Essential Drag History of the Pre-Stonewall Era

Popular consciousness would tell you that the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement started at the Stonewall Riots. There are isolated incidents that predate Stonewall that your average poofter might know of, but the mindset that queer people did not come together or organize prior to 1969 could not be any less true. The queer community is just that, a community, and we have always flocked together. Hell, Stonewall wasn’t even the first queer riot in America (see the Compton Cafeteria Riots for more on that). Because of the almost exclusively underground nature of queer culture prior to the 1970s, recorded footage from the pre-Stonewall era is difficult to come by or isn’t well known. This makes Frank Simon’s 1969 film, The Queen, all the more significant as a visual time capsule for the then budding national drag scene, as well as an early example of the modern gay scene in America.

Filmed during the “Miss All-American Camp” Beauty Contest in 1967, The Queen chronicles the logistics and effort that putting on a drag pageant in this era would require, both from organizers and the queens themselves. For context, a cisgender man dressing in drag or any other form of “female impersonation” in the 1960s was committing a criminal offence in most of the United States. This is the same time period where people were still getting committed to asylums and given electroshock “therapy” for being gay under the belief that they were insane and perverted. Add to that the censorship of media thanks to the Hays code, anything presented as even remotely gay was labeled sexually obscene. Keeping all of this in mind, it’s unreal this film was made in the first place. The Queen is punk as fuck filmmaking.

From the opening minutes of The Queen, you are given an immediate crash course in drag, extra emphasis on “crash.” Its breakneck explanation must have been quite jarring for anyone unfamiliar with the concept of a drag queen. However, given the film’s limited release, I’m sure it was more likely preaching to a choir who was already well versed in the songs.

We are introduced to the pageant emcee, a self described “bar mitzvah mother” drag queen named Flawless Sabrina. In between contouring her face and gluing on false lashes, Sabrina provides a glimpse into the mindset of the kind of queens who will be competing in this beauty contest, saying, All drag queens want is love, and they try to get that love by being sexy and beautiful.” The scene then cuts to a man helping to arrange the show who shares his view on the queens, stating,

“For some of them, baby, they sleep during the day and they do all their work at night. Because they’re night people. Some of them are not experienced or have ever seen day people, or worked with day people, or seen the outside world. A lot of them know their street corners, and their bars, and their favorite YMCA, and their favorite bathhouse. But they’re beautiful.”

Immediately, this tells us the contestants aren’t living a totally glamorous or even fair life, but it is the only life they’ve got. These men are doing what they can to survive and what makes them happy. A trap that many documentaries fall into is that they have a set narrative they would like to tell before they ever start filming. They skew their film to fit that vision and agenda rather than simply documenting their subject. Less than three minutes in and The Queen establishes a rule that it will give the audiences as close to an authentic experience as they can put to film, as opposed to many modern films that are afraid to portray the queer community in any negative light.

In little more than an hour, we see organizers figuring out the logistics of finding a hotel willing to house dozens of gay men, contestants rehearsing for dances numbers, and the events of the pageant itself both onstage and off.

My future wife, a former child pageant queen herself, tells me that how the run the this pageant is very true to how shows are ran even today

Easily, the best moments to see aren’t of the actual pageant itself, but of the heart-to-heart interactions between the queens. We as an audience feel like eavesdroppers as we watch the contestants help each other with wigs and makeup, and listen to discussions centered around what drag means to them, the draft for the Vietnam war, coming out, how society and their families respond to them being gay, and even dissecting whether or not they might be trans (although it is never put in that language) and possibility of getting bottom surgery.

The latter is something some people still pester drag queens about, because even in 2020, the notion of existing anywhere between the strict binaries of “male and female” is foreign. Drag can be a lot of things but drag in and of itself is not a stepping stone to transitioning, although it is important to remember that for some transgender folx, this does happen.

As to be expected, the moment of The Queen most people seem to remember most is the ending, which I think is a shame. In the closing minutes of the documentary, after the contest Harlow is crowned the winner, fellow contestant, Crystal, flies off the handle. Crystal (founder of the iconic House of LaBeija and foremother of the New York ballroom scene) starts screaming at Harlow and Sabrina about how the contest was fixed and she should have won (she came in 4th by the way). Whether the outcome of this pageant was predetermined or not we will never know, but I do know that yes, this is the most memorable moment in the film. It is an authentic meltdown that I have seen many, many times backstage at drag shows. Drama is always entertaining, but this film deserves to be remembered for so much more than just a queen throwing a (likely justified) tantrum because an admittedly white-centric drag pageant crowned another white girl.

Drama like that exists by the gaff-full on RuPaul’s Drag Race, and it is a large part of why many people tune in. The powers that be at Drag Race know this to be true, because those are the moments they choose to highlight. As a result, I spent many years of my early out-as-trans life in the company of drag queens who tried to imitate the “cunty behavior” they saw on the show because they desperately wanted to be the next Willam. They mistook being pretty and mean for personality and talent.

In all honesty, I as a trans woman have complicated feelings on drag as a whole and the general toxicity of the Northeast Ohio drag scene of about 5–10 years ago is only a small portion of it. For what it’s worth, the scene these days is much better and far more inclusive.

As an art form, I love the creativity of drag in the same way I enjoy professional wrestling. The talent, personalities, and sheer entertainment of it all is exciting, and I love that high of seeing people push the limits of the medium further and further. With drag, that includes a whole lot of “fuck you” to the notions of gender by default, which is my jimmy-jam. I was legitimately in awe the first time I saw the Drag Race alternative, Dragula, and its dedication to celebrating the weird/punk/gruesome/gritty/edgy ways to express gender and creativity. (Similarly to how The Queen is bringing the underground nature of drag to a larger audience since becoming available on Netflix, Dragula can also be seen there too.)

On the other hand, all pendulums must swing back in the reverse direction. Similarly to how the gay men in The Queen are being asked if they want to become women (i.e. “are you trans women” by today’s standards), I have always had people treat me like I am a drag queen when I simply am not. I am the lead bartender at a bar with a sizable queer customer base for not being advertised as “a gay bar,” and that means that part of my job is being personable and entertaining in public. Unfortunately, (or fortunately depending on your perspective) this is not a usual job requirement for most trans people.

A typical day at work features customer interactions can include an above average use of the word “fierce,” gratuitous snapping, and excessive “YAAAAS GURL!” exclamations at me. It would be easy to dismiss this as just “gay slang vernacular,” but that’s not what is happening here. This sort of communication is a coded way for someone to acknowledge that I am trans and want to appear affirming, but rather than just saying that, they try to shower me in compliments they may or may not actually mean, and unintentionally other me by treating me this way. I am not at all a fan of this. It feels like I’m being lied to, when in reality, people can just say what they mean by asking me what my pronouns are and go about their business.

I hate this type of behavior so much that I spoke about it publicly during Let It Out, a monthly queer storytelling event held at our bar. After I ranted about how there are other ways to affirm trans people’s existence outside of objectifying us or being overly complimentary about our appearances, a cis gay man approached my future wife (a cis woman) to apologize to her for how he had treated me in the past. Why he didn’t just talk to me I will never know, but people frequently try to use my fiance as a buffer, another thing I don’t appreciate. He apologized to her for excessively complimenting my makeup, hair, outfit, personality, aesthetic, voice, and mannerisms upon meeting me for the first time, something he doesn’t realize he repeated over and over again because of how drunk he was. His reasoning behind it was that “he does drag sometimes and seeing [me] behind the bar just brought out that personality in him.” He said that he’s normally a shy person but his drag persona allows him to be bolder and more honest.

This man essentially confessed to my future wife that looking at me, a transgender woman trying to do her fucking job, made him slip into his “drag character” and changed his personality and how he treated me from everyone else he interacted with that night. This is a fucking problem, friendos.

It’s not the fault of drag or drag performers that some people are ignorant to how to treat trans people, but the fact people default to “drag queen,” a character that someone is putting on as a performance when dealing with a transgender person, a human being just existing in the world, is a shame. I don’t want to be treated like a caricature or an exaggeration of personality, I want to be treated like a person. All of this stems from misunderstandings on how to coexist and this is one of the many reasons I love The Queen. The film attempts to organically dispel confusion in a way that a lot of films don’t. The messaging isn’t trying to spell out the moral with an iron fist, rather, it allows the audience to shadow the experience of being a drag queen in the late 60’s for a single day and asks you to take away whatever information you see fit.

A slice of life documentary filled with glitz and glamour that isn’t afraid to feature pedestrian moments not meticulously crafted for dramatic effect, The Queen is a genuine look into a culture and community that has tremendously evolved in the last 50 years. I truly recommend that everyone takes a spoonful of this drag culture primordial soup now available on Netflix, and enjoy this piece of would-be lost queer history.

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