Notes on Drag
By Andrew Sessa
Illustration by Amy Devoogd
I came fairly late to drag. Although I was hooking up with guys by the time I was 18, out of the closet by 19, and dating my first boyfriend by 20, it took almost a full decade for me to get into a dress. During most of that time, I reacted to drag queens the way other people react to clowns—with equal parts fear and distaste (mostly just fear).
The offenses I saw perpetrated against me by drag queens were many and frequent. There was the groping by Miss Understood, who none-too-gently caressed my nascent gayness at a female friend’s birthday party, horrifyingly held—despite my urgent protests—at New York City drag den–cum–Chinese restaurant Lucky Cheng’s. There was the queen at San Francisco’s Trannyshack, all done up in leather and chains and latex—I’d had the misfortune to wander in on some sort of Death Metal or Goth or S&M night -- who sprayed me with (presumably fake) blood and bile. Then there was the aggressive waiter -- waitress? -- server at the now-long-gone East Village dive Stingy Lulu’s, where the entire staff wore drag. During a wild, lip-synced rendition of Tamia’s “Stranger in My House,” she sashayed her way down the bar right into my dirty martini.
Eventually, Candis Cayne, that saucy chanteuse, became my gateway drag. With her Jessica Rabbit–meets–Lucille Ball–meets–Kim Cattrall appeal, she helped me realize that drag queens weren’t out to get me. And, even more importantly, she showed me that the best ones know how to put on a damn good show.
Who else but Candis can run off the stage and out the front door mid-song, hop on the back of a passing fire truck, ride it around the block, and come back inside, still on the beat? (Yes, I know now that Candis is trans, and, technically, not a drag queen. But I didn’t know that at the time, and, at this point, it all seems like splitting wig hairs.)
Since my come-to-Candis moment, I’ve watched drag and I’ve done drag. I’ve gone to Atlantic City in the dead of winter to attend the annual Miss’d America Pageant. I’ve cheered till I lost my voice during Cattle Call, at New York’s Therapy bar, where the mistress of ceremonies, Peppermint, gave my boyfriend a lap dance on his 30th birthday -- at my request. I’ve mined the women’s eveningwear clearance rack at Loehmann’s and trolled 28th Street for costume jewelry. I’ve run around Herald Square on the night before the Labor Day Fire Island drag party, trying to find each other decent pairs of size-12 pumps (just go to Payless), and I’ve developed opinions on where the best wig joint in New York is (the aptly, but also rather inanely, named Wigs and Plus).
You can tell you’ve arrived as a drag queen, or at least an aspiring one, when Pat, the go-to Wigs and Plus saleswoman, recognizes you. This moment of recognition -- Aristotle called it hamartia, or, in gayspeak, hamartiamartiamartia -- happens only after she’s put a black wig cap over your scalp.
We love drag queens for the same reasons we love musical-theater doyennes, silver-screen goddesses, and Hillary Clinton. They all try just a little too hard, and they’ve all got something to hide. And, because of that, we see ourselves in them.
Every one of them has innate natural talent, combined with extreme unspoken insecurity that they tuck away by overcompensating. They develop façades of impenetrable confidence, masking themselves in layers of majesty and makeup, swathing themselves in swirls of self-reliance and sequins. In doing so, they exaggerate whatever talent they had in the first place, which only serves to make them funnier, meaner, smarter, shrewder, louder, shinier than they ever would have otherwise been.
Today, I do drag for the fame, the glory, and the attention -- however minimal and however passing -- and I watch drag to shower the same on others. It’s fun and frivolous and, oh, how it sparkles. But there’s something political in it, too. We’ve taken back drag, and pride in drag, the same way we’ve taken back “faggot” and “queer” and all those other epithets hurled at us in middle school.
After all, being skinny might be the best revenge to some people. But for the rest of us, it’s looking better in a mini-dress and stilettos than that bitch who wouldn’t slow-dance with us in seventh grade.