Subject: The Line Between Drag & Transgender
Date: Wed 07 Oct 1998 - 14:48:49 BST
Are all people born male who wear women's clothes "drag queens?"
When we, as humans, see something, we try to make sense of it, fit it into our
cosmology, our worldview. "We don't see things as they are, we see them as we
are," as Anais Nin noted.
If you think all people born male who wear dresses are "doing drag," then you
will see them as drag queens, even if they don't identify themselves as drag
queens or if other drag queens wouldn't identify them as drag queens. Today,
drag is synonymous with "gay man" and "performance," and not all people born
male who wear women's clothes identify as "performers," "homosexual," or even
"men." It also means that often drag queens choose not to identify as
transgendered, because they want it made clear that they are gay men who are
performing, nothing else. Even Jim Bailey, the classic female impersonator
who just opened a dinner theatre in Palm Springs wants to make sure no one
calls him a "drag queen" -- that has connotations he won't accept.
For me, all this comes into sharp focus at a pride event. People don't know
how to use queer and inclusive language, so it becomes all about being
homosexual, gay, lesbian, even when B&T are tacked onto L&G. Our local Gay &
Lesbian center administrator, in speaking of a Youth Prom talked of "one young
man who came in drag, who was scared but there." I wondered how he identified
-- was this drag to "him," or a transgender expression to "her?" That
question was erased though her assumptions though -- young male in a dress,
gay drag queen.
In their Pride coverage the Albany Time Union identified Miss Iodine as a
"female impersonator," while The Daily Gazette noted that there were
"crossdressers riding in convertibles" in the parade. While Iodine is
brilliant, I don't think she had any intent of making people think she was
female, but rather just a gay man in drag, and I suspect that the people
riding in the convertible identified the same way. A transsexual woman was
even surprised at the identification, because she knows crossdressers as
people who identify as heterosexual men in drag.
Eddie Izzard was on the Roseanne show and she wanted to explore his ID as a
"transvestite." She wanted him to be in platform shoes. "No, these are
transvestite shoes," Eddie said. "Those are drag queen shoes, and the gay men
have that covered." Roseanne didn't get it, so she just let it pass. This is
no different than a drag queen explaining that s/he is not like those
crossdressers or transsexuals -- we all want to be individuals.
I love watching Hazel and all the queens perform. I suspect, however, that
they are less sure what to make of me. I am not a gay man, never have been,
but I am not a straight man either. Yet, I am not simply a woman, gay or
other wise. People can't pin me -- lesbians see me as a guy in a dress and
assume I am a drag queen, gay men see sensible shoes and assume I am a
I have dreamed about this scenario. A big boom-box is on stage, sitting on a
stool. It starts to play a classic, iconic tune -- say "People" or "I Will
Survive." I go out on stage and start to lip synch the number, miming along,
but then a look of confusion comes over my face. I rub my head, motion to the
audience to wait, and as the song keeps playing, I leave the stage. I return
to the stage with a big sledgehammer and a wild-eyed look and smash the boom
box to smithereens, really attacking it and ending the music. I catch my
breath, look at the audience and say "Sorry... for a moment there, I thought I
was a drag queen."
One black gay man who heard me tell this said, "That's powerful. I tend to
think of all men in dresses as drag queens." I wondered how he would feel if
someone thought of all black men as janitors? When the black woman who
insisted on calling me "he" and explained by saying that she has gay friends
who borrow her dresses, I simply said that I wasn't wearing her dress -- I was
wearing my dress. If it was woman's dress, then maybe that says something
about how I identify.
I had one guy last night who was so pleased because he had learned "all about
transgender" from Katherine Hawkins when she helped put together a services
delivery proposal for Albany. I thought that was great, but I hope he
remembered that he would not want anyone to learn "all about being gay" from
just one person -- we are many voices.
When I see a person whose body tells me that it is not typical for the gender
they are presenting -- a female in a sharp suit, a male in a dress -- then I
assume that they are telling me that they feel a need to break out of the
gender role assigned them at birth. They may be lesbian women who break the
"loving men" rule for women or gay men who break the "loving women" rule for
men, both transgressing the gendered expectations of their parents, who often
dreamed of making little copies of themselves.
For me, learning to appreciate the nuances of transgender expression is like
learning to be a wine connoisseur. Everyone can tell the difference between
red and white wine and even identify a rose, but when we start to really
immerse ourselves, we can appreciate a wide range nuances and subtleties. We
start to understand how white wines can be made from red grapes, how blends of
varieties bring out something new and special.
Just like lumping all wine together can erase real differences, the problem
with the label of transgender is that it brings together strange bedfellows
who spend a lot of time trying to make sure that the assumptions don't erase
them, in the way the assumptions about drag erase everything but gay. We
spend lots of time explaining how we don't fit into the assumptions people
Who is transgendered? Many people resist identifying as transgendered even
though they are gender transgressive, breaking the rules of gender, because
they don't want to be swept in with assumptions that they are something they
are not -- not drag, not crossdressers, not transsexuals, not heterosexual,
not homosexual, not women, not men. They do this because people tend to make
sweeping assumptions about males in dresses, females in suits, assumptions
that are as incorrect as thinking all red or white wine is the same.
Are all males who wear women's clothes drag queens? Or for that matter, are
they crossdressers, transsexuals, female impersonators, transvestites or even
fags? To me, the description of a male presenting as a woman isn't enough to
tell anything except that they are transgressing gender rules imposed on them
-- that they are transgendered. Beyond that, I know that they can a wide
range of colors, flavors and characters that are unique and individual.
You can't tell much about a glass of wine just by looking at it. You have to
experience the wine, smell it, taste it, know its history, find its unique
character, understand how it compares and contrasts with other vintages. When
you meet a transperson, drink deeply, and after a while, you may learn to be a
trans connoisseur too.
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