Drag is the practice of cross-dressing and pastiching the mannerisms and behaviours of the opposite sex for comic effect. Drag queens run the gamut from over-the-top professional comedians such as Lily Savage, all the way through to serious (and seriously impressive) female impersonators such as RuPaul. Generally speaking, drag is a costume donned for a performance and doesn’t stimulate sexual excitement in the wearer (transvestism), nor does drag implicitly suggest that the performer identifies as trans* although, as with everything, there are always exceptions.
As an expression, “drag” may have been around for a century or two, but the history of men impersonating women for entertainment purposes is of course much longer. Many of Shakespeare’s works played on the fact the actors on stage were men dressed as women (and often the female characters pretend to be male, creating truths within truths which audiences find amusing).
In most cultures, drag is less about passing as the opposite sex, and more about parody. Drag queens are noted for having big hair, ostentatious clothing, and heavy makeup. They have the highest heels, the longest eyelashes, and the biggest lips. This makes drag distinct from cross-dressing, which can be undertaken for myriad reasons not trans*-related, but the usual intention is to pass as the opposite sex. Here history is full of accounts of women dressing as men to become soldiers and lead armies, to enter the church, or simply earn an equal living in a patriarchal world. Despite social and religious taboos about the practice, there are a number of cross-dressing female saints honoured in Christian theology, for example.
Indeed, historically the ability to pass as the opposite gender seemed to be the yardstick by whether or not it was judged a taboo had been broken. There are accounts of a number of born-female monks in early English monastic orders who lived their whole lives as men, and despite the truth of their physical sex being known, they were still considered male by their brothers (at least as far as we can tell). One was even accused of having an illicit affair with a woman and getting her pregnant, which suggests how primitive the understanding of sex and gender was in the Middle Ages.
The distinctions between drag, cross-dressing, and trans* identity are always going to be blurred, and when we look at historical accounts it’s often very difficult to determine exactly what an individual’s purpose was in donning the clothing of the opposite sex. Prior to the late nineteenth century, most of those individuals wouldn’t have a clear way of expressing their intentions anyway, because we simply didn’t think about sex and gender in the same way we do today.
Never was this conundrum clearer than in the case of Boulton and Park, two theatrical young men who spent most of their time dressed in female attire and answering to the names Fanny and Stella. Arrested in April 1870 and charged with “conspiring and inciting persons to commit an unnatural offence”, their trial became a national scandal (something I’ll talk about in more detail tomorrow!). Details of their private lives were splashed across the papers, including evidence that they had been ejected multiple times from a number of theatres and arcades for dressing in female attire, and that it had been something they’d done since childhood. The defence pointed to their stage act (as Fanny and Stella) to argue they were simply young men amusing themselves in an unorthodox manner, but without sexual intent. As the prosecution failed to establish any evidence of them procuring sex, or that wearing female clothing was illegal under English law, the jury found them not guilty after less than an hour’s deliberation.