In the 21st century, a drag queen is not just a man who wears women's clothes; a drag queen is an entirely separate entity. When so impeccably dressed and flawlessly painted, the person underneath the queen disappears almost completely.
Oftentimes, I've heard drag performers describe their personas as though they were another person. I know myself that is the case. When I used to do drag all the time, my everyday male person was completely separate from my drag persona. Like many queens like Miss Richfield, Lady Bunny and Dina Martina, I would never let myself be seen out of drag, or at least reveal who I was when out of drag. With exception to close friends, when most people met me, or talked to me, they had no idea I was the drag queen they talked to the week before who they were slamming shots with. Most queens I know have plunged their hands deep down into their own psyches and pulled out the weirdest, fiercest, and most theatrical parts of themselves, then mashed them together to form something new. A character. An alter ego, if you will.
In this moment, drag culture is bigger and more popular than it's ever been. RuPaul's Drag Race has just had its most successful season yet. With its move from Logo to VH1, it racked up almost 1 million viewers for the premiere and held strong with. The show's third All Stars season just launched, marking a new competition between some of the top drag queens in mainstream media. And even outside of RuPaul's Drag Race, queens have been able to build incredible followings via social media, live performances, YouTube, and podcasts.
Drag hasn't always been received this way. In fact, this sort of public awe — sometimes, it borders on worship — of drag queens has really only cropped up in the past decade or two. Before that, drag was submerged deep in underground clubs and back-alley bars. And before that, it was an exaggerated and integral part of the theater culture. The fact is, drag has been a part of our culture for centuries. And every era and every new iteration of the art form has been crucial to the shape and success of drag today.
Where did it all begin? Few fans of the art form realize that the earliest forms of cross-dressing — simply the act of wearing clothes that are designated as belonging to the opposite sex — are actually rooted in religious rites. In the book Drag Diaries, it focuses on two long-ago origin points: ancient ceremonies and Japanese theater. The author tells of "cross-dressing was widely documented among the Aztecs, Incas, and Egyptians, among other great civilizations of the past, and exists today in tribal ceremonies around the world." Imagine religious rites of initiation, invocations of the gods, calling down the rains, and warding off evil spirits as occasions that would call for drag in these cultures.
Another book I have read that shed quite a bit of light on what we might call the "sacred" drag queen is titled Drag: A History of Female Impersonation in the Performing Arts. Roger Baker also pulls a thread back to ancient civilizations, noting that drag "presided over the creation of drama in ancient Greece where masked actors played Hecuba and Clytemnestra." Meanwhile, in England, "formal drama came, literally, from the church. In an effort to help the illiterate and, less intelligent members of the congregation better understand church worship, parts of the mass were dramatized in very simple ways." Eventually, these religious performances began to have a life of their own. These eclectic sets of dramas were eventually removed from the church entirely. Rather than perform the stories in hallowed chapel halls, local Guilds would instead take the reins. Very specific groups would tackle the narratives most applicable to their trade. As for the cross-dressing component of these sacred performances, women were omitted from the craft entirely. "Women played no active part in the services and the offices of the church, so the original acting was done exclusively by men, choirboys assisting the clerks and playing women's roles when required," Baker notes in Drag. From there, it's not hard to connect the dots.
In Drag,Baker writes about the earliest original "plays." In this new iteration of theater, the performances "took to the streets with the improvisation of the strolling players livening up formal scripts. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, troupes began to use courtyards of public inns as a performance space." Baker also notes the continued efforts to keep theater as an activity meant just for men. "To find a woman acting in a public playhouse would have offended not only on religious grounds, but also be seen as a shocking example of inappropriate behavior." As a matter of fact, the first appearances of Shakespeare’s most iconic female characters were all believed to first be portrayed by men. "The first Ophelia is thought to have been Nathaniel Field, who ultimately became as famous as actor Richard Burbage the great Elizabethan heavy. "The first Lady Macbeth might have been Alexander Cooke . . . A young man called Robert (or Bobbie) Gough is frequently named as the first Juliet, and also as the first Cleopatra."
While this theatrical history provides an illustrious chronicle of men dressing as women, Baker, made sure to draw a distinction between drag culture's theatrical roots and the drag queen as an entity in itself. "Were the Elizabethan boy actors drag queens?" he asked. "I think the term goes beyond them." In fact, the first true so-named drag queens didn't emerge until the 19th and 20th centuries.