The History Of Drag, Part 1

Comedy, Featured  

By Jim Yousling

Long, long ago, back in the misty eons of time, before television, before Jesus, before even Tina Turner, there was no such thing as drag.

Everybody lived in caves and walked around carrying clubs and wearing the same stupid little fur outfits while they hunted and collected and tried to avoid getting stomped on by dinosaurs.

Sex symbol Raquel Welch, inspiring drag queens for over 1 million years.

But then one day Raquel Welch showed up in this tiny little fur bikini. It made some of the women laugh, it made some of them jealous and it made some of them run home to make one just like it for themselves. And it made most of the men want to fuck Raquel’s tiny little primordial brains out.

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Renowned performance artist Vaginal Davis strikes a pre-historic pose. Photo by Rick Castro.

But it made some of the men go “Hmmmm – I wonder if I’d look good in that.”

Time marched on and by the time you got to ancient Greece all the guys were wearing these little skirt things except when they were wrestling butt-naked in the Olympics. It wasn’t quite drag, but it sure was breezy.

Meanwhile, over in ancient Egypt, the Egyptians were being ruled by this great pharaoh named Hatshepsut. Hatshepsut kept the country peaceful and prosperous for most of the 14th Dynasty and built lots of big beautiful famous ruins and everybody thought he was just great.

What they didn’t know was that their pharaoh’s real name was Queen Hatshepsut. Since her parents had no son, they simply cross-dressed their darling little baby girl and when she grew up and became pharaoh, she would wear a tie-on beard for her public appearances. And if you can tie on a beard, you know what else you can tie on. This is the earliest historical record of a professional drag queen or drag king. 

Meanwhile, back in Europe, ancient Greece gave way to ancient Rome and, as we all know from watching I Claudius and Caligula and Fellini Satyricon, practically everybody in the Roman Empire was a potential drag queen. 

“Fellini Satyricon”: fiddling and diddling in style, while Rome burns.

Even certain library books are willing to admit that several Roman emperors liked to camp it up, including Nero, Caligula, Elagabalus, Commodus and even the great Julius Caesar himself. All of these guys – and I quote – “enjoyed dressing as women and wore makeup, perfume, jewels and fine silks.” The book also states that these men “often practiced this in their private lives” and .. sometimes impersonated heroines of mythology in public places” … probably heroines of mythology like Diana Ross, Judy Garland, Dolly Levi … 

The guys in ancient Rome were all queer as a three-dollar toga anyhow. But no matter what your history teacher told you, fags did not cause the fall of the Roman Empire. 

Rome fell a few hundred years later when it became conservative and had been taken over by a bunch of moralistic assholes who called themselves Christians, even though their morals had about as much to do with the teachings of Christ back then as they do today, which is to say just about none.

Under the new so-called Christian rule, being a queer and being a drag queen were a couple of big sins – right up there with Murder One – so everybody had to go into the closet for a couple of Millennia.

Jesus, of course, never said that men shouldn’t be queers or drag queens. But the Pope and the cardinals and the clergy didn’t want anybody – male or female – to have better dresses or fancier accessories or bigger cocktail rings than they had.

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Papal pomp: gowns, jewels, embroidered slippers are all part of the Catholic drag.

This hypocritical attitude dragged Western Civilization into the Dark Ages, when drag and queerness were totally hogged by the Catholic church. So for a thousand years or so, if there was anything fun going on in the Western world, we have no record of it. 

The Dark Ages finally ended when the Protestants broke away from the Catholic church and moved to Iowa where there were no Popes, and clergymen could wear pants. This was called the Reformation.

The Reformation brought about enormous changes in the arts. Most importantly, for the first time in a thousand years, art was allowed to exist outside the church. You could actually write a book or a song that was not about Jesus. You could actually do a painting of some naked guy you knew instead of just some naked guy pretending to be Adam or David or some other babe from the Bible.

And this led to the birth of the modern theater as a popular art form about 500 years ago.

For most of the history of theater, women weren’t allowed to perform on stage. The church said it was immoral, but it was really because men didn’t want women to have jobs period so that they would be enslaved to men. And it was also because everybody knows that all actors are basically prostitutes – and apparently the Pope felt that prostitution was men’s work.

This proved to be a boon for closeted cross-dressers everywhere. Suddenly people like William Shakespeare were writing all these great plays and they were just chock-full of big parts for drag queens. Women’s roles continued to be played by men for hundreds of years – and they still are in Japanese Kabuki theater and on weekends at the Plaza, Las Estrellas and the Silverlake Lounge.

twelfth night
Clutch your pearls! Stephen Fry and Mark Rylance starred in the incredibly successful, all-male revival of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” in 2013.

Which really makes you wonder about all those Shakespeare tragedies. I mean, they’re really great and serious and depressing and all that, but don’t you think that a drag queen playing Juliet or Ophelia or Lady MacBeth must have had the audience just screaming and laughing and rolling in the aisles at least once in awhile? I think so.

Live theater quickly became the most popular form of art because TV wasn’t invented yet.

In an era when most people were starving peasants, the average woman couldn’t dream of even owning one beautiful dress – so you can bet that her husband was sure never going to get one. So the theater satisfied everyone’s need for laughter and excitement and fantasy and big hair and sparkly Ethel Merman dresses.

The church frowned upon non-religious popular entertainment and condemned it as “vulgar.” But by this time, the church had a lot less power {especially in England) and most of the really important decisions were now being made by a bunch of kings and queens who were rich enough to tell the Pope to go fuck himself. And kings and queens liked vulgar entertainment. Especially the queens.

Soon drag started to show up everywhere – not just on stage, but in real life too. That is, if you can call the court of Louis the Fifteenth real life. We all know that the kings and queens of Europe were a bunch of stupid spoiled inbreeding sissies with big powdered wigs and more beauty marks than Madonna and these big wide dresses that were so huge that you couldn’t even get through a door in one unless you lived in a palace – which of course was the whole idea.

Anyhow, King Louis the Fifteenth of France had this friend named the Chevalier d’Eon who dressed in drag so he could mingle with the ladies of the court and spy on them and find out all the real dirt. 

The Assaut or Fencing Match which took place at Carlton House on the th of April
Spy, diplomat, soldier and dashing drag artiste, Chevalier d’Eon (right) was nobody’s foil.

“Madame” d’Eon became so popular as a lady that he stayed in drag for the whole rest of his life and everybody just loved him and imagine their surprise when he finally died and they found out.

Meanwhile, here in America, we were having a revolution to get rid of all those fou-fou inbreeding kings and queens once and for all. And in the true spirit of democracy, our country’s first famous cross-dresser was not an upper-class snot but a man of the people. Sort of. Her name was Deborah Sampson Gannett, and when our country went to war with England, she cut off her hair, picked up a musket, changed her name to Robert Shurtleff and joined the Continental Army. 

Deborah Gannett fought for our country’s independence for two years, proving once and for all that a good common ordinary citizen can pull off a drag act just as well as any lousy piece of decadent inbreeding European royalty. (Did I mention inbreeding? Good.) 

Eventually Deborah was wounded in battle and taken to the hospital where the army discovered her secret and immediately discharged her, proving once and for all that the American Army has no of humor. But at least Deborah Sampson Gannett went down in history as the first great queer role model for the next two centuries of American women.

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Deborah Sampson Gannett, Revolutionary warrior.

American men did not get their first queer role model for another hundred years, but at least they could always fall back upon the stage, so to speak.

Anyhow, we’ll skip over the great cross-dressers of the Civil War and get right to the next great incident of embarrassment to the army.

Remember General Custer? The asshole who got everyone killed at Little Big Horn? Well, for years, his regiment’s laundress was a man. Going under the name of “Mrs. Nash,” this hot queen served the Seventh Cavalry for many years in more ways than one. He even married several of the soldiers – but for some reason, Mrs. Nash never left when his husband got transferred to another post. Nope, Mrs. Nash would just stay behind at the fort and find another soldier to marry. 

Perhaps because of incidents like this – and what with that woman George Sand hanging around with Fredrick Chopin, wearing men’s clothes and writing books and chomping on cigars and all – society began to change its ideas about what men and women could and could not do with their private lives.

So somewhere around the Civil War, people decided that maybe it was okay for women to be actresses after all. At first, the men who specialized in women’s roles protested, thinking they were all going to be out of work. But then they realized that there would always be an audience for them. Now, instead of merely being a convenient substitute for women, they could be full-on drag queens. 

This was the Dawn of the Golden Age of Drag.

The author would like to acknowledge his debt to two faaaaabulous source books, which provided most of the information in this article: “What a Drag” by Homer Dickens (Quill, 1982) and “Camp: The Lie That Tells The Truth” by Philip Core (Delilah Books, 1984). Everything else came from the World Book Encyclopedia or was just sort of made up. 

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in issue #6 of queer zine Sin Bros., published in September 1992. The author of this piece, Jim Yousling, was the editor of the gay skin-mag In Touch during its ’80s punk rock/drag queen heydays. He was also an art director, illustrator and legendary party host. By digitally posting this article we hope to celebrate the epic legacy of this bon vivant who succumbed to AIDS-related illness on January 1, 1995.

Cover illustration: Steve Meyers

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