Em-URGE-ing Voices

Your urgent thoughts, urging action

Stop Labeling Every Form of Gender Transgression Drag. Drag is Black Queer History

Posted by

October 13, 2023

On March 2nd, 2023 Governor Bill Lee of Tennessee signed Senate Bill 3, also known as the Tennessee Adult Entertainment Act. The bill makes engaging in “adult cabaret” in public or “in a location where the adult cabaret could be viewed by a person who is not an adult” a punishable offense. The bill goes on to define an “adult cabaret performer” as “topless dancers, go-go dancers, strippers, male or female impersonators.” The bill applies to any “similar entertainers,” whether they are performing or not. In other words, even individuals who are not paid performers could be prosecuted if they are perceived to be “adult cabaret performers.” This language not only targets drag performers but transgender people in its denunciation of all forms of gender nonconformity. This perpetuates the dangerous trope that transgender people are just performing. This invalidates transgender individuals’ experiences and identities, perpetuating narrow and incorrect views of gender that relegates trans women’s gender identity to  “men in dresses” and trans men similarly as “women in suits.” We are seen as impersonators who deceive the world through our gender expression and identities. While this bill was ultimately defeated by a Memphis-based LGBTQ+ theater group, at least 38 anti-drag bills have been introduced in state legislatures in 2023 alone. 

Acknowledging the danger of these bills should begin with education on varying forms of gender transgression. Every form of gender transgression is not drag. Though forms of non-normative gender expressions including cross-dressing, transgender identity, and drag are all related to gender expression and identity, they are not to be confused with one another. Cross-dressing refers to wearing clothing that is traditionally or societally associated with a gender other than one’s assigned gender at birth. Cross-dressing does not necessarily mean that folks who do so identify with the gender of the clothes they wear; it may be a form of expression, comfort, or personal preference. It is important to note that cross-dressing is not inherently tied to one’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Being transgender means that a person’s gender identity is different from the sex they were assigned at birth. Being transgender is about one’s internal understanding of their gender and is not about clothing or performance. 

Drag is a theatrical and performance-based form of gender expression. Those who perform in drag often adopt exaggerated personas and wear clothing and makeup associated with a particular gender, often one other than their assigned or identified gender. Drag queens are known to perform femininity while drag kings perform masculinity, regardless of their gender identity outside of drag. Like cross-dressing, drag is not indicative of one’s gender identity or sexual orientation outside of the performance context. 

There are a variety of theories on the origins of drag, from theatre slang, to the Japanese dance-drama Kabuki. However, the one I’m most compelled by comes out of the diligent archival research of journalist Channing Gerard Joseph, we know that American drag is a particular kind of gender transgression, emerging in the 1880s, and is indelibly linked to Black liberation. The first person to call themselves a “drag queen” was a formerly enslaved person named William Dorsey Swann. The drag parties or dances that Swann attended in Washington D.C. in the 1880’s were centered around Emancipation Day parades where formerly enslaved people gathered to celebrate their hard-earned freedom. He dubbed himself “The Queen,” personifying and representing liberty for Black people, honoring the beautiful Emancipation Day parade queens. The adoption of this term of endearment was the origin of the relationship between celebrations of queerness and emancipation for the enslaved – a fitting relationship since today, drag performance art is synonymous with freedom and self-expression. 

This history is yet another reason that drag should not be confused or conflated with other forms of gender transgression such as cross-dressing. And this is not just a matter of semantics. Calling any and everything drag minimizes a tradition that carries with it a call for freedom, specifically for Black (queer) people. To discuss drag solely as performance art without acknowledging this shared history is to do a disservice to our ancestors who fought, not only for their right to self-expression and to celebrate their queerness but also, for their literal bodily autonomy from enslavement. This invisibilizing of Black queer history is not only disrespectful, it also does the work of our oppressors by perpetuating false narratives. The lack of differentiation between different forms of gender transgression gets exploited by anti-LGBTQ+ politicians and activists who push discriminatory legislation by presenting transgender people as merely a choice or performance. Most bathroom bills, for instance, are rooted in the ignorant belief that trans women are just predatory men dressing up as women trying to gain access to “women’s spaces,” presumably to harm cis women and children. Not only is this notion invalidating, it paints trans women as a threat, opening them up to heightened levels of violence due to these dangerous stereotypes.

Through the efforts of political actors to make drag and cross-dressing synonymous, they elide the disparate, though linked, history of the two terms/acts/etc. While drag emerged out of chattel slavery, cross-dressing finds its origins in the crisis of young, unmarried white men flocking to urban cities in the 1860s. Indeed, two years before the national abolition of slavery and a little over a decade after the legal end to slavery in California, San Francisco became one of the first cities in the country to criminalize gender transgression. San Francisco’s masquerade laws outlawed anyone wearing clothes that “deviated from their assigned sex,” in public. 

In the 1850s, the Gold Rush drew loads of unmarried young men looking to make their fortune in the city. The gender imbalance caused by the influx of young men produced dances and balls where men dressing in drag was the norm at social events. After slavery was abolished, the mid-1860’s were marked by the institution of Jim Crow laws, rapid industrialization, changing immigration patterns, and the pressure of shifting sexual and gender norms to produce the packaged nuclear family image to complement the capitalist machine. Similar to Tennessee laws, the conflation of all forms of gender transgression in San Francisco’s masquerade laws was used to invisibilize queer people in public spaces. Because queerness was visibly apparent it was seen as a threat to the social order. What is deemed “indecent” or “transgressive” is constantly in flux, changing as the decades and centuries pass. 

From Tennessee to San Francisco, what  remains consistent throughout both of these pieces of legislation is lawmakers’ investment in regulating the bodily autonomy of gender transgressors to maintain a prescribed vision of social order that actively excludes us. The implications of this harmful discourse persists today, regardless of the laws in place and how much “progress” we may think we have made. As far as discourse around gender and sexual transgressions, our world is not much unlike that which greeted those who transgressed gender norms via performances of gender expressions such as drag and otherwise centuries ago.

What can we do to shift discourse and disrupt these violent cycles? Discourse defines social norms and inevitably impacts legislation. The phrase, “history is written by the victors,” haunts marginalized groups because our lived experiences have always been defined by those who hold power. Acknowledging the shared history of emancipation and drag culture is paramount. When we talk about drag culture or anti-drag bills, we should always be citing the connection to Black emancipation. Black people entered the American consciousness as slaves, the ultimate othering and queering of our experiences. Insofar as Black people have always been viewed and treated as a figure outside the ideals of American respectability, the fight for LGBTQ+ people should always include a lens of Black liberation. 

When looking at the past and present experiences of queer and trans people, it is safe to say that those with power will continue their attempts to attack the beauty, creativity, and bodily autonomy of queer and trans folks. However, the reason these laws persist is because we persist. We must keep telling our stories and acknowledging the lived experiences of those who came before us. This must be done to create a better future despite our fraught past and present. Our ancestors provide a roadmap for celebrating our self-expression in the face of anti-LGBTQ+ violence. No law, bill, or bigot can take our stories away from us. Because nobody knows us better than we know us. 

To learn more about the history of drag, check out Channing Gerard Joseph’s Ted Talk and The Daily Show’s video about The Forgotten History of Drag