The Joy of Drag

How does this performance art give voice to the gender movement?

COMMENTARY

Season 14 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” included many firsts this year, least of which was that a heterosexual man was competing for the first time as Maddy Morphosis. This year’s biggest moment came when contestant Willow Pill won the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar. She transitioned to female prior to the finale of the show and became the first transgender contestant to win.

Up until now, most of the contestants on the popular drag competition had been gay men who are cisgender, meaning their gender identity aligns with their sex at birth. But the show also underscores one of drag’s higher purposes: to challenge how we think about gender identity and expression. Shows like “Drag Race” are widely credited with bringing drag into mainstream culture. They are also examples of how the larger lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer community (LGBTQ+) continues to pioneer change.

What Is Drag?

Drag has many interpretations but is loosely defined as performing in an exaggerated way that caricatures or challenges male or female stereotypes. With bold costumes, makeup, and characters, drag taps into our human desire for fun, play, and creativity. At its core, drag is a creative act—a powerful and personal form of self-expression. Many performers also credit it with giving them a voice. Others use it to explore sexual and gender identity and expression. Still others say drag helps them accept themselves.

Anyone can do drag. In fact, drag kings (women who personify men) have been around just as long as drag queens (men who perform as women). Drag is different from cross-dressing, which can be a personal and private act. Performers like David Bowie and Billy Porter have been seen by many as pioneers of the gender-fluid style movement. This has paved the way for others like singer Harry Styles, who became the first heterosexual male featured on the cover of Vogue magazine wearing a dress. Drag is sweeping into the mainstream, with more individuals using it to explore sexual ambiguity.

Embodying a character can give us confidence. Performer Beyonce, for example, has often talked about her alter ego, Sasha Fierce. The ritual act of putting on the stilettos and makeup helped her tap into Sasha’s courage and overcome nerves before performing. Known as the “Batman effect,” this self-distancing allows us to think about a situation more rationally. It can also help control feelings like anxiety, boost our perseverance during challenging situations, and increase our self-control.1

Drag is not all that different from the characters we all play throughout the day: spouse, employee, parent. We often create an image to present to the world, whether it is who we are, what we feel, or what we aspire to be. As RuPaul Charles, creator of “Drag Race” and the world’s most notable drag queen, is famous for saying, “We’re all born naked. The rest is drag.”

Drag Fundamentals

Drag dates back at least to Shakespearean theater, when only men were allowed to act and therefore had to play the roles of women. The term “drag” is likely an acronym for “dressed resembling a girl.”

Modern-day drag grew in the 1970s and ‘80s. “Balls” in New York City provided an arena for drag queens to compete for money, awards, and bragging rights. The 1990 film “Paris Is Burning” documented the ball scene and portrayed many of those who walked in balls as poor, gay, or transgender minorities struggling to survive in a “rich, white world.”

“It was the space to be who you needed to be,” says Junior LaBeija, one of the contestants portrayed in the film. “That’s what ballroom is. You come to get your shit off, get undressed, and go back to normal.”2

Each ball is comprised of categories that gives everyone a chance to compete. These could include schoolgirl or boy, town and country, or “banjee” realness, the ability to convincingly portray a straight male archetype, such as a sailor or executive. Participants stomp down runways, preen in costumes they spent hours making, and flaunt larger-than-life personalities.

In the heat of competition, ball contestants would often bicker over how each category should be interpreted. This led to the tradition of “reading,” or crafting the perfect insult designed to cut to the core of an individual’s insecurities. Meant more as a good-natured roast, reading has its roots as a defense mechanism. Subject to intense rejection and discrimination, many gay and transgender individuals have had to rely on their wit and bravado to diffuse dangerous situations.

Reading remains a tradition on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” The show’s mini contest, Reading Is Fundamental, is a favorite among viewers. Just like any game show, “Drag Race” contestants participate in robust challenges. These queens display a wide range of talents, which include singing, dancing, acting, modeling, lip-synching, comedy, makeup artistry, costume design, sewing—the list goes on.

This season’s winner received a cash prize of $150,000—the highest ever on the show. Willow Pill (real name Willow Patterson) will also travel the world representing the show for a year. Also a first, this year’s runner-up received a $50,000 cash prize. Many contestants go on to launch careers in acting, modeling, and business. Seeing this sets a powerful example for others in the broader LGBTQ+ community. More than 80% of LGBTQ+ youth have said seeing LGBTQ+ celebrities positively impacted how they felt about themselves.3

The show also gives heterosexual audiences a glimpse into the lives of individuals from the LGBTQ+ community, including those who identify as transgender or nonbinary. Seeing them stress about the competition, make friends, and support one another—all while crafting mind-blowing creations—shows that they are human beings like everyone else.

Positive Effects of Drag

One of the protective factors associated with drag culture is the sense of community it can provide. As drag balls evolved, houses formed around some of the more established contestants. Known as drag mothers or fathers, they serve as mentors to younger generations, passing down techniques and training as they walk in balls and represent their houses. These chosen families provide protection, validation, and acceptance for each other.

For many, house families replaced the biological ones that had rejected them. Drag mothers and fathers would often provide food and shelter to frightened LGBTQ+ teens who had nowhere else to go. According to a 2020 national survey, 29% of LGBTQ+ youth have experienced homelessness, been kicked out of their homes, or have run away.3

This rejection by family is associated with poorer health outcomes. Young LGBTQ+ adults who reported higher levels of family rejection in their youth were more than 8 times more likely to attempt suicide, almost 6 times more likely to experience high levels of depression, and more than 3 times more likely to use illegal drugs and engage in unprotected sex.4

Being able to find acceptance in any community can wield a powerful effect. Transgender and nonbinary youth who said their pronouns were respected attempted suicide at half the rate of those who said they were not.3

Ultimately, there are as many reasons to do drag as there are costumes. Drag can be a way to release tension and vent emotions. It can be a way to safely express oneself. Many use it to explore sexual orientation and gender identity. Others do it because they enjoy the fame and glory of winning.

Drag is a powerful symbol in the LGBTQ+ community. During the HIV and AIDS epidemic, drag competitions and performances across the country raised awareness and money for research and treatment. They also provided needed comfort, community, and encouragement during a time when many were dying.

Not to mention, drag is just fun. Balls and shows are filled with irreverent humor, biting sarcasm, and scandalous double entendre. Drag has always been art. It can take contestants upwards of 5 hours to prepare for a competition, and fans delight in their jaw-dropping transformations. Meant to catch viewers off-guard, drag bends gender interpretations and is constantly stepping outside the box.

It can be hard to keep up with its evolution. RuPaul learned this the hard way in 2018 when he suggested drag was best performed by men and when he hesitated on whether fully transitioned transgendered contestants should be allowed on the show. Facing backlash, he quickly apologized, tweeting, “Each morning I pray to set aside everything I THINK I know, so I may have an open mind and a new experience.” This season, 5 of the 13 the show’s contestants were transgender.

The Challenges of Drag

Drag queens, and especially drag kings, are an understudied population. Research on the emotional and psychological experience of drag indicates mostly positive benefits for performers. These included a sense of status, self-affirmation, resilience, and empowerment.5 But drag performers still face unique challenges.

Like other members of the LGBTQ+ community, drag performers can endure minority stress with their experience of sexual orientation and gender identity. This stress can come from external or “distal” sources, such as discrimination, victimization, stigma, and pressure to conceal one’s sexuality. It can also come from internal or “proximal” stressors, such as our perspectives, expectations, and reactions.5

Individuals who are LGBTQ+ are almost 4 times as likely to experience violent victimization than non-LGBTQ+ individuals. The rate for those who are transgender is even higher. Yet only about half of these incidents are reported to police.6

When compared to heterosexual or cisgender populations, minority stress in LGBTQ+ individuals can lead to elevated rates of depression, suicidality, and other forms of psychological distress.5 Compared to heterosexual adults, LGB adults are twice as likely to experience a mental health condition. Transgender individuals are almost 4 times as likely to experience a mental health condition when compared to cisgender people.7

This data also correlates in youth. Compared to heterosexual youth, LGBT youth are twice as likely to experience persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. Further, transgender youth are twice as likely to consider or attempt suicide when compared to their LGB peers.7

These troubling statistics take on a whole new meaning when intersected with racial or socioeconomic identities and their related stressors. Intersectionality is a growing field that studies how experiences of race, class, and gender combine and compound in unique ways to affect a group or individual.

Gender dysphoria, the significant distress or impairment that comes from a strong desire to be another gender, has been studied extensively among transgender populations. Although there is not a lot of research on the condition among drag queens, a 2019 study indicated self-identified cisgender drag queens reported lower levels of gender dysphoria compared to transgender women.8

Under pressure from multiple sources of stress, drag can provide a healthy way to blow off steam. But it can also expose participants to potentially dangerous activities and situations. Alcohol and drugs are part of drag’s nightclub/party atmosphere. It is not uncommon for drag performers to drink to calm nerves before a show.5 Several “Drag Race” contestants—and even Ru Paul—have discussed their struggles with alcohol and substance use and addiction. This behavior can be difficult to track among drag performers and the larger LGBTQ+ community. Yet this use, along with its abuse, is more likely among individuals who identify as LGBTQ+.9

According to recent research, some drag performers experience higher rates of depression in comparison to LGBTQ+ individuals who do not perform in drag.10 This could be attributed to several reasons, including financial insecurity, career competitiveness, self-consciousness, and creative criticism.10 For most, drag does not pay, yet it is an art that demands many hours, material investment, and creative risks.

Drag performers may also experience discrimination from other members of the LGBTQ+ community. Some say they have difficulty making friends with people outside the drag world, while stereotypes can drive away romantic interest. On the flip-side, some performers say they are expected to perform on-demand or talk about it almost exclusively. Social media only adds to this pressure.5

As with all actors, creating, developing, and embodying a fictional first-person character has the potential to lead to a certain “loss of self” in the process. One 2019 Canadian study conducted fMRIs on actors after performing scenes from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” It found that acting was a deactivation-driven process that reduced activity in the cerebral cortex, which holds our self-knowledge. At the same time, it increased activity in the precuneus, which is associated with memory retrieval and perception.11

Many drag performers compete out of a desire for fame. Developing a fan base and enjoying celebrity status can be a powerful motivator for any performer. Similar to any actor, drag performers may enjoy adulations onstage, only to go home to a far different reality.

“I always had hopes of being a big star. But as you get older, you aim a little lower,” drag queen Dorian Corey says in “Paris Is Burning.” “I think it’s better to just enjoy it. If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high, hooray for you.”

Concluding Thoughts

Drag holds the power to push boundaries, provide healing and support, and remind us to have fun along the way. While it is more commonly performed by members of the LGBTQ+ community, drag is gradually blending into mainstream society. How it continues to evolve will be a story only time can tell.

Clinicians can help this population by remembering that the motivations and challenges associated with drag performers are not so different from those of anyone else. Showcasing drag and acknowledging prominent figures within the culture helps normalize these experiences and promotes understanding. As allies, we can support everyone’s right to find their voice, share their creativity, and follow their dreams. Let’s continue to hold conversations that support inclusivity and wellness.

“Fulfillment isn’t found over the rainbow—it’s found in the here and now,” RuPaul has said. “Today, I define success by the fluidity with which I transcend emotional land mines and choose joy and gratitude instead.”

Ms Shelton is a licensed clinical social worker with Mindpath Health.

References

1. Robson D. The ‘Batman Effect’: how having an alter ego empowers you. BBC. August 17, 2020. Accessed June 23, 2022. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200817-the-batman-effect-how-having-an-alter-ego-empowers-you

2. Abramovitch S. ‘Paris Is Burning’ Emcee Junior LaBeija on ‘Pose,’ RuPaul and why he never let Hollywood tell his story. The Hollywood Reporter. June 11, 2021. Accessed June 23, 2022. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-news/paris-is-burning-emcee-junior-labeija-pose-rupaul-1234964404/

3. Finding support. National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health 2020. The Trevor Project. Accessed June 23, 2022. https://www.thetrevorproject.org/survey-2020/?section=Finding-Support

4. Ryan C, Huebner D, Diaz RM, Sanchez J. Family rejection as a predictor of negative health outcomes in white and Latino lesbian, gay, and bisexual young adults. Pediatrics. 2009;123(1):346-352.

5. Knutson D, Koch JM, Sneed J, Lee A. The emotional and psychological experiences of drag performers: a qualitative study. Journal of LGBT Issues in Counseling. 2018;12(1):32-50.

6. LGBT people nearly four times more likely than non-LGBT people to be victims of violent crime. UCLA Williams Institute. October 2, 2020. Accessed June 23, 2022. https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/press/ncvs-lgbt-violence-press-release/

7. LGBTQI. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Accessed June 23, 2022. https://www.nami.org/Your-Journey/Identity-and-Cultural-Dimensions/LGBTQI

8. Knutson D, Koch JM. Performance involvement, identity, and emotion among cisgender male drag queens. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health. 2019;14(1):54-69.

9. A Provider’s Introduction to Substance Abuse Treatment for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Individuals. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; 2012.

10. Knutson D, Ramakrishnan N, McDurmon G, et al. Drag performance and health: predicting depression and resilience. Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity. 2021.

11. Brown S, Cockett P,Yuan Y. The neuroscience of Romeo and Juliet: an fMRI study of acting. R Soc Open Sci. 2019;6(3):181908.