald and black, and sometimes I'm butch looking, or I'll wear a lot of colors and it will look weird. I usually attract attention wherever I'm at. It's really frustrating, though, especially when it happens to me as a woman. But I remember the first time I realized it was happening because I was perceived as a black man: I had my sweatsuit on and this hat on, kinda low, and it was night time. The cab would slow down -- half an hour it took me to get a cab -- and the cab would slow down, and then it would speed off. People just judging a book by its colors."

Sometimes the situation is bad enough that Gerestant must get on the subway, a somewhat uncomfortable circumstance, given her fears of discovery. It occurred to me as we spoke that when anyone puts on drag and attempts to pass, there is always danger in the possibility of revelation, but for Gerestant, even passing successfully can be dangerous. When a white woman passes for male, she accesses the power and privilege of white masculinity. A black woman, by contrast, steps into the social position of a black man, gaining little if any privilege in a society that is still largely racist. One might even venture to say, when considering people like Abner Louima + and James Byrd, Jr.*, that black men in America have yet to be safe from the threat of lynching. A black drag king accesses a very different sphere of masculinity from that of a white drag king, and it makes sense that the performative style should differ.

Camp is dangerous because it calls attention to itself; given facts of life such as racial profiling, it is not difficult to imagine why a black drag king might not want to call attention to himself on the street. The decision not to perform camp in such a way that renders it always obvious may well be a defensive one, and regardless of whether or not a performer has considered this explicitly, I imagine it is a factor. And while it is inadvisable to attempt to draw real conclusions based on such a small sample, it is interesting to note additionally that Marrero, being light-skinned, appeared to tread the line of camp almost squarely between the understated approach of Gerestant and the all-out absurdity of Gallagher.

 

•Stripping

One may very well wish to question the value of stripping as art, but as with most things, it can at least be artfully done. The strip done in drag has a functional purpose and makes a specific statement; its execution is part of the artist's intentional design. Rarely a striptease, it comes more often as an act of reversal and revelation. Those who strip down to their bras say they do so for two specific reasons: Revealing their breasts emphasizes the femininity that lies beneath the performance of masculinity in this case, and as such can be an affirmation of female masculinity; it also assures that a naive audience will realize the king is a woman.

Some opt out of stripping because it fails to fulfill their aesthetic. Kings such as Fischer and Gallagher prefer to stay entirely in character when performing; both maintain that this is an edgier place from which to play. Such a strategy refuses to reassure the audience that they are dealing with a woman, preferring instead to keep them balanced on the edge of incredulity. Fisher spoke about wanting to"maintain the illusion" that she is a man because to her, carrying off the male persona is"the greater part" of doing drag. As an actor, her artistry lies in her ability to truly inhabit the character she is playing; this is part of the reason she has no trouble passing. Gallagher, by contrast, never actually hides the fact that she is a woman. For her, the power of masculine drag lies in withholding confirmation of either maleness or femaleness, despite the fact the her breasts are always evident. It is amazing to watch her successfully walk that line.

 

The Politics of Performance

By the time of its demise, Club Casanova had some expressly political goals. Having set out specifically to challenge the gender dichotomy and expose sexism through performance, Maureen Fisher ended up fighting city hall, so to speak. The reason for this is simple: city hall fought her. The Mayor's policies had a direct impact on Club Casanova and many other queer performance events, stirring Fischer and others, like Betsey Gallagher, to action. Queer people in New York had long been dissatisfied with Mayor Giuliani's performance since, while the general crime rate has fallen, bias crimes have risen dramatically. Performers have no great affection for his"Quality of Life" campaign, which has put many club-owners out of business, closing precious performance spaces including Club Casanova's. Even average voters are appalled to learn that one of the Mayor's initiatives demands coffee-drinking commuters be fined fifty dollars for contributing to the filth of the city -- simply for holding the cup. Club Casanova and its denizens became politicized primarily because the situation called for it.

As most queer theorists would have it, drag is always political. If one is willing to accept the adage that"the personal is the political," then drag is, of course, political. And, in so much as drag confronts the dominant gender ideology and turns it on its head, it always makes a political statement; it also happens to reinforce the gender dichotomy while it is doing so. Drag is not always expressly and intentionally political; sometimes it is conceived by the performer simply as an artistic form of self-expression, and by the audience as mere entertainment. This does not by any means decrease its value or significance. Drag is a creative space of play that allows adults to exercise their imaginations in ways unavailable since childhood; as such, it can serve many of the same purposes.

Drag offers opportunities to expand one's range of gendered possibilities, to gain access to a different sphere of knowledge, to work out emotional issues, and to achieve renown, among other things. While drag can be very profound on a personal level, it does not always intend to make great political statements and, despite all that has been read into it, I am not all together sure that it does. Since a space in society has opened for masculine drag, the statements it makes must have always already come into discourse; drag is merely an affirmation. Art imitates life in this case, and drag becomes an expression of what people are already thinking. Drag queens have been disputing gender theatrically for a good part of the twentieth century because the medicalization of sex and gender made it possible for them to do so; now that feminism has made some advances, women have once again joined the show.

 

But What About Community?

It had been, at the outset of this project, my foremost hope that I might stumble upon a community of like-minded individuals with something specific to say. I am convinced that, while that may have been the case with Club Casanova, the situation had changed by the time I entered the scene. What had once been a cohesive group of performers had atomized into a set of independent individuals who pursued their own paths and purposes. Having failed to be present for the actual events, I am inclined to agree with Fischer, who credits the closing of Cake with Club Casanova's eventual demise. I asked her,"Do you feel like there's a community?"

"No," she answered, tightening her lips."Not so much. Because when you say a'community,' there has to be, in my mind, 's eye, a central location. There's a meeting ground. And that meeting ground was Club Casanova. And because it no longer is, it's like,'so, where is the meeting ground?' A lot of the other drag kings don't even know about Dragnet; I was the one telling them about it. I was the central thread, constantly calling people, keeping them up on what's going on. They knew they could always go every Sunday night to Club Casanova and there'd be a group, there'd be a scene, there'd be other drag kings there."

"There's nothing like that now?" I asked, disappointed.

"No."

"Did you feel a need to create a community at the time?"

"Yeah. When I first started Club Casanova, everybody was saying,'Oh, I've seen drag kings. They're awful. I've never seen any good ones. Good luck.' Just a lot of resistance. So I was like, I'm gonna' prove you wrong; this is a challenge to me. So I knew I had to do it. But I didn't want it to be the'mo B. Dick Show;' it wasn't just about me. There's greater strength in numbers, and it's just more fun. It's much more fun and interesting when you have a group together. It used to be, we had drag king go-go dancers. We'd have a drag king DJ. You'd see a drag king host, a drag king show, it was constantly -- so you are just bombarded by these visuals, by these images, by this stuff. And you're like,'Whoa. Whoa. Whoa'."

Other Casanova veterans speak wistfully of the days when there really was a community."When I got involved with Casanova," said Wendy Wiseman,"I could feel the community, and it was wonderful that all these different kinds of people were there." The closing of Cake, however, was only one of the factors that broke up the Club. Fischer said herself that she was exhausted by the end of it, explaining,"I would not do it weekly because it was too much work. I felt like the quality of the show got stretched out; it wasn't as strong. I would do it on a monthly basis, but the climate of New York City is just so oppressive. People aren't going out as much as they used to, which was also one of the disintegrating factors of Club Casanova. It's hard. It's really hard to find a space, and it's hard to maintain a good party."

There is, of course, another side to the story; several people intimated to me that near the end of Club Casanova there were a lot of personality clashes."There was a kind of edge," said one,"where you could feel certain star energy pulling some people apart, and attitudes flying. And people had said to me, when I'd get in a photograph and other people would stand in front of me, and they said,'don't ever let anybody stand in front of you. Be there.' And I'm like,'No.' I don't need to play those games, because if I'm gonna' make it, I'm gonna make it because I'm good. I'm not gonna make it because I shoved someone else out of the way." Another informant told me somewhat cryptically that being with the show was sometimes difficult,"getting to know the other person's funky side, that you'd usually never see. Their irritability. Their whatever. Stuff and issues."

"Right now," admitted one king,"the community is completely like, to the wind. To the winds. I mean, Mo doesn't really want to work with groups too much anymore, and that's understandable. Because it's really gotten to the point where there's so much bullshit attitude going on. And it's ridiculous." Filmmaker Lucia Davis pinned down precisely the date that, in her estimation, everything changed at Club Casanova."It was the night that Michael Musto came down to do an article for the Daily News," she asserted. That article, published on February 20, 1997, marked the beginning of a new phase of publicity as well as a new era of"shameless self-promotion" for the kings that, according to some informants, wound up helping to pull their community apart.

It is reasonable to expect that there might be some degree of competition among a group of artists or performers. My own experience playing in bands has taught me how difficult it actually is to keep a group of creative people together; there is always a certain amount of jockeying for position. It is possible, then, that a clash of egos contributed to the decline of the drag king community, but I am rather more convinced that the final straw was economic."The people stopped coming," more than one king told me; people seemed to be going out less, in general. I realized, too, during the course of my fieldwork, that there were only a limited number of spaces in which to perform, and a minimal amount of money to be made doing it. Having a home like Cake allowed Casanova to assemble a group of players who might split the evening's take; everywhere else the kings were paid a flat fee to perform. When Fez played host to"The Bob and Mo Show," it became obvious to me that Fischer could not possibly be getting paid enough to split it with the whole of Club Casanova. Some, I believe, felt rejected by their exclusion from that gig, as if Fischer were being somehow disloyal. To the contrary, she simply had bills to pay. Neither the space nor the salary was big enough to accommodate more than she, Bob, and Murray Hill, who also appeared. The sheer lack of performance venues inspires still more competition, intentional or not, and helps to fragment the community.

Still, there is a certain feeling of camaraderie among the kings who know each other. It is as if they all share a secret that only kings know; they have all been to the same magic place; they have all had the same uncanny experience. Most kings are happy to help a novice, eager to share the tricks of the trade or to guide an initiate. Some perform together occasionally; others run into each other socially. They are all intentionally confounding gender as they champion female masculinity, they are all artists and performers, and they are all uniquely talented.

 

 

 

Conclusions

 

Ethnography is oddly self-confirming. One sets out with a firm intention to approach a topic free of bias; to let a project shape itself, as it were, and one's opinions; to strive for some small degree of precious yet unattainable objectivity. Determined to let the facts speak for themselves, one finds oneself engaged in speaking them and, despite remarkable self-scrutiny throughout every stage, emerging at the end of the process without having changed a single opinion on anything. It is a problem intrinsic to the anthropological method: one nearly always finds what one is looking for. And so it went with this project, although I was trying very hard to go another way; I am not certain now whether to doubt my methods entirely or to congratulate myself on my inadvertent success. I found precisely what I was not looking for, but I was only avoiding it because I knew that I would find it anyway.

I began my consideration of topics for a Master's thesis almost on the date of my admission to a Master's program. From the outset I made a commitment to myself to be honest about my biases and to write about something that had both personal and political meaning for me; I knew then that my project would focus on women, and that it likely would be executed with a queer aesthetic. I do not deny that I am doing anthropology to study anyone other than myself; rather, I question the notion that it is possible to discover in the"other," anyone but ourselves. Feigning no understanding of a foreign culture, I admit instead to a certain bafflement regarding my own, and I feel I cannot truly understand any"other" until I begin to comprehend myself and the discourses that have shaped me.

For these reasons and others still more personal, I initially considered incest as a topic for this paper; specifically, incest in America today. It seems to me a topic especially ripe for anthropological research, considering the dogmatic"universal incest taboo" discussed in every introductory cultural anthropology course. How can something be taboo, I wondered, when violations go unpunished? Can a practice that occurs at such a rate truly be taboo? Is it legitimate for anthropology to profess an understanding, on foreign soil, of a problem it cannot address at home? All questions certainly worth asking, I pushed them aside in favor of a project that would not necessitate my return to psychotherapy. I'd like to have some fun instead, I decided.

And so I went out in search of drag kings. I found more practitioners than I expected to, and less of a community than I had hoped. Despite formidable negative influences, I carved out an understanding of drag which allowed me to address women other than by direct contrast to men. I arrived at a workable understanding of the differences between butch, drag, and passing, in spite of the vagueness that had seemed built into such terms. I found that women were using drag because the system of signs had, in the post-feminist era, become available to them, and I concluded that America, in general, must be growing fairly tired of gender. I found talent, drive, and political awareness, cooperation and competition. I also found incest.

I do not wish really to highlight that finding, since I cannot begin to consider its significance with regard to my central investigation. Both I and the informants to whom I mentioned it would prefer that this study not be noted for it, at any rate, because it probably has little to do with drag. Rather, I wish to point out that what went around did really come around in this instance, and I must ask myself here why it has. Have I unintentionally biased my results? Or have I discovered a horribly fundamental American truth? Perhaps I have proven, against my own better judgement, the true reflexivity of anthropology? Or only that I am a poor anthropologist? These are questions I can only ask, for the answers entail far more than I have even begun to consider.

These are the things of which I may be certain:

1. Masculinity is not equivalent to maleness. It is a set of gendered signs available for use to all.

2. The signs of masculinity are assumed by most to be indexical to gender; they are not. They are, more properly, symbolic, because the relationship they bear to the thing they represent is maintained strictly by social convention.

3. Maleness carries with it a demand for the emphatic expression of masculinity; the same thing can be said of femaleness and femininity. Conversely, maleness requires the rejection of feminine signs, while femaleness purges masculinity.

4. The Butlerian notion of gender performativity implies a fully internalized, unconscious process, whereas drag is expressly and consciously performed. When gendered signs are hyperbolized and presented expressly as performance, we arrive at gender theatricality, more commonly known as drag.

5. A drag king, male or female, expressly performs maleness by hyperbolizing the signs of masculinity; conversely, a drag queen expressly performs femaleness by hyperbolizing the signs of femininity.

6. Drag, by nature gender-disruptive, is an intrinsically queer form of expression.

7. Gender theatricality may sometimes attempt to render itself as genuine and seek to pass, but its origins always lay in a conscious performance of gendered stereotypes which are themselves hyperbolic.

8. Drag has always had something of a history among all gender transgressors, particularly within the twentieth century, and is attractive to all those who feel limited by their assigned gender roles. While gay men have had a consistent space in which to perform it, the feminist wave of the 1970's took masculine space away temporarily away from women. Ironically, the fact that masculine drag has recently become acceptable among lesbians is directly attributable to the gains of feminism in equalizing the power balance between men and women.

9. When a drag king passes as a man on the street, drag goes from the overt to the covert. It remains, however, a performance, because it is perceived as such by the king. Passing in drag is not the same thing as being a passing woman, per se, because that designation indicates a lifestyle choice; the woman who passes in drag does so temporarily, and the male identity is perceived as acted, rather than owned. Her display of masculinity, sometimes rather convincing, is based nonetheless on a hyperbolized stereotype rather than any internalized male identity or long-term investment in maleness.

10. While drag dramatizes the construction of gender through the hyperbolic use of gendered signs, it simultaneously assumes the onticity of the gender it imitates, thus reinforcing the dichotomy.

11. Gender, being discursively constructed and perpetuated principally through the use of signs, is closer to the Baudrillardian notion of a simulacrum -- hyperreal rather than real, stable despite its lack of onticity -- than it is to a form of mimesis. As a simulacrum, it invites re-duplication not by imitation but by inhabitation. One does not do gender; one lives it.

12. Drag is the construct which allows one to do, rather than live, gender. It accomplishes this largely through a transformative mimesis which does not usually strive to be genuine.

13. Drag, often surreal, becomes hyperreal when it moves into passing and becomes gender as lived experience.

14. Camp is characterized by incongruity, theatricality, and humor; it need not be related to gender if one is willing to analyze it apart from drag, which is expressly about gender. Like masculinity, camp is composed of signs that are available to all; some identify with its incongruity more than others. But while drag is an act expressly performed, camp is a strategy utilized.

The Author in Drag The Author

make-up by Johnny Science

photo by Kari Steinberg

Women do drag for reasons as idiosyncratic as they, themselves, are. Some have specific political goals, while others' are more loosely defined. Some simply wish to honor female masculinity, while others perceive the experience as potentially healing. Some use it to act out their anger; others, to respect the memory of loved ones lost. All drag kings are likely aware of the challenge they pose to the dominant gender ideology; at the same time, the ideas they express have already worked themselves into popular consciousness. They may not be making a statement of great political significance, but the mere fact that they exist is a tribute to the triumph of the academy in convincing us of the constructedness of our lives. Finally, we are beginning to see that the world we live in follows our own designs, and the blueprints lie in our hands.

Appendix 1. Consent to Videotape

AUTHORIZATION

I hereby grant to Lauren W. Hasten (herein the"Producer"), and any parent agencies, subsidiaries and affiliated corporations or persons and their respective successors, assigns, licensees, employees and agents, the right in perpetuity, and in all now known and hereafter existing media, and in any language, to use my physical likeness and voice, as well as the right to use my name and to quote or summarize my statements, in and in connection with the production, exhibition, exploitation, merchandising and promotion of the multimedia document tentatively entitled: Call Her"He": Drag Kings and Gender Transcendence.

I agree that the foregoing grant includes the right to use my physical likeness, voice, and name, and/or to quote and summarize statements I have made, in any form, including, without limitation, a photograph, picture, artistic rendering, silhouette or other reproduction by photograph, film, tape or otherwise, as well as text.

I agree to provide these services at no cost to the Producer.

I represent that the consent of no other person, firm, corporation or labor organization is required to enable the Producer to use my likeness, voice, name and/or the statements I have made, as described herein and that such use will not violate the rights of any third parties.

I acknowledge that nothing herein requires the Producer to use my likeness, voice, name, and/or the statements I have made, as described herein in or in connection with the materials produced.

The rights granted herein include the right to use excerpts, stills and/or statements from the documents produced which may contain my likeness, voice, name, and/or statements, in any other motion picture, publication, recording, or other medium and include the right to edit, delete and/or juxtapose (with any other part of the documents produced) any part of the documents in which I appear and/or change the sequence of events in the documents.

The rights granted herein may be rescinded at any time by either party upon written request. Should the Producer offer me an opportunity to examine the media produced, I may request in writing the removal of specific materials pertaining only to myself. Failure to make such request in writing within 30 days of examination shall constitute explicit approval and permission for release. I recognize that the Producer is under no obligation to provide me with such an opportunity for review unless I request it specifically and in writing, at least 30 days prior to the planned release of such materials.

I hereby certify and represent that I have read the foregoing and fully understand the meaning and effect thereof, and intending to be legally bound I have signed this authorization

this _________ day of _________________, 1998.

This agreement contains the full and complete understanding between the parties and supersedes all prior agreements and understandings pertaining hereto and cannot be modified except by a writing signed by each party.

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