By Yvonne Aburrow

July 16th was International Drag Day, so it seems like a good time to look at the history of drag. 

Drag is a subversive art-form that holds a distorting mirror up to societally-imposed gender norms. It is not the same as being transgender, and has a different history. The key difference between drag and being transgender is that drag is an impersonation of another gender for dramatic effect; being transgender is to genuinely experience being a different gender than the one that was assigned at birth. 

Please note that, when talking about the LGBTQIA community in historical periods before the current terminology was devised, I have used more clinical terms or ones that reflected the understanding of same-sex love and gender-variance at the time, whilst avoiding slurs, obviously.

Take a walk on the wild side

Drag is an ancient art-form, and something similar has been found in every culture, in both sacred and secular contexts. In ancient Greece and Rome, a man in female dress symbolized rebirth and fertility. In medieval England, cross-dressed men appeared at folk festivals as a symbol of the inversion of the everyday, humdrum, order of things.

The earliest documented form of drag in England was when strolling players dressed boys as women, because women were not permitted to perform in the theatre. The earliest formal theatre in England was the medieval mystery play (a representation of a story from the Bible or about a popular saint). This gradually evolved into more secular forms of theatre – but women were still not permitted on the stage until after the restoration of the monarchy in the 1660s. Accordingly, Shakespeare and his contemporaries wrote plays with a large number of cross-dressing characters: young women who dressed as men (like Viola in Twelfth Night), but were of course played by boys.

Chinese and Japanese theatre arts retained the female impersonator (the onnagata) until the late 19th century, and more traditional Kabuki plays still have female characters played by men.

In the back room, she was everybody’s darling

The first recorded instance of transvestism as we understand it today was that of Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, the Governor of New York and New Jersey from 1702 to 1708, who (allegedly) regularly and publicly dressed in women’s clothing. This was probably an example of a transgender person.

Meanwhile in London, England, there was the rise of the molly-house, a public house where homosexual men (known as mollies) dressed as women. Molly-house events usually took place in the back room, away from the prying eyes of the authorities and self-appointed guardians of morality. The rituals of the molly-house included marriages of two men, a mock-birth drama, and plenty of opportunities for flirtation and dalliance. This is clearly a form of drag.

In the 1760s, London was rocked by gossip about the Chevalier d’Éon, who was an intersex person who spent the first part of their life as a man, and the second part as a woman (clearly an instance of a transgender person).

And in the 1780s, London was rocked by a xenophobic moral panic at the introduction of the castrati, male singers who had been castrated prior to puberty, and often performed female parts in Italian opera.

Actress and playwright Susanna Centlivre appeared in “breeches roles” (dressed as a man) around 1700. In the USA, the first popular male impersonator was Annie Hindle, who started performing in New York theatres in 1867, and married her dresser, Annie Ryan, in 1886.

There were several cases in the eighteenth century of women adopting male garb so they could become soldiers, sailors, or pirates (two of the most famous examples being Anne Bonny and Mary Read). Whether this was born of expediency or from a desire to be a man, is unclear.

In other cultures, there are ritualized ways for a woman to take on the role of a man in society, such as the burrnesha (sworn virgins) of Albania. Similarly, there are ritualized ways for a man to take on the role of a woman, either temporarily or permanently.

Shaved her legs and then he was a she

In the nineteenth century, another scandal broke in London: the case of Fanny and Stella. They were men who enjoyed dressing as women, and often played female parts in the theatre. It is unclear whether they were transgender, or gay men who enjoyed drag. They avoided prosecution for homosexuality by emphasizing that they were female impersonators.

The next major appearance of the drag queen was the rise of the pantomime dame. She was popular from 1900 onwards. Roger Baker says (in his book Drag) that the pantomime dame is almost not a drag queen because she is obviously a man dressed as a (usually elderly) woman, and because the men who performed in these roles did not usually make drag their career. 

Little Joe never once gave it away

Perhaps ironically, the Shakespearean roles for boys who played young women who disguised themselves as men were given to women in later eras, and so provided an opportunity for women to dress as men on the stage. A similar opportunity was provided by pantomime, where the principal boy was often played by a woman, and of course J M Barrie’s Peter Pan, where Peter Pan was often played by a woman.

The drag king (a woman acting the part of a man) also has a long history. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, British music hall performer Vesta Tilley was active as a male impersonator. Blues singer Gladys Bentley performed in male attire in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco from the 1920s through 1940s.

Drag acts were very popular during the First and Second World Wars, where entertainers were sent to amuse the troops, and included female impersonators, sketch shows and the like. After the Second World war, in the repressive 1950s, many of those entertainers who were gay had made contact with each other during the war, but they had to be very careful as the police always took an interest in drag acts. Many of those who went to serve in the armed forces (both male and female) met other gay people during the war, and some of them were involved in the fight for gay liberation, including the drag queens who were getting turned away from theatres in the repressive 1950s.

With the rise of television, the older forms of entertainment (variety acts on the stage) began to transfer to television, and that included drag acts and other impersonators of the other binary gender. 

In the USA, Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera made history when they threw the first missile at the police in the Stonewall Riot, transforming a rather polite, staid, and ineffective gay protest movement into a much more active and revolutionary one. Another veteran of the Stonewall Riots was drag king Stormé DeLarverie, who performed in male drag along with female impersonators at the Jewel Box Revue in the 1950s and 1960s.

Drag kings and queens continued to be popular throughout the following decades, and this is showing no sign of diminishing.

The history of drag is a long and involved one, and has antecedents in sacred dramas, where everyday life is reversed and new light is thrown on the social order. Drag is easily distinguishable from being transgender by the fact that drag is a deliberately exaggerated caricature of the gender being performed, and is only put on for the duration of the performance. The purpose of drag is to hold a mirror up to the everyday and the conventional understanding of gender and bring it into question.

Further reading

Roger Baker (1994), Drag: A History of Female Impersonation in the Performing Arts. Cassell: London.

Randy P. Conner, David Sparks, Mariya Sparks, Gloria Anzaldua (1997), Cassell’s Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol, and Spirit: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Lore. Cassell: London.

[See also: Queer Pagan Reading List 2021]

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