Becoming They: Gender expression within drag culture

A look into how the boundaries society imposes on gender expression can affect drag culture from reaching its full potential

By Amelia Canty

Since the dawn of time itself, humans have been looking for ways to make sense of the world we live in. Inherent to human nature is the desire to understand what we are, and more importantly, who we are. Embedded in our curiosity is a need to define, box and label, in order to comprehend where, as individuals, we belong.

The biological differences between a man and a woman are arguably the only concrete factors setting us apart. What we have come to know as sexual dimorphism – something so simple – has transcended into seemingly irreversible social conditioning regarding the differences between a man and a woman’s capabilities. These findings have rooted us in a society built on the foundations of patriarchy, defining our roles and establishing our limits as people based on the sex we are assigned at birth. Sexism and toxic masculinity are accessories to our triumph in creating, what was thought to be, a perfectly functioning society. Although now, after being fuelled for so long, their rigidity surpasses the efforts made by those who challenge the very ideas that birthed them.  

The same goes for that of gender expression. Destructive behaviours and attitudes that follow when society feels the need to label and file away anyone and anything that pushes the boundaries of what it understands to be conventional, is inevitable. Establishing firm archetypes and integrating them into the bones of a functioning society has always been present, yet people are complex, and no two people fit into the exact same box. Remaining regimented to expectations of what it means to be a man or a woman – be it in terms of presentation or capability – is a learned concept, not a natural one. The very idea of fluidity, in terms of gender and sexuality, is something people have always been exploring in the shadows.

Joe’s body posed

William Shakespeare himself was amongst the first to push the boundaries of gender expression; the birth of drag occurred on his stage. Given there was no place for a woman in the theatre, the term was coined after the long dresses men wore to play a woman’s part would ‘drag’ across the floor.

Although this very notion of expression potentially only occurred from the absence of a woman’s presence, the flamboyancy of the characters depicted a lack of acceptance for the two-gender norm. His influence and attitudes were carried through to society, were the vivaciousness of men in their ‘gender-bending’ and ‘cross-dressing’ were celebrated later off the stage too. 

As reported in the Telegraph, Professor Sir Stanley Wells and Dr Paul Edmondson recently conducted a fresh analysis of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets from the 1609 edition, in the order in which they were most likely written. Adding the sonnets from his plays, the scholars were left with 182 sonnets dating from around 1578 onwards. They found evidence strongly indicative of the much controversial suggestion that Shakespeare was, in-fact, bisexual. Needless to say, gender fluidity and sexuality are not explicitly linked, although this would suggest that given his poetic approach to challenging his era, and as a potential member of what has now become the queer community, he certainly wasn’t opposed to playing with the boundaries of gender and sexuality. 

Joe exhibiting a serious face

To look at drag today, defined by The Conversation as “a temporary and deliberate performance of gender used to break down the limitations of masculinity and femininity”, compared to how it began, shows dramatic progression, albeit tainted with irony from its emergence. 

Joe Harris, of Bradford, is a gender queer creative who has recently started experimenting with drag. 

“Being non-binary, my interpretation of drag is more an extension of my personality as opposed to something that I’m creating. It’s more hyper-realised, more extreme. I think because I only recently got to understand that I am non-binary, I did push drag away from myself for a bit – I thought it was only really for cisgendered people who wanted to explore the other gender, which just isn’t the case. Drag is something that is for everyone. And it is something that is a process. It’s not just lip syncing, it’s not just death dropping, it’s not just performing, it’s not just looks – it’s everything and anything that that person or that entertainer wants it to be. It’s something that’s subjective and interpretable and can’t be defined”.

Joe’s fist pulling and stretching their tights out

Presently, drag encapsulates the all important conversation of exploring and accepting various gender identities which is increasingly becoming the most pressing one to grasp an understanding of. According to data giant Statista, in a global survey conducted in 2021, two percent of respondents from 27 countries currently identify themselves as transgender, non-binary/non-conforming/gender-fluid, or in another way of their own description. Considering the widespread discrimination faced by people within these communities, it wouldn’t be too far removed to suggest there are many more than what the statistics implicate. 

RuPaul’s Drag Race is an extremely popular reality show which, when it hit our TV screens in 2009, was seen as a groundbreaking celebration of all things queer. In recent years, it has effectively turned drag culture into a pop culture phenomenon.  On the show, contestants lip-sync, walk runways, do celebrity impersonations, design and create custom outfits and more, all in a bid to be crowned as the best drag show performer. It has taken a heavily marginalised subsection of society, and thrust them into the mainstream media’s spotlight, exposing many people to the ways in which gender constraints can be eliminated in a highly entertaining and engaging way.

Many queens themselves have claimed RuPaul’s drag race has been pivotal in helping to change attitudes towards drag. Drag queen and performer in the show, Charlie Hides, said it shows drag queens as “fully formed, three dimensional people with feelings and souls”. She continued: “We’ve been humanised and that’s important, that we’re seen as more than just a dancing freak. We’re actual people”.

A close-up of Joe looking past the camera

For all the positive impacts it has served for the drag community, there is a darker  side to RuPaul’s Drag Race, plagued by the restrictions defining and boxing can impose on something as progressive as the show. 

RuPaul himself was recently at the center of a controversy regarding his comments and previous treatment over transgender queens on his show. Peppermint, an iconic New York City transgender performer, made the finals in season nine. In an interview with The Guardian, RuPaul stated he “probably” wouldn’t have admitted a transgender woman like Peppermint, if she had already started gender-affirming surgery. In response to growing backlash to his comments, he later took to Twitter to justify his position: “You can take performance enhancing drugs and still be an athlete, just not in the Olympics”. 

As aforementioned, the emergence of RuPaul’s Drag Race into the mainstream media has largely expanded its target demographic in the past few years. Consequently, a large part of Drag Race is catering to straight people, commercialising drag culture to make it easy to understand, easy to market and more likely to be a hit. Within this pursuit of making drag appealing to everyone, the heart of it – arguably one of the purest forms of self expression – has seemingly been lost in translation. 

Drag is something that is for everyone. It’s something that’s subjective and interpretable and can’t be defined.

Joe Harris, non-binary creative

RuPaul’s compromising – subconsciously or not – on the core of what drag stands for, is testament to the idea that people naturally seek out things they know to work and understand the functions behind, becoming reluctant to respond to changes, whether it’s necessary or not. The introduction of transgender queens and non-binary queens upsets the status quo within what mainstream drag showcases. The idea of it not just being a man or a woman cross-dressing pushed the boundaries of what everyone has, owed to its portrayal within the media, become to understand as drag. Boundaries prevail, even within a space that is supposed to be a safe haven to those from the queer community; there is fear in the unknown, even in drag. 

Joe’s legs staged for the camera

The importance of determining clear cut vocabulary and establishing distinct definitions when you’re in control of such powerful narratives is crucial. A pattern has emerged within the mainstream media of discussing trans people and drag queens synonymously, which isn’t only insulting to queer people’s identities, but also dangerous when a person not part of the queer community is using it as a means of education.

Joe Harris explained their frustration at the lack of awareness cisgendered people continue to possess surrounding the boundaries of gender. 

“It’s just not our responsibility to explain ourselves or justify ourselves to someone just because they want to know more. I don’t owe you anything. I think what a lot of straight people and cisgendered gay people do not understand, is that a lot of genderqueer people have had to explain themselves their whole life; with different people, in different jobs, in different education. I explain myself all the time. I explain what my pronouns are, what I identify as, I still get misgendered on the daily and I just think, I have to experience that for something that is so natural to me, but so complex to someone else”. 

Joe posing with their hands resting on their face
A highly focused photo of Joe’s earring from behind their shoulder

The restrictions in perceiving gender as a binary have been acknowledged at an institutional level by 10 countries. Currently, Australia, Denmark, Germany, Malta, New Zealand, Pakistan, India, Ireland, and Nepal offer gender-neutral passports. The UK failed in becoming the 11th country after activist Christie Elan-Cane’s efforts were in vain. Elan-Cane, who identifies as “non-gendered”,  took a case to the UK’s High Court to get the Home Office to provide “X” passports, meaning people would be able to enter “X” instead of “M” or “F” in the sex category of their passports. Unfortunately for her, the Home Office ruled they did not have an obligation to do so.

 Speaking to the Guardian at the time, they said: “The UK’s passport application process requires applicants to declare whether they are male or female. It is inappropriate and wrong that someone who defines as neither should be forced to make that declaration”. 

Joe’s side profile adorning a highly stylised pose

North America is home to an indigenous community named Two-Spirit. Within their society, gender non-conforming members have been celebrated since at least the 1800s. As the 1992 documentary Two-Spirit People explains, individuals who have both masculine and feminine qualities are seen as conduits between the physical and spiritual world, and are therefore revered and put in positions of power within their communities.

The foundations of their functioning society resides on the belief that in order to be an enlightened being, you have to understand both femininity and masculinity, and how they are both a part of us. To them, understanding the fundamentals of gender fluidity is essential to being your own higher being – they don’t accept, or need to accept, gender binaries as a basis of understanding people. Seemingly, it is majorly the West that uses these methods of classification to understand who people are.

Joe’s tattoo reading ‘queen supreme’

When discussing how they used drag to surpass boundaries that restricted their own understanding of themselves, Joe emphasises the importance of internalising, before you can externalise.

“I’ve never felt more in control of myself, or more understanding of myself being in the position that I am today with my gender identity. Drag is only helping that, it’s only encouraging me to go deeper. I would now go out and do a look as a man – for almost 22 years of my life, that was something that I was so uncomfortable with – whereas now I can see beyond that, I can see beyond my once-desperation to present feminine, so I’m not scared of it anymore. I don’t care what anyone thinks of me because I’m okay with it. I’m comfortable with me”. 

Joe staring head-on into the camera

Considering where we stand today, with more informed, more transparent and less prejudiced conversations, especially amongst our future generation, it seems the prospect of beginning to unlearn centuries worth of overbearing boundaries is potentially feasible. Early exposure and education has the ability to remove the fear we possess of the unknown within our society, and reduce the temptation of attempting to pigeonhole someone or something into a category within your individual realms of understanding.

For those who are members of the queer community, it seems as though drag is a fundamental art form which will continue to be regarded as a safe space for self expression. And to those genderqueer queens who have been looking in on what should be your home, your way is being paved now.

To drag or not to drag: that is the question.