The idea of a female drag queen may sound like an oxymoron, but there’s a thriving scene of women who perform their own version of outlandish hyperfemininity: Think of the Cockettes’ Sweet Pam, Female Trouble’s Cookie Mueller and Mink Stole, or Scissor Sisters’ Ana Matronic.
In fact, the first official “faux queen” pageant was held in San Francisco back in 1995.
“Back in the early ’90s there were always women in nightlife who referred to themselves as female drag queens,” says drag legend Miss Understood, who’s of the more traditional man-in-a-frock variety. “It was such a fluid time, where drag queens, performance artists, club kids, and transgender people overlapped so much.”
With the advent of social media, female drag has exploded. But increased visibility has brought increased scrutiny—and controversy. In fact, a widely shared essay on The Odyssey criticized female drag as cultural appropriation.
“When cis women perform as drag queens, they are dipping their feet into the performance of it, this being the positive experience,” claimed writer Nicole Olivieri Pagan, “without receiving any of the backlash of stepping out of their gender norms and being discriminated against for it.”
Full disclosure: I’ve performed as a female drag queen myself and I bristle at the assumption I’m hijacking someone else’s art form. And I’m not alone.
“I’m fascinated by the mental gymnastics required for a man who dresses like a woman, either as a hobby or job, to tell women and AFAB [assigned female at birth] people that they are not entitled to reclaim femininity on their own terms,” says Pierretta Viktori, a fixture on the New York scene for the past four years.
Viktori (above) dismisses the idea that a woman appearing as an over-the-top femme on stage is some kind of thief: “No specific group of people should own the idea of performing femininity.”
Baltimore performer Bambi Galore says those critics are looking at drag through “a very outdated and small pinhole.”
“Drag has changed and developed with the culture of the LGBT community, it’s a form of performance art that is the expression of hyper-gender,” says Galore (below). “It doesn’t matter what is going on between my legs.”
And isn’t the compulsory femininity women have been shackled with what drag is parodying in the first place?
As we increasingly acknowledge fluidity in sexual orientation and gender identity, defining drag as crossdressing is simply outmoded. And, of course, not every female drag queen is a cisgender woman.
“We have plenty of non-binary queens, we have gorgeous trans-femmes who can light up a room and make everyone gag,” says Brooklyn’s Crimson Kitty (below). “Drag is one big umbrella and there is room for everyone.”
Viktori, who identifies as nonbinary, has been doing drag since before they even had the words to describe it: “As a gender-nonconforming person who presents somewhat androgynously during the day, it gives me the outlet to express my feminine side on my own terms in a way that isn’t necessarily interpreted as female—or even human!”
On the other side of the spectrum, some feminists condemn drag as inherently misogynistic, a celebration of patriarchal oppression. But female queens are radically confronting that oppression, not rejoicing in it.
Galore says she realized she was a drag queen the first time she watched To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar as a child.
“I knew in that instance that that was what I was,” she recalls, though at that young age, she was still unsure girls could be drag queens. Then, a decade ago, she became friends with pioneering “female female impersonator” World Famous *BOB*.
“I transcribed her autobiographical solo piece One Man Show and cried the whole time,” she recalls. “Her feelings of being a queen and not fitting in due to her anatomy were ones I had struggled with, as well. That’s when I knew that I needed to pursue it.”
What do traditional queens think of their sisters in arms? Miss Understood, who started performing before many current performers were born, says the whole issue is a “non-troversy.”
“Nothing stays the same. Every cultural phenomenon grows and morphs and spreads,” she insists. “In general, people who complain about cultural appropriation are overlooking the natural patterns of cultural evolution. A lot of unhappy people just want to bitch and moan about something.”
Her advice to aspiring female queens is to focus on the work and find your audience: “We all have our naysayers—pay them no mind.”