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Why do some people want to stop women performing drag?

Men should not have a monopoly on an art form that prides itself on being disruptive

A few months ago, an article accusing cisgender (non-trans) female drag queens of cultural appropriation went viral. Recently, it resurfaced. Instead of positing any new insight about queer culture, the author veered into the all-too-familiar territory of describing women as the problem. This is nothing new.

Queer nightlife is still extremely male-dominated – the fact that plenty of gay bars still come with dark rooms, strict entry policies and men banging on-screen proves it. If women are allowed through the door, many report that they are harassed, groped or jeered at by gay men. I’ve seen it myself too – I could probably buy Richard Branson’s island from underneath him if I had a quid for every time I’ve seen a female-bodied queen have her tits grabbed by obnoxious men wanting to ‘check they’re real’.

Gay men seem to think they have some kind of monopoly on drag as an art form which is, to put it simply, absolute bullshit. The origins of drag are often traced back to cross-dressing actors in Shakespearean times, but they rarely acknowledge that badass Japanese women were playing male roles in kabuki years beforehand (before they were banned – shockingly enough – for being “too erotic”). The actual context behind this ‘history’ is also often omitted: men played female roles because societal misogyny meant that women weren’t allowed on stage. These men weren’t subversive, nor revolutionary – they were there to replace women and render them invisible.

“Drag is designed to disrupt gender norms – anyone can bind, stuff, pad and ‘perform’ gender to an exaggerated extent”

The irony is that drag is designed to disrupt gender norms – anyone can bind, stuff, pad and ‘perform’ gender to an exaggerated extent. The author of the piece seems confused about this: “Cis women in dresses and costume makeup should not be labeled ‘drag queens’”, they argue, seemingly oblivious to the fact that society already has words to describe these women: we call them showgirls, supermodels, performers. We don’t call them drag queens unless there’s an intention to disrupt.

Often, even when we do ‘recognise’ female-bodied queens we feel compelled to differentiate them as ‘bio’ or ‘faux’ queens, both terms which reinforce the rigid gender norms drag seeks to fuck up. Birmingham-based queen Amber Cadaverous is sick of it:

“These terms have no real reason to exist other than to promote ‘otherness’,” she explains over e-mail. “They narrow my entire art form down to my gender identity or my genitalia which, to me, is really insulting; my drag is just as valid as that of any queen who identifies as male.”

Let’s not forget the especially considering that gay men enjoy the rights we do largely because of trans women like Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, both of whom were on the frontline at the pivotal Stonewall riots. The article is rooted in the argument that drag is a crucial part of ‘gay culture’, and that women are ‘appropriating that culture’. It might sound surprising, but queer women exist, too!

“The main critique I receive is that what I do is appropriating gay culture, which is ridiculous as I identify as gay myself, making it very much MY culture, too,” says Cadaverous, who credits drag as a tool for her own self-exploration. “I think a lot of the critique comes with the idea that queer women in femme drag are ‘straight-passing’, which has a lot of people seemingly threatened that we’re trying to take over a space that isn’t inherently ours. They think we get to enjoy a rich culture without facing any of the oppression.”

It’s worth pointing out that, just like the rest of the world, ‘gay culture’ as a whole is still guilty of exacerbating various forms of oppression: there’s evidence that it is still deeply racist, misogynistic, transphobic and, paradoxically, rife with internalised homophobia. From the shitty ‘preferences’ bandied around on dating apps to the fact that white gay guys still appropriate black womanhood without accountability, queer spaces can actually be particularly punishing for anybody who doesn’t fit certain rigid standards.

“We’re expected to maintain a level of hyper-femininity and ‘perform’ our gender; why shouldn’t we be allowed to reclaim this in a performative way?” – Amber Cadaverous

Cadaverous highlights that a reclamation of hyper-femininity heavily informs her own drag, citing women in horror films as her inspiration. “There’s a power and an ‘otherness’ encapsulated in hyper-femininity that really resonates with me and, I think, a lot of other queer femmes, too,” she says. “Besides, all women face oppression in the form of misogyny. We’re expected to maintain a level of hyper-femininity and ‘perform’ our gender; why shouldn’t we be allowed to reclaim this in a performative way?”

Crucially, Cadaverous – like many of us – has relied on queer spaces to facilitate her own self-exploration. When people talk about cis women encroaching on the territory of ‘gay culture’, she misses the point that cis women have literally nowhere they’re safe from misogyny.

Gay bars aren’t male territory, nor is drag a male-only art form. In fact, the likes of Cadaverous, Georgie Bee, non-binary superstar Victoria Sin and countless other queens are working twice as hard to prove themselves in what has, paradoxically, become a male-dominated art. Any man can slap on a dress, some lippy and a wig and be deemed ‘subversive’, which is why we need to push things further and restore the truly radical ethos that remains the foundational cornerstone of drag.

Now more than ever, ‘gay culture’ needs female-bodied queens to further disrupt our ideas of gender, sexuality, drag and queerness; we need femmes to fuck it up, and any queer-identified person should be willing to give them the space to do so.