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Drag Shows: Drag Queens and Female Impersonators  
 
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Female impersonation appears to have existed through the length of human civilization and the breadth of its cultures. Ancient Roman literature and history feature a multitude of male cross-dressers, while in numerous Native American cultures, cross-dressing berdaches were respected as prophets and seers who were able to glimpse the world through both masculine and feminine perspectives. In the late nineteenth century, Richard von Krafft-Ebing observed in his Psychopathia Sexualis (1887) that the smallest German hamlets often featured drag culture. In contemporary India men who choose to live and dance as women are regarded with particular religious reverence.

Female Impersonation and Sexual Identity

Female impersonation need say nothing about sexual identity. For example, many male actors in Elizabethan England and in the classical Chinese theater performed female roles because women were generally banned from the stage. Whether or not these performances blurred the sexual identification of the actors remains a point of debate in social and theater history and a focus of recent films such as Shakespeare in Love (1998) and Farewell My Concubine (1993).

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Although transvestism, a term coined by Magnus Hirschfeld in 1910 and derived from the Latin for "across" and "dress," is practiced mostly by heterosexual males, the performance of female impersonation has come to be associated particularly with glbtq culture.

Why this should be so is not altogether clear, but it may be that gender transgression is a component of sexual transgression or at least evokes empathy among those crossing sexual boundaries, particularly when these boundaries seem difficult to define. Certainly, cross-dressing calls into question rigid constructions of sex and gender.

In any case, notwithstanding the fact that most transvestites are heterosexual men who fetishize female clothing, drag has for a very long time been almost an institutionalized aspect of gay male culture.

The origin of the phrase drag queen is unclear. It may derive from Elizabethan slang (quean referring to a strumpet) or may have come to be applied to female impersonators as a consequence of the extravagant drag balls of the earlier twentieth century, a precursor of the drag shows that became associated with gay bars and nightclubs in the period between the world wars.

Why is it that a man performing with over-the-top female clothing and exaggerated mannerisms provokes such fascination among gay men? Kate Millett suggested in her landmark study Sexual Politics (1970) that the thrill produced by a drag queen arises through her denaturalization of gender, her demonstration that femininity is donned like a masquerade and rendered completely irrelevant to biology.

More recently, Wayne Koestenbaum has observed in his book The Queen's Throat (1993) that drag queens, like opera divas, perform the kind of freedom that most gay men can enjoy only vicariously. Both these explanations may be correct because drag exists in multiple manifestations that individually seem to support both authors' theories.

Low Camp and High Camp Drag

The drag of low camp, for example, stresses the masquerade itself. In this type of drag, the performer often reclaims fashions and songs that were once serious but that now, many years after their introduction, seem a hysterical failure. The drag queen of low camp evokes this hysteria by emphasizing exactly those features that make the work's failure all the more obvious and entertaining.

An impersonator of Connie Francis, for example, may exaggerate the singer's famous early-1960s hairstyle or extend her long breathless notes in order to stress those features that defined her style. That this style no longer reigns makes its status as a masquerade easier to detect and funnier to view. Indeed, the fact that a man dons this masquerade as he plaintively sings "Where the Boys Are" makes it all the more obviously, and comically, a construct rather than any genuine expression of femininity.

This is the type of drag whose humor constitutes a gender critique with which gay men can empathetically identify. Performers such as the Kinsey Sicks, Mona Foot, Sherry Vine, The Lady Bunny, and Flotilla de Barge offer good examples of low camp drag.

The drag of high camp, by contrast, takes a far more serious approach. This type of performance tends to idealize rather than criticize, offering the impersonation as an authentic expression delivered anew to an adoring audience.

For example, an impersonation of Judy Garland might stress her exact look at any one point in her career, or the exact quality of voice she would have possessed at that time. The gay male audience enjoying this kind of impersonation tends not to laugh but to wait on every note with bated and excited breath. Witnessing this type of drag performance, gay men might identify with the diva, allowing her to perform the forceful expressions that they choose to stifle.

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Drag performer Lady Bunny.
  
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