Catcalls errupted from the crowd. In the front row, through the glare of the stage lights, I saw both looks of shock and grins of pleasure. I wore a feather boa and a felt beret, and my cheeks were covered in peach fuzz. As I leaned forward, my drag partner, decked out as a football player, dropped his leggings, threw his helmet to the side, and prepared to consummate our newfound love as the sweet crooning of Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” fueled our onstage passion. The enthusiasm in the bar was palpable. I had never felt such positive affirmation. I had found my community.
Compared to the glamorous drag queen, the drag king is often overlooked and underrepresented in queer spaces. Most drag kings are female or female-identified, but their stage personas flaunt facial hair, masculine swagger, and boyish charm while they lip sync to rock ballads, country songs, and hair-metal standards. Backstage at a king show, you are likely to find more finely groomed mustaches than wigs and more chest binders than lacy push-up bras.
While drag queens have found a loyal following as shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and films like The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert have gained mainstream popularity, drag king performances and venues have remained largely under the radar. In Portland and Seattle, drag king shows experienced their heyday in the early 2000s, when they were used as a way to bring the LGBTQ+ community together under one roof. Even then, the underground shows weren’t well advertised. The host bars regularly folded or changed ownership, and kings were never given top billing. Today, the scene doesn’t have stable venues or an established following. Many of my queer friends who have been out for years have never been to a performance. Some of them haven’t even heard of drag kings.
My own introduction to the scene came by chance. After coming out in a small suburb, I started spending more time in Seattle, trying to find my community. I began dating a girl who went by the moniker Randy Andy and happened to be the reigning drag king of Seattle. She invited me into the small, cramped, and questionable bars that hosted her events, usually once a month, on a slow night of the week. Her performances were a little bit raunchy, a little bit sweet, and always shocking—they often employed bondage, whipped cream, and a less-than-subtle male package. The crowds, who were mostly lesbians, couldn’t get enough; they showered her with dollar bills like men at a strip club. It wasn’t long before I agreed to join her onstage.
Drag king shows have become an important forum for gender expression. Performances take many forms and often push gender boundaries and subvert social norms, showcasing traditional female-to-male drag, female-to-male-to-female drag, as well as androgyny, burlesque, dapperlesque, questioning, nonconforming, trans, and transitioning themes. Onstage, all gender expressions are celebrated.
Every drag king has their own reasons for wanting to take on the trappings of a drag king persona. Prin Pelletier, a.k.a. Prince Albert Pierce, grew up in a small agricultural community in Dillon, Montana, where it wasn’t safe to come out. “As a young child,” Prin says, “I was the embodiment of masculinity. I wanted to be Aladdin and all that. Not interested in being a princess. Then I came to Seattle. One of my friends needed a sexy girl for a drag king performance. That was the first king show I went to, and I was like, ‘Oh, no, no, no. Actually, I need to be the boy. Not the girl sidepiece.’”
Maureen “Mo” Fischer, a.k.a. Mo B. Dick, grew up in a maledominated Irish Catholic family in Pennsylvania. When she was young, her father, Lou, made a big impression on her with his brashness and confident swagger. When she moved to New York City in 1995, she became “he” to hit the streets and frequent the lesbian bars in the East Village. To Mo’s great surprise, she felt safe walking the streets dressed as a drag king. Performing in drag came soon after.
Mo pioneered many firsts for drag kings, including producing and hosting the world’s first weekly drag king show at New York’s Club Casanova. She recently teamed up with Ken Vegas, who began performing in 1996, to showcase the history of the drag king scene. Their website, dragkinghistory.com, is now archived by the Library of Congress. Their mission is to showcase women who have donned men’s attire for theatrical purposes throughout history, “from breeches roles to en travesti, variety to vaudeville, male impersonation to drag kings, and drag kings to gender free.”
As gay, trans, and nonbinary people face backlash across the country, many drag kings are using their performances to explore issues that face their communities. In the past year alone, Oklahoma’s legislature passed a bill that would ban transgender students from using bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity, and Florida passed the “Don’t Say Gay” law, which prohibits the discussion of gender identity in public schools. Here in Oregon, the Culver School District pulled students from an Outdoor School program after learning that there were nonbinary counselors at the camp, and right-wing protesters targeted a Eugene pub for hosting a drag queen story hour.
While most king shows are comedic and lighthearted, it is not unusual to see topics like toxic masculinity, teen suicide, and mental illness addressed onstage. Lacy Knightly, a.k.a. Nick Lacy, a burlesque performer and producer who decided to incorporate male drag into her performances and who created dapperlesque, says, “The very act of dressing like a man—even taking your clothes off onstage—is political.”
Paige DeAlmeida, a drag show producer in Portland, notes that queens and kings have different approaches to messaging in their shows. “If you just want to keep it light, in theory that’s what drag queens are for,” Paige says. “As for a message that they want to get out, a lot of that comes from drag kings, and I think that has to do with being marginalized within an already marginalized community.”
That messaging means even more for queer youth, who may be seeing positive images of the queer community for the first time at a drag show. They see that confidence is sexy, no matter one’s gender, and that male and female stereotypes can be broken. Prin says, “I just can’t imagine having seen real queer people in person at a young age—like out, of course. Seeing them be out, loud and proud, would have been incredible. So I like to try and be that for any of the other queer kids that are out there and coming to our shows.”
At a recent all-ages drag show, Prin fulfilled their childhood dream of playing Aladdin; their performance was a hit among young and old alike.
I was welcomed into the drag king community at an important time in my life. When I was sixteen, I began dating another girl at my high school. My friends and family were not supportive of this. I lost most of my friends, and my parents forced me to move out of the house. I was suddenly struggling to pay rent while finishing high school, which was now an hour-long bus ride away. Then I was fired from my job at a bakery when the owners caught me holding hands with my girlfriend on my lunch break. I felt isolated and ostracized by everyone around me. Drag kings gave me hope. I hoped that, like the costumes they shed after each performance, I could leave my former life behind and find a new identity within a community where I was accepted and maybe even celebrated for who I was. When I saw the kings onstage, I knew not everything about me was bad. Their inclusivity was infectious.
Many drag kings strive to make the most of their time onstage by promoting positive messages for young queer people. “I would say half of my numbers have a message that I’m trying to say—politically, personally—about mental health, about overcoming and resilience,” says Aram Love Shaw, a.k.a. Hans Oliver. “The number that I’m going to do for an all-ages show, it’s a rap song about change [and about] being consciously open and awake. When youth come to a show, I want them to see something that resonates with them in some kind of way because they see something that they felt in their life. So when I reveal my chest, there will be a message that says, ‘Change Starts With You.’”
Social justice is also front and center, and no subject is considered too controversial for a show. “Pretty much all of the queer community was very involved in the acute battles here in town with the Black Lives Matter movement right after George Floyd was murdered,” Prin says. “We continued to be involved, and for a while with drag performances, that was kind of the dominating message. We felt like we have a stage, we have a captive audience, and we’re not gonna let people look away.”
Recently, at an all-ages drag king show during Pride, I saw gaggles of kids with bright-colored hair waving rainbow flags and bouncing to the music. I saw parents with their arms around shy teens with broad smiles on their faces. The scene brought tears to my eyes. I was grateful to the parents who chose to enjoy these events with their children. Who knows how different my path would have been if I’d had that kind of support from a young age? It took me a while to understand that you could be loved no matter your gender identity or who you fell in love with. Looking around the room that day, I was happy these kids would never have to question that.
When I started researching this piece back in 2021, hate crimes against the LGBTQ+ community were already climbing steadily. Nationally, reports of hate crimes rose to their highest levels in more than a decade, and law enforcement agencies in Oregon documented a 59% increase in reports of hate crimes over the past year. Much of the violence was targeted at trans people. On November 19, 2022, not long after I turned in this story, a shooter killed five people and injured at least 19 others at Club Q in Colorado Springs. The Club Q shooting followed a three-year buildup of transphobic posts on social media, and makes this article even more timely and important.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, 2021 was also the deadliest year on record for the transgender community, with at least forty-seven murders reported nationwide.
A look at events that have transpired since the beginning of the pandemic offer some insights on how and why these instances of violence have escalated. Since 2020, we have seen:
- a marked increase of hateful rhetoric online, which grew still worse as Twitter removed policies against hate speech;
- state legislation that denies basic rights for trans and nonbinary individuals;
- Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law and other measures that aim to keep discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity out of schools;
- and armed protesters showing up at drag events at bars, libraries, and cafes across the country, including in Eugene.
When misinformation and bigotry are allowed free reign on social media and become enshrined in legislation, it is no coincidence that the US has seen a rise of violent attacks against the LGBTQ+ community.
Perhaps this hatred and violence is why, as I describe in my article, events that celebrate or showcase gender nonconformity are still largely “underground.” I am grateful for the chance to showcase the amazing and supportive drag community that exists here in publications like Oregon Humanities, which strives to give a voice to those marginalized and oppressed by showcasing how our differences can be our strength in building a more democratic culture.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated the distance between Dilon, MT and Laramie, WY. The cities are six-hundred miles apart, not one-hundred.
No comments yet.
Add a Comment