Around the age of twelve, my friends and I began going to the movies and mall without our parents, which felt like delicious freedom. There were rules, of course, and movie choices required approval. My friend Charlotte and I, blossoming theater nerds and proto-liberals, were desperate to see To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar. Our conservative parents insisted we did not. Down the road, there would come bigger acts of rebellion, but this felt like a doozie at the time: we went anyway. Charlotte and I concocted a story (I really hope I’m not ratting Charlotte out here) about seeing a different movie. We even picked a movie we’d already seen (I think it was The Babysitters Club but I wouldn’t swear to it) so that if our parents questioned us on the plot, we wouldn’t get caught, claiming to have loved the movie so much it demanded rewatching.
Mainstreamed and Hollywood as it was, that was my first peek into drag culture, and I will continue to press my face against the window for more. These days, you’ll find me at the bar every Monday for Ru Paul’s Drag Race, which is, in my opinion, the best reality series on tv today. (Spoilers ahead) The bar is always hazy with smoke, packed with people there to cheer for Sharon Needles, our spooky hometown ladyboy and the experience has a lot of parallels to watching a Steelers playoff game in a crowded sports bar. Instead of touchdowns, tackles, and interceptions, we cheer and jeer for fierce runway, acerbic bon mots, and flying wigs, but the energy is the same and the excitement is palpable.
The surface trappings of drag might be enough to explain my ongoing interest: high hair, heels, and drama laced with humor are a pretty good sell on their own, but I think there’s a deeper fascination. Drag pulls back the curtain a little on the beauty myth and demonstrates handily that femininity is whatever the fuck you want it to be. A few years ago, I watched, rapt, as a dear friend rearranged his brow line and brushed on different cheekbones in our ragtag dressing room before a cabaret.
He is a handsome man in day to day life, but in drag, she’s downright beautiful. Even towering 6’7 in heels and hair, she looked more mainstream feminine than my cisgendered ass.
I found a roll model in Patrick Swayze’s Ms. Vida Boheme, kicking down doors in pink satin jammies. Drag plays with the fun parts of gender without getting trapped in them. A recent episode of Ru Paul’s Drag Race found straight dads challenged to rock the runway as pregnant ladies, mentored by the queens in competition. There were varying levels of success, but I don’t think any one of them lost a drop of masculinity by being open minded and playful. Queens like Sharon and Latrice, and yes, even the otherwise unlikable Phi Phi (I’m biased!) fought hard for acceptance and success; seeing them hang with these tough dude dads who say they’ll love their kids gay, straight or whatever tells me they’re making a difference. Shows like Ru Paul’s Drag Race and its predecessors are part of the “how” that goes along with every “It Gets Better” video. Real change sometimes comes wrapped in pleather and lace. Support your local drag queens, not just for social change but because it’s probably one of the best shows you’ll see. Oh, and GO SHARON!