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In literature, the gay male cross-dresser and the lesbian cross-dresser are often depicted quite differently. In representations of gay male cross-dressing, the queen--a gay man dressed in women's clothing--is usually conflated with the male-to-female , a man who has either completed or wants to begin a "sex change" operation. The medical change from a man to a woman is seen as a "cure" for the "problem" of cross-dressing. With lesbian cross-dressing, however, dressing as a man is seen as a way of claiming power in a society that limits the social mobility of women.

Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Attitudes

The spectacle of cross-dressing began in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when physicians and medical researchers like Richard von Krafft-Ebing coined terms--including "transvestite"--to classify people according to their sexuality. Naming not only established new categories, but, as Vern and Bonnie Bullough demonstrate in Cross Dressing, Sex, and Gender, it also fulfilled a need for the control of sexual behavior.

The impetus behind the creation of these categories was historically specific, responsive to the growing presence of cross-dressers in public scandals of the day. The cross-dressers most familiar to the public were male prostitutes who, like the frequenters of London's "molly houses," dressed as women to advertise their profession.

The association of sexuality and vestimentary advertising led physicians and medical researchers to the premise that cross-dressing was simply the visualization of homosexuality. The image of the gay male cross-dresser, or drag queen, has since become such a potent symbol of male homosexuality that the use of the term cross-dressing often omits female cross-dressers, or butches, entirely.

Mainly this can be attributed to our patriarchal society's general erasure of women's sexualities and desires, but it also illustrates the significant difference gender makes in the representation of and attitude toward cross-dressing.

Representations of the Drag Queen

The drag queen is often depicted as crazy (naturally or drug-induced) and superficial. Georgette in Hubert Selby, Jr.'s Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964) is a typical example of the drag queen character. She is "a hip queer [who] took a pride in . . . the wearing of womens panties, lipstick, eye make-up (this including occasionally gold and silver--stardust--on the lids), long marcelled hair, manicured and polished fingernails, the wearing of womens clothes complete with padded bra, high heels and wig . . . and the occasional wearing of a menstrual napkin."

Also typical is Miss Destiny in John Rechy's City of Night (1963), "fluttering out of the shadows into the dimlights along the ledges like a giant firefly--flirting, calling out to everyone: 'Hello, darling, I love you--I love you too, dear--so very much--ummmm!'"

Like most drag queen characters, Georgette and Miss Destiny are in love with butch men, are always depressed, and numb their pain with drugs and alcohol.

Their colorful "queen speak" confirms Marjorie Garber's contention in Vested Interests that "the way cross-dressing works in . . . fiction is the way in which it concerns itself with language [which acts] as a hieroglyph of transvestic impersonation." Not only do the drag queens perform in the text, their very words are part of their performance.

In Georgette, Selby emphasizes another trait repeatedly associated with drag queens: misogyny. To Georgette, women are nuisances or competitors, distracting the attention she should have from her men.

Peter Ackroyd's "history" of transvestism and drag, Dressing Up, concurs with Selby that gay male drag "is misogynistic both in origin and in intent" and that it "parodies and mocks women."

Ackroyd emphasizes the equation of gay drag with misogyny by defining the term transvestism as cross-dressing by heterosexual men, which is allegedly not misogynistic because "the contemporary male transvestite wishes to create at least the illusion of femininity [and that] for him, female clothes are a serious expression of [his] fetishistic or anarchic tendencies."


To complete Ackroyd's logic, the gay male drag queen therefore wishes to become a woman, but this desire is not a "serious expression" like the (heterosexual) transvestite's; and it is this desire to become a woman that parodies and mocks real women. Ackroyd's misconception that drag queens are trying to be real women is not uncommon; it is an idea fueled by the general cultural anxiety induced whenever someone breaks gender codes. To "explain" drag queens by saying they want to be women solidifies our gender binarism--everyone is, or wants to be, either a man or a woman--and also confirms the innateness of heterosexuality.

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A portrait of Hubert Selby, the author of Last Exit to Brooklyn, by Stathis Orphanos.
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